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.
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 Houses. All 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.