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Pliny the Younger took the story about Athenodorus and the haunted house seriously because he heard it from people he respected. But as modern skeptical investigator Joe Nickell points out, “this hearsay story…was already a century old” before Pliny shared the tale:

It had probably been retold many times, like so many folktales. It is what folklorists call a “legend”—that is, a narrative reflecting a folk belief, in this case belief in the reality of ghosts.

In her book Haunted Greece and Rome, classical folklorist Debbie Felton describes this tale as “probably the single most famous ghost story from antiquity.” Pliny’s telling is not the only Romanera version. A century later, skeptical satire writer Lucian of Samosata had one of his characters tell an almost identical story. (See JUNIOR SKEPTIC #45 inside Skeptic Vol. 17, No. 4 for more on Lucian’s skeptical career.) Lucian’s version shared many details with Pliny’s tale: a brave philosopher in an abandoned haunted house; a calm confrontation with a terrifying ghost; and, marking the spot where the ghost disappeared and digging up bones the next morning. As in Pliny’s tale, Lucian wrote that once the skeleton was properly reburied, “from that day to this the house has never been troubled with apparitions.”

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About Skeptic

CONFIDENCE SCAMS EXCERPT: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time; ARTICLES: America’s Stonehenge: Did Highly Developed Europeans Build a Sophisticated Astronomical and Religious Monument on the American East Coast More than 3000 Years Ago?; Is It ET?: Is Star KIC 8462852 a Sign of an Extraterrestrial Civilization?; Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution—An Empirical Test; Ruins of Empires: Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-Francois Volney, and the Separation of Church and State; Winning the Vaccination War in California; Prophet Without Honor: Francis Galton and the Birth of Behavioral Genetics; When Cops Kill: An Insider’s Perspective; Guns and Games: The Relationship Between Violent Video Games and Gun Crimes in America; More on Morals: On Science and Morality (1) Deontologists are Covert Consequentialists, (2) Expanding Science to Include Morals, (3) Clarifying Confusions; Alligators in the Sewers! COLUMNS: Who’s Crazy Now?: DSM-5 and the Classification of Mental Disorders; The Delicate Dilemma of Defining Rape; REVIEW: Red Team: How To Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko reviewed by David Priess; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Haunted Houses; Earliest Ghost Stories; Ghostly Evolution