UMass classics professor studies ancient ghosts and monsters

By Chris Shores

The traditional tales of Halloween – men transforming into werewolves under a bright moon, inhabitants of a creepy old house driven insane by the ghost that haunts it – were also told two millennia ago in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, said Debbie Felton, an associate professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts.

Courtesy GanMed64/Flickr
Courtesy GanMed64/Flickr

Felton specializes in what she calls the “folklore of the supernatural.” Her research into ghosts began in the mid-90s while she was writing her dissertation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was then that she discovered encyclopedias compiled by 19th century scholars that contained lists of ghost stories dating back as early as the 5th century B.C., originating from ancient Greece and Rome. From there, she hunted down the stories and translated them from Greek or Latin into English.

“People were aware of the stories but no one had ever put it in a book or talked about them,” said Felton. She said that past authors had never analyzed “what their point was [and] whether they had influenced modern stories.”

One story in particular — a haunted house story from the 1st or 2nd century A.D. — caught Felton’s eye. In the story, a ghost continually appears in the house in question, rattling chains and spooking the inhabitants, even causing many of them to die of fright. Eventually, a man decides to investigate the house and confront the supposed ghost. He solves the mystery of the haunting when he discovers the remnants of a human skeleton.

“It’s amazing – it’s this generic haunted house story, aside from the fact that it is set in Athens. If you took out the names, you couldn’t tell where or when that was, because it sounds just like a modern story,” she said. “That’s why I thought they were really neat, because I didn’t know that the story went back 2000 years. I didn’t know that the Greeks and Romans had this story until I stumbled across it because no one had really ever talked about it before.”

Felton compiled the stories and provided analysis in her 1999 book, “Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity.” She said that the book was well received and that it led others to follow her example in the study of ancient ghost stories.

Over the past 12 years, Felton has continued to study ghosts but has also shifted her focus to tales of statues coming to life and stories of ancient monsters. Some of the stories Felton has uncovered are as short as three sentences, with others as long as multiple paragraphs

Monsters such as the werewolf were described with similar characteristics as they are now, said Felton. In a story from the 1st century A.D., a man witnesses a companion transform under a bright moon into the beast. Then, after hearing reports of a wolf being stabbed in the neck, he finds that same companion with a neck wound.

Monster theory is a growing area of study, said Felton, who wrote a chapter to the “Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous,” which is scheduled for release in February 2012.

She is also working on a book which will explore serial killers in the ancient world.

“I’m looking at monsters as [the] serial killers,” she said. “In ancient Greece and Rome, they didn’t have media … and they didn’t have police forces either. It’s not like anyone was keeping track of the kinds of crimes that were going on … Stories about werewolves, vampires and witches may have been based on actual events of mutilation serial killings.”

She said that others have shared her theory, with some suggesting that the Brothers Grimm fairytales were loosely based on true events.

“Nobody’s applied the theory to classical literature,” Felton said. “In antiquity, it was all attributed to supernatural forces. But the theory is that maybe these had some basis in fact. I’ll never be able to prove it because we don’t have records, but I can theorize.”

Felton said that the book will take a few years to complete because she is writing it alongside her teaching responsibilities. She said she enjoys both parts of her life – the research into ancient ghosts and monsters, and teaching students about classics.

“So much of Western culture is rooted in Greeks and Romans – major things like democracy, and a system of law, mythology,” she said. “It helps to know the … original cultural context.”

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]