CU Boulder history professor digs up tales of the unquiet dead, sometimes ‘chatty,’ departed souls
Scott G. Bruce has been hanging around ghouls and the graveyard, literally and figuratively, for a long, long time.
As a kid growing up in the “much maligned” Toronto suburb of Scarborough (“It was pretty much ‘Wayne’s World!’” he says), he was a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, the movies of Ray Harryhausen and Dungeons & Dragons, all of whose invented worlds were haunted by myriad ghosts and revenants.
During college, he took a job as a gravedigger.
“In summer, we dug with shovels. In winter, we had these jackhammers and a backhoe; the ground was all frost and mud,” says Bruce, professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. “I’ve got a memoir in a drawer, ‘Confessions of a Teenage Gravedigger.’”
Whether that one sees the light of day, he’s currently indulging his fascination for restless spirits with the September publication of The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters, a collection of translated ghost and zombie stories written between the time of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, and teaching History 4803, “Ghost Stories in the Western Tradition from the Romans to the Renaissance” in the fall semester.
“In this book, the reader will find a macabre menagerie of agitated souls and unquiet corpses,” Bruce writes in his introduction. “(M)oaning phantoms haunting deserted ruins; dead souls appearing to their loved ones in dreams; the ghosts of sinful monks returning to beseech the prayerful assistance of their brethren to escape the fires of purgatory; great armies of spirits clad in white armor and marshaled for battle; hordes of tormented souls doomed to never-ending nocturnal marches through desolate hinterlands; bloated corpses shambling from their graves to sicken the living with their deathly breath; spectral crows and dogs and cattle encountered on lonely moors; and, perhaps most strangely of all, the tiny ghost of a miscarried fetus rolled up in a sock.”
Given the current glut of über-popular undead entertainment, from the cable TV hit, “The Walking Dead,” (based on the graphic novels of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore) to Charlaine Harris’ best-selling Sookie Stackhouse series of Southern supernatural tales, many contemporary Westerners may think they’ve got a pretty good handle on the behavior of ghosts, zombies and other undead. But the bothersome dead go way, way back, and many might be surprised by their long, shifting history.
In Homer’s day, there were widespread, detailed beliefs about why the dead might not lie easy in the grave. Those who took their own lives, were killed in combat, or died before marriage were particularly likely to haunt the living.
“The dead and the living could have commerce, and if you performed the correct necromantic rites, they could tell you things you didn’t know,” Bruce says. “Ghosts often returned to tell you why they were killed, where they were murdered … they were super chatty in the ancient world!”
Heaven was just too boring. The visions of hell were way more interesting."
That began to change with the growing influence of Christianity, whose institutions and theologians did their best to meld old ideas about the returning dead with a new doctrine of salvation. In the sixth century, for example, Pope Gregory the Great proposed that prayers, alms and masses were tools to help the restless dead move from a place of punishment to paradise.
“Monks told stories about how good their prayers were at releasing people from suffering in the other world,” Bruce says.
As Christianity spread to northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, it ran headlong into traditions — still a puzzle to historians — about more vexatious risen corpses and malevolent revenants.
“They wandered around troubling people they knew, spreading pestilence with their breath,” Bruce says. There also were tales of undead armies, some that helped Christians, others constantly on the march in a quest to do evil.
Christians attempted to combat the northern dead by asking clerics to write letters of absolution, but storytellers generally weighed in on the side of more, shall we say, aggressive action: chopping off their heads, removing their hearts and burning them on pyres, that sort of thing.
The Protestant Reformation utterly eschewed old pagan and Catholic beliefs about the undead. Believing that God pronounced final judgment on the dead, Protestants believed that ghostly presences were either angels or, more typically, devils, sent to deceive the faithful.
Bruce finishes the book with Hamlet, “who was probably a Protestant, but clearly his father is a very Catholic ghost.”
“It is only when Hamlet confronted the ghost himself and recognized it as his father’s genuine soul, and not a ‘goblin damn’d,’ that Shakespeare’s invitation to his audience to consider this spirit in Catholic terms becomes clear,” he writes.
“The persuasive power of the ghost’s plea for Hamlet not only to avenge his ‘most foul, strange, and unnatural murder,’ but also to ‘Remember me’ was contingent upon the shared understanding that Hamlet was actually conversing with the spirit of his beloved father, who was suffering in purgatory because he died before he could confess his sins.”
Even the modern undead have a pedigree, beginning with the 1932 Bela Lugosi flick, “White Zombie,” and ripening with George Romero’s graphic 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead,” which gave us the modern trope of the shambling, mindless, ever-hungry hordes of undead.
“In the ‘60s, there was a lot of underpinning of fear of Communism, of being controlled,” Bruce says. “The modern craze … seems to be more about the power that comes from science, its misuse and the fear that we might not be able to stop disease or science run amok.”
Bruce came to the topic of old ghosts by way of his studies of medieval European monks, with a nudge from Penguin editor John Siciliano. They had so much fun with the restless dead that they are now hard at work on a companion volume, The Penguin Book of Hell: Fifteen Hundred Years of Torment.
“Heaven was just too boring. The visions of hell were way more interesting,” Bruce says. “We even have a chapter on megafauna of the netherworld.”
Scott G. Bruce will read from and sign The Penguin Book of the Undead Oct. 25 at Barnes & Noble in Boulder; Oct. 26 at the Tattered Cover in Denver; and Oct. 27 at the Boulder Book Store. The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters will be published on Sept. 27, 2016.