Jumat, Januari 25, 2008
The World's Creepiest Places
Step away from that pumpkin! While we're more than happy to get into the swing of Halloween, we refuse to do a roundup of the trite and not-so-true haunted hotels around the world. Nonetheless, in our travels we've happened upon a number of places that are genuinely creepy, from a dive site among WWII wrecks in Micronesia to a tour through the eerie, abandoned town near Chernobyl in the Ukraine. You'd be wrong to dismiss these destinations as merely spooky stop-offs, too. Many have true historical significance (the Paris Catacombs and its links to the French Revolution), while others are destinations of great beauty (the Easter Islands in the Pacific Ocean). So in the spirit (sorry) of the season, here are 13 (sorry again) of the world's weirdest destinations. Sensitive souls should read on with caution.
India's Bhangarh, in the Rajasthan region north of Jaipur, is a town with a mysterious history. Built in the 1630s, it was abruptly abandoned ten years later for reasons that are still unclear. Legend has it that after a convoluted series of events involving a princess and a jar of enchanted oil, a massacre occurred and the town was never repopulated. Nowadays there are tourists aplenty by day, but no one stays at night. This might have something to do with the supposed curse placed on the town by a jealous shaman. Even the local archeological office is located half a mile away (better safe than sorry). But the magnificent ruins—not to mention the Palace of Prostitutes—imply that Bhangarh was something of a Gomorrah of extravagant goings-on. Perhaps that history—and not the ghost stories—is why a sign at the entrance reads, "Staying here after sunset is strictly prohibited." Either way, we're happy to rest our heads at the ultra-luxe Amanbagh resort six miles away.
Mütter Museum, Philadelphia
From the sliced human head floating in a glass case, à la Damien Hirst, to the gruesome collection of preserved presidential tumors and a plaster cast of Siamese twins Chang and Eng (as well as their actual conjoined livers), Philadelphia's Mütter museum is a must-see, especially for those who found the movie Dead Ringers oddly compelling. Part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical school complex in North America, it combines exhibits of pathological objects, surgical tools, and anatomical curiosities. Other wonders on display include the tallest skeleton in North America and a collection of 2,000 objects removed from people's throats, each with its own case history. There is an almost gleeful disconnection between the museum's mission—"to advance the cause of health, and uphold the ideals and heritage of medicine"—and the often shocking displays. High on the ugh-list are the painted papier-mâché models of the effects of gangrene and the wax faces with various eye injuries; the air outside is bound to seem fresh afterward, no matter what the weather.
Truk Lagoon, Chuuk, Micronesia
A ship ripped neatly in half offers a perfect cutaway view of life and death on the high seas. Everything is encrusted with barnacles, from cabins and boiler rooms to onboard assault tanks and airplanes. Much of the Japanese Navy's WWII fleet lies in the shallow Truk Lagoon in a volcanic valley in Micronesia, part of the Caroline Islands 3,200 miles southwest of Hawaii. Now a deep-blue diver's paradise (it was the subject of a Jacques Cousteau documentary in 1971), this was where the Allies sunk more than 60 battleships and aircraft carriers in 1944, many going down with their crews trapped inside. While swimming through the wrecks, you can spot gas masks, sake cups, and the odd "human remain." The ships are corroding fast and many have become full-fledged coral reefs, but they still provide a jaw-dropping testimony to the ravages of war. Tour companies, including the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop, offer excursions for experienced divers.
Sonora Witchcraft Market, Mexico City, Mexico
Witches packed into tightly spaced stalls proffer advice and spells for $10, promising quick ends to poverty and spousal infidelity, while some rather unhappy-looking exotic animals—iguanas, frogs, and wild birds—are for sale in cages. This is the Sonora Witchcraft Market, open daily to pilgrims from Mexico City and far beyond who come to have their fortunes read and attempt to find a shortcut to a better life. The market is a labyrinth of stalls that cover a few city blocks, and it's the regional source for "spiritual" stuff ranging from potions derived from ancient Aztec recipes to Buddha statues. For hard-core enthusiasts, perhaps some rattlesnake blood or a dried hummingbird will give your fortunes a jolt. But you should be aware that witchcraft in Mexico is no joke: The National Association of Sorcerers has weighed in on presidential elections, casting spells to make them free and fair. And of course there's a dark side, such as bad-luck charms from the Santerí—a religion that scares the daylights out of locals—and don't give anyone in Mexico a black candle unless you really, really mean it.
Easter Island, Chile
One of the most unnerving things about the 30-foot carved heads that dot Easter island is that they're not looking out at you as you arrive; the famous unsmiling moai sculptures look inward from the sea, as if guilty of some crime. Perhaps it has something to do with the virtual disappearance of the people who made them. At only 63 square miles, tiny Easter Island is home to more mystery for its size than just about anyplace else on earth. The Rapa Nui people, nearly extinct a century ago but flourishing now, kept no written records of how they moved the enormous moai around the island, sometimes as far as 14 miles, from the volcanic quarry where they were carved. We like the theory that UFOs were behind it all. It's said that the Rapa Nui grew so devoted to their stone heads that they sacrificed their civilization in the interest of bigger, better, and more perfect specimens. The island's now accessible via Chile (a five-and-a-half-hour flight), and the new Explora property offers a range of treks, as well as luxury accommodation.
Manchac Swamp, Louisiana
As your boat pushes out into the swamp by torchlight, ancient cypress trees and Spanish moss drape across the water. That far-off howl you hear might just be the rou-ga-rou, the Cajun version of the Wolfman. The Manchac Swamp, a.k.a. the "haunted swamp," near New Orleans is a Southern Gothic fan's dream. An imprisoned voodoo queen is said to have cast a curse on these watery surroundings around the turn of the last century, resulting in the disappearance of three hamlets in a hurricane in 1915. The occasional corpse still surfaces in this otherwise untouched bird sanctuary, left alone by commercial development for more than 100 years. Torchlit nighttime boat tours are offered by the Old River Plantation Adventure. But beware: As anyone who has spent a night in the wild can tell you, nature can be anything but gentle, and the staring red-eyed alligators can give you a real fright as they watch your boat cruise slowly by.
Bran Castle, Bran, Romania
A vertiginous hilltop climb leads to a storybook castle that seems to have no horizontal surfaces: Endless stairways and towers are all that is visible. Inside, underground passageways connect dozens of rooms containing rococo antiques and suits of armor. All that's missing from Dracula's Castle, as Bran Castle is known, is a stormy night and a lightning bolt to illuminate the scene. A cloud of legend, local folklore, and literary pedigree hang over the dramatic fortress, perched 200 feet above the Romanian town of Bran. The castle has certainly reaped a PR bonanza as the setting for Bram Stoker's Dracula, with a reported 450,000 visitors a year—not bad for an isolated spot in Eastern Europe. The name comes from the notoriously sadistic tyrant Vlad the Impaler, known as Vlad Dracula, who is said to have used the castle as an occasional base of operations. Vlad earned his nickname by hoisting tens of thousands of enemies on stakes; one engraving shows him feasting alone at a table surrounded by a veritable forest of his victims hanging on spikes. Bram Stoker got wind of Vlad's legend and, after a visit to Romania, modeled Count Dracula's castle on this one. The castle is quite tourist-friendly, but just be aware that it closes at 4 pm, lest the sun set before visitors are safely away.
Paris Catacombs, Paris, France
Bones and skulls are stacked on either side of a narrow corridor like merchandise at a warehouse—a lot of merchandise. The air is close and cool, with just a hint of decomposition, and there's rude graffiti dating from the French Revolution, mainly about the king and the feeble nobility. Once inside, you can easily see why Victor Hugo and Anne Rice have set stories in Paris's famous Catacombs. Snaking some 187 miles through underground passages around the city, only a tiny portion is open to the public—it's said that the rest is patroled by the legendary cataflics, a special underground police force. Though guided tours are available, it's more creepy and effective to go on your own, when it's just you and millions of bones lit by the occasional low-wattage bulb. The catacombs were originally a Roman-era quarry, but when the Innocents Cemetery in central Paris started overflowing to the point of being a public health hazard in 1785, the tunnels came into their present state. Bones were carted off in elaborate nighttime ceremonies, and until 1814 the catacombs filled up with Paris's dead. You can reach out and rattle the ivory yourself if you like, but the greatest chill is in wondering which of them didn't die of natural causes.
Winchester House, San Jose, California
The Winchester "Mystery" House is a colossal construction built on a foundation of superstition. It's said that Sarah Winchester, heiress to the arms company, was told by a soothsayer that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles would haunt her unless she moved from Connecticut to the West and built a house that could never be finished in her lifetime. Construction started in 1884 in San Jose, California, and kept going nonstop for 38 years until her death. Now the house's 160 rooms are haunted by her madness and packed with bizarre details: Staircases go straight into the ceiling, doors open onto blank walls, spider motifs abound, and candelabras, coat hooks, and steps are arranged in multiples of 13. Reports of banging doors, footsteps in the night, moving lights, and doorknobs turning of their own accord have been occurring since the house was opened to the public. Tour options include Flashlight Tours every Friday the 13th and Halloween. But you don't have to believe in ghosts to be blown away by the scale and intricacy of the place, or the folly involved in building it.
Szoborpark, Budapest, Hungary
A towering Lenin addresses a now-absent city square, while Marx and Engels, wearing holy robes and carrying religious-looking texts (surely their own), are crumbling nearby. Budapest's Szoborpark is a collection of retired Soviet-era iconography just outside Budapest. A pavilion warehousing 40 years of often kitschy, sometimes terrifying, and overdone public statuary, the park is a brilliant solution to the problem that came up with liberation from Soviet tyranny in 1991: What to do with all that official art? While the rest of the former Soviet republics couldn't get rid of their Lenins fast enough, the Budapesters decided to round them up and put them on display. As you walk around, all those stony stares create the uncanny feeling that you're being watched. Take a 30-minute public bus ride from the city's central Déak Tér stop; you have 40 minutes to wander before the bus goes back into town.
Abbey of Thelema, Cefalù, Sicily, Italy
Aleister Crowley is perhaps the world's most infamous occultist, and this now-overgrown stone ranch-style house with hallways full of dark pagan frescoes was once the world capital of his satanic orgies. Or so it was reported in the 1920s. Crowley is now known for his famous fans, including Jimmy Page and Marilyn Manson, and the fact that he appears on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. He founded the Abbey of Thelema—named after a utopia described in Rabelais' Gargantua whose motto is "Do as thou wilt"—in 1920 in the beach town of Cefalù, Sicily. It became a free-love commune with a dark side: Newcomers were forced to spend the night in the "Chamber of Nightmares," where, high on hashish and opiates, they stared at frescoes of earth, heaven, and hell. After a British society dandy named Raoul Loveday died of a fever contracted at the Abbey, the press had a field day, leading an embarrassed Benito Mussolini to expel the commune in 1923. Notorious underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger unearthed the compound in 1945 and made a movie there, although mysteriously the film was subsequently lost. The Abbey is now a collapsed semi-ruin, overrun with vegetation, but inside there are some original hellish frescoes that Crowley used to scare his disciples into shape. Intrepid and esoterically minded visitors visiting Sicily can wander the grounds and get some vibes, though no official tours are available.
Mary King's Close, Edinburgh, Scotland
Hidden below Edinburgh's medieval Old Town is a series of subterranean streets with an unsavory past. Mary King's Close is where plague victims were quarantined and left to die in the 17th century, and paranormal activity abounds down there. You might, for instance, feel some gentle tugging at your hands and legs by an unseen force. The cause is believed to be the ghost of Annie, a young girl abandoned by her parents in 1645. More than a hundred years later, in classic horror-tale fashion, a grand new building was constructed over Mary King's Close, leaving the streets, including the plague ghosts, intact underground. In 2003, the surprisingly well-preserved Close was opened to visitors, drawn by tales of its supernatural goings-on. Tour guides will accompany you down a stone staircase to the vaultlike, oppressive lanes. In addition to Annie's Room, there are typical re-creations of bygone lifestyles and plague deaths. Just remember to keep on moving, especially when you feel a sudden chill.
Chernobyl, Pripyat, Ukraine
Walk through the abandoned town of Pripyat in the Ukraine, and you'll find a large-scale crime scene abandoned in a hurry: A nursery full of children's shoes, and apartment complexes with the morning newspaper, dated April 28, 1986, open on the breakfast table. Two days before, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, minutes away, melted down, but it took 48 hours for the authorities to alert locals and clear them out of the world's biggest nuclear disaster site. Now that radiation levels are safe for short-term exposure, Chernobyl's nuclear complex has become an unlikely tourist attraction since opening to visitors in 2002. The power complex is at the center of the 20-mile-radius "Exclusion Zone," a regrown area of forests now populated by wolves and bears. Reactor #4 is the star of this sad show, today sheathed in a concrete and lead sarcophagus 200 feet high. A tour organization called Welcome to Ukraine offers day trips from Kiev via bus (you're advised to book two weeks in advance): You'll tour the forest and get to inspect the plant's exterior, including mounting an observation post to see the reactor, before walking to Pripyat, which was built in the 1970s and celebrated in official USSR propaganda as the "world's youngest town." It died young, but failed to leave a beautiful corpse.
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