There was a time when EBay was just an Internet yard sale frequented by obsessive-compulsives and their enablers, a benign but unstoppable engine of dot-com success. Today, 430,000 Americans earn all or most of their living from EBay sales. Yet, in this, the company's 10th year, EBay is still most infamous as a repository for humankind's most shameless hucksterism.
EBay's auction list is now the stuff of legend -- a human kidney, a moist towelette from the 1970s, an atheist's soul, Justin Timberlake's half-eaten French toast, even "absolutely nothing," which sold for $1.03.
Having exhausted bad taste and banality, it appears EBay sellers have moved on to a new marketing strategy -- the paranormal. Everything "haunted" is so hot, EBay could launch a new category. Last month, Mary Anderson of Hobart, Ind., sold her father's haunted walking cane for $65,000 to GoldenPalace.com, the publicity-hungry online gambling site that in November paid $28,000 for a grilled cheese sandwich that featured the image of the Virgin Mary.
Last July, a Missouri college student inspired 140,000 hits and interest from five authors, a screenwriter and a documentary crew after listing a wooden cabinet haunted by a spirit in Jewish folklore known as a dybbuk. The box sold for $280 to a university museum curator.
Now dozens of EBay sellers are looking to cash in on the spirit world. According to this week's listings, restless souls inhabit a wedding dress, a football jersey, an adding machine, a candy dish, even a potato chip and a pair of roller skates. EBay has no problem with these sales as long as the seller is offering something tangible. "It's really up to the buyer whether they believe it's haunted or not," says EBay spokesman Hani Durzy.
Clearly, these sellers know their audience, folks who crave the adrenaline rush of a good scare or maybe skeptics who want to test fate. These listings are rich, vivid and earnest. They plead with the reader to believe. Descriptions are peppered with ALL CAPITAL LETTERS and flocks of exclamation points. Yet each one follows a strikingly similar plot line. The seller is typically at wit's end. The haunted object, albeit rare and valuable, has made life a living hell.
Sometimes there's a creepy story from childhood explaining how the object was owned by a witch, dead relative, Civil War soldier, insane person or doll lover who cherished or cursed the possession. Often, the object was acquired at an estate sale or a murder scene. Occasionally, ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends are somehow to blame. The item itself is independently mobile with wandering eyes, the ability to talk or infuse its owner with "strange feelings." The family dog and cat steer clear of it. Children are made sleepless by it.
And so, these weary folks turn to their last resort: EBay, where $1,000 is spent every second.
This week's auctions also offered a haunted tuning fork, haunted milking stool, haunted gravestone rubbing, haunted blanket, haunted bathtub and haunted Kendrell Bell Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. Entities also "inhabit" several music boxes, paintings and some teddy bears. "I hear cute little voices in my head and I think they are talking to me," the teddy bear seller writes. "They do talk friendly [in my head]."
Dolls are the most popular ghost vessels. There's a crying doll from Massapequa Park, N.Y. A doll from Red Bluff, Calif., that roams the house, once popping up in the refrigerator. A doll in Fort Myers, Fla., possessed by runaway slaves that scared the bejesus out of its seller.
"This doll was on a rocking chair, the chair rocked back and forth and the doll turned her eyes toward me and leaned forward," the seller writes. The doll's owner, the seller explains, lost her house to the Florida hurricanes last fall and needs the money to retire. (Initial offer: $100,000. Highest bid with six hours to go: $0.)
The Virgin Mary is indiscriminately possessing food. Topping November's grilled cheese sandwich manifestation, she has now appeared with the baby Jesus in a Lay's Smokey Bacon Chip in Geraldton, Ontario. "I'm really, really freaked out right now about this, especially after the Tsunami Tragedy after Christmas," the seller writes. "I am beginning to think that the creaking in the kitchen may have been a warning."
Other spirits have opted for more mundane possessions. There's an adding machine in Abingdon, Md., that spits out an infinite number of nines. A pair of skates in Pendleton, Ind., take off at the sound of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." A liquor bottle in Bono, Ark., that may or may not have been owned by the Marquis de Sade gives its owner strange "sensuous" feelings.
And then there's the 23-year-old indestructible painted egg in Avon Lake, Ohio. "I keep hearing strange whispering noises ever since I got this egg," the seller writes.