Chained Ghosts

Why are phantoms and spectres so often portrayed in clanking manacles?

Propped, or you might say sitting, on the edge of the bed was — nothing in the round world but a scarecrow! A scarecrow out of the garden, of course, dumped into the deserted room . . . Yes; but here amusement ceased. Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on to their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about their necks? Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor, with wagging head and arms close at their sides? and shiver?
from Rats by MR James,
first published in The Collected Ghost Stories of MR James (1931)

When we think of ghosts, inevitably three hoary old cliches spring to mind - namely that ghosts dress in white sheets, that they stroll about with their heads tucked under their arms, or that they are swathed in chains. Now the business of wearing bed linen and carrying one's own head has been much beloved by cartoonists down the ages, and must wait for another day to be explained. However the image of phantoms bedecked in iron fetters, while also a staple of the popular imagination, is a somewhat darker business. Indeed while we chuckle at cute drawings of spooks wafting about, or taking their own heads for a walk along some castle ramparts, there is little laughter when the skeletal resident begins moving and clanking towards the door in MR James's famous short tale.

But why do we so often associate ghosts with chains? Well given the enduring popularity of the ghost stories of Mr James, his fettered phantom in Rats must surely bear some of the blame. However even in James' day, the image of a ghost dressed in chains was already an established stereotype. And proof of this comes in Oscar Wilde's celebrated comic tale, The Canterville Ghost. In this famous story, a spook in an old English stately home is rather perturbed when a family of brash nouveau rich Americans buy the place and, most annoying, fail to be terrified by even his best ghostly antics -

Some time after, Mr. Otis was awakened by a curious noise in the corridor, outside his room. It sounded like the clank of metal, and seemed to be coming nearer every moment. He got up at once, struck a match, and looked at the time. It was exactly one o'clock. He was quite calm, and felt his pulse, which was not at all feverish. The strange noise still continued, and with it he heard distinctly the sound of footsteps. He put on his slippers, took a small oblong phial out of his dressing-case, and opened the door. Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair fell over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyves.

"My dear sir," said Mr. Otis, "I really must insist on your oiling those chains,"

Wilde's long suffering phantom Sir Simon de Canterville has a whole repertoire of hauntings, which include all the usual ghostly cliches, including carrying his own head, and creeping about in sheet. Of course, here Wilde is gently mocking the famous tropes of ghost stories and hence in this vein his spectre also appears as characters such as Red Reuben, or The Strangled Babe, figures that satirise the assorted fiends and phantoms found in ghostly gothics and morbid melodramas. Hence if Wilde was affectionately sending up such spectral stereotypes at the start of the 20th century, then concepts such as spooks chains must be considerably older.

So then let us turn our attention to folklore and local legends, and hunt for older sources. It has often been said that ghosts are so often seen sporting chains and moaning due to the barbaric forms of justice practiced by our ancestors, back in the days of the dungeon and the torture chamber. However looking at actual reported hauntings and legends of local ghosts a very different picture emerges. Now there are many instances of the sound of chains featuring in ghostly lore - for example the Wild Hunt led by the mysterious Herne the Hunter at Windsor is said to be presaged by the sound of chains, although the phantom riders are not described as having fetters. Similarly there are many legends in the British Isles of phantom black hounds that likewise are accompanied by the sound of chains, such as the Barguest of Yorkshire, while his cousins Trash and Striker of Lancashire are named after the metallic noises that accompany their appearance. However, rather surprisingly, actual tales of figures swathed in chains are something of a rarity.

Now that's not to say that there aren't tales of chained apparitions. Probably the most famous these days is the legendary Jack-in-Irons. Often now described as a giant or some species of faerie, Jack supposedly haunts lonely roads in Yorkshire, sporting a huge club and the severed heads of his victims, rattling his chains and menacing unwary travellers. From what I can gather, he came to prominence in this fantastical form through his inclusion in the hugely influential tome Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. However references that predate this are thin on the ground, with many Yorkshire folk having never heard of this supposedly famous legend. Folklorist Kai Roberts however tracked down Jack to a book published in 1909, an anthology of historical writings entitled Memorials of Yorkshire. In a section on the folklore of that fine county, we discover that Jack-in-Irons lurking -

Jack-in-Irons, this seems to be a town ghost, who may be seen at any time after dark. He is a terribly strong man, gaunt, and at least ten feet high, with clanking chains at feet and wrists. He suddenly appears in quiet streets, or springs out of dark corners, in order to carry off the unwary pedestrian to unknown regions.

Yorkshire Folklore by Miss M. W. E. Fowler in Memorials of Yorkshire (1909)

Unfortunately Miss Fowler doesn't give us the town name where Jack-in-Irons was said to haunt, but his being a local ghost or bogeyman in one small Yorkshire town would explain the scarcity of references about him. Indeed Jack-in-Irons only enjoys his current stature (if you'll pardon the pun) due to the fact that several games designers have pillaged Froud and Lee's book for creatures and adversaries, and hence several variant versions of Jack are found in fantasy games, both in old school tabletop adventures and modern computer epics.

Similarly other phantoms in irons are only really locally known, such are the five manacled warrior ghosts that legend says rise from Warlake Hill in Devon and march to drink from the lake, rattling as they go. So then while we have some chained ghosts in lore and legend, we don't have nearly enough, or any well-known enough to explain why the image of manacled spectres is so prevalent in the popular imagination. The world of fiction on the other hand can provide us with a very famous example, indeed probably the most famous ghost in the world -

The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.

The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

“It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.”

His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him; Marley’s Ghost!” and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

from A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens

Yes, the dear old shade of Jacob Marley, probably so familiar that you didn't even think of him as a chained ghost! Dickens goes on to provide us with an explanation of Marley's chains: they are the product of his sins, forged link by link while he lived. Furthermore Scrooge learns that all earthbound spirits (at least in the Dickensverse) are similarly shackled with manacles made of their own misdeeds -

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Here Dickens provides us with a very pleasing conceit - that if your sins become chains, then the more you sin, the longer your chain. But these chains not jsut symbolic, they are also spiritual real, fettering your spirit to the mortal world. Indeed it is such a brilliant literary concept that it would be wonderful to credit Dickens with creating the popular notion that ghosts wear chains. And given Dickens' influence in establishing many aspects of our modern Christmas celebrations, it would not be surprising that spooks in manacles began with A Christmas Carol. Unfortunately however, spectres in stories were sporting fetters long before Dickens.

As we have found so often before, we can trace the origin of this idea back to the ancient world, and for much the same reason. For centuries the accepted authorities on any subject you could care to mention were the Roman and Greek luminaries, or rather their surviving texts. And right until the 20th century, their writings were the backbone of a Western education. Hence we cannot over estimate the influence such texts had for many centuries.

Now on the matter of ghosts, Pliny the Younger recorded what is considered by many to be the archetypal ghost story. It is not the earliest recorded tale of haunting but it certain sets a template for a great many other fictional ghost stories down the ages. In a letter to Sura, Pliny recounts the tale of a haunted house -

There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable.

from LXXXIII. To Sura in Letters of Pliny translated by William Melmoth

As the house was uninhabitable, a philosopher Athenodorus rented the place for a knockdown price, and rather than being discouraged by the stories of the haunting, was highly intrigued. So he settled in and kept watch for the night. Sure enough, there soon came the sound of rattling chains and the ghost, exactly as had been previously described, weighed down with heavy fetters, appeared. Rather than fleeing, Athendorus followed the ghost who lead him to a certain spot in the house's grounds and then vanished. The next day, Athenodrus had the spot dug up, and sure enough, as I'm sure you have all guessed, they discovered the corpse of a man in irons. And once the bones were given a decent burial, this troubled spirit appeared no more and the haunting ceased.

So then, here we have the original ghost in chains (or at least as near to original as we can find). We do know that there was a real Athenodorus, who is thought to have have lived from around 74 BC to 7 AD, so presumably this story took place around the time of the birth of Christ. And not only do we have the precedent set for a phantom in fetters but also we have the first ghostly tale where the haunting is resolved when the restless spirit can find peace - something is a very common feature in ghost stories - as we have heard previously, one version of the Cauld Lad of Hilton legend has the haunting finish with a burial of bones, and indeed it is a similar rite than gives the hapless Sir Simon rest in The Canterville Ghost.

We've had ghosts rattling chains for two thousand years or so now, thanks to Pliny's epistles, and I suspect that as long as Mr Marley still walks every Christmas, we shall have spectres in irons for a good while longer too.

My full and unabridged reading ofA Christmas Carol is here

My reading of Rats by MR James is here

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