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Can Emotions Haunt Houses?

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In the early 1990s Trent Reznor (the man behind Nine Inch Nails) purchased the house at 10050 Cielo Drive, in Los Angeles. Before moving in he learned of its dark past. This is the house where members of Charles Manson's "family" had murdered Sharon Tate and four other people in 1969. Reznor moved in despite (or perhaps because of) these events.

He quickly built a recording studio in the home and named it Le Pig (the killers had written "Pig" on the front door, in Tate's blood). There he recorded his album The Downward Spiral (an album I've listened to more than any other, thanks to my dark teen years), as well as part of his EP Broken and part of the album Portrait of an American Family by Marilyn Manson (no relation).

Whether Reznor bought the house for inspiration, as a publicity stunt, or (as he has claimed) simply because of an interest in American folklore, the history of the place had to have had some influence on his work. The house felt "sad," he's said, although he acknowledged that "that could just be my own insanity."

If it's an insanity, it's not solely his own. Last October a paper was published suggesting that we all have a tendency to believe that emotions leave a trace in the physical environment; we believe in emotional residue.

The paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reported on nine experiments that Krishna Savani of Columbia Business School and colleagues had carried out with students in America and India. Subjects reported, for example, that moving into a dorm room after the previous inhabitant had experienced family problems would make one depressed, or that entering a room just after a roommate had rejoiced about winning a scholarship (and then left) would make one happy. Subjects also said they'd feel the strongest residue if many people had experienced emotion in a location, and/or if the subjects had had a close relationship with those people. And in all cases, subjects said the traces would be felt even if the person picking up on them had no knowledge of the events transpiring in the space beforehand; subjects believed such reactions were more than just a placebo effect.

In the final experiment, the researchers checked to see if the expectation of emotional residue had measurable effects on behavior. So they invited subjects to take a survey and gave them a choice of two identical rooms to use. Let's say a subject is scheduled to arrive Wednesday at 3:15. There would then be signs on the rooms' doors saying "Recollection of HAPPY Life Events Study, Wed 1:00-3:00," and "Recollection of UNHAPPY Life Events Study, Wed 1:00-3:00." Subjects picked the happy room 63 percent of the time.

The researchers explain their results using what psychologist Peter A. White calls the "property transmission hypothesis." He says that, as a heuristic, we expect objects to transmit properties between each other. This makes sense: Paint brushes color things, ice cubes cool things, sponges wet things, etc. But White argues that this heuristic is applied so broadly that we expect even the subjective properties of people (their "essences") to be transmitted through contact, a phenomenon called "magical contagion." Hence the value of family heirlooms and celebrity memorabilia. (For more on this, see chapter 1 of my new book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.)

In Savani et al.'s scenarios, there's no particular object transmitting emotions from expresser to perceiver through contact, but property transmission sometimes acts without contact. Heat, light, and odor all radiate outward from their sources, so we might expect happiness or sadness or fear to radiate outward from people and fill a room, even seeping into its walls.

(As a footnote, Savani and his collaborators point out that belief in emotional residue may be more than just magical thinking. Our sweat smells different depending on our mood at the time of perspiration, so people can literally smell fear.)

If you're looking to take advantage of emotional emanations but feel lost now that the Tate house is demolished and the great American industrial album has been recorded, take heart: The New York Times reports that there is a profession called "smudging," or "space clearing." Basically, when people buy a home, they invite you over, you burn some incense, say some stuff about "energy" or "vibes," and maybe wave your hands around a little. Here's the trick: You then leave them with a bill for a couple grand. I promise, when you get home, the smile on your face will be contagious.