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When you hear the words “haunted house,” what is the first thing
that pops in your mind?
For most people, the image of a carnival ride or fun house
probably enters their head; with memories of running through
as the mirrors make your body dance around in strange ways
sparking your imagination.
Perhaps something more classic comes to mind, with the image
of the house down the street hovering in your memories.
You know, that’s the house where that old lady lives. The kids
might spend Halloween walking up to it and daring each other
to knock on the door, all the while getting ready to run away.
One of them might be pressed into stepping forward, while the
others are behind them laughing away at their distress.
The button is pressed and they all tear away into the night,
laughing about the close encounter they had. Meanwhile, the
poor little old lady holding the bucket of candy in her hand
wonders why no one comes around anymore, and how she
could have come to this stage in her life.
Sometimes, the idea of a haunted house is much more dramatic
than an actual haunted one is.
Most of the time, a house that has become known as haunted
is nothing more than the simple example above. An urban
legend started by some drunk teenager having a laugh at the
expense of some younger member of the crowd or maybe
brought about by seeing a shadow at the wrong time of day
when the mood was just right. These urban legends grow
exponentially over time, making what started out as a simple
story about a cat meowing in the street morph into a horror show
of epic proportions.
These things have to be acknowledged when examining the
world of the paranormal. The stories, urban legends, and lies
told in the night do more to cloud the study of the subject than
anything else and give leave for those skeptical of the whole
thing to mock those that want to take an honest look at the
possibilities and history existing in it all.
History is truly rife with the stories of the paranormal and, if you
take a look back in time at the way our ancestors looked at the
world, it was accepted as the norm. Granted, some of the things
talked about in ancient texts could be left up to interpretations
by modern man as folk tales and legends as well, but, in many
cases, there is a seed of truth to those old stories.
Pliny the Younger, in the first century A.D., who was a great
Roman author and statesman, wrote in a series of letters an
account of a long-bearded old man haunting his house in
Athens. The old man would rattle his chains and, generally,
scared Pliny quite a bit and, while the truth of it is not known, is
one of the first written examples of a haunted house.
Moving away from the Roman Empire and into historical
England, starting in the 16th century, there have been sightings
of the second wife of King Henry VII and mother of Queen
Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn. She was executed in 1536 A.D. at the
Tower of London, after being found guilty of witchcraft, incest,
adultery and treason. She has been sighted many times since
then in the Tower of London (along with many other ghosts), as
well as her childhood home in Kent, Hever Castle.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in America, the famous Benjamin
Franklin has been spotted multiple times. The founding father
has been seen the most haunting the library of the American
Philosophical Society, and this particular haunting even includes
the statue of Franklin coming to life and dancing in the streets.
Perhaps Benjamin Franklin was more of a party-animal than
history actually records.
Another great historical figure, Abraham Lincoln, has been
frequently seen at the White House in the United States. Abe,
the famous lawyer and statesman from Illinois, has been seen
by everything from queens and prime ministers to simple aides
and tourists over the years. He was seen the most during the
administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt possibly attributed to the
time period FDR was in office. It was a time of war and great
turmoil in the country, much as it was during Abraham Lincoln’s
Lincoln has also been spotted at his nearby law offices, as well.
In 1936, an 81000-ton ship, the HMS Queen Mary was built by
the Cunard-White Star Line. After it served the British Royal
Navy in World War II, the HMS Queen Mary was retired and
came to rest in Long Beach, California. The plan was to turn it
into a luxury hotel and resort.
Since then, however, it has become one of the hottest spots in
America for spotting specters and apparitions. In fact, more than
50 different ghosts are said to be present there and have been
spotted over the years.
John Smith was the last Chief Engineer of the ship. This
gentleman reported hearing voices and other sounds from the
ship’s bow, the same place a British aircraft cruiser, the Coracoo,
had a hole pierced in it and subsequently sank during a wartime
accident. This incident killed more than 300 sailors on board that
ship, leading to their fate being inexorably entwined with that of
the Queen Mary.
Smith even reported seeing Winston Churchill in his old
stateroom on board the ship.
The swimming pool on the Queen Mary is still frequently used,
but not by guests. Instead, there continues to be a presence of
otherworldly figures in old bathing suits and splashes of water
as the swim continues on. Wet footsteps not made by anyone
living lead off into the distance from the pool, long ago drained.
In the ancient world, there was no doubt the other world existed.
It was treated, in fact, as a matter of honor for someone to be
able to commune with someone that has passed on, at least in
some parts of the world. In others, it was treated with horror.
The Christian Bible, for instance, tells its readers to never have
any truck with spirits, and that to do so would bring doom upon
The story of Saul in the Old Testament is one such tale.
In that story, told in 1 Samuel, the Israelite King Saul was
discomfited by the lack of God communicating with him, so he
consulted a diviner who was said to be able to speak with the
Although this was forbidden by God, and the diviner thought, at
first, that a trick was being played on her, King Saul pressed her
to raise the spirit of Samuel order to get a message about what
he should do.
Samuel was, indeed, raised up and his spirit, angry, asked Saul
what business he had bringing him up from his rest.
This and many other examples show even the Bible is rife with
stories of the dead and their ability to communicate with the
living world and interact with it in at least some ways.
Many ancient cultures believed the dead were still living, just in
another form, and still required sustenance to survive. Out of
these cultures come celebrations of the dead, days when the
dead and the living could become as one and allow knowledge
to be passed between, as well as sacrificing food, drink and
other things for the dead to “live” on.
Some of these cultural celebrations were born out of ancestor
worship, the belief that the ancestors were still in cahoots with
the living and could not only influence the living world but were
an essential part of daily life. Some cultures, in fact, took it to
such extremes that they would not start their day until the spirits
had been consulted and the pathway for the day’s work was laid
out by them.
Some cultures believed the dead were in this other realm and
that there were specific things about that realm the living had to
know. There were immutable laws that had to be followed by
both the living and the dead in order for progress to be made,
and the dead would be given license to visit the earthly realm
for specific purposes, only with the permission of and willingness
of the gods to do so.
For instance, if they had been buried improperly, or had the lack
of any burial, they would be allowed to speak to the living to
resolve the situation. If they had been murdered, or if there was
some object or valuable that had to be recovered, they would
be given the okay to come back and rectify the issues.
These visits were, however, rare, since the dead were to remain
in their own realm and not bother the living with trivial matters.
Anything that had to be done in life should have already been
done, and it was too late to do anything about it once the life
breath was gone from the body. If they visited the living, it was
a sure sign that something had gone terribly incorrect and it was
taken very seriously. If someone did receive a visitor,
expectation demanded they take care of whatever problem the
ghost was facing so they could return back to their restful home.
To do otherwise was a sinful thing to do and, rightfully so, they
would be haunted by the apparition until their own death.
Belief in the afterlife was so strong it permeated the ancient
world, and we have stories of them from Mesopotamia, Greece,
China, India and, of course, the extremely classically haunted
Celtic Ireland and Scotland.
Irkalla, the “land of no return” in ancient Mesopotamia, was the
realm the dead were sequestered away to. There, they lived
their afterlife in squalor, eating dirt and drinking water from mud
puddles. All people, whether king or peasant, spend their ends
there, ruled over by the goddess of the dead, Ereshkigal. This
dark queen ruled the land with an iron fist, permitting no one to
leave, as exemplified in the story of the Goddess Inanna in the
poem The Descent of Inanna. She, the queen of heaven, must,
after finding herself in the realm of the dead, find a replacement
of an earthly being so that she could ascend back up out of
Other special dispensations would be allowed for a dead person
to return, and, if they did so, they would often do so in the form
of a sickness. Doctors in Mesopotamia, known as Asu and
Asipu, would treat these illnesses with spells, but would first ask
the patient to confess any sins they had on their hearts.
Sickness in ancient Mesopotamia was considered an outward
sign there was unconfessed and unpunished sin in the person’s
life. This sin would be punished by the presence of a spirit from
the dead realm, or given by the gods and was always
considered the fault of the ailing person unless they could prove
When someone died, an entity called a Gidin was created, which
would take on the identity of the person that passed away. This
spirit would be the one that traveled to Irkalla and continued its
existence and was also the one that would come back to the
living to visit if it was deemed necessary to do so. As long as
funerary offerings were made to the Gidin, it was able to
continue to exist and, therefore, was a way of the ancestor to
remain “alive.” This is actually the basis for many beliefs
throughout the thousands of years since then, where gifts are
given to the dead continuously, even years after they are gone,
in order for them to be allowed to remain active in the land of
In Mesopotamia, ghosts were not looked upon as beings you
would associate with and were considered troubling, to say the
In Egypt, the dead were also taken very seriously.
For ancient Egyptians, the thought of not existing was an
intolerable one. After death, it was believed, the soul would
travel through the underworld to meet with Osiris and the 42
judges, where it would have its heart weighed in the Hall of
Truth. If against the white Feather of Truth, the heart weighed
more on the scale of Justice, it would be thrown to the floor and
consumed by a monster, whereupon the soul would cease to
If it was lighter, however than the feather, it would be allowed to
continue on to the afterlife.
If the person lived a good life and was obedient to the cultural
rules, it would have a lighter heart and would continue to the
afterlife realm of the Field of Reeds. There, the spirit could live
in their favorite house, surrounded by a stream they knew and
maybe even their favorite dog. There would be no need for them
to return unless they had a very pressing need.
In the early days of ancient Egypt, this spirit would be known as
the Khu, the immortal part of a human being, which could
continue its existence even after the passage of life.
In later times, however, the Egyptians came to believe the soul
was comprised of five parts. Two of these parts, the Ba and Ka
(known as Spirit and Personality) came together after a death
in the form of an Akh. It was the Akh that would be able to return
to the earthly realm for whatever purpose necessitated it. If for
instance, proper burial rites had not been observed, or if some
sin had been committed by the living either before or after the
person died, the Akh would be given permission by the gods to
return to earth to right the state of wrongness.
The living person bothered by the ghost would have to plead
their case with the spirit in order for it to stop and allow the living
person to go on with a normal existence. If that failed, the living
could go to a priest to beg for intercession between the dead
Much like in Mesopotamia (and probably passed down from
there), misfortunes in a person’s life were almost always
attributed to the dead punishing the living for some unforgiven
or unconfessed sin. A perfect example of this type of thinking
was found in a tomb of a widower from the New Kingdom era of
In the inscription, the man pleads with his then-dead and “all
knowing” (now that she was dead and in the Field of Reeds)
The inscription is translated as:
“What wicked thing have I done to thee that I should have come
to this evil pass? What have I done to thee? But what thou hast
done to me is to have laid hands on me, although I had nothing
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wicked to thee. From the time I lived with thee as thy husband
down to today, what have I done to thee that I have need hide?
When thou didst sicken from the illness which thou hadst, I
caused a master physician to be fetched. I spent eight months
without eating and drinking like a man. I wept exceedingly
together with my household in front of my street quarter. I gave
linen clothes to wrap thee and left no benefit undone that had to
be performed for thee. And now, behold, I have spent three
years alone without entering into a house, though it is not right
that one like me should have to do it. This have I done for thy
sake. But, behold, thou dost not known good from bad.” (Nardo,
For Egyptians, there was a great difference between a spirit that
lived in the Field of Reeds and a being that haunted the living.
Ancient Rome and Greece understood ghosts a little differently
and treated them differently, as well.
In Greece, the dead could exist in three different and distinct
realms. When someone died, they would be given a coin, placed
in their mouth, in order to pay Charon, the Ferryman, to take the
soul across the River Styx. This was not really considered a
payment, however, but more of a sign of respect between the
gods and the dead soul. The better the coin, the better the seat
the soul got on the boat Charon drove.
Cerberus, the three-headed dog, would be next met after they
crossed the river, which, once passed by, would allow the soul
to appear before the three judges, to give account for the lives
they had lived.
While the judges conferred to decide the final fate of the soul, a
cup of water would be given and consumed. This water was
from the river Lethe, the water of Forgetfulness, and the soul
would, at that point, forget all about their earthly life. The judges
would then make their final decision on where the soul should
spend its existence.
If they died in battle, they would be sent to the Elysian Fields, a
paradise. The Plain of Asphodel was the fate for those that lived
good lives, while, if they had lived a bad life, the soul would be
committed to the darkness of Tartarus, where they would remain
until they atoned for the sins of their life.
Unlike some religious tenets, no soul in Tartarus was
condemned eternally. Instead, over time, they would be able to
ascend, eventually, to the Plain of Asphodel.
Souls would not be expected to return to haunt the living, but,
sometimes, they were allowed through a special dispensation.
Ancient Rome, by contrast, had a different view of ghosts.
Plautus wrote a comedy called “Mostellaria” (The Haunted
House), in which a rich Athenian, Theopropides, takes a
business trip and, while gone, left the fate of his home to his son,
Philolaches. His father being gone provides an opportunity to
party and enjoy life, instead of taking care of the house needs.
He even borrowed a large sum of money to buy a slave girl he
loves. He spends, even more, money to throw a huge party for
His slave, Tranio, tells him at one point that his father is returning
home unexpectedly from his trip. Philolaches panics, having no
idea what to do with his guests or to explain why he spent as
much money as he had. Tranio tells him all will be well.
He locks Philolaches, as well as his friends, in the house and
goes out to meet the father. He tells Theopropides that he
cannot go into the house because it has been found to be
haunted by spirits. A ghost, he said, appeared to Philolaches in
a dream in the dead of night and told him he had been murdered
in the house long ago. The corpse, Tranio tells the father, is still,
according to the spirit, in the house somewhere and it is too
dangerous for anyone to come inside.
Theopropides believes all of this without question and, even
after a money lender shows up asking for his money, the father
still does not question the validity of the existence of the ghost.
In ancient Rome, ghosts were known to follow a specific pattern
of events and times, usually at night. The story told by Plautus
above would have been considered hilarious by audiences
watching the play because, while the slave, Tranio, told the
father the ghost had appeared in torchlight (a belief the Romans
had, the ghost had to have light to be seen), the ghost of a
murdered man would not have appeared in a dream to the son
unless it had been a friend or loved one. A stranger would never
Ghosts appearing in dreams were considered much different
from ghosts which wandered around aimlessly or ones that were
fulfilling a specific purpose.
The ancient world is full of these types of stories, with each
culture having a different belief in what a spirit visitation meant
to the living. Even today, there are many different meanings
attributed to the appearance of a ghost and, depending on your
cultural, religious or historical background, you might look upon
them with horror or welcome.
Do you see them as portents of the end, there only to torment
and cause ill? Or do you embrace the idea of them with gusto,
wishing only to receive the blessings that only the afterlife can