Monday, October 31, 2011

An Ancient Ghost Story

From The Letter "Concerning Phantoms," By Pliny The Younger

"Consider now, if the following story is not as wonderful and still more terrible than the former. I shall relate it in the manner that I received it.

"There was at Athens a very large and spacious house, but of evil report, and fatal to its inhabitants. In the dead of night, the clinking of iron, and, upon closer attention, the rattling of chains was heard; first, at a great distance, and afterwards very near. A spectre immediately appeared, representing an old man, emaciated, and squalid. His beard long, his hair staring, bolts upon his legs, upon his hands chains, which he rattled, as he carried. From these circumstances the inhabitants, in all the agonies of fear, continued watching through several melancholy, and dreadful nights. Such constant watchings brought on distempers, illness was increased by fear, and death ensued; for even in the day, when the spectre was not visible, the representation wandered before their eyes, so that the terror was of longer continuance, than the presence of the spectre. At length the house was deserted, and left entirely to the apparition.

"A bill however was posted up, to signify, that the house was either to be sold, or let, in hopes that some person, ignorant of the calamity, might offer for it. Athenodorus, the philosopher, came at that time to Athens; he read the bill; the price surprised him: he suspected some bad cause to occasion the cheapness, and, upon inquiry, was informed of all the circumstances, by which he was so little deterred, that they were stronger inducements to hire it.

"When the evening came on, he ordered a bed to be prepared for him in the first apartment. He called for lights, his table-books, and his pen. He sent all his servants to the farther parts of the house, and applied his eyes, his hands, and his whole attention to writing; lest, as he had heard of apparitions, his mind, if unemployed, might suggest to him idle fears, and represent false appearances.

"The beginning of the night was as silent there, as in other places. At length, the irons clinked, and the chains rattled. Athenodorus neither lifted up his eyes, nor quitted his pen, but collecting his resolution, stopt his ears. The noise increased, it approached, as it was now heard at the threshold of the door, and immediately after, within the room. The philosopher turned back his head, and saw the figure, which he observed to answer the description, that he had received of it. The apparition stood still, and beckoned with a finger, like a person, who calls another. Athenodorus signified, by the motion of his hand, that the ghost should stay a little; and again immediately applied himself to writing.

"The spectre rattled his chains over the head of the philosopher, who, looking back, saw him beckoning as before, and immediately taking up a light, followed him. The ghost went forward at a slow pace, as if encumbered by the chains, and afterwards turning into a court belonging to the house, immediately vanished, leaving the philosopher alone, who, finding himself thus deserted, pulled up some grass and leaves, and placed them as a signal to find the spot of ground.

"The next day he went to the magistrates, informed them of the event, and desired, that they would order the place to be dug up. Human bones were later found buried there, and bound in chains. Time and the earth had mouldered away the flesh, and only the skeleton remained; which was publicly buried: after the rites of sepulture, the house was no longer haunted.

"I give credit to these circumstances, as reported by others." --Pliny the Younger, 61-113? A.D.

And there you have the classic elements of the Ghost Story, established and set at the very beginning of Western civilization. The abandoned house with a history (with even the shady real estate effort!), the intrepid investigator, the restless ghost (with chains, yet; perhaps the trope setter for this detail), the grim secret revealed, peace restored by the proper care of the dead, the story told by "a friend of a friend." How many tales follow this pattern, in life and in literature; but does it confirm an influence by this story, or does it reflect experiences in real life? Happy Halloween.


Babel said...

A nice Halloween treat! Wasn't there a comic book version of this tale in either "Ripley's" or "Boris Karloff presents"?

Brer said...

Indeed there was, and it was in "Ripley's."