I’m a big fan of ghost story folklore, especially because almost every culture and era of human history has its share of ghost “sightings.” In the ancient world, spook tales abounded in Mesopotamia and Egypt, with perhaps the most famous ancient ghost story coming from Rome, recorded by the Roman lawyer and writer Pliny the Younger (61 AD-151 AD).
In a letter, Pliny asks a friend about his thoughts on “specters.” “[Do] you believe they actually exist,” he inquires, “or are [they] only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?” He then relates three stories he had heard, the best of which involves a house in Athens where “In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of [chains]. At first it seem[s] at a distance, but approach[es] nearer by degrees.”
“Immediately afterward,” Pliny records, “a phantom appear[s] in the form of an old man, extremely meager and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the [chains] on his feet and hands.”
Several different inhabitants of the house apparently witnessed this phenomenon, Pliny relates, until eventually no one would live in the house, so that it was “at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable.” However, “in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity,” the owner offered it at an incredibly low price for sale or for rent.
Eventually, “Athenodorus the philosopher” inquired about why the place was so cheap, and when learning that it was haunted, he was not discouraged and in fact “was more strongly inclined” to rent it out. During his first night in the house, the apparition emerged, chains and all, beckoning the new resident to follow him. When Athenodorus did so without fear, he was led to a certain spot in the house’s courtyard, where the specter then vanished.
Athenodorus quickly “marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves,” Pliny relates. “The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains. . . . The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense.”
After that, Pliny insists, with the ghost now properly buried, “the house was haunted no more.”
As for Pliny, he was convinced of the tale’s veracity. “This story I believe upon the affirmation of others,” he told his friend. But do the details of this ancient story sound familiar? Haunted house; Chains; Improperly buried corpse; A Ghost needing a mystery solved so it can move on. All of this obviously formed the basis for many ghosts tales to come, which is why I find it so interesting.
But my all time favorite ghost story is one that is actually documented and comes from Reconstruction-era Virginia. No, I’m not saying that there is actual documentation that proves the existence of a ghost, but there is documentation that indicates some really strange things were happening on an estate about 12 miles south of Charlottesville from 1866- 1867 that were observed by (and freaked out) A LOT of eyewitnesses.
Was it a real ghost? Doubtful, but the question of how someone pulled off such an amazing prank night after night for over two years makes the story all the more incredible. If you are unfamiliar with it, I don’t want to spoil it for you and will just direct you to read about The Moon Ghost of Virginia.
What the heck was going on? (Did it involve former slaves “haunting” their former master?) Trust me, it is good stuff and has long been my favorite spook tale.
Enjoy, and don’t forget to check out my Top Ten Ghost Movies!