March 11, 1999

News Service
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-6915 618.453.2276
Sue Davis, Director

Classical ghost stories
By K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -. -Have you heard about the two college students who went to Chicago?

One of them was staying with some people he knew, but the other one stayed at a motel. The first guy had this horrible dream where he saw his friend at the motel crying for help because the motel owner was trying to kill him.

It was so scary he woke up, but when he went back to sleep, he saw his friend again. This time, the guy said that the motel owner had killed him and had hidden his body under a load of compost in a pickup truck at the motel's parking lot. He begged the first guy to call the police.

Sure enough, when the police got there, there was a pickup truck with a load of compost, and when they dug through it, they found the student's body. They've arrested the motel owner, and they plan to ask for the death penalty.

If you think this sounds like a classic ghost story, you're right. It has most of the elements you hear in tales told round a campfire: It's a story about regular folks, set in the recent past, with realistic details, told as if it were true. What's more, it is a classic, first recorded by the Roman philosopher/writer/orator Cicero some years before the birth of Christ.

Of course, Cicero didn't tell it quite the same way. In his version, the friends came from Arcadia (a pastoral region in ancient Greece known for the innocence of its people), they went to Megara (a large Greek city), the motel was an inn, the pickup was a wagon, and the compost was…well, just plain old unadulterated dung.

But the broad picture's the same-and that's what makes such stories from ancient Greece and Rome so fascinating, maintains Debbie Felton, an associate professor in foreign languages and literature at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her first book, "Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity," came out in December.

"One thing that struck me was that they didn't seem all that different from modern ghost stories-they could have taken place any time, anywhere, though they were all about 2,000 years old," says Felton, an assistant professor in the foreign languages and literature department.

In many ways, today's ghosts are just following in the footsteps of their fore-specters. Modern or ancient, they usually come in shades of black, white and smoke, though they often look just like they did in life. They generally show up in the dead of night, vanishing by dawn. Dogs always know they're around. And they all come back for the same old reasons: To replay their deaths, to take up old routines, to finish old business, to comfort or warn the living, to seek justice, to take revenge.

"They all seem to want to communicate, though different categories of ghosts will behave in different ways," Felton says.

Felton chose to focus her book on "hauntings"-occasions when ghosts appear to people who aren't trying to summon them.

"'Haunting' is the repeated manifestation of strange and inexplicable phenomena-sounds, tactile sensations, smells and visual hallucinations-generally said to be caused by ghosts or spirits," she says.

"The term 'haunt' is related to the word 'home.' Typically, a haunted location is the ghost's former home or the spot where the person died."

Felton's favorite haunted-house ghost story, set down in a letter from Pliny the Younger, takes place in Athens in a large, empty house with a "bad reputation and an unhealthy air," where the ghost of an old man, shackled and chained, walks at night, rattling his irons as he goes.

No one will spend a night there until at last, a philosopher, intrigued by what he's heard of the house, rents it and waits for the ghost. He first hears the clank of chains; the sound grows louder and louder, until suddenly, the ghost appears. The philosopher follows the beckoning phantom to the courtyard, where it vanishes. The next morning, he has magistrates dig up the spot where the ghost disappeared. They find the bones of a man, shackled and chained. Once the bones are properly buried, the ghost never comes again.

If the idea of a specter materializing late at night and rattling his irons brings to mind the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," that's probably no accident.

"Various modern ghost stories, both humorous and serious, ultimately owe many of their elements to the ancient tales, particularly Pliny's narrative of the haunted house at Athens," Felton says.

"Many of the best ghost-story writers had classical educations and had probably read Pliny in the original Latin."

Oscar Wilde's "Canterville Ghost" is an even closer cousin. Like his Greek predecessor, this phantom is an old man with unkempt hair, dirty clothes and chains upon his arms and legs. He, too, comes in the dead of night, announced first by a clanking sound that grows increasingly loud. He appears to a calm, rational person, who discovers a chained skeleton in a secret chamber shown to her by the ghost. When the remains are buried, the ghost haunts Canterville Chase no more.

The ghost-story genre reached its height in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Felton says. Two horrific world wars and the chilling advances of science made readers less susceptible to spectral spookiness. But ghost stories are not likely to disappear any time soon.

"They are a way of dealing with the fact of death-that you will lose loved ones, that you will die yourself," she says.

"People also seem to like being scared for the catharsis of it-you feel fear, then you feel better. And there's always an audience for a good story."

Copyright © 1999, Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University