Yesterday we considered the question of whether stating your disbelief in a religious "miracle" (despite evidence that it is a purely natural phenomenon) is blasphemy; today we consider the question of whether a supernatural belief (with no hard evidence at all) engenders any sort of financial responsibility on the part of others.
The whole thing comes up because of a story out of New Jersey (source) in which a couple, Michele Callan and the rather unfortunately named Josue Chinchilla, are claiming that they are entitled to break their lease and receive a refund of their security deposit because their rental home is haunted.
According to Callan and Chinchilla, they knew something was wrong almost from the first day they moved into the house they'd rented in Tom's River, on March 1. The couple, and also Callan's children, began to experience taps on the shoulder, which (this is a direct quote from the article), "they chalked up to the adjustment period of moving into a new home."
You have to wonder about this a little. I mean, I've moved a bunch of times, and had to adjust to a variety of things, from leaky plumbing to noisy neighbors to (I'm not making this up) an apartment that had an oven with a door that expanded and stuck shut when it heated up. In all of those moves, one thing I have never had the need to adjust to was spectral taps on the shoulder. This is fortunate, because if I got tapped on the shoulder when no one was around, I would scream like a little girl and then run out of the house. I'm just that brave.
In any case, Callan and Chinchilla (will you please stop snickering every time I write the guy's name?) were in for worse. Doors opened and closed on their own, clothes flew out of closets, and there were menacing voices including one that said, "Let it burn." After 13 days they could take no more and moved into a hotel room, where they have been ever since. They demanded to be released from the lease and filed suit to have their $2,250 security deposit back. Understandably, their landlord, Richard Lopez, said no, and has filed a countersuit, alleging that the couple changed their mind about the lease for financial reasons, and is trying to concoct a story so that they can be released from the agreement they signed.
The problem is, of course, no one except the couple (and possibly their children) has heard the voices, seen the flying clothes and self-opening doors and all. They apparently have zero hard evidence that their story is true. I suppose it could be; as befits a skeptic, I'm not going to dismiss it out of hand, being that I also have no evidence that they're lying. My inclination is that it is more likely that they're trying to weasel their way out of the lease, being that despite all of the thousands of claims for hauntings I've read about or heard described, I've never seen a single one that generated evidence that met my minimum standard for scientific validity.
But who knows? Maybe this is the real deal. I certainly wouldn't want to be the judge in this case. How do you evaluate a case that hinges on a claim of the supernatural without your own beliefs being the determining factor? I suspect that the case will ultimately be decided on the written terms of the lease -- most leases have a list of conditions under which the contract can be considered null and void, and the majority of them end with something like, "And no other reason will be considered valid." As far as I've ever seen, none of them include, "This contract is considered invalid in cases of haunting that result in creepy voices and clothes being flung about." So that will be that, and Callan and Chinchilla will be out on their ears without their $2,250. Caveat rentor.
Of course, I've been wrong before. With a sympathetic judge, it might go the other way -- which would certainly set an interesting precedent, and one that would be distinctly unfavorable for landlords. In the end, it could become far easier for renters who discovered things they didn't like to get out of leases. I might have even had a case regarding the oven door, which resulted in a perfectly nice batch of biscuits being turned into little disc-shaped charcoal briquets.