Matthew Flax loves writing about ghosts, maybe because he envies their ability to play pranks on people while invisible.
A treacherous murder, a tragic accident, or a bond to the living world that not even death can break—these are all the ingredients of a classic haunting.
There is currently no scientific evidence for hauntings; rather, they are based on a mix of rumour, conjecture, and/or eyewitness accounts that cannot be corroborated. Visitors to haunted locations generally report strange phenomena, and there is usually a chilling tale attached to explain such eerie occurrences. Of course, sceptics more readily attribute such ghostly activity to misinterpretation, hallucination, and the power of suggestion.
Yet the idea of the "haunted house" continues to inspire the imagination. After all, who doesn't love a good ghost story. Here are some of the most haunted locations in the world.
1. The Island of the Dolls in Xochimilco, Mexico
Hanging from the trees of a remote island in the midst of Xochimilco canals, hundreds of dolls gaze silently at any who wander this twisted place. Many of the dolls are missing limbs, some of them disfigured or burnt, making the island seem like a prison for tortured spirits.
However, the dolls were actually intended to ward off evil spirits. Around 50 years ago, a man named Don Julian Santana left his family to live on the island. He discovered the body of a drowned girl floating in the canals, and the memory of her haunted him as he slept alone in his remote hut on the island, far from civilization.
Soon after, he discovered what he believed to be the girl's doll in the river. He hung it from one of the trees, hoping it would appease her spirit. However, deciding for some reason that wasn't enough, he became obsessed with gathering discarded dolls and hanging them from the trees, to the point where the island's forest was filled with dolls, many of them arranged in intricate patterns.
Don Julian Santana eventuality died, but the dolls remain, maintaining silent vigil over the island.
2. Hoia Baciu Forest in Transylvania, Romania
Gnarled trees reach out and grasp at those brave enough to wander through this eerie forest, named after a shepherd believed to have disappeared within, along with his flock of 200 sheep.
Those who visit the forest report symptoms such as nausea, anxiety, and a feeling of being watched. Electronic devices tend to fail, and some people claim to have seen strange figures in the background of photographs taken in the woods.
Even more mysterious is the large clearing in the midst of the forest, where no trees or plants seems to grow. Known as Poiana Rotunda (The Round Meadow), from the air it can be seen as a circular patch of open grass amid a blanket of trees.
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The clearing has its own stories to tell. In 1968, a military technician named Emil Barnea photographed what he claimed to be a UFO. What sets this apart from so many other UFO sightings is that Emil Barnea, a citizen of Soviet Russia, assuredly had nothing to gain from reporting it. In fact, he lost his job as a result.
No doubt the clearing attracts all sorts of interesting activities. A guide told Sophie Buchan from The Independent that he had once found 60 people from Bucharest gathered in the clearing, apparently attempting to open a gate into another dimension.
Dark forests such as this explain why Eastern Europe, and Transylvania in particular, is the birthplace of many famous dark fairy tales.
3. The Catacombs in Paris, France
Somewhere in the vast network of tunnels beneath the streets of Paris, there's a stone portal with an inscription above it that reads Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort (Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death)”.
It marks the entrance to a section of the catacombs that was converted into a large underground tomb during the 18th century. Mass graves in central Paris were overflowing with human bodies, posing a serious threat to public health, and it had been decided to move the bodies to an abandoned quarry on the outskirts of the city.
For years, covered wagons accompanied by chanting priests transported human remains to their new resting place, where the bones were stacked neatly in piles on the ground or in the walls.
The result is indeed an empire of death. Anyone who stumbled upon this section of the catacombs would think they had just wandered into the lair of some dark cult. The bones are arranged in patterns, as if to warn intruders or make some kind of macabre artistic statement. These monuments to death comprise the remains of about several million individuals.
The Parisian catacombs, an important part of the city's rich heritage, are chilling enough even without the hordes of skulls. Dark passages weave their way beneath the streets, making it easy to get lost if you're not prepared. A man named Philibert Aspairt did in fact meet his end in the catacombs after finding himself unable to escape, and his body was only discovered eleven years later.
4. The Stanley Hotel in Colorado, United States
The remote, colonial-style hotel overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park, is believed to be haunted by an assortment of ghostly denizens, including the spirit of founder Freelan Stanley.
Author Stephen King and his wife spent a night as the only guests in the hotel. King recounts how he spent the night wandering through long, narrow corridors lined with empty rooms; the story of The Shining taking shape in his mind. He claimed to have seen two children playing in one of the corridors, which was odd since there were no other guests in the hotel. He later asked around among the staff members and found that the children apparently did not belong to any of them either.
Then there's the notorious Room 217, where King and his wife were residing. Here, King experienced lucid nightmares, including one of his son being strangled.
The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's novel preyed on its occupants, gradually driving lead character Jack Torrance mad; whereas the Stanley Hotel and whatever ghostly denizens may occupy it appears to be relatively harmless. That said, actor Jim Carrey did book himself into the hotel during the filming of Dumb and Dumber, specifically requesting Room 217. He reportedly fled the room three hours into his stay. and has never spoken of what happened.
5. The Borley Rectory in Essex, England
The area already had a sinister reputation when Reverend Henry Bull decided to built a rectory here in 1862. Locals believed there had once been a Benedictine monastery nearby, where a monk and nun had engaged in a forbidden love affair. When their love was discovered, the monk was hanged, and the nun buried alive in the walls of her convent.
Nonetheless, Reverend Bull moved in with his family shortly after the completion of the rectory. It wasn't long before they began hearing unexplained footsteps and tapping sounds. One evening, the reverend's daughters reported seeing the figure of a nun in the distance, but it disappeared as they tried to approach it.
A succession of families followed the Bulls as occupants of the rectory, all of them being forced to flee due to intense paranormal occurrences (a woman reported being thrown violently from her bed one night, and the adopted daughter of one of the families found herself locked in a room with no key).
By 1929, the Borley Rectory had drawn the attention of psychical researcher and amateur conjurer, Harry Price, who decided to move in with a team of paranormal investigators. They claimed to have made contact with two spirits; a woman named Marie Lairre, and a mysterious entity identifying itself as Sunex Amures.
The first spirit told a story of having been murdered by her husband in the manor house that once occupied this site; her remains buried in the cellar. The second spirit, Sunex Amures, warned the psychic conducting the seance that the rectory would burn down that night, revealing said remains.
The rectory did indeed burn down...eleven months later. Harry Price searched the now exposed cellar and found the bones of what he claimed to be a young woman, though the nearby parish believed they belonged to a pig. Nonetheless, the bones were given a Christian burial at Liston churchyard, supposedly resolving the mystery of the Borley Rectory.
It should be mentioned that various occupants of the rectory suspected Harry Price of having fabricated many of the paranormal events. Years later, an investigation conducted by the English Society for Psychical Research concluded that Harry Price was indeed a fraud. It is therefore impossible to tell which of the paranormal occurrences that occurred after he became involved were genuine, and which were simply concocted by a charlatan.
6. Xunantunich in Belize, Central America
Untouched and abandoned for a thousand years, this Mayan city was rediscovered in the late 19th century. Its population probably evacuated the city during the Mayan migration, a period around 800-1000 AD when the Mayans fled many of their cities for reasons that archaeologists have yet to ascertain, although earthquakes and changing climate have been suggested as possible causes.
Xunantunich's ghostly reputation originated when a member of the research team sent to explore the ruins reported a strange sighting. He saw a slender woman, dressed in a flowing white robe, climbing the wide stairway that led to the summit of the Mayan pyramid. As she ascended, she turned to look at him with glowing red eyes that sent chills down his spine, before resuming her climb, eventually disappearing into a stone wall at the top of the stairway.
Since then, there have been multiple reported sightings of this same specter, such that the ruins were given the name Xunantunich, meaning "stone woman".
Is she the ghost of a Mayan noble, or perhaps a victim of human sacrifice, reenacting her final moments? Either way, considering the city was undiscovered for a thousand years, one wonders how long this apparition has been climbing that same stairway in these lonely, millennia-old ruins.
7. Mary King's Close in Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh has many stories to tell, and its Old Town section is tailor-made for ghost stories. Medieval streets and architecture, narrow alleys known as "closes", cathedrals, graveyards and the ever-looming castle with its deep dungeons.
One particularly tragic and disturbing tale is that of Mary King's Close, located beneath the Royal Mile (the main thoroughfare that runs through Old Town up to the castle).
During the great plague of 1645, Mary's King Close was bricked off in order to quarantine the people within (infected or not). Around 300 or so residents, trapped in the claustrophobic alleys of the close, were left to suffer the ravages of the bubonic plague.
Such a grisly tale explains the area's reputation for hauntings. Visitors have reported sudden drops in temperature, strange sounds or sensations, and a feeling of “being watched”.
8. Bhangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India
The reputation of this abandoned fort is such that the Indian government has barred anyone from entering between sunrise and sunset. Those who explore during the day attest to an eerie presence permeating the location, which is far from any signs of civilization.
The fort contains the ruins of several temples, a bazaar and even a dancer's palace. A famine in 1783 is believed to have brought about its decline, but legend has it that a curse is the true cause.
So the story goes, a sorcerer skilled in the black arts dwelt close to the fort, but gave permission for it to be built on the condition that no shadow from any any of the structures ever intruded on his lair. When an arrogant Mughal prince built a palace so high that it violated the terms of this agreement, ill fortune began to beset the fort, forcing its denizens to flee.
Now it's said that the sorcerer is buried somewhere in the valley, and his influence can still be felt. Any structure built in the area immediately collapses; and no one is allowed to enter after dark.
9. Leap Castle in Offaly, Ireland
The spirits who inhabit this castle include that of a woman in a red gown who wanders the halls clutching a knife. She is believed to be the ghost of a hostage who met a brutal end at the hands of the O’Carrolls, the clan that ruled over the castle during the Middle Ages.
Another tale tells of two O'Carroll brothers who were rivals for succession. One of them, a priest, was stabbed by the other brother while attending mass, forever tainting the chapel in which the deed was done.
But the darkest tale of all is that of 'The Elemental', a presence so evil that it rules over all the other spirits that inhabit the castle.
It is believed to have been summoned by druids, or by enemies of the O’Carrolls seeking their destruction.. The few who claim to have encountered the spirit describe it as a ghoulish figure, stinking of death and rotting flesh.
Centuries old, the castle continues to turn up new surprises. In the 1900's, workmen clearing out the castle uncovered a dungeon behind the chapel walls, filled with skeletal remains. Some of these skeletons had been impaled on spikes, perhaps captives of the O'Carrolls who had been executed and left to rot.
Nowadays the restored castle is a lot quieter, as musician Sean Ryan inhabits it and has had little trouble from any spirits, though he does claim to see and hear them. Instead of calling the castle 'haunted', he simply views the spirits as cohabitants who have as much right to be there as he does.
10. Aokigahara Forest in Yamanashi, Japan
Its name translates as "sea of trees", and it certainly is that. But these tunnels of gnarled vegetation have a much darker reputation, as many who enter the forest do so with the intention of ending their lives. This has given it the name "suicide forest".
The reputation goes back a long way, as monks would come to this forest to starve themselves to death. What it is about the forest that seems to draw such people, who can say? It's believed that the yurei (Japanese ghosts) torment those who enter the forest and try to drive them off the path (the forest is such a maze that people who enter often rely on sticky tape to lead them back out again).
Japanese authorities are doing what they can to deal with the forest's dark reputation. A sign at the entrance reminds visitors that life is precious, to think of their family and reach out. Volunteers wander the area seeking out solitary people who might be on the verge of giving into the dark impulses of Aokigahara Forest
11. The Gate to Hell in Darvaza, Turkmenistan
In the midst of the Karakum Desert lies a gaping, fiery hole; appearing from a distance as if it is peering into the depths of Hades itself.
In truth, it is simply a crater filled with toxic gasses, accidentally unleashed by a Soviet drilling rig in 1971. To prevent catastrophic gas emissions, they set the crater on fire, and the fires still burn to this day.
Only one person—Canadian explorer George Kourounis, has been allowed to venture into the crater. Wearing gear similar to that of an astronaut, he descended to the bottom of the cavern to collect soil samples. Surrounded by blazing fire and toxic gasses, he described it as feeling like "another planet". Analysis of the soil samples he retrieved revealed the presence of microbes, showing that life can exist even in such harsh conditions.
It's not only tourists who flock to this flaming pit. Hordes of desert spiders, drawn by the crater's light, scuttle towards it by the hundreds and leap to their deaths amid the fires.
12. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine
Haunted by the 1986 nuclear disaster that gave humanity a glimpse of the end; whether or not the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is inhabited by the ghosts of the dead is besides the question, as the entire region is itself the ghost of a dead landscape.
Most infamous among the zone's ghost towns is Pripyat, a once thriving settlement where many of the nuclear plant's workers and their families resided. Now it lies abandoned, with dilapidated buildings, empty playgrounds and rusted river boats being all that remains. The city has been frozen in time since 1986.
It's a glimpse of the potential end of humanity, and as Mark O’Connell writes in the New York Times Magazine, "it seemed to me that to travel there would be to look upon the end of the world from the vantage point of its aftermath".
Buchan, S. (2017, 30 October). Hoia Baciu: Inside the creepiest forest in Transylvania (The Independent). Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/hoia-baciu-transylvania-haunted-trees-ufo-ghosts-how-to-visit-camping-alex-surducan-marius-a8023136.html
Wagner, S. (2018, 9 July). The ghosts of Edinburgh Castle (liveabout.com). Retrieved from https://www.liveabout.com/the-ghosts-of-edinburgh-castle-3572726
The elemental (Leap Castle tourism website). Retrieved from http://leapcastle.net/?page_id=41
Leap Castle Ireland's most haunted castle (Visit Offaly tourism website). Retrieved from https://www.visitoffaly.ie/Things-to-do/Culture-Heritage/Leap-Castle-Ireland-s-most-haunted-Castle/
Motoko, R. (2018, 5 January). Long Before Video, Japanese Fought Suicide in the ‘Sea of Trees’. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/world/asia/suicide-forest-japan-logan-paul.html
O'Connell, M. (2020, 24 March). Why Would Anyone Want to Visit Chernobyl? (The New York Times). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/24/magazine/chernobyl-tourism.html
Carolina on January 09, 2015:
12/11/2012 at 3:15 pmCreepy lady! Thanks for sharing Nicholas. Another who can vifrey that most people in that village seem hostile. Why is it so disgruntling to have the odd stranger in a village? We get strange people all the time where i live and it's normal, as do most people. That village is freaky.Did anyone else notice that there was no bird song in the village? It was my daughter who pointed that out. It was very quiet too.There was a woman, not old, but middle aged, just staring at us when we pulled the car up. She stood so still and never even moved her head. She was stood in the garage at side of her house. She was about 30 feet away from us. I couldn't understand why she was stood that way. She never shouted anything, just stared and never moved. That old lady just appearing at your window like that would have freaked anyone out Nicholas, so not surprising you thought she might not be real.
Sombreritos on December 27, 2014:
11/11/2012 at 7:47 pmEvening all, I just wanted to let you know about my eienrxepce when I visited. I was working nearby at Clare and decided to have a look at Borley as I have had an interest in the tales and history of the rectory.It was about 1500hrs, and I pulled up outside the church to get my bearings.There were cottages nearby. From the time I pulled up,turned ignition off and leant to get my phone from the passenger seat (literally seconds) I had the fright of my life as a little old lady had appeared from nowhere at my drivers side window. I didn't see her anywhere when I pulled up, and if she had managed to get from the cottages to my car in that short space of time, she must have ran! Was very eerie. I wound down window, and she asked if I was lost. I told her I just wanted to see where the Rectory stood, and she got very angry, telling me its a myth, and nothing happened. I was quite taken aback as I was very pleasant. I apologised and got myself ready to go, started car. She went. I didn;t look to see where she went, but I was really freaked out. Disgruntled local? probably, but how did she get to my drivers side window that quick?! And she didn't even tap on the window, Just stood there staring.I drove away thinking, was she real? Far fetched I am sure you are thinking, but just wanted to share it.Was a strange moment.Nick
Mikyung on December 26, 2014:
03/11/2012 at 1:00 amit was good reading other pepole experiences at borley, I started doing reseach there 35 years ago,at my first visit I was just seventeen, I have been back there many times and stayed during the night making recordings, I was there two years ago, the place was so calm, it was a lovely day out, but no paranormal activity, it make me angry to see so called ghost hunters had left beer cans in the church gounds, idiots, stop being so stupid, no wonder the church is locked with idiots like you roaming free. Anyway going back to the more sensible involved in paranormal research I have had three conclusive experiences there, that has made me plan a further decade of research, god permitting of course, I will be investing in the latest paranormal meters and a good old fashioned EMF spirit light, minus the magnetic ring gimmick, to date I have photographed a hand 4ft in front of camera, witnessed build up's of electrical energy with a drop in termpreture, resulting in a large electrical crack, extremely loud witnessed by both myself and former home office employee, everything then returned to an uncanny calm, this took place at the rear of bugalow end of nuns walk, won't say what the other thing was as this may scare some pepole. I have had some other good experiences at a church near where I live, similar to the one described by those using the board, entity followed me all the way home, entered house slamed door, again lot's of electicity in the air, disipated after slaming open door violently, leaving me breathless on the verge of heart attack, who say's ghosts can't be dangerous, nor for the faint hearted. Will let you know my results in many moons, got used to them now they don't scare me as much as they used to. I know there's things go on at Borley, but at the moment they are unexplained as many of you confirm. hope to hear more stories. Happy hunting, night night, all.