Sometime near the end of the first century Pliny the Younger, a magistrate of Rome, heard a scary story. Presumably he was no stranger to fear. His father died when Pliny was only eight, and just a little over ten years later he was a witness to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which resulted in the death of the uncle who had been largely responsible for raising him.
But he was also a relatively successful man. Well educated and known as an eloquent speaker who had served as a military tribune before entering into politics, Pliny rose well above his station. History remembers him most as a writer of letters. He wrote to his friends, to influential politicians, and likely with the intention of publication. He wrote about natural curiosities, daily life, and love. And he wrote about ghosts.
He began a letter to Licinius Sura: “I am extremely desirous to know your sentiments concerning spectres, whether you believe they actually exist and have their own proper shapes and a measure of divinity, or are only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?” Of course he didn’t write in English, but my Latin is a little rusty (though I do pretty much ockray at igpay atinlay).
The first thing I find interesting about Pliny’s letter is that 2000 years later, we are still asking the same question, especially around this time of year. Television programming which within weeks will fill with family friendly specials featuring Santa Claus and good works is right now little more than an obstacle course of blood and terror feeding some fascination with the horrible, and a curiosity about the unexplained.
I’m not exactly complaining. In general I’m fond of Halloween. I enjoy helping the kids carve Jack-o-lanterns while the lightly seasoned pumpkin seeds burn to a crisp in the oven. And I like seeing all of the adorable children turned into begging hyper zombies just as much as the next mom. But I have to admit, I don’t really like scary stories.
When I (very) occasionally see a scary movie or watch a TV special about a haunted house or hear a frightening tale around a campfire, it follows me. My mind lingers over the details of it for sometimes weeks afterwards, returning to me at the most unexpected moments and sending a shiver down my spine. And I think that’s what happened to Pliny, too.
In his letter he relates three separate stories of ghost encounters, but the longest and most detailed is the most interesting to me because it sounds so familiar. The tale begins with an old abandoned house, deemed uninhabitable because of the strange appearance of a shackled specter. Then one day the brave philosopher Athenodorus purchased the house, determined to live peacefully there.
Maybe the rumors got to him because he didn’t head to bed that first night in his new house and instead tried to occupy his time and thoughts with his writing. When at last the chained ghost approached, Athenodorus didn’t look at him, but instead motioned for him to wait a minute (because the best ghost stories have a funny moment to temporarily relieve some of the tension).
Obviously, the ghost didn’t like being put off and began to rattle his chains more aggressively (singing a rousing chorus of “Marley and Marley,” like a couple of grumpy old muppets) until finally the philosopher sighed and shouted “What!?” A little startled at the blunt response and frankly a little hurt at being ignored for so long, the ghost sheepishly led Athenodorus outside and disappeared.
The philosopher marked the spot where the ghost vanished and the next morning had the place excavated only to find human remains entangled in chains. He gave the remains a proper send-off. And the ghost never bothered him or anyone again.
Of the ghost stories that I haven’t managed to avoid, this is pretty much the plot of most of them. And Pliny’s may have been the first to provide a written description of ghosts as spirits in need of help to complete a task (it’s also likely that Athenodorus was the first to say “I see dead people”).
He claims in his letter that this is a story he heard about and he wants to get to the bottom of it. The concept of ghosts doesn’t fit, it seems, into his well-educated mind, and he’s trying to figure out if the story has merit, the same way we do every time we tune in to one of those ghost hunting shows, read the latest collection of stories about this or that city’s haunted past, or book the hotel room where that grisly murder allegedly took place a hundred years ago.
Pliny ends his letter admitting that Sura is likely to answer with ambiguous logic, but imploring him to offer a true opinion instead. Pliny has heard the prevalent stories that are either conclusive proof of ghosts haunting the mysterious places of earth or wildly imaginative mass hallucinations. Like most of us, especially on Halloween as our thoughts dwell on the frightening, he wants to know for sure.
Unfortunately we don’t know Sura’s answer or Pliny’s conclusion, but we do have 2000 years of stories to weigh as we puzzle out whether or not ghosts really do exist. And we may never find a conclusive answer. But the one thing I do know for sure is that I would rather watch a heartwarming Christmas special.