Classics scholar traces spooky stories to antiquity
J. Fitzgibbons, Chronicle staff
Debbie Felton (Stan Sherer photo)
n the genre of ghost stories, Stephen King or Henry James are more likely to come to mind than Petronius or Pliny the Younger, but many modern tales of the supernatural are links in a long, clanking chain of thrillers that go back to ancient Rome and Greece, according to Debbie Felton, assistant professor of Classics.
A fan of ghost stories since she was child, Felton began digging into the Greek and Roman horror stories when she was working on her doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"I was taking a Latin composition class where we had to read Pliny the Younger's tale of a haunted house to illustrate the perfect and imperfect tenses," she recalled. But the tenses were far less compelling than Pliny's spooky story, she says.
That led Felton on a hunt for more ghost stories from antiquity and to her surprise, there were quite a few. Unearthing tales collected by the Victorians, who had a keen interest in both classics and ghost stories, Felton also began receiving material from other scholars.
Dusting off the encyclopedic collection of stories, Felton decided to pen her dissertation on haunted-house stories from Rome and Greece. She later revised and expanded the dissertation into a book, "Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity," published in 1999 by the University of Texas Press.
But like the first blood meal for a vampire, the scholarly treatise only whet the appetite for more ghost stories from the ancient empires. As a result, Felton last week agreed to edit an anthology of supernatural tales from Rome and Greece. Tentatively titled "Things That Went Bump in the Night: Tales of the Supernatural from Ancient Greece and Rome," the book will probably be published in 2003, says Felton.
For the ancients, she says, ghost stories were like modern urban legends, usually passed by word of mouth and embellished along the way. Sometimes, a scholar such as Cicero or Plutarch noted reports of haunted places in their writings.
Not surprisingly, Felton adds, the Romans appropriated many Greek stories while also adding tales from locations within or around the empire such as Egypt and Thrace.
What's more surprising is how many "modern" horrors, such as werewolves and zombies, date back centuries.
"I've tried to group the stories by category," says Felton, rattling off a bone-chilling list that includes hauntings, witches, the walking dead, flesh-eating ghouls, ghostly armies and werewolves. The origins of the stories are difficult to determine, she says, but many probably stem from a "curiosity about what happens after death and souls at rest. I don't know of any explanation for the werewolf stories."
Felton says some ideas, such as animals being able to sense spirits or ghosts wearing white, carry through to modern literature. Other concepts, such as clanging metal together to ward off specters, aren't used by today's ghostbusters.
Felton's favorite tale is one related by Petronius in which a character named Niceros and a soldier friend are traveling to a distant village. Stopping in a deserted burial ground near the city limits to relieve themselves, Niceros is startled as his friends disrobes, urinates in a circle around them and transforms into a wolf. The beast then runs off to terrorize a village, where the townspeople manage to wound the canine.
Later, Niceros returns home to find his friend back in human form but sporting a nasty lance wound.
That's just one of the more than 40 hair-raisers Felton is working on translating for her forthcoming book. Meanwhile, her first volume is in its second printing and about to be translated into Turkish.
The rising popularity of ancient ghost stories reflects a general drift towards magic, witchcraft and the supernatural, according to Felton, who's more than happy to ride the ectoplasmic wave.
"In the last 10 years, there's been a growing interest in magic and folklore. I was lucky to get there before others did."