When I was younger, I used to love ghost stories, scary movies, haunted house attractions–the works. If it could make me jump out of my skin or lose sleep, I loved it. This changed at some point in my life. I don’t remember the exact moment that I stopped enjoying them, it may have been more of a gradual thing.
Now I don’t care much for scary stories. Maybe it’s because as an adult (with anxiety) I have enough things keeping me up at night. I don’t really know, but I still have fond memories of being scared out of my wits as a kid with horror movies and ghost stories told during the wee hours of an October sleepover party. I’ve even called for Bloody Mary in the mirror.
These days I’m much more interested in the origins of the scary stories we all know. All stories start somewhere. And with Halloween just around the corner this seemed like as good a time as any to dive into the history of a few famous ghost stories.
Here are 10 things you might not know about scary stories.
- The oldest (known) ghost story *written* in *Western Culture* (these are my disclaimers because I have heard some spine tingling things from Eastern cultures and have no idea how old they are, and because even in the West, so much was passed by word of mouth for so many centuries that who knows how old some of our favorite ghosties really are) is credited to Pliny The Younger of Ancient Rome. He wrote of a house in Athens that, though large and luxurious, had to be rented out of cheap because anyone who stayed there was tormented by spooky sounds and menacing whispers throughout the night. It was said one could hear chains rattling if you listened closely enough. Finally, one determined fellow waited for the apparition to appear and marked the spot where the ghost stood. The next morning, he had a crew come dig up that area of the floor. They found the decomposing body of an emaciated man in chains. They gave the unknown man a proper burial and the ghost was never heard from again.
- The Headless Horseman. In Washington Iriving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow we meet an apparition who stalks a particular road through the woods looking for a head to replace the one he’s missing. Some think that this story evolved after rumors of a Revolutionary War soldier losing his head to cannon fire in upstate New York being seen post mortem. However, if you look back far enough, you can find a character in Celtic Mythology–The Dullahan–who rides a dark horse and carries his own head under his arm. He is also said to stalk the night terrorizing the unwitting.
- The Exorcist. Before Linda Blair spewed green gunk across movie screens in the the mid 1970s, she spun her head around in a book. That book was based on an account of an actual exorcism in the late 1940s. A young boy that the records call “Roland Doe” because they would not record his true name, was said to scream, speak gibberish, and suddenly have terrifying powers manifest. His mother called priests who thought he must be possessed by demons and tried to exorcise them to save the boy. It wasn’t pretty. The Catholic Church admits this happened, though they’d rather people forget about it, and agrees that it was the wrong thing to do. In hindsight, it is believed the boy may have suffered from more than one psychological disorder and needed an entirely different kind of care.
- Ghost stories have been translated from Egyptian Hieroglyphics that could be even older than Pliny the Younger’s 1st Century A.D. story. The inscription was found in Luxor and parts of the story are missing or too damaged to read, but it is definitely about a ghost.
- The Mummy. A lot of the inspiration for this tale of a tomb raiding releasing the powerful mummy spirit comes from the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. The world was fascinated when the tomb was found and followed the story of it closely in newspaper accounts. However, very shortly after the tomb was opened, one of the team members died of a sudden and unidentified illness. One member was poisoned, another smothered by his own father who was then so distraught over what he’d done that he committed suicide. Even one of the first visitors of the tomb, who wasn’t involved in the actual opening of it, was shot by his wife shortly after returning from the site. All of these events may have been explained away, but at the time it caused rumors of ancient curses and vengeful spirits.
- Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs were all inspired by the same, very real murderer. Ed Gein of Wisconsin. In 1957, some of Gein’s crimes came to light when authorities discovered he’d been snatching women’s bodies from local graveyards and making “trophies” out of their skin and bones. He also admitted to the murders of two women, but was declared legally insane and spent the rest of his life in a mental health facility.
- Amityville Horror. Ronnie DeFeo murdered his entire family while living in this New York town. He claimed during his trial that “the voices” made him do it. The Lutzes soon bought the house, not so surprisingly at a really good price since nobody else wanted to live there. Practically before they were done unpacking they claimed to experience terrifying and dangerous things they couldn’t explain. They called in famous paranormal investigators, The Warrens (yes the same couple mentioned from above) who agreed the house had way too much paranormal activity and was absolutely haunted. However, what The Warrens, and most of Amityville, didn’t know was the the Lutzes were working very closely with DeFeo’s lawyer to try to help him get a lesser sentence. It didn’t work. No other family who has lived in the house since the Lutzes moved out has mentioned any unusual happenings.
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on a young German woman named Annelise. While today it is believed she suffered from epilepsy, during her own lifetime her parents and the local priests thought she was possessed. The poor girl went through not just one, but numerous exorcisms, and died less than a year after the last of them was performed. Some think that all of the exorcisms weakened her, but the records claim her death is the result of parental neglect. Since they thought she was possessed, they didn’t think taking her to a doctor would do any good.
- Dracula, and by association the German knock-off Nosferatu (because the film company couldn’t get the rights from Bram Stoker’s estate), is based on European pagan folklore. It was basically how people explained deaths by plagues, heart attacks, pretty much anything they couldn’t understand with the limited resources and knowledge the average peasant had at the time. Some say Stoker based Dracula on Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia in Romania. And while Stoker’s research notes mention that “dracula” means “devil” in Wallachian, there is some doubt about whether the connection goes further than that. I’d argue that it does, but I’m not a scholar or a historian, I’m just a nerd with a website and a heavy dose of skepticism. But I digress. In any case, by the time Stoker’s vampire came to life, so to speak, vampiric novels, epic poems, etc were already rising in popularity throughout Europe, some written by his own friends.
- La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, about a woman who murders her own children and then is so overcome with grief that she commits suicide and her ghost wanders the night wailing over the loss of her offspring (and in some recitations, taking or killing other children to replace her lost ones), traces all the way back to an Aztec earth goddess tale. Meaning she predates the use of Spanish as the primary language in Latin America, but I cannot seem to find the name the Aztecs used.
In any case, each of these stories, both the ancient and the horrifyingly more recent, shows that scary stories, especially those about the afterlife, have existed all around the world since the days of old. Some scholars argue that this is merely evidence of the humans’ persisting and inherent fear of death, but others argue that the apparitions and monsters have more often been used to critique something about society, while thinly masking the message behind a “campfire tale” in order to escape retribution from society, or authority. Is Frankenstein’s monster really any more frightening than a doctor and scientist who is willing to disrespect the dead enough to use them like jigsaw puzzles? In the exorcism stories, is it the unhinged actions of the “patient” that are so scary, or the fact that the person is suffering from something unidentifiable and instead of really listening to their needs, everyone around them chalks it up to demons? Is Dracula a threat because he’s a vampire, or because he has the power to lure otherwise “virtuous” maidens into his lair with suggestions of a pleasure they aren’t supposed to even know about?