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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

The First Ghost Story

To welcome in October, the spookiest of all months, may I present the very first ghost story.

The First Ghost Story

Okay, so that's up for debate. And it depends on your definition. So let's instead say, I'm going to talk about the very first archetypal ghost story. This is an ancient mould for ghost stories future writers will use for many and various hauntings.

There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. 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. Distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands.
The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm.
Consequently, the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.
It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so.
When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house. And, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard. However, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but in order to keep calm and collected tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him. It stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another.
Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it.

Hats off to the badass philosopher who saw a ghost in the doorway and told it to hang on while he finished his work...

The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him.
The next day he gave information to the magistrates and advised them to order that spot to be dug up.
This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there. For the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters.
The bones being collected together were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.

The Archetype

This story ticks a lot of boxes we've come to associate with ghosts and ghost stories.

The rattling of chains: Clearly, Charles Dickens has been reading his Pliny. There's also a trope known as Jacob Marley Apparel. In short, ghosts frequently appear in the clothes they died in. Presumably, there are no Primarks in the afterlife.

Driving out the owners: Ghosts are usually accused of being so disruptive they drive out the homeowners. This is why haunted houses change hands so often.

Cheap House! Ghost included: The first example of a haunted house going cheap. This was back when you weren't required by law to disclose these sort of thing.

No respects paid - the classic reason for the dead not sleeping peacefully, other than Unfinished Business. This ghost was clearly unhappy with his burial arrangements and reaches out to be reburied.

These similarities aren't surprising. Thanks to the Roman magistrate's letter-writing habit, we know that these stories have been retold for thousands of years.

I'm a huge fan of ghost stories. I've discussed books Haunting of Hill House and Turn of the Screw on this blog. I've even written my own ghost story about a haunted theatre.

Photo by Erin Minuskin on Unsplash

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