10 Places Straight Out of Your Nightmares
This Halloween, instead of staying home and handing out candy, do something really scary. Book a trip to one of these petrifying places and confront your deepest fears.
1. THE DOOR TO HELL // TURKMENISTAN
In the middle of the Karakum Desert in central Turkmenistan is a 230-foot-wide crater that has been on fire for more than 40 years. Locals call it the “Door to Hell” or the “Gates of Hell”—and if you stand on the edge of the enormous bowl of flames and breathe in the sulfurous stench, it’s easy to see why. Thousands of methane-fueled fires in the pit blast a wall of heat that George Kourounis called "scorching." The explorer, who in 2013 plumbed the 65-foot-deep inferno wearing a protective suit to see if anything lived in the soil at the bottom (the answer: yes, bacteria), told National Geographic that "the shimmer from the distortion of it warping the air around it is just amazing to watch, and when you're downwind, you get this blast of heat that is so intense that you can't even look straight into the wind. You have to shield your face with your hand just standing at the crater's edge."
The origin of the hellish hole is somewhat mysterious, but the most common explanation is that in 1971, Soviet geologists were drilling for oil when a huge pocket of natural gas caused the ground to collapse under their rig. One of the craters that formed started spewing noxious methane and the scientists decided to light it on fire in the hopes that the gas would quickly burn off. More than four decades later, the fire rages on, a Hadean barbeque fueled by a seeming endless supply of gas.
2. HAW PAR VILLA // SINGAPORE
Another more “human” version of hell can be found at Haw Par Villa, a sprawling theme park in Singapore built in 1937 by the sons of the creator of the medicated ointment Tiger Balm. Soothing this park is not: It’s filled with more than 1000 plaster statues depicting scenes from Chinese mythology, including limbless rats and a creepy human-headed crab. The real horrors, though, lie in the Ten Courts of Hell, a stone tunnel lined with larger-than-life-sized dioramas that display in gruesome detail the punishments that await sinners in the next life. Helpful captions tell visitors what crime was committed. A man having his intestines pulled out was guilty of cheating on an exam; the people being thrown onto a hill of knives are being punished for charging exorbitant interest rates. The exhibit was originally intended to teach children morality, but reportedly did a better at job giving them nightmares.
3. ILHA DE QUEIMADA GRANDE (A.K.A. SNAKE ISLAND) // BRAZIL
About 90 miles off the coast of Brazil is Ilha da Queimada Grande, a lush island that looks, from afar, like the perfect uncrowded vacation spot. But the island is actually mobbed—not with people, but with snakes. An estimated 2000 to 4000 golden lancehead vipers (Bothrops insularis), one of the world’s deadliest snakes, live on the tiny island. Researchers estimate that in some areas, there is one snake per square meter.
How did one island end up overrun by so many snakes? The answer goes back about 11,000 years, when sea levels rose and separated the hilly piece of land from the mainland. The snakes that became stranded on the newly formed island evolved differently from their relatives on the mainland. The island snakes had no ground-level predators so they reproduced rapidly. They slithered up trees to kill birds, their main prey, and because they couldn’t chase down birds after biting them, their venom evolved to become extremely powerful and fast acting. It kills most prey almost instantly and can kill a person in under an hour, in part by melting the flesh around the bite.
Not surprisingly, today the Brazilian government doesn’t allow anyone except scientific researchers (and those with special permission) to visit the island. But between 1909 and 1920, several people lived on the island to keep the lighthouse running. According to local legend, the last lighthouse keeper and his family met a gruesome end. One night a bunch of snakes crawled in the window of their house. The family fled the cottage and started running through the forest to get to their boat. But vipers in the trees overhead reached down and bit them too, and they never made it off the island.
4. GHOST CHURCH // CZECHIA
When visitors enter St. George’s Church in Czechia (formerly known as the Czech Republic) for the first time, they are likely to gasp and shudder. It’s not the dilapidated condition of the 14th century building, but the 30 ghostly figures that occupy the pews and aisles. Shrouded in white, the hooded phantoms look as if they’ve been waiting centuries for mass to begin. In fact, they’ve been there only since 2014, when local sculptor Jakub Hadrava created the plaster statues to memorialize German-speaking congregants who were forced to flee the village of Luková after World War I. The ghosts neatly reference the congregation’s longstanding belief that their church is haunted, which made them abandon the building in 1968 (they held services outdoors instead). In recent years, worshippers decided to restore the church, and donations left by thousands of visitors who have come to see the ghosts are making it possible.
5. THE TEMPLE OF RATS // INDIA
If you are trying to confront your fear of rats, a visit to the Karni Mata Temple (a.k.a. the Temple of Rats) in Deshnoke, India, may do the trick—if it doesn’t send you right over the edge. An estimated 20,000 rats live inside the marble building and they have free run of the place, which was designed expressly for them. They scuttle across the floors and disappear into custom-built holes in the wall; they claw their way up the ornate gates; and they take naps perched on the wall decorations.
The rats are believed to be descendants of Karni Mata, a 15th-century mystic believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, and they live a suitably pampered life. Their caretakers call them “little children” and feed them large bowls of milk, coconut, grains, and sweets. Tourists are welcome to visit the temple and are advised to arrive late at night to experience maximum rat activity. After dark, the rats swarm across the floor looking for food. Visitors must remove their shoes, so chances are good that a rat (or two or three) will scamper across their bare feet, but not to worry: it’s said to bring good luck.
6. CAPUCHIN MUMMIES // ITALY
It’s considered rude to stare at strangers—if you're alive, that is. Mummies will stare shamelessly, not caring if you look back or turn away in horror. To experience a macabre staring contest firsthand, head for the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo, Italy, where over 1000 mummies lie in open coffins, perch on benches, and lean against the walls as if waiting for a friend. Many of the corpses still have their skin and most are wearing their finest outfits (though they've become tattered with age). But it’s their expressions that horrify: Some have their jaws open as if in mid-scream; others seem to be clutching themselves in laughter and grinning, exposing rotted teeth.
This display of mummies is now a scary tourist attraction. But scary is not what the monks who built the catacombs more than 400 years ago were going for. The cemetery they had been using to bury their dead was full, so they dug a new crypt under their church. When they discovered that the cool, dry air in the crypt naturally mummified the bodies, they decided they liked the idea and began draining and drying corpses to preserve them even better. When wealthy residents of Palermo heard about the practice, they, too wanted to “live” forever and they started paying the monks to preserve their loved ones and display them in the catacombs.
In 1881, the Italian government outlawed mummification at the monastery, but an exception was made in 1920 for a 2-year-old girl named Rosalia Lombardo, who had died of pneumonia or Spanish flu. An expert embalmer named Alfredo Salafia used his secret mummification formula to great effect: the child, known as “Sleeping Beauty,” is so perfectly preserved that she appears to be merely napping.
7. GOMANTONG CAVES // MALAYSIA
Cockroaches. Bats. Centipedes. Rats. Each one alone often elicits disgust or fear. At Gomantong Caves in Borneo, they all live together, in a very dark place, creating the perfect storm of frightening fauna.
The more accessible of Gomantong’s two main caves is the Black Cave. It’s home to an estimated 275,000 wrinkle-lipped bats (Chaerephon plicatus) [PDF], which are responsible for the thick carpet of guano on the cave floor. Visitors can avoid stepping in the stuff by staying on the elevated walkway, but it’s impossible to dodge the rotten-egg-stench. Shine a flashlight on the guano, and it appears to be moving, an effect caused by the quivering mass of cockroaches that lives there. The roaches devour the occasional bird or bat that drops down from the ceiling, but mainly they feast on the guano, sharing the buffet with rats, beetles, and freshwater crabs that live in the cave. The 3-inch-long poisonous centipedes that dart along the cave walls pass on the guano and eat the cockroaches instead.
There is one more potential source of anxiety for visitors to Gomantong Caves. A noose hangs from a tree near the entrance to the Black Cave. It’s a warning to any unauthorized person who tries to remove the nests built by swiftlets in the cave’s ceiling. The nests are prized for making bird’s nest soup.
8. ISLAND OF THE DOLLS // MEXICO
More than half a century ago, a hermit named Don Julian Santana Barrera was living alone on an abandoned island on Teshuilo Lake in the Xochimilco Canals area of Mexico City. One day he noticed a doll floating in the water near a spot where he believed a girl had drowned many years before. He pulled the doll from the water and hung it from a nearby tree. It was the start of an obsession. Santana began pulling old dolls from canals and rubbish heaps and stringing them from trees all over the island. Eventually, day visitors to the island starting bringing Santana more dolls and by the 1990s, hundreds of the tattered toys stared blankly from the trees, many missing limbs or heads.
It’s not clear what motivated Santana to create the forest of mutilated dolls. Some speculate that he was haunted by the dead girl’s spirit and the dolls were meant to honor her. Others say he believed the dolls protected the island. Whatever the reason, the bizarre display now attracts tourists with a taste for the macabre. In an eerie twist, when Santana died in 2001, his body was found in the same waters where he believed the girl had drowned decades before.
9. PARIS CATACOMBS // FRANCE
Five stories beneath the streets of Paris is the Catacombs, a labyrinth of tunnels more than 200 miles long left by the quarrying operations that supplied the stone used to build the city. Walking through the dank, pitch-black corridors is not for the faint of heart, but it’s the ossuary section that’s truly chilling. The walls are covered floor to ceiling with the skulls and bones of more than 6 million Parisians.
The ossuary was created more than 200 years ago to address a major public health crisis. The city’s cemeteries had been overflowing for decades and in 1780 [PDF], the largest, Les Innocents, was finally closed after years of complaints about the public health hazard. The city decided to move the contents of the graves into the quarry tunnels. At first, the bones were simply dumped in piles, but in 1810, a city official decided to use them to create a macabre work of art. He arranged skulls and long bones in neat rows along the walls and ceilings and added inscriptions, including a welcome sign that reads, “Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort" (“Halt, this is the realm of Death”).
Today you can take a tour of a mile-long bone-filled stretch of the tunnels or explore the larger labyrinth using one of the unofficial entrances throughout the city. Exploring the tunnels on one’s own can be risky, though. In 2011, three people got lost for two days in the giant maze, which is so far under ground that cell phones don’t work. Luckily, the trio left behind notes as they searched for an exit, and one of the notes helped the police find them.
10. NARCISSE SNAKE DENS // CANADA
Every spring, as many as 50,000 red-sided garter snakes congregate in rocky pits inside caves in Narcisse, Manitoba, in what is the world’s largest gathering of snakes. They emerge from the deep limestone crevices where they have spent the winter to perform a mating dance that is at once fascinating and repulsive.
Groups of up to 100 male snakes form squirming, hissing masses called “mating balls” around a single female. The males vie for her affection by trying to rub her head with their chins and make as much body contact as possible. The female responds by trying to escape.
Tourists can watch the action from viewing platforms. Photographer Paul Colangelo got much closer to the writhing mass and discovered that the males were so fixated on their love interest that they slithered right over him: “If you're not a female snake, you might as well be a rock," he told National Geographic. "The instant you sit down, you're literally covered with them.”