Welcome to Kala’s Quick Five, where I speak with authors about their work. With his usual well-researched documentation and lively writing style, Dr. Bob Curran writes about spooky places where ancient forces hold sway and he encounters ghosts, sinister specters, vampires, the living dead and doorways to other worlds. He chose a hair-raising collection of eerie investigations from his native Ireland, through the empty deserts of the Middle East, to the misty hills of Tibet and back through Europe to America–even venturing close to the Gates of Hell itself for his new book, The World’s Creepiest Places, which is the topic of our discussion today.
Kala: Bob, are there actually some places in the world where people shouldn’t really go? Where as they say, “fools rush in, where angels fear to tread?” Places where strange memories and ancient forces still linger, even in the modern everyday world?
Bob: After writing the book, I’m coming to the conclusion that perhaps there might be. I’m not just talking about haunted places – that wasn’t the purpose of the book. That would have been The World’s Most Haunted Places. I wanted to look at places where things had happened which maybe somehow defied rational thought and gave the individual the reaction which we call “creepy”. These are places which perhaps are dominated by the memory of one bizarre individual (such as Warleggan or Buckfastleigh) or where perhaps one form of reality ends and another begins, as in the Flannan Isles. So, particularly with the latter, people shouldn’t go to some of these places. My mind is still open on the subject but perhaps caution is still the best option.
Kala: Have you found that people receive physical warning when they approach or enter haunted places? Are we in fact hot‐wired to respond to such things? Perhaps this is what we mean when we talk about a place feeling “creepy” or of something “giving us the creeps”.
Bob: I think that the feeling that we call “creepy” is actually more of a reaction to a set of circumstances. This reaction is of course made up of a number of elements – perhaps the appearance or atmosphere of a site, such as a dilapidated old house or a lonely road for example, the history and tradition of the place and the associations that we have with that (has a murder been committed there maybe, or something terrible occurred) and there is perhaps also a sense of anticipation. We expect to be scared or maybe we are on edge in case something does happen to us. So in that respect, perhaps, a creepy feeling can serve as a warning although mainly I think it derives from a sense of anticipation within us.
Kala: In your book, you researched a castle built over a suspected entrance to Hell. What did you find when researching this area?
Bob: The place that you’re actually referring to is Houska Castle in the Czech Republic. It was believed that all over the world there were a number of entrances into Hell, whether they be formal Gateways of maybe just cracks in the earth, always assuming that Hell in somewhere below us, Houska Castle is supposedly built over one of these cracks. Strangely enough apart from being built over such a crack, there is no real reason for the castle to exist – it is not, for example, an important military fortification; it doesn’t guard any supply routes. It was simply built between the years 1253 and 1276 at a great deal of expense for no apparent purpose. It was, however, built over a large and extensive cave system which was said to be one of the Seven Entrances to the Infernal Regions.
It was built using convicted criminals and those who had been captured in foreign wars. However the king, Ottokar II of Bohemia who built the fortress, said that he would grant a pardon to any man who would go down into the cave system and find out where it led. The first man was lowered down on a rope but he had only been gone for a few moments when he screamed out to be hauled up again. Though he’d only been gone several minutes, he seemed to have aged thirty years. His hair had turned white and his face was covered in wrinkles. His mind was gone and he kept babbling about half-animal, half-human things that lived down there in the dark and huge winged things which flapped through the caverns. Was he on the very Borderlands of Hell? Nobody else volunteered to go down but over the years, there have been stories about an alternate world lying far below us.
Some of this seems to have seeped into the Castle itself as some of the guests there – the place became a kind of Renaissance Castle in later periods – complained over strange figures along the corridors and evil smells in some of the rooms. One in particular, a tall figure in black, robed like a monk, is frequently seen as is a small hunched shape, accompanied by a foul stench, which is seen in the corners of some of the rooms, disappearing as soon as it is approached. Although it’s supposed to be very grand and beautiful, it’s not a place where I would choose to spend a holiday I can tell you!
Kala: You also looked into the stories of a mysterious island that is reported to drift in and out of other realities. Were you able to locate the island?
Bob: This is the uninhabited island of Eilean Mor (the big island) in the Flannan Isles lying out to the West of Scotland. It is a bleak and windswept place but even today, locals on the neighboring islands, especially the island of Lewis, still refer to it as “the other country”, where one reality ends and another begins. And there is something – uncomfortable – about the place. You get the sensation that you are being watched all the time and when the wind roars in the gullies amongst the rocks you have the sensation of all sorts of voices speaking and calling to you.
The only man made structures on the island are the ruins of an ancient church, dating from the 8th century and dedicated to St. Flannan the patron of these islands, and a fairly modern lighthouse. In 1900, three keepers vanished from the lighthouse and no trace of them has ever been found. They vanished around Christmas but their disappearance was not discovered until Boxing Day. Were they carried away by fearful weather which had raged through the islands? Were they taken by some awful sea-monster which rose up out of the deep or did a storm open a portal between one world and another and they accidentally crossed over? These are some of the theories which have surrounded the now-famous disappearance. Some will even tell you that the three men are still there, unseen on the other side of a dimensional wall and in another reality, still trying to find their way back into our own world which they left all those years ago. It is easy to dismiss such stories as fanciful nonsense and yet when you are standing on the lonely island, waiting for a boat to come and take you off again, it is easy to believe that the sound of the wind in the rocky gullies are the cries of missing lighthouse men, calling desperately for help. A very creepy place indeed!
Kala: Bob, you explored vampires, ghosts, the living dead and other supernatural stories and creatures. Which one scared you the most and convinced you that it was absolutely real and thriving?
Bob: This is a difficult question to answer. I’ve always come to the subject of the supernatural whether it be ghosts, creepy places or strange creatures with, I think, an open and enquiring mind. These things may exist or they may not. It’s up to me to look at the evidence and draw my own conclusions. I suppose that over the years, such an approach has almost made me a sceptic and things tend to scare me less.
For example, one of the locations which I mention in the book – Leap Castle in County Offaly, Ireland – is supposedly one of the most haunted castles in Western Europe. I have been there several times and it has never bothered me. Mary, my wife, on the other hand will not set a foot inside the door – the place totally “creeps her out”. That’s what I mean by the idea of response to a place. By the same token I did feel uncomfortable on Eilean Mor, the island which I mentioned in my previous answer, but I suppose the place which chilled me the most was the Belsen Concentration Camp which I visited several years ago when I was giving a lecture in Germany. But that wasn’t for supernatural reasons but because of the atrocities which had been committed there. As for which of the creatures I believe might exist – I am always asked by people “Are such things real?” My answer is always the same – if they are real to you, then they are real.
Want to know more about the locations we discussed here and many more? Check out Dr. Bob Curran’s book – The World’s Creepiest Places. Dr. Bob Curran was born in a remote area of County Down, Northern Ireland, but left to travel and work in the United States, France, Italy, Mexico, North Africa, Spain, Holland, and parts of Eastern Europe. This has given him insight into the cultures and beliefs of people around the world. Living again in Northern Ireland, he holds several university degrees and acts as a consultant to such bodies as the Office of First, Deputy First Minister, and Tourism Ireland Ltd. He is author of many popular books on folklore such as Vampires; Werewolves; Man-Made Monsters; and Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms (all published by New Page Books). He can be found musing on drbobcurran.blogspot.com.