The enduring appeal of the preternatual

Ghost stories have been popular for thousands of years, and there are many reasons why people enjoy them and enjoy being scared by them,” says University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMASS) classics professor Debbie Felton. “There’s certainly a cathartic effect to hearing a ghost story and being scared out of your wits without ever being in any real dangers. But, more essentially, ghost stories ultimately reflect religious beliefs concerning the importance of proper burial and the survival of the spirit after death.”

The preternatural world isn’t new. It’s probably been around as long as we have. Of course, thousands and even hundreds of years ago, preternatural beings from ghosts to werewolves to elves to vampires, weren’t stuck in some alternate reality. They were part of the natural world everybody lived in. Which explains why so many “serious” and “great” writers in antiquity had no problem writing about spirits, shape-shifters, revenants, monsters or other denizens of what we now call the preternatural universe.

Yesterday, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was given as an example of a werewolf tale pre-dating The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Ovid wasn’t the only one.

In Satyricon, Roman author Petronius tells the tale of a man traveling from Rome to the country villa his mistress lives in. He is accompanied by a soldier.  The pair stop for a rest at a cemetery outside the city where the soldier disrobes, marks a circle of urine, then turns into a wolf and runs off.  When the man arrives at the villa, he learns that a wolf has ravaged his flocks. One of his servants, however, managed to wound the wolf with a spear. Upon returning to Rome, the man seeks out the soldier and finds hims being treated by a physician for a spear wound. The man realizes the soldier is a shape-shifter who preyed on his flocks in his wolf form.

There are so many preternatural tales that have been handed down to us from ancient Greece and Rome, the ghost stories alone have filled a book. Felton wrote Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity which was published by the University of Texas Press in 1998. The book explores the longer works of Pliny, Plautus and Lucian that involve haunted houses.

“For example, the Roman author Pliny the Younger, in a letter to a friend that has survived the centuries, tells a wonderful little ghost story about a haunted house in Athens,” Felton explains. “It’s a prototypical haunted house story: the horrific ghost of an old man scares everyone away, the house is deserted and falling into disrepair. Finally a brave man come along who dares to spend the night in the house. He is not afraid of the ghost, and instead realizes the ghost wants to communicate. He follows the ghost to the spot where it disappears; he digs up the spot, finds bones, buries them with the proper rituals and the ghost never appears again.”

Felton is working on her second book about the preternatural in the ancient world called Things that Went Bump in the Night: Strange Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome.

“I think these Roman stories are great, and most people don’t realize that ghost and werewolf stories like these were being told  2,000 years ago,” Felton admits.

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