Gruesome legends. Pale, translucent apparitions. Ghostly wails in the night. For centuries, some of Europe’s most imperial castles have been plagued by phenomena of the supernatural variety, rumored to be visited by bloody, vengeful spirits and wronged, restless souls. This Halloween season, dare yourself to confront the phantoms that haunt these stately halls. Don’t believe in ghosts? Go ahead, take a stroll through that thick, crawling mist heavy with the stench of sulfur. We’re sure you’ll be just fine…
Blatce, Czech Republic
When it was built, the Houska Castle lacked a kitchen and fortification of any kind. It didn’t have any strategic importance or even any inhabitants. That’s because according to local legend, it was built to keep demons from escaping from the underworld.
When a gaping, seemingly bottomless hole opened in the Czech hillside, residents believed it was the literal gateway to Hell. Attempting to keep demons from clawing their way to the surface, a castle was erected directly above the hole. Any monsters who ventured up from the bowels of the earth would be trapped within the castle walls forever.
Before the gateway was sealed off, local prisoners were granted pardons if they agreed to be lowered into the hole and report their findings. It’s said that a few seconds after the first prisoner was lowered, he began screaming. When he was brought back up, his hair had turned white, his face was covered in wrinkles, and he had gone mad. He died soon after.
The castle was never inhabited (in reality it was an administrative center to manage royal estates), though Nazis did use the structure to conduct macabre experiments during World War II.
Originally called Leap of the O’Bannons, it’s almost hard to believe that the fate of this castle and its inhabitants is not the stuff of fairytales. Before the castle was built (between the 13th and 15th centuries), the brothers of the wealthy O’Bannon clan challenged each other to leap from a rock where the castle would be erected. The survivor would govern the clan and oversee the castle’s construction.
The O’Bannons’ rule of the castle was short-lived, however, as the conniving O’Carroll clan seized possession and imparted a gruesome legacy of their own. When the chief died, leaving no successor, a power struggle erupted between his two sons. Legend has it that, blinded by greed, one brother stabbed the other, a priest, as he held mass in the castle’s chapel. The room earned the nickname the Bloody Chapel, and the priest is rumored to haunt it nightly.
During restoration work in the 1900s, workmen discovered an oubliette—a secret trap-door dungeon—in the Bloody Chapel. Enough skeletons were uncovered there to fill three carts. The sadistic O’Carrolls had designed the dungeon so prisoners would fall through the trap door and land on a series of wooden spikes protruding from the floor eight feet below.
Among the castle’s rumored apparitions are former prisoners and a tempestuous English captain looking for his misplaced treasure. Some visitors report sightings of a violent sheep-like spirit (the Elemental) who reeks of sulfur and rotting flesh.
Also known as the Witches Castle, this 12th-century fortress was at the forefront of the grisly Salzburg Witch Trials between 1675 and 1690. During this period, the castle imprisoned, tortured, and executed hundreds of men and women accused of witchcraft. Many of these were young beggars who had no one to vouch for their character.
In the 1800s, a spate of mutilated deer and cattle were found around the castle grounds and surrounding area. Believed by villagers to be the work of werewolves, suspects were brought to the castle where they were tried and executed for their alleged crimes.
Today, castle staff and visitors report loud bangs and screams, in addition to the sensation of being breathed upon by an invisible presence.
Considered Britain’s most haunted castle, 13th-century Chillingham Castle certainly lives up to its name. Though its pristine, manicured grounds and richly decorated guest rooms paint an idyllic medieval picture, the dungeon and torture chamber deep within the castle walls tell a different story altogether. Built with sloped floors to let the blood drain, the torture chamber is a horrifying reminder of past atrocities. The room still contains an executioner’s block, eye-gouging equipment, and thumb screws used by John Sage—the castle’s villainous, blood-thirsty master of torture.
Sage’s most diabolical plot came at the end of the England’s war with the Scots. Needing a way to rid the castle of its prisoners, he rounded up the adults and burned them alive in the courtyard while their children were forced to watch from an upstairs room. Sage then slaughtered the children, one by one, with an axe that’s still on display above one of Chillingham’s stairwells.
Those hoping for a paranormal encounter are in luck! Visitors can take a guided ghost tour of the castle or spend the night in a coaching room or apartment. Apparitions are aplenty here. Guests of the Pink Room often report seeing flashes of blue light above their beds accompanied by deep, thunderous wails. Other ghostly visitors include the White Lady—a pale, thirsty poisoning victim—and the perpetually lonely Lady Mary Berkeley. Rumor has it that her husband ran off with her sister and left Mary alone with their baby daughter.
In 1578, a noblewoman named Ingeborg Skeel acquired Voergaard Castle. It’s said that she was so protective of her property that she drowned the architect in the moat so he could never design another building quite as beautiful. Because Skeel managed the estate herself, which was unusual for the time, she aroused suspicion. Locals accused her of witchcraft and merciless acts of cruelty, like whipping her maids and cutting off the fingers of children caught stealing.
History, however, complicates this cynical view of Skeel’s character. She was indeed power-hungry, but she used much of her resources for good. Her altruistic acts included donating money to the local poorhouse and funding the building of a hospital and school. Nonetheless, it is tales of her alleged barbarity that endure. After her death in 1604, the townspeople called a priest to exorcise Skeel’s demonic spirit from the castle. Locals still report seeing her ghost wandering the grounds at night, dressed all in white.
Ingeborg Skeel is not Voergaard’s only supernatural presence. In the northeastern tower room, there is a blood stain that centuries of scrubbing and sanding cannot remove. Though no paranormal activity has been reported in Rosedonten, the castle’s most notorious dungeon, the room is no less bone-chilling. Its size is such that an adult male prisoner could neither stand straight up nor lie down stretched. To add to the torment, the room lacks both ventilation and light.
Even if you don’t buy in to ghost stories, Voergaard is still worth a visit. It features a large display of works by Goya, Raphael, and El Greco, as well as furniture belonging to Kings Louis XIV and Louis XVI.
Born at Frankenstein Castle in 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel was a physician and alchemist obsessed with unlocking the secret to immortality. He created an animal-based concoction known as Dippel’s Oil—a potion supposedly capable of curing any malady. This potion led him to experiment with human cadavers, which he would exhume from nearby graveyards late at night. Ironically, Dippel allegedly died upon ingesting this “elixir of life,” which he had previously claimed would keep him alive to the age of 135. Nowadays, the castle is said to be haunted by Dippel and those whose bodies he unearthed for his experiments.
Though Dippel and the castle are thought by some to be the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein, there is no conclusive proof that she ever saw the castle, let alone heard stories of Dippel.
There’s not much to see inside the walls of this 14th-century Flemish Renaissance castle. There’s no artwork in the halls, no furniture in the living rooms, no pots or pans in the kitchen. The real fun comes outside its doors. Local residents claim that every night at midnight you can see the ghost of one of the castle’s previous owners, the Lord of Rode, approaching in a carriage pulled by six white horses. For allegedly murdering a priest who had an affair with his wife, his soul is doomed to remain restless.
Now a hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, the façade of this stately castle betrays none of its grim history. In 1536 the castle was given to King Christian III. Declaring Denmark a Lutheran state, he ordered all monasteries, abbeys, church schools, and cathedrals to renounce Catholicism. He converted the castle to a prison and incarcerated high-ranking ecclesiastical “offenders” who refused to embrace Lutheranism. Legend has it that Dragsholm is haunted by the souls of 100 former prisoners.
Another spirit said to dwell within the castle walls is Celina Bovles, the daughter of the noble Bovles family. In her adolescence, Celina fell in love with a castle laborer. Enraged by his daughter’s ties to a commoner, her father locked Celina in her room. While repairing the plumbing in the 1930s, workmen came across a small recess in the wall that contained a skeleton in the tatters of a white dress.