A Haunting In Ancient Athens
This old, old tale of a ghost who haunts a house starts out like so many contemporary horror films that feature haunted houses: 1) Man finds an attractive home for rent at a ridiculously cheap price. 2) Man is warned that the place is no real bargain because it’s haunted by a malevolent spirit. 3) Man scoffs at the ghost stories and rents the house anyway. 4) Scary things begin to happen. 5) The scary things get scarier and scarier and soon the man is doing an imitation of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz: “I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do. . . . ”
The distinction enjoyed by the story of the ancient Greek philosopher, Athenodorus, and the haunted villa he rented in Athens is that it’s the first Western haunted house story ever to be written. The author was Pliny the Younger, and the text was in the form of a letter that Pliny wrote to a friend around two thousand years ago.
In his letter, Pliny describes the deserted villa’s paranormal phenomena as reported by neighbors and passers-by, which included banging noises, the clanking of chains, and the startling appearance of a spectral old man who appeared to be wearing chains. He relates how Athenodorus, undeterred by the unsettling tales, rented the villa and then settled in for his first night in his new home. Eventually—inevitably—the ghost appeared and lured the philosopher into the villa’s courtyard before disappearing.
The next day, Athenodorus ordered the courtyard to be dug up, and the excavation revealed a skeleton that was bound with chains. After the remains were given a proper burial, the ghost appeared no more, and the house was no longer haunted.
There is no record as to whether Athenodorus’ landlord subsequently raised his rent. . . .