• Awards Season
  • Big Stories
  • Pop Culture
  • Video Games
  • Celebrities

Uncovering Your Family’s Story: A Guide to Family History Genealogy

Family history genealogy is a fascinating way to learn more about your family’s past. It can be a rewarding journey of discovery, uncovering stories and facts that you never knew before. Whether you’re just starting out or have been researching for years, this guide will help you get the most out of your family history research.

Getting Started

The first step in researching your family history is to gather as much information as possible from living relatives. Ask questions about their parents, grandparents, and other ancestors. Write down the names, dates, and places they mention. This information will be invaluable when you start searching for records.

Next, create a family tree. Start with yourself and work backward in time, adding each generation as you go. This will help you keep track of the information you’ve gathered and identify any gaps in your knowledge.

Searching for Records

Once you’ve collected all the information you can from living relatives, it’s time to start searching for records. There are many online databases that can help with this process, such as Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org. These sites allow you to search for birth, marriage, death, census, military service, immigration and other records related to your ancestors.

Another great resource is local libraries and archives. Many libraries have collections of historical documents that can provide valuable insight into your family’s past. You may also want to contact local genealogical societies or historical societies in the area where your ancestors lived to see if they have any records or resources that can help with your research.

Preserving Your Findings

Once you’ve uncovered some interesting facts about your family’s past, it’s important to preserve them for future generations. Consider creating a family website or blog where you can share stories and photos with relatives near and far. You could also create a scrapbook or photo album with pictures of ancestors and copies of important documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses. Finally, consider writing down stories from living relatives so they don’t get lost over time.

Family history genealogy can be an incredibly rewarding experience that helps bring the past alive in new ways. With some patience and dedication, you can uncover fascinating stories about your ancestors that will be treasured by generations to come.

This text was generated using a large language model, and select text has been reviewed and moderated for purposes such as readability.


the history of ghost stories

the history of ghost stories

  • History Classics
  • Your Profile
  • Find History on Facebook (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on Twitter (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on YouTube (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on Instagram (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on TikTok (Opens in a new window)
  • This Day In History
  • History Podcasts
  • History Vault
  • History Travel

History of Ghost Stories

By: History.com Editors

Updated: October 3, 2023 | Original: October 29, 2009

Ghosts: Ichabod terrified by the apparition of the Galloping Hessian.Ghosts, Ichabod terrified by the apparition of the Galloping Hessian. 1883 Illustration by W. Ralston for ''The Galloping Hessian'', short story by Washington Irving. (Photo by, Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Since ancient times, ghost stories—tales of spirits who return from the dead to haunt the places they left behind—have figured prominently in the folklore of many cultures around the world. A rich subset of these tales involve historical figures ranging from queens and politicians to writers and gangsters, many of whom died early, violent or mysterious deaths.

What Is a Ghost?

The concept of a ghost, also known as a specter, is based on the ancient idea that a person’s spirit exists separately from his or her body, and may continue to exist after that person dies. Because of this idea, many societies began to use funeral rituals as a way of ensuring that the dead person’s spirit would not return to “haunt” the living.

Did you know? The notorious mobster Al Capone has reportedly appeared to disrespectful visitors at his funeral plot in an Illinois cemetery. Spectral banjo music has supposedly been heard coming from inside Capone's old cell at Alcatraz, where he was one of the first inmates.

Places that are haunted are usually believed to be associated with some occurrence or emotion in the ghost’s past; they are often a former home or the place where he or she died. Aside from actual ghostly apparitions, traditional signs of haunting range from strange noises, lights, odors or breezes to the displacement of objects, bells that ring spontaneously or musical instruments that seem to play on their own.

Early Ghost Sightings

In the first century A.D., the great Roman author and statesman Pliny the Younger recorded one of the first notable ghost stories in his letters, which became famous for their vivid account of life during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Pliny reported that the specter of an old man with a long beard, rattling chains, was haunting his house in Athens. The Greek writer Lucian and Pliny’s fellow Roman Plautus also wrote memorable ghost stories.

Centuries later, in A.D. 856, the first poltergeist–a ghost that causes physical disturbances such as loud noises or objects falling or being thrown around–was reported at a farmhouse in Germany. The poltergeist tormented the family living there by throwing stones and starting fires, among other things.

Three Famous Historical Ghosts

One of the most frequently reported ghost sightings in England dates back to the 16th century. Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I , was executed at the Tower of London in May 1536 after being accused of witchcraft, treason, incest and adultery. Sightings of Boleyn’s ghost have been reported at the tower as well as in various other locations, including her childhood home, Hever Castle, in Kent.

America’s own rich tradition of historical ghosts begins with one of its most illustrious founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin . Beginning in the late 19th century, Franklin’s ghost was seen near the library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ; some reports held that the statue of Franklin in front of the society comes to life and dances in the streets.

Though many ghost sightings have been reported at the White House in Washington , D.C., over the years, perhaps no political figure has made so frequent an appearance in the afterlife as Abraham Lincoln , the nation’s 16th president, who was killed by an assassin’s bullet in April 1865. Lincoln, formerly a lawyer and congresseman from Illinois , is said to have been seen wandering near the old Springfield capitol building, as well as his nearby law offices. At the White House, everyone from first ladies to queens to prime ministers have reported seeing the ghost or feeling the presence of Honest Abe—particularly during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt , another president who guided the country through a time of great upheaval and war.

Haunted Places

Some locations simply seem to lend themselves to hauntings, perhaps due to the dramatic or grisly events that occurred there in the past. Over the centuries, sightings of spectral armies have been reported on famous battlefields around the world, including important battle sites from the English Civil War in the 17th century, the bloody Civil War battlefield of Gettsyburg and the World War I sites of Gallipoli (near Turkey) and the Somme (northern France).

Another particularly active center for paranormal activity is the HMS Queen Mary , a cruise ship built in 1936 for the Cunard-White Star Line. After serving in the British Royal Navy in World War II , the 81,000-ton ship retired in Long Beach, California in 1967; the plan was to turn it into a floating luxury hotel and resort. Since then, the Queen Mary has become notorious for its spectral presences, with more than 50 ghosts reported over the years. The ship’s last chief engineer, John Smith , reported hearing unexplained sounds and voices from the area near the ship’s bow, in almost the same location as a doomed British aircraft cruiser, the Coracoa , had pierced a hole when it sank after an accidental wartime crash that killed more than 300 sailors aboard.

Smith also claimed to have encountered the ghost of Winston Churchill–or at least his spectral cigar smoke–n the prime minister’s old stateroom aboard the ship. Many visitors to the Queen Mary have reported seeing a phantom crewmember in blue overalls walking the decks. Around the ship’s swimming pool, reports have been made of mysterious splashes and ghostly women in old fashioned bathing suits or dresses, along with trails of wet footsteps appearing long after the pool had been drained.

Among major cities, New York is especially rich with ghost stories. The spirit of Peter Stuyvesant, the city’s last Dutch colonial governor, has been seen stomping around the East Village on his wooden leg since shortly after his death in 1672. The author Mark Twain is believed to haunt the stairwell of his onetime Village apartment building, while the ghost of poet Dylan Thomas is said to sometimes occupy his usual corner table at the West Village’s White Horse Tavern, where he drank a fatal 18 shots of scotch in 1953. Perhaps the most famous New York ghost is that of Aaron Burr, who served as vice president under Thomas Jefferson but is best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Burr’s ghost is said to roam the streets of his old neighborhood (also the West Village). Burr’s spectral activity is focused particularly on one restaurant, One if By Land, Two if By Sea, which is located in a Barrow Street building that was once Burr’s carriage house.

the history of ghost stories

Sign up for Inside History

Get HISTORY’s most fascinating stories delivered to your inbox three times a week.

By submitting your information, you agree to receive emails from HISTORY and A+E Networks. You can opt out at any time. You must be 16 years or older and a resident of the United States.

More details : Privacy Notice | Terms of Use | Contact Us

Enter a Search Term

Insights & Expertise

The History of Horror: How Ghost Stories Have Evolved

According to Paul Patterson, Ph.D., associate professor of English, scary stories have been told for centuries, dating all the way back to ancient culture.


Halloween is the perfect time to share spooky stories about ghosts, monsters, witches and ghouls. Whether you opt for a classic like Frankenstein or Dracula or you indulge in something more modern, like Jordan Peele’s Us, ‘tis the season to be scared.

But our love for a good horror story isn’t limited to the end of October. According to Paul Patterson, Ph.D., associate professor of English, scary stories have been told for centuries, dating all the way back to ancient culture.


“We see a lot of these stories start to emerge in ancient Roman writings. In the first century, they wrote letters recounting ghost stories they claimed to have witnessed — chains rattling, haunted house type stories,” Patterson explains. “The ghosts are never really harming anyone, but they’re always showing up. A lot of the time, the hauntings are because the person was never properly buried. It’s tied to respecting the dead.”

According to Patterson, stories started to become more menacing in the late 18th century when gothic fiction came into popularity.

“Gothic fiction is very specific — dark imagery, bleak, fog-filled, dark castles,” he says. “A sub-genre, gothic horror, is the style a lot of the names we’re familiar with wrote in, including stories like Frankenstein, Dracula and even A Christmas Carol . These stories would combine elements of romance with dark horrific figures. They aren’t always ghost stories — there is some realism.”

We see similar style stories today, particularly in Stephen King’s novels. “King writes what you can call ‘American Gothic,’” Patterson says. “Gothic always has this feeling that something is off. King’s stories are always set in small-town America, and while they’re not quite ghost stories, you always get the feeling that something isn’t quite right.”

This feeling is one of the fundamental themes of the horror genre as a whole: the fear of death. “It’s so completely human, it transcends all of time,” Patterson says. “Modern people and ancient people are going to have that same fear. We see it in trends, like zombie films. Zombies represent death. They come at you, they never stop. They’re unrelenting, just like death. Those kinds of themes just keep coming up over and over again.”

But despite a sort of recycling and refresh of similar stories and themes, Patterson doesn’t believe horror stories are going anywhere. “Horror is seeing a bit of resurgence,” he says. “Jordan Peele and other directors are breathing in new life. More and more, female directors are taking on a genre that hasn’t always been kind to them. They’re confronting race and misogyny in interesting ways, and people are rethinking those roles. A lot of really interesting work is being done, and will continue to be done.”

Jill Bodensteiner standing on Sweeney Field

Bodensteiner to Senate: College Athletics Works Well at Saint Joseph’s

On Oct. 17, Saint Joseph’s Vice President and Director of Athletics, Jill Bodensteiner, JD, MBA, served as an expert witness at the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing on Name, Image and Likeness and the Future of College Sports.

Jill Bodensteiner sitting in red stadium seats

Bodensteiner to Provide Expert Witness Testimony to Senate Committee

On Oct. 17, Saint Joseph’s Vice President and Director of Athletics, Jill Bodensteiner, JD, MBA, will serve as an expert witness at the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing on Name, Image and Likeness and the Future of College Sports.

Philadelphia Museum of Art decorated with Eagles team banner

Sports, Entertainment and Food Marketing are Critical Businesses

The successes of Philadelphia’s sports teams are a win not only for fans, but also for businesses bouncing back from the pandemic.

Submit search

Hope in the Dark

History and Ghost Stories

Scott G. Bruce | Feb 15, 2023

T he ubiquity of the undead as protagonists in modern entertainment media—from novels to movies to video games—has exponentially increased student interest in the history of ghosts and zombies. Every age and culture has its stories about the returning dead, but teachers of premodern Europe are particularly well served by the abundance of accounts in English translation.

A medieval illustration of three skeletal figures.

Ghost stories provide a rich literary and cultural tapestry for historical examination. Stowe MS 17, f. 200r. British Library. Public domain.

Ancient and medieval European ghost stories do not meet the expectations of modern tales of supernatural horror. They do not rely on shock tactics to frighten the reader, the ghosts themselves are typically not malformed in appearance or malevolent in intent, and the purpose of these stories is didactic rather than entertaining. Yet these tales are rewarding resources for teaching students about classical antiquity and the Western Middle Ages because they provide us with the opportunity to ask probing questions about how people in the past imagined the relationship between the living and the dead. From what otherworldly abode do the spirits of the departed return? What form do ghosts take, and how do they communicate? Why are they deprived of eternal rest, and what do they require from the living in order to obtain it? As rich and vivid cultural constructions, ancient and medieval specters give up valuable secrets about the worldviews of the authors who told stories about their return.

Most premodern hauntings followed narrative conventions. An unquiet spirit appears in a certain locale or to a specific individual, reveals the reason for its unrest, and receives help from the living to find repose in the afterlife. Ancient ghosts often reminded the living to observe proper funerary rites and thereby provide them with an easy passage to the otherworld. Such was the case with the hapless sailor Elpenor in Homer’s The Odyssey , whose ghost implored Odysseus to bury him according to custom after he died in an accident. Likewise, as recounted by Pliny the Younger, a nameless wraith seeking a respectable burial haunted a rental property in Roman Athens.

As centuries passed, the details of these stories changed to accommodate new belief systems. The meteoric success of Christianity in the fourth century triggered a groundswell of concern for the fate of Christian souls after death and modulated the urgency of their petitions from beyond the grave. While the teachings of the early church were clear that the soul lay in repose as though asleep until the resurrection of the dead and their judgment by God at the end of time, apocryphal writings like the Vision of Paul (composed ca. 400) depicted an afterlife immediately after death but preceding the final judgment, where human souls persisted in recognizable bodies that were vulnerable to physical punishments commensurate with their sins. In her eloquent book Moment of Reckoning (Oxford Univ. Press, 2019), Ellen Muehlberger has dubbed this alarming new phase of human existence the “postmortal.” It is from this liminal place between heaven and hell that the shades of the Christian dead return to our world, fretful of their eternal fate.

Ghost stories provide us with the opportunity to ask probing questions about how people in the past imagined the relationship between the living and the dead.

The dead remained stubbornly social in premodern ghost stories. As the notion of the temporary residence of souls in a punitive afterlife took hold in the Western imagination, so, too, did the idea that these spirits could benefit from the help of the living. Beginning in the late sixth century with anecdotes recounted in the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604), Christian apparitions returned to petition listeners to pray for their release from punishment in the hereafter. Pithy and memorable, these stories were primarily pastoral in purpose. The identity of the suffering spirits and the nature of their pleas provide us with a barometer of the kinds of people to whom Christian bishops and priests directed moral exhortation as well as the kinds of behavior that they sought to control. Pope Gregory’s audience was mostly monastic, and so, too, were his ghosts and their sins. Take, for example, the unfortunate Justus, a monk who hid three gold coins and suffered in fire after his death because of his greed until 30 days of consecutive Masses offered on his behalf by his brethren released him from his torment. Later imitators of Pope Gregory, such as Abbot Peter the Venerable (1122–56) and Caesarius of Heisterbach (ca. 1180–1240), tailored the details of these traditions to address new audiences, particularly laypeople, but they did little to alter the overall pattern of the narratives.

In the later Middle Ages, however, new experiences with the undead challenged the expectations of the ghost story genre. In the 12th century, for example, authors struggled to explain reports of animated corpses terrorizing villages in northern England. These were not the spirits of the dead returning to seek the aid of the living, but rather the bloated and bloodied bodies of notorious men, who rose from their graves at night to torment their neighbors with violence and pestilence. One was an infamous churchman known as the Hundeprest (Houndpriest), owing to his inordinate love of hunting, who terrified his wife by lurking in her bedroom before crushing her nearly to death with the immense weight of his dead body. Unable to find precedent for this phenomenon in “the books of ancient authors,” the monastic chronicler William of Newburgh was at a loss to explain how the dead were rising. His stories of rampaging revenants departed from time-honored literary models and anticipated a genre that would not find prominence until the early 21st century: the zombie survival guide. William’s breathless narrative related how a band of monks armed with axes and shovels waited in a graveyard by night for the dead man to rise and then, after a pitched battle, harried him back to his tomb. Once the monks had excavated his monstrous corpse, they destroyed it with fire, but only after they had completed the grisly work of extracting his “cursed heart.”

While ancient and medieval poets from Homer to Dante told stories about heroes and visionaries who visited the underworld to witness the fate of the fallen, the spirits of the deceased themselves have not played a starring role in the history of spectral literature until recently. A thought-provoking example is George Saunders’s experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). Set in the Civil War era, it features a cast of dead souls trapped in the “bardo,” a term for a liminal postmortal state borrowed from Buddhism. While the characters have been disfigured by the frustrated desires of their mortal lives, most do not even realize that they are dead. Their attention focuses on the newly arrived soul of a boy named Willie Lincoln, who tarries in this antechamber of eternity because the grief of his father, the famous president, tethers him unnaturally to the mortal world. In a reversal of a centuries-old tradition, the mourning of the living disturbs the repose of the dead.

In Buddhist and Taoist traditions, the neglect of ancestors or misdeeds in life could give rise to “hungry ghosts.”

Underlying this rich literary tradition are fundamental questions of universal interest about the fate of the dead, the porousness of the boundary separating their world from ours, and the social obligations that the living had to provide for the deceased in their need. This attention to the memory of the dead and the responsibility of the living for their care was not unique to ancient polytheism or medieval Christianity. In fact, Western ghost stories shine most brightly as tools for teaching when they are read in tandem with tales of the returning dead from other religious cultures. In Buddhist and Taoist traditions, for example, the neglect of ancestors or misdeeds in life could give rise to “hungry ghosts.” These fearful spirits abided in the underworld, but they walked the earth during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. In anticipation of their arrival, communities celebrated the Hungry Ghost Festival to provide symbolic sustenance not only to honor their own ghostly ancestors but also to ward off the ill will of the unknown phantoms in their midst. Like their Western analogues, the practice of the care of the hungry ghosts in Chinese culture is grounded on the hope that when we die, we, too, can rely on the living for help as we face the consequences of our mortal actions in the world to come.

The trappings of premodern ghost stories have been remarkably consistent in the Western tradition—Pliny the Younger’s chain-rattling Roman apparition could be mistaken for the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). The genre has also retained its didactic function down to the present day, but 20th-century authors have repurposed it in creative and instructive ways worth exploring in the classroom. Some modern tales about hauntings have doubled as narratives about the lingering trauma of slavery (Toni Morrison’s Beloved ) and as warnings about the injustice of cultural appropriation (Hari Kunzru’s White Tears ). Others aspire only to entertain with no higher purpose than to conjure the thrill of fear. A classic example is M. R. James’s 1904 short story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” concerning a man who inadvertently summoned “a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined” by blowing a metal whistle found in a ruined church. Read it by candlelight if you dare.

Scott G. Bruce is professor of history at Fordham University.

Tags: Features Europe Cultural History

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities , and in letters to the editor . Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.

Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.


Related Content

When Ghosts Come Knocking

Edward Muir | Feb 14, 2023

Townhouse Notes

Leland Renato Grigoli | Sep 6, 2022

History of Halloween

Nike Nivar | Oct 31, 2011

Perspectives on History newsletter signup. An image of a seated woman reading a piece of paper, and the text "Want the best of Perspectives on History delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our monthly newsletter here."

Our new checkout experience is now live! Buy your tickets  here .

George Washington's Mount Vernon logo

Open 365 days a year, Mount Vernon is located just 15 miles south of Washington DC.

There's So Much to See

From the mansion to lush gardens and grounds, intriguing museum galleries, immersive programs, and the distillery and gristmill. Spend the day with us!

Farmer, Soldier, Statesman, and Husband

Discover what made Washington "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen".

Did You Know?

The Mount Vernon Ladies Association has been maintaining the Mount Vernon Estate since they acquired it from the Washington family in 1858.

Ace Your American History Class

Need help with homework? Our Digital Encyclopedia has all of the answers students and teachers need.

The Library of the First President

The Washington Library is open to all researchers and scholars, by appointment only.

Ghost Stories

For decades, there have been reports by visitors and staff at George Washington's home of supernatural activity. Below are a number of Mount Vernon ghost stories staff have recorded over the years.

Washington’s Ghost Haunts Mount Vernon

In the early years of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association , when the Ladies were at Mount Vernon, they would sleep in the Mansion.

The following account was reported in the New York World newspaper ca. 1890.

"Of course, the most interesting of all the bedrooms is the one belonging to the immortal George and in which he died . In it is the original four-poster bed whereon Washington passed his last moments."

New York World newspaper, ca. 1890 (MVLA)

"This historic chamber is haunted; of that there would seem to be little doubt. Many people within recent years have slept in it, and they declare that they were awed by the viewless presence of the nation’s first President. They deny earnestly that the notion is based on imagination. Few of these temporary occupants have been able to get any sleep. Obviously, it is one thing to see a ghost, and quite another thing to feel one—to be aware of the nearness of a strange and brooding spectre. They all agree that Washington visits his chamber in the still watches of the night."

"Mrs. William Beale and a friend of hers spent a night at Mount Vernon. At their own request, they were permitted to occupy Washington’s bedroom. In the middle of the night, they were awakened by the sputtering of their candle. They had lighted one surreptitiously and were burning it in the middle of a basin of water."

"Fancied they saw a spook. It went out with a noise, and they began to feel alarmed. Mrs. Beale said to her friend: 'You are on the side of the bed where Washington died!' The other replied: 'No, I’m not; he died on your side!' Finally they decided that the question was doubtful, and there was no more sleep for them that night. They got up, dressed themselves, and sat around until morning, scared by every squeak of the windows and at one moment were sure they heard Washington’s sword clank distinctly in a corner."

Jack-O'-Lanterns, George, and Sheep's Blood

Jack-O'-Lanterns, George, and Sheep's Blood

In this episode of Conversations at the Washington Library , we take a spook-tacular tour of Mount Vernon's history, featuring stories and voices from across the ages. 

A Woman on the Stairs

During a typical day at work, ca. 1980s, while stationed in the Central Passage , something caught an interpreter's eye.

She saw the figure of an unidentified woman, dressed in 18th-century clothing, on the stairs. The figure was carrying a large punch bowl filled with a flower arrangement. The figure disappeared upon reaching the bottom of the staircase.

the history of ghost stories

The Central Passage at Mount Vernon has been the scene of several paranormal incidents. (MVLA)

An Angry Gentleman

Mount Vernon Superintendent Harrison H. Dodge posing with the Mansion cornerstone, 1932. MVLA.

Mount Vernon Superintendent Harrison H. Dodge posing with the Mansion cornerstone, 1932. MVLA.

An interpreter was in the Central Passage, on a particularly crowded day in the spring or summer, ca. 1980s.

She thought she heard someone in the room behind her. Thinking that a visitor had gotten into the area by going under the rope barriers, she entered the Little Parlor to shoo them out. Much to her surprise, she found an older gentleman, sporting a large mustache and dressed in late 19th or early 20th-century clothing, with his sleeves rolled up and secured with garters.

When he saw that he had her attention, he shouted, “What the hell is going on here?”—a reference to the noise a school group or groups were making. The interpreter told him that she was trying to quiet them down and then the man disappeared. She later saw a portrait of the gentleman in question, Colonel Harrison Howell Dodge , Mount Vernon’s director for about 50 years until his death in the late 1930s.

A Flurry of Skirts

An interpreter was standing in the Central Passage, ca. 1980s.

She felt something brush past her, coming out of the Little Parlor. Looking down, all she could see were the feet and bottoms of the skirts of a young girl in an 18th-century dress, running across the Central Passage.

Putting Away His Horse

This life-sized depiction of Washington during the Revolutionary War can be seen in Mount Vernon's Education Center. (MVLA)

This life-sized depiction of Washington during the Revolutionary War can be seen in Mount Vernon's Education Center. (MVLA)

A head guard said that these events were not a one-time incident but happened with great regularity, ca. 1980s-1990s.

Quite frequently, an alarm would go off in the stable . Then, in about the time it would take to unsaddle and put up a horse and walk from the stable to the Mansion, an alarm would go off in the Washington Bedchamber. Guards dispatched to check out the situation invariably found nothing out of the ordinary.

This man's explanation was that the General was coming home, made his horse comfortable, and then went up to his room.

Washington's Stable

Take a virtual tour of Washington's stable at Mount Vernon.

Clanging Keys

A member of Mount Vernon’s Security Department recalls unexplainable activities in 2012.

My first experience with something that I cannot explain occurred in the Mansion during the early years of the Candlelight Tours . The event took place on the anniversary of General Washington’s death, around 10:30 pm. After the house had been cleared, I locked myself in. It was my responsibility to check the alarms for their proper positioning. When I was in the Mansion Study , I heard a heavy set of keys being walked across the floor in the Washington Bedchamber directly above. As I approached the backstairs to go up to the bedroom, the sound of the keys abruptly stopped.

It was well known that General Washington carried a heavy set of keys and that they could be heard as he walked through the house. Tobias Lear , the General’s secretary, is known to have taken the keys from the General’s pocket upon his death in order to hand them over to his enslaved manservant Christopher Sheels .

The Yellow Room

In 1799, the year of Washington's death, the Yellow Room was the most expensively furnished guest bedchamber in the house. (MVLA)

In 1799, the year of Washington's death, the Yellow Room was the most expensively furnished guest bedchamber in the house. (MVLA)

A 2006 supervisor from the History Interpretation Department recalls her first encounter.

My first encounter with a ghost occurred in the Yellow Room of the Mansion in 2006. I was a supervisor in the History Interpretation Department—supervisors clear and lock the Mansion after checking and rechecking for assurance that no one has been left in the Mansion after hours. After letting the last interpreter out the Study door, I walked up the backstairs, past the Washington Bedchamber, and into the Yellow Room. I suddenly felt myself being pushed, feeling the pressure of someone’s hands on the back of my shoulders. I turned to look and no one was there. It was obvious I wasn’t wanted in the Yellow Bedchamber.

This happened several more times, and I decided I would not go back upstairs alone. I invited another interpreter to stay with me and travel the backstairs to the Yellow Room—nothing happened. The next time, when I was alone, I was once again pushed through the room.

To keep this from being disturbed, I felt it was best that I not use the backstairs but to remove my shoes and cross through the downstairs bedchamber to the Central Passage and lock the door for the evening.

A Ghost at the Tomb

An interpreter from 2006 explains what happened to her at George Washington's Tomb.

The first time I experienced this “ghost” was Easter morning in 2006 when I was scheduled to open Washington’s Tomb . It was early and very quiet and there was no one around—the guests had not made their way from the Mansion. I stood in front of the open door, and I saw an ectoplasm in the far right corner of the Tomb. When I moved, the ectoplasm moved. I watched as it became a blur in my vision, and it continued to move around. I took a photo that showed a streak of light through the blur. The second photo showed the blur. As soon as voices of the guests coming down the hill could be heard, the ectoplasm disappeared. This happened on three different occasions.

the history of ghost stories

Washington's tomb at Mount Vernon on a spooky, foggy day. (MVLA)

A Woman from the Civil War

Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. (MVLA)

Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. (MVLA)

A member of Mount Vernon's Youth Programs team recounts her experience. 

Originally, my office was located in the Teacher Resource Center of the Education Center, which is now Be Washington . It was after hours and the staff had left. I gathered my coat and bag and set them on the table facing my desk—as I turned to put on my coat, I saw a female figure standing in the door of my office.

She was dressed in clothing from the Civil War period, and she was totally grey—her complete body and clothing were grey. She stood in the doorway looking straight ahead without moving—her stare was very stern. It happened quickly, and then she was gone. There was no doubt in my mind that Ann Pamela Cunningham , founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association , had been in the room.

I stayed for a while, sitting quietly as I listened to the noises of cabinet doors opening and closing in Hands-on-History, but when I looked to see who was there, the room was empty.

Wandering in the Night

One night, ca. 2010s, a couple of security officers were driving around the Mount Vernon grounds very late at night.

They saw a little girl on the path ahead of them. So they stopped suddenly. Then the girl appeared right next to them. They quickly spun around and drove away as fast as they could. 

A Candle in the Night

the history of ghost stories

A character interpreter tells what she experienced inside the Mansion in 2017.

I’ve worked at Mount Vernon on and off since 2004. I most recently returned in January 2017. The estate was abuzz with the latest spooky story. On December 15, 2016, some strange sounds were heard coming from the third floor and there had been reports of the temperature dropping by 20 degrees. When the tale was shared with me, I was determined to see if it would happen again.

On December 14, the anniversary of the General’s death , I was on the third floor waiting for some haunting but nothing happened. However, when I returned the next night, the vibe in the area had changed. Upon looking into the southwest bedchamber , I noticed an electric candle was on. “That’s strange,” I thought. “It was dark last night.” Had the Collections team come and turned it on? Not likely; the third floor isn’t open to the public. Then it hit me. George Washington died on December 14, 1799, and the next day Martha Washington shut up the bedroom they shared and moved to the southwest bedchamber. Apparently, she’s still marking that sad day.

the history of ghost stories

Unwilling to remain in the bedchamber where her husband died, Martha Washington retreated to this third-floor bedchamber that one visitor described as a "cramped attic space." (MVLA)

The Mount Vernon Monster

For much of 1979, a mysterious nocturnal wailing in the woods surrounding Mount Vernon spooked area residents.

For much of 1979, a mysterious nocturnal wailing in the woods surrounding Mount Vernon spooked area residents.

An excerpt from the MVLA's 1979 Council Minutes, in which the "Mount Vernon Monster" is addressed. (MVLA)

An excerpt from the MVLA's 1979 Council Minutes, in which the "Mount Vernon Monster" is addressed. (MVLA)

Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Mount Vernon endured months of nocturnal terror in 1979.

Police helicopters hovered with searchlights. Patrol officers on foot crouched in the woods, radios at the ready. A long May night passed quietly.

The Mount Vernon Monster was nowhere to be found.

This night, and the mystery that prevailed for the better part of 1979, was covered in a May 12, 1979, article in the Washington Post . “For the last nine months,” the article reads, “nocturnal screaming has come from a patch of woods about one mile from the historic home of George Washington.”

Theories abounded as to the source of the screaming, which the Post described as an “eerie, muted wail—like someone being strangled in the shower.” Residents offered differing explanations: “a wild boar, really loud frogs, some guy blowing in a wine bottle, a barred (or hoot) owl, a broken microphone on a CB outfit, a parrot, a mouse with an amplifier, a strangled dog, the ghost of George Washington and the ghost of George Washington's pigs.”

One resident described seeing a creature in her backyard, 6 feet tall and walking upright. Some neighborhood children captured audio of the wailing with portable cassette recorders in the middle of the night. But despite all efforts, the Mount Vernon Monster, as the mysterious creature came to be known, never revealed its secrets.

The brouhaha didn’t escape the notice of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which noted in its internal 1979 Council Minutes:

Reports on an alleged ‘Mount Vernon Monster’ have appeared in the Washington area newspapers and have been circulated around the country by the Associated Press. No one has seen the ‘monster,’ but various people, including some Mount Vernon employees, claim to have heard its howls, screams, shrieks (descriptions of the ‘voice’ vary) from a wooded area within a mile of Mount Vernon.

The mystery was never to be solved. And though the creature wasn’t proven to be Georgefoot—neither was it disproven to be…

Jack-O'-Lanterns, George, and Sheep's Blood

Learn more spook-tacular stories from Mount Vernon's history in this episode of Conversation at the Washington Library . 

The Death of Washington

On the evening of December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon, George Washington passed away of a throat infection.

Quick Links

9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

  • Corrections

Ancient Ghost Stories from Around the World

Ghost stories have been around for thousands of years. Just like today, the ancients had their own spooky stories and mythology.

ghost stories greece antiquity

Terrifying tales of hauntings, ghosts, and specters were as popular amongst the ancients as they are today. From the epic poetry of Homer and Vergil to the tragedies of Aeschylus, and the histories of Herodotus and Tacitus, people have told ghost stories throughout the history of civilization. The many mysterious stories of ethereal visitations that were shared amongst the ancients reveal a deep fascination with death and the afterlife. In this article we will look at some of the spookiest ghost stories of distant times, from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.

Mesopotamian Ghost Stories

dumuzi underworld cylinder seal mesopotamia

People throughout the known world have told ghost stories, from the ancient Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt. In Mesopotamia, ghost stories have been discovered as far back as five thousand years ago. According to the Mesopotamians, when a person’s physical body died, it created what was known as a gidim , an imprint or image of the person at the time of their death which retained their memories and personality in ghost form. In the mythology of the afterlife, people believed the soul of the dead would travel to the underworld or Irkalla, an inescapable place where spirits would dwell for eternity. However, in some cases, it was even thought that spirits or gidim could escape and infiltrate the mortal world. Mesopotamians believed the gidim who dwelled in the mortal realm did so because they had not received a proper burial. They assumed these spirits could not find peace, so instead they would haunt family and friends.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

When the people of ancient Mesopotamia experienced illnesses and misfortune, they believed it was caused by hauntings, or gidim. Mesopotamians regularly made offerings to the dead to placate them if they thought a gidim was responsible. A famous example of one such spirit from ancient literature is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh . In the epic story, king Gilgamesh summons his friend and war-hero Enkidu back from the dead, inviting him into the mortal world in ghost form.

Types of Ghosts in Ancient Greek Literature

odysseus elpenor underworld vase

Ancient Greeks believed two underworld goddesses presided over the spirits of the restless dead, known as Melinoe and Hecate . Melinoe was thought to oversee the propitiations offered to ghosts and spirits of the dead. She was described in ancient literature as wandering the night, followed by a train of ghosts, striking fear into the hearts of all who saw her. Hecate was also associated with ghosts, accompanied by the Lampades as her retinue. Like Melinoe, Hecate led her own nocturnal procession of ghosts, heralded by the barking of dogs. The widespread prominence of these two deities in Greek culture, who were dedicated to overseeing restless spirits, indicates that the Greeks were fascinated by the concept of ghosts.

Ghost Sub-Categories

Ancient Greeks divided ghosts and specters into three subcategories – the ataphoi , the aoroi , and the biaiothanatoi . The ataphoi were believed to be the spirits of people whose bodies had not received a proper burial. A prime example of an ataphos from ancient Greek literature is Elpenor from Homer’s Odyssey . In the epic story of Elpenor – a companion of Odysseus – he fell off a roof while intoxicated, and his body was left without a burial. When Odysseus later visited the underworld, Elpenor’s shade appeared and begged the hero for a burial. Greeks also believed in the aoroi, or spirits of those who had died too young. These spirits were left unfulfilled by life, and could easily become vengeful after death. Lastly, they thought a biaiothanatos was the spirit of a person who had suffered a violent death, including those who died in battle and war. Much like the ataphoi, Ancient Greeks believed that a biaiothanatos would become active if they were not properly buried. Indeed, the majority of ghost stories from Greek literature find their origin in improper burial, suggesting burial rites were essential elements of ancient Greek religion.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Please check your inbox to activate your subscription, stories from ancient greece.

fussli shade teiresias painting

In ancient Greece, people’s beliefs on the nature of ghosts were not always consistent. Ancient Greeks described ghosts in a variety of ways, from being transparently pale to pitch black. The vocabulary used also varied and included terms such as δαίμων ( daimōn ) and φάσμα ( phasma ) which refer to any supernatural activity from ghosts to gods.

Odysseus and the Underworld

The works of Homer provide some of the earliest examples of ghost stories. While in the underworld, where Odysseus had encountered his companion Elpenor, he also came across the spirit of his mother, Anticlea . Unaware she had passed while he had been on campaign, Odysseus tried to embrace her but was unable. In Homer’s description of the dead, it appears that spirits could hear the living and receive their offerings. However, they were only able to interact with the living after drinking blood, which Odysseus provided. His mission upon entering the underworld had been to consult the ghost of the seer, Teiresias . While there, Odysseus also encounters spirits of “brides, unmarried men, virginal girls, men killed in battle who still wear their bloody armour.”

downman ghost stories clytemnestra ancient greece

Greek Tragedies

In the ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus , namely the Oresteia, we find even more ghostly appearances. The most significant spectral visitation in Aeschylean tragedy is that of Clytaemnestra . Clytaemnestra killed her husband, Agamemnon , with the help of her lover Aegisthus . In order to avenge his father, Orestes killed his mother, Clytaemnestra, along with Aegisthus. Because Orestes had committed the crime of matricide, he was hunted and pursued by the Erinyes . The Erinyes, or Furies, were three goddesses who enacted justice and punishment on those who had committed crimes against the natural order. The ghost of Clytaemnestra appears in the final play of the Oresteia trilogy – the Eumenides . In the play, Clytaemnestra is a vengeful spirit, and her ghost urges on the Furies in their hunt for Orestes.

buguereau orestes pursued furies painting

Philinnion and Machates

One more ghost story from ancient Greece was recorded in the form of a letter by Proclus (410-485 CE) in late antiquity. It concerns the story of Philinnion and Machates, supposedly written down by Hipparchus of Amphipolis. Hipparchus’ letter stated that during the reign of Phillip II of Macedon, Philinnion was an unwed maiden who died unexpectedly. After her death, she returned to the home of her parents as a ghost. Unaware that Philinnion was a ghost, a guest named Machates slept with her for three consecutive nights. Throughout their time together, Philinnion gave Machates small gifts. When they were discovered by her family, Philinnion declared that her visitation was the gods’ will, and her corporeal form fell dead. Upon opening Philinnion’s tomb, her family discovered that her body was missing as well as her burial gifts. These were the gifts she had given Machates. After this discovery, the terrified townspeople burned Philinnion’s body outside the city walls.

Ghost Stories From Ancient Rome

athenodorus confronts spectre ancient rome

Although ancient Greeks told ghost stories through literary sources and plays, ancient Romans more commonly shared their ghost stories through word of mouth. In Latin, as in Greek, there was little distinction between types of supernatural beings. Ancient Romans used words such as monstrum both for positive religious experiences and to describe neutral or antagonistic ghosts.

One of the few examples of ghostly encounters from ancient Rome is found in the literature of Apuleius. In his Metamorphoses (9.29–30), an unpleasant apparition was summoned by a jilted wife who intended for the ghost to kill her husband. The specter appeared each day at midday until the deed was done. One day, a mysterious woman was sighted luring the man into a room. When the husband’s servants searched for him, they broke down the door to find the man dead. The mysterious woman was nowhere to be found, and was believed to have been the midday apparition.

A Letter by Pliny the Younger

One of the most popular ghost stories from ancient Roman Latin literature is found in a letter. The letter was written by Pliny the Younger to Lucius Sura, and dated to the first century CE. According to Pliny, there was a mysterious house located in Athens. The house was supposedly haunted, and strange noises could be heard at night. The sound of rattling chains could be heard throughout the house. At first, they sounded far off, but gradually came closer. Finally, a specter would appear in the form of a bearded, emaciated old man with long hair. This haunting vision was described as being chained at both his arms and legs. Unable to bear the haunting, the residents soon left, and the house was left abandoned. It is thought the Greek philosopher Athenodorus found out that the house was for sale, and upon further investigation, learned the stories associated with the building.

hiremy hirschl souls acheron ghost stories

Athenodorus bought the house and moved in soon after. One night, when the philosopher was seated on a couch in the front of the house, he heard the sound of rattling chains. However, he focused on his writing. Slowly, the sound came closer. When the sound reached Athenodorus’ room, the philosopher looked up and saw the specter. The ghost looked at Athenodorus and waved a finger at him. However, in his stoic style, Athenodorus told the ghost to wait – and returned to his writing. The old man became insistent – and finally, Athenodorus got up from his seat and followed the ghost. The specter led the philosopher to the backyard and disappeared. Athenodorus then marked the area where the ghost had vanished. The following day, Athenodorus implored the local authorities to investigate the area. The skeleton of a man bound in chains was discovered in the spot he had marked. The skeleton was given a proper burial, and the house in Athens never experienced a haunting again.

The Importance of Burial Rites

All these ghost stories indicate that in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome people believed in multiple forms of life after death. A consistent theme throughout these accounts is the lack of a proper burial for the deceased. Indeed, burial rites were incredibly important for ancient religions. It could be said, by extension, that hauntings and ghosts were considered a punishment for those not adhering to religious rules. These explanations notwithstanding, the ghosts of antiquity remained in many ways as mysterious and terrifying as they do today.

the history of ghost stories

The Epic of Gilgamesh: 3 Parallels from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece

Author Image

By Danielle Mackay BA Classical Studies and Linguistics, MA Classical Studies Danielle is currently completing her MA in Classical Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. She earned her BA degree in Classical Studies and Linguistics and completed her studies of the Ancient Greek language as well as Latin. Her research focuses on Ancient Greek Religion and Mythology, specifically found in Late Antiquity Egypt, with a focus on the god Dionysus.

Read more by Danielle Mackay

euhoi bacchoi

Popular Articles in Ancient History

popular religion ancient egypt

Frequently Read Together

epic of gilgamesh

Everything You Need To Know About Hecate (Maiden, Mother, Crone)

odyssey artwork

Homer’s Odyssey: The Epic Voyages of Odysseus in 16 Artworks


Aeschylus: Understanding The Father of Tragedy


  1. TheTradition of Ghost Stories in England

    the history of ghost stories

  2. Ghost Stories

    the history of ghost stories

  3. Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories by Roald Dahl

    the history of ghost stories

  4. A Collection of Ghost Stories

    the history of ghost stories

  5. Scholastic Classics: Ghost Stories

    the history of ghost stories

  6. Classic Ghost Stories : Various : 9781784872960 : Blackwell's

    the history of ghost stories


  1. Ghost history

  2. Mystery of Ghost Origins

  3. Ghost Stories (Documentary)

  4. Ghost documentary

  5. Ghost Documentary Part 1

  6. SPOOKY HISTORY: Sanford’s Headless Miser


  1. Uncovering Your Family’s Story: A Guide to Family History Genealogy

    Family history genealogy is a fascinating way to learn more about your family’s past. It can be a rewarding journey of discovery, uncovering stories and facts that you never knew before.

  2. Is La Llorona a Real Story?

    La Llorona, also known as the Weeping Woman, has several variations and is not known to be true. It is a Hispanic legend that dates back to Aztec civilization. Her ghost is said to walk the canals and rivers in Texas, states the Texas State...

  3. Is the Story of Teresa Fidalgo True?

    Teresa Fidalgo is an urban legend centered around the ghost of a teenager. It’s a fictional story shared through emails, text messages and social media posts. These messages include a warning that claims that people will die if the reader f...

  4. Ghost story

    A ghost story is any piece of fiction, or drama, that includes a ghost, or simply takes as a premise the possibility of ghosts or characters' belief in them

  5. History of Ghost Stories

    What Is a Ghost? Early Ghost Sightings; Three Famous Historical Ghosts; Haunted Places. Since ancient times, ghost stories—tales of spirits who

  6. The History of Horror: How Ghost Stories Have Evolved

    Halloween is the perfect time to share stories about ghosts, monsters and witches. Scary stories have been told for centuries

  7. Hope in the Dark

    200r. British Library. Public domain. Ancient and medieval European ghost stories do not meet the expectations of modern tales of supernatural

  8. The Ghost Story, 1840-1920: A Cultural History on JSTOR

    Crowe's collection of supposedly verifiable ghost stories was dismissed by Dickens on two grounds: the metaphysical and the literary. Dickens argued that

  9. Ghost story

    Ghost story, a tale about ghosts. More generally, the phrase may refer to a tale based on imagination rather than fact. Ghost stories exist

  10. Ghost Stories · George Washington's Mount Vernon

    For decades, there have been reports by visitors and staff at George Washington's home of supernatural activity.

  11. Ghost Stories

    Ordsall Hall, Salford. Ordsall Hall's most famous ghost is the White Lady. Some people believe that she could be the ghost of Viviana Radclyffe - the lover of

  12. Ghost Stories

    'Of all the Australian states Tasmania is said to be the most haunted'. A short legacy of European settlement in Tasmania has generated an abundance of

  13. Ancient Ghost Stories from Around the World

    Ghost stories have been around for thousands of years. Just like today, the ancients had their own spooky stories and mythology.

  14. The secret meaning of ghost stories

    Female writers have often found the supernatural a way to challenge and condemn their role in society, explains Hephzibah Anderson.