I definitely saw a figure, dressed in an all-white golf or tennis outfit, hanging out in my friend Liz's dining room doorway most of the times I visited her house throughout my childhood. He became so normal to me that I would just think, "Oh, there's the ghost," and go on reading, eating or petting the dogs at my feet. He would lean against the door frame with either a heavy-looking tennis racket or a golf club in his right hand. It seemed like he just wanted company.

Liz's house was converted from a barn in New York's Hudson Valley and sits in an idyllic little nook just up the hill from one of the area's oldest buildings, the Bird and Bottle Inn, an overnight stopping point for both Pony Express riders and colonists traveling up the Hudson from NYC. It has been in business since 1761, and is, supposedly, haunted by another benevolent spirit, Emily Warren. I both hung out and worked at the inn and never spotted her, though my friend who worked there more often said he heard her singing sometimes; she's known for being a friendly ghost.

The Bird & Bottle Inn, Garrison, New York. The Bird & Bottle Inn is known to be haunted by Emily Warren, but that hasn't stopped anyone from staying there — or hosting weddings there, for which it's an ideal venue. (Photo: Courtesy Bird & Bottle Inn)

Depending on how you feel about ghosts (and if you believe in them), you might be OK with — or run screaming from — a house that's haunted. But what about one that's had something horrible on the premises — like a murder, suicide or death by fire? Would you avoid it just in case it might be haunted, or just because thinking about what happened there might freak you out?

In Japan, and many jurisdictions in the United States, it's incumbent upon the seller to disclose any information about a property that might affect the buyer's decision, including if former residents died on the property. In both Hong Kong and Japan, properties where murders, suicides and other unnatural deaths have taken place (called hongza) are mapped out, enabling those who are superstitious to avoid them. In Japan, these are called "stigmatized" homes. And buyers who don't worry about hauntings might get a great deal, since landlords will typically discount those properties. In fact, foreign buyers have snapped up many of the hongza in recent years. Of course, landlords don't like that this information is publicly available. "My aim is to disclose any information that may prove useful for prospective tenants, regardless of whether property owners like it or not," Teru Oshima, who runs the real-estate map website linked to above, told the Wall Street Journal.

The house from the film The Amityville Horror, built circa 1924, at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York, United States. The house from the film 'The Amityville Horror,' built circa 1924, at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York. By the time this photo was taken, the address had been changed to discourage curiosity-seekers. (Photo: Seulatr/Wikimedia Commons)

In the U.S., it's not so different. Just a little over a year after six members the DeFeo family were murdered by their father in 1974 in the "Amityville Horror" house on Long Island, another family lived there — paying just $80,000 for it. But they only stayed a month due to the harassment they experienced from activities they attributed to ghostly and demonic presences. The people who lived in the home since experienced no such issues, and it was recently sold for almost a million dollars.

It's worth keeping in mind not every house where someone has died in an unnatural way is haunted. Which is why I wouldn't consult Oshima's property map if I were going to buy a new home (he hopes to expand and have a worldwide database soon). His site isn't showing where homes have been reported as being haunted, just any unit where an unnatural death by murder, suicide or fire occurred. A grisly or unfortunate death does not a haunted house make. And if you accept the idea of benevolent ghosts like the one I saw in my friend Liz's house, then not even all ghosts are problematic. There are actually very few places that would be truly "stigmatized" by nefarious ghosts or the possibility of them.

Haunting through history

If you think this whole consideration of ghosts and real estate is ridiculous, consider that haunted houses are hardly a 20th-century invention. The oldest recorded story about a haunted residence goes all the way back to the first century at a villa in Athens, which the philosopher Athenodorus rented on the cheap as the house already had something of a reputation. His first night at his new place in Rome, Athenodorus met the ghost-in-residence, an old man bound in chains, who led him to the courtyard of the house and then disappeared. Athenodorus noted where the ghost had disappeared and ordered the ground to be dug up at the spot.

Then, according to a letter written by Pliny the Younger to his patron Lucian Sura: "There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains; for the body had mouldered away by long Iying in the ground, leaving them bare, and corroded by the fetters. The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense; and after the ghost was thus duly laid the house was haunted no more."

This video tells a similar version of Athenodorus's story:

And while the U.S. and Japan might lead the world when it comes to haunted house movies in recent decades, cultures the world over, including those with various degrees of religiosity, and different faiths, widely report ghostly occurrences (Google "Ghosts in India" or "Zimbabwe ghosts" for a taste). Whether you believe in them or not, about one-third of Americans do, and millions more around the world think ghosts are a very real thing. Somehow, belief in their existence continues over time and across cultures.

My advice: Only unhappy or angry ghosts are really an issue. Just because a house is haunted doesn't mean a ghost will give you trouble. My friend Liz's parents have lived very happily in their home for over 40 years. And I've slept there many a night, and continue to visit. Sometimes it's just nice to see old friends again, even if one of them is a ghost.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.