In Extremis: The Grudge and Buying a Murder House

Disclaimer:  ARR'R'R'R'RE'R'R'R'R'R… it’s a far too familiar sound. A noise made by the hapless souls that do not consult independent legal advice before buying a home or that use my articles as more than entertainment. If you don’t want to form a grudge, then watch these films before reading this article, as it may SPOIL showering for awhile.


Ah, being a new homeowner; a tranquil fantasy for many. But what’s that nagging itch at the back of your mind? Are there dead bodies under the hardwood? Why did the real estate agent not tell me I’m in Bundy’s boudoir? Can I sue an agent that does not disclose a death? In law this is called a “stigmatized property” and can sometimes affect the purchase price and property value of a new home. In this edition of In Extremis we are going to examine 2004’s The Grudge and Nicolas Pesce’s latest remake to see how wildly different the answers to those questions are around the globe. 

In the 2004 The Grudge, our lead Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a student that lives with her boyfriend in Suganami City, a ward of Tokyo, Japan. She covers for a nurse that is unable to take a house shift and finds Emma (Grace Zabriskie), an elderly catatonic woman. Spooky events occur and Karen must stop the vengeful spirit haunting the house from escaping to cause more havoc. While watching this movie any normal viewer might think, “I hope Emma got a good deal on this murder house.”

Japan’s property laws are much different than American and Canadian law (except for Quebec). Japan is a civil code jurisdiction, modeled after the 19th century German Civil Code, in which every law is written down. This is different than common law states where judges’ decisions combined with statute create the law. I do not practice property law, particularly under a civil code, and especially not in Japan. Consequently, I relied heavily on two articles in forming my legal analysis, which I would recommend as they are exceedingly instructive. (1)

Before the purchase a real estate broker prepares a document known as an Explanation of Important Matters (jusetsu). This is explained prior to the Purchase and Sale Agreement which unlike in the United States is often the same day as the closing date – with no due diligence period, outside of commercial contracts; in fact the agreement can be made orally, although normally it is done in writing. Important matters under the jusetsu are regulated by the Real Estate Brokerage Law. (2)

Article 47 of the Real Estate Brokerage Law requires a broker to disclose any information regarding a property to a potential buyer or tenant that could affect that person’s decision to buy or rent. This disclosure includes someone dying on the property, even of natural causes. However, there is no obligation to continue disclosing said information after someone new has moved in. Often property owners may rent or sell the property at a lower price to remove their disclosure obligations in the future upon resale. These properties are known as jiko bukken (incident properties). There are on average 40,000 in Japan at any time, and there is a website where you can look up jiko bukken worldwide. (3) Have your Google translate handy to receive minutes of morbid entertainment.

Peter (Bill Pullman), who buys the house in The Grudge (2004), would have grounds to seek damages against the real estate broker for not disclosing the material defect of the murder-suicide that occurred in the house. Since 1990, there have been 40 successful lawsuits on those grounds in Japan. (4) The real estate agent does not indicate to the homebuyers that there have been any previous deaths in the house, nor does he mention a ghost that grabbed him while they were touring the property. It is likely that the house will continue to drop in property value because of the hauntings and general death of anyone who enters it. Therefore, if any family members are left alive, a successful lawsuit is possible against the real estate company and the broker individually, for the loss of property value upon resale.

The Grudge (2020) takes place in the United States; in idyllic Pennsylvania. Unlike in Japan, Pennsylvania specifically outlines material defects that must be disclosed in a document known as a property disclosure statement. These are physical defects that can be readily repaired such as sewage issues or termites. (5) In Milliken v. Jacono, (6) the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that sellers only need to disclose identifiable damage which did not include psychological damage. In that case the sellers were under no obligation to disclose a murder-suicide by the previous owners – which is perfectly akin to the plot of all the Grudge films. Accordingly, John Cho might have no reason to disclose the body count piling up at 44 Reyburn Drive – truly the most chilling home in film history…

I give the 2004 The Grudge a 6/10 as a horror film and a 3/10 for legal realism. Where is my dramatic property lawsuit?! Check out Ju-On (2002) instead, as it feels truly lived in and not briefly rented.


  1. Philip Brasor and Tzubuku, Masako, Can a death kill property value? Japan Times: December 3, 2017. Accessed Online December 29, 2020, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2017/12/03/how-tos/can-death-kill-property-value/#.XhLEm-hKjIU ; Kohtaro Tamura, Ushijima & Partners, Real Estate Laws in Japan. Corporate Live Wire : July 25th, 2016, Accessed Online December 29, 2019, https://www.corporatelivewire.com/top-story.html?id=real-estate-laws-in-japan.
  2. Real Estate Brokerage Act, Law No. 176 of 1952, at Article 47, as amended by Amendment of Act No. 56 of 2013.
  3. Oshimaland, Stigmatized Properties. Oshimaland 2005-2020. Accessed Online December 29, 2019, https://www.oshimaland.com/.
  4. Supra at 1.
  5. Kathy Caitlin Davis, Selling a Pennsylvania Home: What Are My Disclosure Obligations? Accessed Online January 5th, 2020, https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/pennsylvania-home-sellers-disclosures-required-under-state-law.html; 68 Pa.C.S. § 7304. Accessed Online January 5th, 2020 https://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/CT/HTM/68/00.073.004.000..HTM
  6. Milliken v Jacono, 2012 PA Super 284; Justitia US Law. Accessed Online January 5th, 2020. https://law.justia.com/cases/pennsylvania/superior-court/2012/2731-eda-2010.html

Adam

Contributor/Actual Lawyer

Adam is a lawyer from Nova Scotia, Canada... that place above Maine beside Anne of Green Gables’ house. He hosts a deplorable show examining the law in sci-fi films called the "Space Lawyers Podcast". Adam enjoys the finer things in life such as "so bad they are good" films (see Leprechaun 4: In Space), pestiferous puns, and his collection of over 365 bowties.

Get Your BGH Fix