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8 Scary Tale Castles

When I posted 7 Fairy Tale Castles, there were quite a few castles that didn't make the cut. Some were just too frightening to think of as part of a children's princess-type story, but the legends behind them make great tales for telling around a campfire on a dark and spooky night.

1. Dalhousie

Dalhousie Castle was built in the 13th century on the banks of the Esk River in Scotland, not far from Edinburgh. The first resident was Simon of Ramsay, and the castle stayed with the same clan for almost 800 years until 1977. Legend has it that a Ramsay lord of the 16th century had a mistress named Lady Catherine. When his wife found out, she imprisoned Catherine in the castle and starved her to death. Her ghost is said to haunt Dalhousie Castle to this day, sometimes tapping guests on the shoulder. Dalhousie is now a luxury hotel and a popular spot for weddings. Ownership of the castle changed hands just a couple of months ago. Photograph by Flickr user John Ross.

2. Houska

Houska Castle is nicknamed The Gateway to Hell. Built in the 13th century in what is now the Czech Republic, it is said to have been constructed over a bottomless well that is a portal to hell, and therefore the structure was built to contain it instead of protecting residents from outside forces. The legend says:

When construction of the castle began, local prisoners who had been sentenced to death were invited to the site and offered a reprieve for being lowered down into the cave and then reporting there findings.

The first volunteer was lowered down, and after only a few seconds after disappearing into the darkness his screams were heard above. When unfortunate fellow was pulled to the surface his hair had gone white and he was still screaming. The prisoner was sent to an insane asylum where he died two days later from unknown causes.

The current owners have renovated the castle, and opened it to the public for the first time only in 1999. Houska Castle was the subject of the TV show Ghost Hunters International in 2009.

3. Leap

Offaly

Leap Castle is in County Offaly, Ireland. It was built by the violent O’Carroll clan in the early 1500s, and was the scene of numerous murders, often among family members. The victims are said to still walk the halls, and even move things around. Another legend says that the castle was built over a druid initiation site, and maintains the spiritual energy that caused it to be chosen for that purpose. The most common apparition at Leap Castle is called the Elemental, although who it is supposed to represent is still debated. Photograph by Flickr user ChiaLynn.

4. Predjama

Castillo de Predjama

Predjama Castle in Slovenia is built into the entrance of a cave system that runs through the mountain, making it a siege-proof fortress. It was first constructed in the 14th century, and expanded several times. Predjamski Castle has its own railway and concert hall! You can see panoramic photos of the castle interior and the cave under the castle. The cave beneath has three entrances, handy for exit in case of attack. There is reportedly a torture chamber inside the castle, and a deep pit with ancient murder victims at the bottom. Photograph by Flickr user Sergio Morchon.

5. Chillingham

Chillingham Castle

Chillingham Castle is in Northumberland, near the England-Scotland border. Originally built in the 12th century as a monastery, it became a military stronghold in the medieval battles between the two nations. The current owners claim that it is the most haunted castle in Britain, with sporadic appearances by the “blue boy,” Lady Mary Berkeley, and other ghosts. Photograph by Flickr user Jo Jordan.

6. Bran

This is Bran Castle near Brasov, in the Transylvania region of Romania. It has become famous as "Dracula's Castle," but historians don’t think the despot Vlad the Impaler ever actually lived there. According to some accounts, he spent a couple of days in the dungeon of Bran Castle as the guest of the Ottoman Empire. However, Bran Castle inspired Bram Stoker’s writings, and it was also used in some Dracula films. It's scary-lookingenough!

7. Poenari

Vlad Tepes actually lived at Poenari Citadel in the Wallachia region of Romania. High on the side of a mountain, it was an imposing military fortress. Poenari was abandoned in the 16th century. A landslide in 1888 brought down some of the walls. To see the ruins of Poenari Castle, you must climb 1,426 steps (or just click here). You can also see a speculation on what the fortress looked like at its peak. When you consider the thousands of people Vlad put to death here, the site becomes chilling. Photograph by Wikipedia member Beata Jankowska.

8. Huniazilor

Entrance

Hunyad Castle (Castelul Huniazilor) is in Hunedoara, Romania, a Transylvanian town. It was built by King Carol Robert of Anjou (also known as Charles I) in 1307 and completed in 1315. It was restored in the mid-15th century and modified many times since then. It also goes by the name Corvin Castle (Castelul Corvine?tilor) and even more names in other languages. This castle was in Hungary when it was owned by King Matthias Corvin, a contemporary of Vlad III. Corvin, a former friend, imprisoned Vlad in Hunyad Castle for seven years, but then became allies again and Vlad was set free. Vlad's lengthy stay in the castle gives it a valid reason to be called "Dracula's Castle," which lends itself to tourism. The British TV show The Most Haunted Live! filmed for three nights in the castle in 2007. Photograph by Flickr user R Sears.
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Food
8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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