Do you think Halloween, with its tradition of trick-or-treat, is a relatively modern holiday? Or maybe you've heard it associated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain? Would you be surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks and Romans had similar festivals? Well, both the Greeks and Romans, who believed it was possible for restless spirits to roam the earth, had holidays like Halloween to appease the ghosts of the dead. The Greek and Romans left food on their doorsteps or at tombs, hoping that ghosts would accept the "treats" rather than coming into the houses to haunt, or "trick" the living.
And the Greeks and Romans liked to tell ghost stories about walking corpses, flesh-eating ghouls, necromancy, and especially haunted houses. In these stories, the dead return for many different reasons, but mainly to request proper burial. The Greeks and Romans thought funeral rituals were very important and believed that lack of a proper burial would result in a restless soul.
We find several stories of re-animated corpses in the works of a 2nd-century C.E. writer with the odd name Phlegon of Tralles. His story collection, the Mirabilia, is basically the Sun of ancient times—though without the Page Three Girl! Phlegon recorded every bizarre story he could find. In one, a dead girl secretly returns to her parents’ house night after night. When her parents discover her presence, the girl suddenly collapses. Horrified, the parents burn her body to avoid another unexpected return; evidently the girl hadn't had proper funeral rituals the first time around! In another story from Phlegon, a dead man returns to claim his orphaned child. When the townspeople refuse to hand over the boy to the rotting, re-animated corpse, the ghoul seizes the child, tears it limb from limb, and eats it! Then he vanishes, leaving the townspeople stunned at the gruesome occurrence.
The Greeks and Romans also enjoyed stories of necromancy, a kind of magic in which you summon the spirit of a dead person to ask them questions about things unknown. One such story comes from the 5th-century B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus. In this story, Periander, the tyrant of Corinth, is looking for some misplaced money. He summons the spirit of his wife Melissa to ask her help. But Melissa’s ghost refuses to cooperate, furious that Periander had cremated her corpse without its clothing. Melissa’s complaint is interesting, since her nakedness was really the least of the offenses Periander had committed against her—it was Periander who had murdered her in the first place! But Melissa’s ghost doesn’t complain about the murder, just about her improper burial. This may seem strange to the modern reader, but Herodotus tells the story to show just what a bad person Periander was because, among other things, he didn't perform the right funeral rituals for his wife.
Probably the most popular ghost stories in antiquity were about haunted houses, such as this one from the 2nd-century C.E. Roman writer Pliny the Younger:
In Athens there was a large and roomy house, but it had a bad reputation and an unhealthy air. Through the silence of the night you could hear the sound of metal clashing and, if you listened more closely, you could make out the clanking of chains, first from far off, then from close by. Soon there appeared a phantom, an old man, emaciated and filthy, with a long beard and unkempt hair. He wore shackles on his legs and chains on his wrists, shaking them as he walked. And so the inhabitants of this house spent many dreadful nights lying awake in fear. Illness and eventually death overtook them through lack of sleep and their increasing dread. For even when the ghost was absent, the memory of that horrible apparition preyed on their minds, and their fear itself lasted longer than the initial cause of that fear. And so eventually the house was deserted and condemned to solitude, left entirely to the ghost. But the house was advertised, in case someone unaware of the evil should wish to buy or rent it.
There came to Athens the philosopher Athenodorus. He read the advertisement and, when he heard the low price, was suspicious and made some inquiries. He soon learned the whole story and, far from being deterred, was that much more interested in renting the place. When evening began to fall, he requested a bed for himself to be set up in the front of the house, and asked for some small writing tablets, a stylus, and a lamp. He sent all his servants to the back of the house and concentrated his mind, eyes, and hand on his writing, lest an unoccupied mind produce foolish fears and cause him to imagine he saw the ghost he had already heard so much about.
At first, as usual, there was only the night silence. Then came the sound of iron clashing, of chains clanking; yet Athenodorus did not raise his eyes or put down his stylus. Instead he concentrated his attention on his work. Then the din grew even louder: and now it was at the threshold—now it was inside the room with him! Athenodorus turned, saw, and recognized the ghost. It was standing there, beckoning to him with its finger. Rather than answering the summons, Athenodorus motioned with his hand that the ghost should wait a while, and he turned back to his writing. The ghost continued rattling its chains right over the philosopher’s head! Athenodorus looked around again: sure enough, the ghost was still there, beckoning as before. With no further delay, the philosopher picked up his lamp and followed the phantom. The specter walked very slowly, as if weighed down by the chains. Then it walked to the courtyard of the house and suddenly vanished, abandoning its comrade. Athenodorus, now alone, plucked some grass and leaves to mark the spot where the ghost had disappeared. In the morning he went to the local magistrates and advised that they order the spot to be excavated, which they did. Bones were found, entwined with chains—bones that the body, rotted by time and earth, had left bare and corroded by the chains. These bones were gathered and given a public burial. After these rites had been performed, the house was no longer troubled by spirits.
We never find out who the ghost was or why he was in chains. Instead, the story focuses on the concern with proper burial, and many haunted house stories from antiquity end with a burial allowing the troubled spirit to rest.
Pliny's story also gives us an educated hero. Athenodorus, an intelligent man, lends the story credibility and shows the right way to approach the supernatural. This character type appears in many modern ghost stories as well, such as Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” (1914). The story takes place during World War I, at a battle in which the English are losing badly to the Germans. One English soldier, who “happened to know Latin and other useless things,” desperately shouted Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius! (“May St. George help the English!”) while firing at the Germans:
As the Latin scholar uttered his invocation he felt something between a shudder and an electric shock pass through his body . . . . He heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting “St. George! St. George!” . . . And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air toward the German hosts . . . [He] knew that St. George has brought his Agincourt bowmen to help the English.
In this case, as in Pliny’s story, the hero's education has provided the way out of a crisis. And the moral for a modern audience, perhaps, is that you should all study Latin!
It was the chain-rattling ghost, so important to Pliny’s story, that became a favorite of British writers. Here's how Dickens describes the entrance of Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol (1843):
The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.
The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight toward his door . . . . Without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes.
Like Pliny, Dickens creates suspense by having the noise move closer and closer to Scrooge’s room, up to the door and then through it. Scrooge, like Pliny's Athenodorus, tries to be calm and, rationalizing, thinks the apparition has been caused by indigestion which, he says, affects the senses: "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" Like Pliny, Dickens emphasizes the chains worn by the ghost. Unlike Pliny, Dickens offers an explanation for them. Scrooge asks Marley, “You are fettered . . . Tell me why?” The ghost replies, “I wear the chain I forged in life . . . . I made it link by link, and yard by yard,” referring to his own miserliness.
In his description of Marley’s ghost, Dickens was not the only British writer of ghost stories who owed a debt to Pliny. In Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (1887), an American family is staying in a haunted house in England. Americans were often characterized in 19th-century British literature as being highly practical, quite unimaginative, and consequently unalarmed by the supernatural. Here Wilde describes the first appearance of the ghost:
Mr. Otis was awakened by a curious noise in the corridor, outside his room. It sounded like the clank of metal, and seemed to be coming nearer every moment. He got up at once, struck a match, and looked at the time. It was exactly one o’clock. He was quite calm, and felt his pulse, which was not at all feverish. The strange noise still continued, and with it he heard distinctly the sound of footsteps. He put on his slippers, took a small oblong phial out of his dressing-case, and opened the door. Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair fell over his houlders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyves.
As in Pliny's story the ghost appears late at night, preceded by the sound of clanking metal moving closer and closer. The person who sees the ghost is calm and rational. The physical appearance of the ghost sounds just like Pliny's. But Wilde continues his story in an entirely different tone—a comic one—based on his perception of Americans:
“My dear sir,” said Mr. Otis, “I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of Rising Sun Lubricator. It is said to be completely efficacious upon one application, and there are several testimonials to that effect on the wrapper. I shall leave it here for you by the bedroom candles, and will be happy to supply you with more should you require it.”
Wilde draws on traditional details of ghost stories while also mocking them. But in the end, the Canterville Ghost haunts the mansion because his body wasn't buried and his spirit can't rest. Mr. Otis and his family discover a chained skeleton in the mansion, and after the family gives the remains a proper burial the ghost never appears again.
In short, many typical ghost stories, whether from ancient Greek and Rome or more modern times, reflect our religious beliefs concerning the importance of a proper burial and the survival of the spirit after death. The dead have a need to rest in peace, while the living have a need to believe in an afterlife, and these ghost stories, stretching back centuries, show us that such beliefs have not changed much in over two thousand years!