While reading Christopher Moreman’s Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions I stumbled across the mention of “the earliest haunted house story in Greek or Roman Literature”.1 The story Moreman is referencing is a play entitled Mostellaria which was written between 200-194 B.C.E. This of course makes this haunted house story over 2,000 years old. As Moreman only briefly mentions the earliest haunted house story I had to check his reference section and thanks to the Cleveland Public Library I had a copy of Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity by Debbie Felton in a couple weeks. Having a background in research psychology, parapsychology, and clinical counseling my grasp of early Roman and Greek literature is severely lacking. However, Debbie Felton does a great job helping the layperson understand the intricacies of classical ghost stories. So, without further ado let’s get to the earliest haunted house story.
Mostelleria which translates from Latin as “The Haunted House” is a play written by Plautus between 200-194 B.C.E. This play is considered to be a main literary source for Roman afterlife beliefs before the 1st century. While the story is fictitious it gives us a view into early Roman beliefs about haunted houses.2 One of the characters in the play named Tranio makes up a story about the house being haunted to deceive the owner of the house who had returned early from a business trip. He is attempting to deceive the owner in hopes that the owner will be scared enough to leave the house so he will not find out about the owner’s son and his extravagant party. The owner’s son is actually hiding in the house with the other party guests.2 Is it weird that classical Greek literature seems like a scene out of a wacky 1980’s movie? Nonetheless, what is important is that the story itself has been regularly accepted as a traditional haunted house story of its time and has many common themes that are relatable to haunted houses to this day.
Before we get to the story, I want to stress we are talking about phenomena associated with haunted houses or locations. These types of phenomena are different than mediumship, seances, crisis apparitions, death-bed visions, or warnings from the dead. The assumption with a haunted location is that the ghost is attached to a certain location and manifests on numerous occasions to different people. Often the ghosts that manifest are not related to the witness and the phenomena experienced often include; sense of presence, auditory phenomena, tactile phenomena, temperature changes, visual apparitions, olfactory phenomena, and sense of presence.
Upon arrival to the house Tranio tells the owner that his son moved out due to the house being haunted. Tranio states that the son became aware that a murder occurred in the house. He goes on to say the previous owner murdered a guest in the house and buried this man on the property. Tranio tells the owner the murdered man’s ghost appeared to the owner’s son and told him about this tragedy that occurred 60 years ago. Accoridng to Tranio the ghost stated:
“I am a visiting traveler from across the sea, Diapintious by name. Here I dwell; this place has been given to me as a home” … “I was to trusting: my host killed me here, and he buried me secretly, without the proper rites, here on these premises, a criminal act, for the sake of gold. Now leave this place! This building is cursed, this dwelling is polluted with crime.” 3
The play ends when Tranio calls a noted academic and philosopher at the time named Zakious Bagans and his Ghost Adventures Crew to investigate the house (THIS IS A JOKE). So, what can we learn from this play written over 2,000 years ago? Since literature is often a reflection of real-life, we can to some extent assume that the play is based in some real-life accounts of haunted houses from that period in time. If this is the case, we can see that the experiences and phenomena in 200 B.C.E. are very similar to modern day accounts of haunted locations.
Let's look at some common themes in this story, which are relatable to accounts of modern-day haunted house;
Terrible crime occurred in the house (murder)
Person murdered was buried on the property (improper burial with no burial rites)
Murdered person haunts the house
Ghost is attempting to communicate crime and tragedy to current inhabitants
Reports of visual apparitions and auditory phenomena (knocks were reported in the play as well)
Inhabitants are fearful and scared to live in the house
Keep thinking about common themes as I review another haunted house account which occurred about 300 years after the above play around 100 A.D. and I believe is actually based on a real-life account.
Pliny's Haunted House Story
“Probably the most famous ghost stories from antiquity are those that survive in the letters of Pliny the Younger, which were published between A.D. 100 and 109.”4. Pliny the Younger (61 B.C.E.- 112 A.D.) was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. The story was circulated orally and was told to Pliny. I've given you the option to either listen to the audio of the story or read it below.
“There was in Athens a house, spacious and open, but with an infamous reputation, as if filled with pestilence. For in the dead of night, a noise like the clashing of iron could be heard. And if one listened carefully, it sounded like the rattling of chains. At first the noise seemed to be at a distance, but then it would approach, nearer, nearer, nearer. Suddenly a phantom would appear, an old man, pale and emaciated, with a long beard, and hair that appeared driven by the wind. The fetters on his feet and hands rattled as he moved them.
Any dwellers in the house passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. The nights without rest led them to a kind of madness, and as the horrors in their minds increased, onto a path toward death. Even in the daytime–when the phantom did not appear–the memory of the nightmare was so strong that it still passed before their eyes. The terror remained when the cause of it was gone.
Damned as uninhabitable, the house was at last deserted, left to the spectral monster. But in hope that some tenant might be found who was unaware of the malevolence within it, the house was posted for rent or sale.
It happened that a philosopher named Athenodorus came to Athens at that time. Reading the posted bill, he discovered the dwelling’s price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion, yet when he heard the whole story, he was not in the least put off. Indeed, he was eager to take the place. And did so immediately.
As evening drew near, Athenodorus had a couch prepared for him in the front section of the house. He asked for a light and his writing materials, then dismissed his retainers. To keep his mind from being distracted by vain terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he directed all his energy toward his writing.
For a time the night was silent. Then came the rattling of fetters. Athenodorus neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen. Instead he closed his ears by concentrating on his work. But the noise increased and advanced closer till it seemed to be at the door, and at last in the very chamber. Athenodorus looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him. It stood before him, beckoning with one finger.
Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that the visitor should wait a little, and bent over his work. The ghost, however, shook the chains over the philosopher’s head, beckoning as before. Athenodorus now took up his lamp and followed. The ghost moved slowly, as if held back by his chains. Once it reached the courtyard, it suddenly vanished.
Athenodorus, now deserted, carefully marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he asked the magistrate to have the spot dug up. There they found–intertwined with chains–the bones that were all that remained of a body that had long lain in the ground. Carefully, the skeletal relics were collected and given proper burial, at public expense. The tortured ancient was at rest. And the house in Athens was haunted no more.”5
Let’s break this down quickly for themes;
Visual apparition of old man
Auditory phenomena of metal clashing and chains clanking throughout the house
All inhabitants of the house are scared and live in fear; eventually move out
House is deserted, decrepit, and left to rot (typical description of a haunted house)
Unsuspecting or skeptical person buys or rents the house due to the cheap price
Unsuspecting person witnesses the ghost
Ghost communicates tragedy of some kind
Man was improperly buried (perhaps murdered) on the property
Once properly buried with burial rites completed the ghost does not reappear
Looking at both early accounts of haunted houses that I have presented we see typical haunt-type phenomena reported.We also find that the intent of the ghost is to communicate some tragedy or wrong-doing. Once the tragedy, improper burial, or wrong doing is resolved the ghost in essence “crosses over” and is never seen again. Sound familiar? It is exactly every episode of "The Ghost Whisperer”. The idea of ghosts hanging around to complete unfinished business is almost part of our culture. Many TV shows, movies, and haunting documentaries use this premise often. The idea being that there is a reason for the haunting and once that reason is discovered the ghost or disembodied soul can move on. There is even a specialization in mediumship called Spirit Rescue where mediums are specifically trained in crossing over techniques and tools to help Earthbound Spirits. As we can see this idea, theory, or view is not new and has been around for over 2,000 years.
One aspect that has changed in modern times is in regards to finding human remains and completing proper burial rites. I’ve heard occasional accounts from paranormal investigators, TV shows, and movies where actual remains are the catalyst of the haunting however that is becoming rarer. When it comes to real-life investigations of haunted locations the standard resolution is not finding remains and properly burying them but rather psychics helping the spirits “cross-over”, priests, shamans, or demonologist’s exorcising the negative entities, or paranormal teams “cleansing” or “clearing” the house of the spirits.
What I found unique about this story is how our hero Athenodorus initially reacts to the ghost. While focused on his writing the ghost appears with all his chains making quite a scene and in a totally boss move Athenodorus, rather than react with shock or fear, actually ignores the ghost and then proceeds to hold up his hand motioning to the ghost to “wait a minute” and then goes back to his writing. I’ve read quite of few ghost stories and even heard hundreds of witness accounts and I’ve never heard this reaction to a visual apparition. Eventually he follows the ghost outside and marks the spot were the ghost disappears. When they dig in that spot they found human bones, which were wrapped in chains. Ghosts appearing in chains is another common theme that was seen in several classic British Ghost stories specifically the ghost of Marley in "A Christmas Carol".
In our era of technology it is hard to relate to how people lived 2,000 years ago, however in some regards not much has changed. Even with all of humanity's advances ghosts and haunted houses remain eerily the same.
1.Moreman, C.M. 2ND Ed. (2018) Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions. Landham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield. (pg. 29)
2. Felton, D. (1999). Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity. Austin,TX: University of Texas Press
3. Ibid., 52
4. Ibid., 62