After Louise’s parents unexpectedly die in a car accident, she returns home to Charleston, where her plans to get her childhood home ready for sale are soon complicated. There’s her parents’ endless stuff, including the hundreds of dolls her mother owned. There’s her estranged brother, Matt, trying to cheat her out of her inheritance. And then there’s the house itself, which doesn’t seem to want to let her go.
Grady Hendrix, the author of “How to Sell a Haunted House,” said his idea for the novel began during the pandemic, when many of us were becoming more aware of our parents’ mortality. “One of the things I realized is, when our parents die, we have to deal with all their stuff,” Hendrix said. “And what are ghosts but things left behind after someone dies?”
Louise is hardly alone in her suspicions about the house: A shockingly large share of Americans may believe their home is haunted too, surveys find, and laws have been passed in some states clarifying what sellers do and don’t have to disclose about alleged paranormal activity, prior murders and suicides.
I talked to Hendrix about his new novel and the subject of haunted houses and trying to sell them. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Annie Nova: One recent survey found that half of Americans believe their house is haunted. Why do you think there’s so much superstition?
Grady Hendrix: I just got off a book tour, and so many people I met believe they live in a haunted house or that they have lived in one. To me, it’s totally normal. A house is where you spend most of your time. You sleep there, you go through all kinds of emotional things there. Why wouldn’t you think it’s haunted?
AN: What are some of the things that people told you about living in a haunted house?
GH: Their hauntings often seem to follow their personality. I would have people who’d say, ‘Oh my god, our house was haunted. It was terrible. This ghost was attacking us and we had to break our lease and move.’ It’s this really intense experience for them, and they’re very intense as they tell it. And then I’d have someone who’d say, ‘Oh, yeah. Our house is haunted, but the ghost is pretty chill.’
AN: There are so many stories about haunted houses. Why did you turn your focus to the selling of one?
GH: Cleaning out someone’s house after they’ve passed away, you’re dealing with the smell of their shampoo, the dent in the sofa cushion where they used to watch TV. And it’s not just the physical stuff, it’s the emotional stuff: the memories, the scars, the unfair things that you’ve always wanted to talk about but never did. Selling a haunted house was a nice way to address all of these things in one handy package.
AN: When did our fears of haunted houses begin?
GH: The first recorded incidents I saw were in the 1730s, and included property values crashing because a house was supposedly haunted. But in the latter part of the 19th century, you had a huge number of haunted house sightings that coincided with this building boom out in the suburbs. The suburbs started to really expand then, especially in London and some American cities, with property developers throwing up houses basically overnight.
A lot of the houses were poorly constructed, and would start to fall apart. You would hear mysterious noises as your walls slowly gave way. You’d get mysterious cold spots because the building wasn’t weatherproofed. Then some of these houses would become uninhabitable, and so you’d have a block full of nice houses with this one haunted-looking house at the end that had been abandoned for 20 years.
AN: What typically leads people to start believing that their home is haunted?
GH: The last time we had a really big boom in haunted houses was around the time of the subprime mortgage crisis. When real estate is getting fraught and the economy is doing funny things, haunted houses appear. But there’s no such thing as an objective haunting. If you feel like your house is haunted, then your house is haunted, you know? Houses are haunted because that’s where people are.
AN: One of the scariest things that Louise inherits is the haunted puppet, Pupkin, with its “leering clown face.” What are you trying to say here about the downsides to inheritance?
GH: Rather than the inheritance angle, I was really hyperaware of the fact that we all have strange relationships with inanimate objects. We have stuffed animals or blankets from childhood that we’re really attached to. We yell at our phones. We argue with our cars. We just invest a lot of emotions into objects. With Pupkin, I really wanted an object that had been invested with so much emotion you couldn’t walk away from it. It wasn’t going to let you.
AN: Is there anything in the book based on personal experience?
GH: I’ve cleaned out the houses of dead friends, and it’s one of those things that’s hard to really describe to someone until they’ve gone through it. You’re dealing with this huge amount of stuff. You’re crushed beneath the weight of it all. It’s a very strange experience.