Halloween lurks around the corner! Around the world, the creepiest of celebrations is primarily a tradition for expatriates from the US and Canada. In many places, the festival is quickly gaining in popularity as an import from American pop culture — mostly among teens who appreciate any excuse for costume parties or horror movie nights.
Personally, I associate the date with preparing the family plot for All Saints’ Day and rather prefer turnip ghosts to jack o’lanterns. However, my inner ten-year-old still enjoys a good spooky story — such as the folklore and urban legends associated with these “haunted” places across the globe.
If you are an expat living nearby or will be in the neighborhood during your travels, you could give ghost-hunting a try. Or simply enjoy the sights.
Himeji Castle, Japan
Himeji-jô is probably the most splendid castle from the samurai era: the well-preserved fortifications and extensive castle grounds recently reopened for the crowds of awed visitors after extensive renovation works. But the castle doesn’t just boast ingenious defenses and an aesthetic appeal that has given rise to its nickname, “White Heron Castle”. It even has its own haunted well.
If you listen closely, you might hear the mourning cries of poor Okiku: a maid serving in the household, she wasn’t only wrongly blamed for the loss of a precious porcelain plate, but also killed and thrown into the castle’s well. Perhaps you’ll get the chance to watch the traditional puppet play based on the story.
Highgate Cemetery, London
One of Britain’s most beautiful cemeteries, the burial ground in northern London is both a site of historical interest and a luxuriously overgrown nature reserve. Celebrities buried here include Victorian women writers George Eliot and Christina Rossetti, Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, and Karl Marx.
However, it’s not the specter of communism that’s haunting the necropolis. In the 1960s and 1970s, the graveyard became associated with ghost sightings, occult rites, and sundry supernatural phenomena. Not one, but two self-proclaimed “paranormal researchers” insist on having performed exorcisms and vampire hunts there.
Well. The scariest thing in the general vicinity is probably the rental price index for Highgate and Hampstead.
The Princess Theatre, Melbourne
Contrasted with the alleged satanic rituals and vampire kings of Highgate Cemetary, the resident ghost of Melbourne’s Princess Theatre seems almost quaint — though the story is based on a real-life tragedy. In the 19th century, Frederick Frederici, a British opera singer on tour in the colonies, collapsed when exiting the stage after the last scene of Gounod’s popular opera Faust. He died of a heart attack at the age of only 37.
The fact that Frederici, a celebrated baritone, was playing the part of Mephistopheles, the devil dragging Faust’s soul into hell, may have suggested the stories of his haunting the building. That, or the well-known tendency of theater folks to be a superstitious lot. For years, a seat in the auditorium was kept vacant for him.
One can only hope that Frederici — who owed his success to the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan — is just as fond of modern musical theater. Today, the Princess Theatre is both one of the city’s iconic landmarks and the local stage for hit productions in the vein of Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, or (aptly enough) The Phantom of the Opera.
Isla de las Muñecas, Mexico City
This island in the borough of Xochimilco is definitely not the right place to visit for anyone suffering from automatonophobia (fear of humanoid figures), pediophobia (fear of dolls), or pupaphobia (fear of puppets) — or anyone who, like me, was forced to sit through a viewing of Chucky: Child’s Play at the tender age of thirteen.
The isle — more precisely, the chinampa, a plot of artificially created arable land — is located amidst Xochimilco’s famous system of waterways. Even from one of the brightly colored gondolas, it’s easy to spot the broken dolls hanging from the branches.
The practice was started by a Don Julian, a local loner who “rescued” cast-off toys from the rubbish and used them to adorn his island. He made several outrageous claims concerning the dolls: he was trying to appease the soul of a drowned girl he’d seen floating in the water; he wanted to ward off evil spirits, or that the dolls came alive at night.
Though these stories (including the one about the victim of drowning) are all figments of an eccentric recluse’s imagination, the dolls look rather creepy. After Don Julian died in 2001, one of his relatives has been running the chinampa as an odd tourist attraction.
To be honest, you’d have to ply me with plenty of tequila before I’d set foot there.
Bran Castle, Brașov
If you have 95 million euros in spare cash tucked away in a secret stash, you’ll be able to purchase your very own haunted castle. Castelul Bran near Brașov in central Romania, better known as “Dracula’s Castle”, is up for grabs.
While the restored 14th-century fortress is, without a doubt, extremely picturesque, looking like a bona fide fairy-tale, there’s just a tiny catch: there’s no direct connection to the Dracula myth whatsoever.
It is unclear which, if any, location, author Bram Stoker had in mind when he described his hero visiting the ominous count’s mansion in the Carpathian Mountains. Moreover, the historical “Dracula”, Vlad III “the Impaler” Drăculea, Prince of Wallachia, has probably never stayed in this place at all.
Owing to its romanticized architecture and the impressive scenery, Bran Castle is one of Romania’s most beloved tourist attractions, with nearly 200,000 visitors per year. However, the well-deserved popularity does have a darkish backstory.
The Dracula-themed tourism is partly due to the fascination of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu with Vlad III. He regarded the voivode as a strict, but just national hero and co-opted that image for the personality cult of his dictatorship.
Maybe this example of propagandist myth-making is a salutary reminder that the most frightening tales from history are human rather than supernatural.
(Image credit: 1), 2), 3), 4), 6): iStockphoto 5) I See Dead Dolls by flickr user Esparta)