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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

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Bones, Ghosts, and Paul Koudounaris

A Q&A with author, photographer, and ossuary expert Paul Koudounaris.

I understand your great grandfather was a grave robber?

My family is Greek and they lived in Alexandria back when it was a Greek town. At that point there was a trade in mummy dust, which they called mummia, which was thought to be a cure all. Louis XIV actually used to carry mummia in a pouch and snort little bits of it. The problem was that by the late 19th century they didn’t have a bunch of old Egyptian mummies to dig up anymore. Instead, when criminals were executed, people would steal their bodies and take them to the middle of the Sahara and cover them in tar. They’d come back a year later, dig them up and sell them to apothecaries, where they’d get ground up. This was a burgeoning trade.

So basically all of this ghost stuff is in your blood.

Back in grad school I was known as the Fox Mulder of the art history department. Everyone else was working on Rembrandt and I was looking at woodblock prints of witches.

How did you come to be an expert in bone-decorated crypts?

After I finished my PhD I was wandering around eastern Europe and ended up in a small town in the Czech Republic. I went through a doorway outside this old church, walked down a staircase and found myself in a room completely filled with bones. Afterward I asked people in the town about it. There was a bone-encrusted church under their feet and no one even knew it was there! It sparked my curiosity. I ended up writing a book on these places and visited them all over the world. 

Have you ever seen a ghost?

Everyone asks me this. The one incident that defies any possible explanation happened in Bolivia. There’s a woman in La Paz, Dona Ana, who has 12 miracle-working skulls, and people come from all over Bolivia to pray to them. I went to interview her and asked if I could take photographs of the skulls. She said sure, and I took pictures on both 35 mm and medium-format film. I got the medium format film developed in Bolivia and carried the negatives on my lap in the plane — to me these were treasures. Once I got home I put everything in the middle of my living room and went to bed. I heard this weird voice in my ear saying, “Where’s Ana?” I thought I was having an auditory hallucination. The next morning the negatives were gone.

I still had that roll of 35 mm film, though, and I took it to a lab in LA and asked them to develop it immediately. The guy calls me back two hours later and says there’s been a slight problem — it burst spontaneously into flame! I went home and I searched everywhere for that other box of negatives, but it had completely disappeared. And that night, from right in the middle of my living room, where the box had been, there was a loud thump. It happened every night around 2 a.m. for about a month.

How did the mummies in the Palermo catacombs end up with such nice outfits?

For centuries people would pay to have their relatives mummified and put on display. And every November 2 you would dress your mummies in a new set of clothing. It was just a traditional family obligation. Eventually this stopped. Those catacombs are basically the finest fashion history museum in the world — what they’re wearing now is whatever they had on when their relatives stopped bringing them new clothes.

Generally this happened arond the Enlightenment. It shows how drastically our conception of dealing with the dead changed at that point. If you consider Psycho, the one thing that makes Norman Bates absolutely unfit to be a member of human society is that he has his mother mummified and dresses her in clothes. That what marked him as a lunatic. But back in 1700 in Sicily that would have marked him as the paradigm of a loving son. At that point death was not a boundary, it was just a transition and the dead still had a roll to play.

Please explain the difference between a succubus or incubus, which as I understand it are evil spirits that have sex with people while they’re sleeping, and a sex ghost. Are they the same thing?

Ah, this is a great question. Personally I think there’s kind of a continuum between succubi and sex ghosts. That’s my term, by the way — in Sicily life in general is so involved with sex and death that to them they’re just ghosts. They just think that of course ghosts go out and have sex. I mean, Sicily is a place where nuns invented a confection called “the tits of the virgin.” It’s a weirdly sexualized environment. But you do find these stories throughout history. Even in the modern day people are having sex with spectral phenomenon. Like that singer Ke$ha.

How do you know if you’ve had sex with a ghost? Couldn’t it just be a dream?

Some of the stories are definitely more than a hallucination. There’s one where a ghost got jealous of a guy’s girlfriend and attacked her. She ended up in the hospital.

That sounds terrifying.

They’re not all like that. One of the more outlandish stories is about a guy who got to be called “pene grande,” which means “big dick.” He was a mummy famed in life for having a big penis. People would go down to the Palermo Catacombs and treat him as the patron saint of big cocks. Finally a newlywed woman came to see him because she was married to a guy who was not well-endowed. She took a cloth and rubbed it on the mummy’s dick, and then rubbed it on her husband’s dick. The next time she had sex with her husband, his penis seemed larger and fuller and she was about to orgasm except that at that moment she looked up and saw it was actually the ghost on top of her. Everyone thought she was crazy, but then it happened again the next time she had sex. They had to set up an exorcism for this ghost.

How does one expel a penis ghost?

They had a blacksmith make a tight-fitting sheath made of metal, and once the husband got erect the ghost came out and got caught in the codpiece. They threw holy water at him.

Then what?

That expelled the ghost from the guy’s body. So forever he had a small penis, but he was free of the ghost. As for the ghost, he gained a great following among older ladies, and eventually so many were coming to see him that they had to lock the mummy in a back room, which is where he remains to this day.

Wow. So ghosts back then were basically the rock stars of their day.

In Palermo there was a well where they would throw the heads of executed criminals and these heads had groupies – women would come to talk to the spirits of the criminals and ask them for favors. This continued through the late 20th century. It only stopped because the city put up a grate.

Did the criminals really help people?

They were thought to be wonderful protectors. There are all these stories about women who were about to be mugged who were saved by spirits.

But some Palermo ghosts did more typical scary-ghost type of things, right?

There is an old and very weird story about a ghost of a guy who had lived in the monastery there — apparently the "devil got into him" and he masturbated and had a heart attack at the moment of ejaculation. That's why, they claim, he has that look on his face. Anyway, people said his ghost would visit boys who masturbated and scare them into stopping. One boy didn't really believe this, though, and dared the ghost to appear while he was masturbating. When the ghost showed up, he apparently grabbed the boy by the cock and squeezed him so hard that the boy passed out, and while he wasn't exactly castrated, he was rendered sterile for life.

Do you really think this stuff actually happened?

It’s easy to disbelieve, especially since I’m generally dealing with oral traditions. But I actually have a friend from Sicily and one of these sex ghosts turned out to be her great uncle! That was the ghost who was accused of stealing women’s underpants. So it’s real. Or at least he’s real, whether his ghost stole women’s underpants or not.

Wait. He was stealing underpants?

They kept finding women’s panties behind a particular mummy. They would get stashed there, like trophies. Finally, a girl called the police and said she’d been having visions of a ghost entering her home. He would proposition her and when she turned him down he’d steal her panties. The monastery accused the girl of planting the underwear there herself, but then they set up a test, and sure enough another pair of undies still appeared behind the mummy.

How does one deal with an underwear-stealing ghost?

Someone went to the mummy and told him they would bury him in the ground unless he stopped stealing underpants. After that no one’s underpants disappeared.

Does this kind of thing still happen?

There’s a really bizarre story from the 20th century, about a guy who had severe diarrhea and chronic flatulence. He stole a skull and started saying prayers to St. Roch and St. Sebastian, the patron saints of plague and suffering, and also shitting on the skull daily. He had a theory that by crapping on the skull he could switch intestines with the body the skull had been attached to. The ghost kept warning him, quit shitting on my skull. But he kept at it and he succeeded in transferring his intestinal problems to the ghost. The problem was that the ghost had died of testicular cancer, and in return he gave that to the guy. That’s how he died. One of the dangers of necromancy is you don’t really know who’s on the other side or what they’re going to give you in return.

As far as sex with a ghost, do you think it can be satisfying?

The girl whose husband was possessed by the ghost with the big penis was having a good time until she realized what was happening. I would assume that if the ghost was willing and capable of manifesting, I don’t know why it couldn’t be good sex.

Like in Ghost! Would you want to have an experience with a sex ghost?

It depends on the ghost. Just like it depends on the person. I’m not going to say yes and get the ghost of Ali Baba to come ravish me. How could I know until I met the ghost?

Paul Koudounaris's work can also be found in The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel HousesAll photos courtesy Paul Koudounaris and The Empire of Death, except the ones of Il Masturbatore and Dona Ana's skulls (which Paul took but don't appear in the book).

Molly Langmuir is a writer living in New York. She would love nothing more than to meet a wish-granting ghost.

93 Comments / Post A Comment

frigwiggin

This is...the greatest.

frigwiggin

Adjectives fail me, basically, and I'm so glad this is here to read. I am going to read your book, Paul Koudounaris!

Daisy Razor

@frigwiggin I know, right? Every once in awhile something on the internet totally blows my mind. This is one of those somethings.

professionalmess

@frigwiggin This is the most favorite thing I've read.

Ellie

@frigwiggin Yeah, this is pretty much my favorite Hairpin article, ever! I love how extensive it is!

love and other indoor sports

@frigwiggin i wouldn't want any of these to gaunt me.

Miranda Everitt

This is the best thing I have ever read in The Hairpin or anywhere, wow.

Lady Humungus

"the Fox Mulder of the art history department"????? Call me, Paul!

PistolPackinMama

@Lady Humungus I KNOW RIGHT.

Also phone ghost? PHONE GHOST? ARE YOU GAUNTING THIS POST?!?!

This is the best.

martinipie

@Lady Humungus Yeah seriously that is basically the one phrase to describe my ideal man like, to a T.

Daisy Razor

This is amazing. I am going to tell the penis ghost story to everyone I know.

I've been to catacombs and seen a few mummified saints' remains, but I've never been to an ossuary. It's absolutely on my bucket list (ha!).

rosaline

I vividly remember visiting Kutna Hora (a small town in the Czech Republic) when I was in junior high and seeing the Sedlec Ossuary, which is an entire church decorated in millions bones. It can't be the same one as Paul Koudounaris visited because it had bones above ground as well as below, but it was very memorable in a morbid way. Now I wonder why I didn't become an ossuary expert...

Ellie

@rosaline I was in Brno this summer and took a bunch of pictures in the crypt of the Capuchin monastery. They are pretty cool and gruesome pictures but I decided not to put them on the facebook because it felt weird to basically put dead bodies online. I loooooove crypts and bones and relics and morbid things, and how full Eastern Europe is of them. I went to the Catacombs three times when I was in Paris. (I have a little bit of a "thing" for tunnels, too.)

rosaline

@Ellie Ha I think I have that tunnel thing too. I remember going to catacombs in Rome and being disappointed that I couldn't just go wander around with a lantern.

My mind is a Gothic novel.

Ellie

@rosaline I forgot to say that I totally touched the bones, just once, each time I was there. There are sooooo many of them, I couldn't see how it would hurt! I really wanted to steal one but I didn't. Right by the exit they have a bunch of bones that presumably they removed from people upon exiting, which is pretty funny.

Myrtle

@Ellie All that bone-handling had me thinking "Black plague!"

Ellie

Haha, removed from people as in removed from their person . . . not, like, deboned. That would probably cause an uproar.

Sarah @twitter

@rosaline The bone church in Kutna Hora is DA BOMB!! I was there this summer, freaking out about how fantastically morbid it is, while everyone else there mostly seemed disturbed by it. This whole interview is amazing. Bones! I love them!

catparty

@rosaline my friend stole a bone from an ossuary somewhere in europe and somehow got it through customs into canada. i touched it, not knowing it was real. then he put the bone in an art show. freaky stuff!

saritasara

@rosaline Yes, as soon as he said "small town in the Czech Republic," immediately in my head I was like KARLOVY VARY! KUTNA HORA!!! Tho I guess maybe it's not actually.

I went there when I was in high school (on a chorus/orchestra tour with my school, oddly enough) and it was so awesome!
Sadly, that was before I owned a digital camera and I have no clue where the prints of any of my photos are from that trip. :-(

Emby

Sometimes I think I'd have a lot more fun in my life if I were a lot less skeptical.

RoxxieRae

@Emby Um, this. In response to the question "does this sort of thing still happen," all I can think is "no... in fact, this sort of thing never happened because ghosts don't exist."

nonvolleyball

@RoxxieRae I share your skepticism, but I also you think you could interpret "this sort of thing" as "the development of folklore narratives like this," & in that case it's legit.

Verity

@RoxxieRae Yep. At least it makes things straightforward. "But don't you think there might be a ghost?" "No. Next question."

highfivesforall

@Emby I have fleeting thoughts like that, but then I read something like this article, and I revel in the knowledge that science and logic will never, ever steal my underpants.

SarahP

I feel like these are exactly the questions I would want to ask in this position. Thanks for this! Also, I'm so so happy this was a picture-heavy post.

Nocs

Man, I was about to skip over this in Google Reader because TIME and WORDS and whatever. Taking the time to read it was the best of decisions.

katiemcgillicuddy

@Nocs I was gonna skip it, too, because Things, and I am so glad I didn't.

fondue with cheddar

@katiemcgillicuddy Oh, there was no way in hell I was going to skip this because of the picture! I didn't get a chance to read it until last night, and I was looking forward to it ALL DAY.

Megasus

These are the best ghost stories I have ever heard.

Also please dress me in different outfits after I'm dead.

Myrtle

@Megano! "Different outfits" as in fireman, policeman? Or the fashion faux pas of wearing "juicy" across your ass. When you're slightly on the dry side?

Megasus

@Myrtle All of those things

lafleur

Put me down for a request that this becomes a regular column.

stonefruit

"At that point death was not a boundary, it was just a transition and the dead still had a roll to play."

heh :)

jingel_jengel

...I can't think of the comic's name...but there's a female comedian who does a bit about "showering extra sexy" in case a ghost is watching in your house. That's really all I could think of while reading this! :)

frigwiggin

@jingel_jengel

All I can think of (well, not the only thing, but one of the things) is when Margaret Cho had her TV show and thought her vagina was haunted? It's been a while but I'm pretty sure that's what happened.

emm_gee

This is the greatest.
I visited an ossuary church in Rome right on one of the main streets that holds all the bones of the Capuchin monks that belonged to that church, and lots of mummies in poses. It's amazing, and the chandeliers are made of strings of vertebrae and jawbones and it was quite wonderful and fascinating. Though my family couldn't understand why this was top of my list of things to see in Rome and declined to accompany me. Their loss, I say. This book is going straight to the top of my christmas list.

HeyMatilda

The ossuary at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome is literally my favorite site in that whole city. I thought I was the weirdo because when I took people to visit when I studied abroad, they were freaked out!

Totally going to read this book.

kentuckienne

@HeyMatilda Ha, my favorite part about that ossuary (besides all the bones) was the guy at the front door:

Me: How much is it to enter?
Guy: 500 lira donation.
Me: Donation - so it's free?
Guy: The donation is required.
Me: So it's not free.
Guy: 500 lira.

I don't recall the exact amount of lira, actually, but it was so worth it.

catparty

@HeyMatilda yay! i've been there. i vaguely remember them being weird about the admission 'donation'

HeyMatilda

@catparty I think their admission is technically a "donation" but it's "highly suggested" you give them the euro. Maybe there's a reason they can't call it admission to the site

Apocalypstick

@HeyMatilda And if you get pissy about it, they'll insist you're dressed inappropriately and need to pay 20 euros for a cover-up shawl. Seriously, a girl in amazingly tiny shorts got in ahead of us fine, then my friend got shut out for wearing a t-shirt & didn't get to see the skeleton chandelier.

Myrtle

So Keith Richards was into mummia it seems. But wasn't it actually Daddia he snorted?

tea sonata

@Myrtle I see what you did there.

martinipie

I love this post! Except I am worried this house I'm in might be benevolently gaunted (nothing spooky has happened, it just...feels extra possible) so I'm sitting here freaked out. And I absolutely believe in ghosts, and hate it when people make fun of me for feeling this way. So thanks, Paul and Molly and the Pin!

KeLynn

"And that night, from right in the middle of my living room, where the box had been, there was a loud thump. It happened every night around 2 a.m. for about a month."

How would you even know that it happened for a month, since the first thing to do after it happened more than once would be to burn your house down and move across the world? I don't believe in ghosts but that would be too freaky to handle.

kickupdust

this! is! amazing! I wish I could lose my memory from the last ten minutes and read it all over again.

tea sonata

This is genius, both fascinating and hilarious. More of this, please!

laurel

Paul Koudounaris's next book, a history of erotic hauntings of North America, is titled Sex Ghost Coast to Coast.

LooseBaggyMonster

To be fair, there were some other behaviors besides mummifying his mother that made Norman Bates unfit to be a member of society. Of course, he wouldn't hurt a fly...

sheistolerable

Ooh! Ooh! (waves hand frantically in air) If those are Dona Ana's skulls, how did you finally get a picture?

mollykay

@sheistolerable Well, it turns out he went back the next year and told Dona Ana the whole story. Apparently what he'd done wrong was that he didn't ask their permission. So then he went in and talked to the skulls and explained what he was going to do, and that time after he took the pics there was no problem whatsoever. I guess the skulls just don't like candids - ?

Minx

So the moral of today's story is that Sicilians are way better at ghost stories than Americans are.

josh yudell

Wow its really Amazing.

teaandcakeordeath

1) This was amazing
2) "How does one expel a penis ghost?" was not a sentence I was expecting to read today.

fondue with cheddar

THANK YOU THIS IS RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS.

GirlParts

I cannot possibly be the only person who googled the Palermo mummy "Pene Grande". Seriously.

barefoot cuntessa

@GirlParts NOW I DID! I'm honestly curious if it is the same guy who's portrait my mom took a picture of. I think it was Roman era, and his dick was so big he had support strings attached to his neck.

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

Oh man! We were at Stephansdom, in Vienna, and there's a tour (don't be late even by a minute, the tour leaves exactly on the half hour and WILL leave without you! Germans, man!) and halfway through the tour, there's a room decorated with bones (behind metal bars, thank god) and the tour guide will tell you that these are bones of people who died in the plague and were pushed down a hole into this underground room, then 200 years later the Viennese were like "we should sort those bones" so they sent some convicts down to stack them. Germans, man! Also, the stacking was less artistic than the image above, more workmanlike.

Spaghettius!

I asked for this book as a Chriskwanzannuah present. I should have it by this weekend. I am looking forward to pairing it with a hot toddie or copious amounts of junk food.
On that note: has anyone here watched the Ask A Mortician videos on YouTube? She's delightful.
...no one in real life will ever know what I creep I secretly am.

Paul B Banville@facebook

I truly have to say....that is not something you see every day.

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Commuting to Tampines as well as the city area is therefore very convenient. The Glades is also near to Changi Airport as well as Changi International Business Park.
The Glades is also near elite schools such as Anglican High School, St. Anthony’s Canossian Primary & Secondary School and Temasek Junior College. Tampines Junior College, Temasek Polytechnic and United World College (East Campus) is also around in the area.
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Ang Mo Kio Condo Launch is also near elite schools such as Chatsworth International School and Lycee Francais De Singapour. Nanyang Polytechnic and Anderson Secondary School are also around in the area.
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