Just slap some spackle over it: Castle Houska and the gateway to Hell

About an hour outside of Prague, alone among thick forest, swamps, and mountains, there sits a 13th-century castle atop a sheer limestone cliff. The castle Houska (Hoe-skuh) has no outward-facing fortifications, and is guarded only by a lone statue of the saint Ludmila, now weathered and half-covered with moss. Houska cannot be reached by bus, and is too remote to bike to. The only way in is by car.

Castle Houska
Castle Houska.

Though the years have added new structures and purpose to Houska, its original, deeply odd shape remains. It must have taken an enormous amount of time and resources to erect that original structure, but when it was finished, there was little in it that made sense, and even less to encourage human habitation.  Houska was not positioned along any trade route, political line, or militarily strategic position. There was no water nearby. There was no kitchen. Some even claim that many of its windows were fake–stone frames that looked pretty from the outside, but let no light within. 

Most strangely of all, the castle had no fortifications of any kind. At least–it’s fortifications were not facing the outside. All instead turned within, aimed toward a chapel built over layers upon layers of heavy stone slabs. 

The walls of the chapel are thick. Unusual frescos stretch along them: Saint Michael the Archangel skewers a horned demon. A left-handed centaur aims her arrow at another woman’s throat. As the sun lowers down over the mountains, light disappearing off the altar, screams can be heard echoing from under the rock. 

The chapel.

Pit of despair

One of the great things about Houska is how far back its story goes. It could well be that humans inhabited (or avoided) its site since pre-recorded history. The stories that we can corroborate begin around AD 900, when a Slavic prince built a wooden castle there in honor of his beloved son. No sooner did people start to move in did a great crack split underneath of it, releasing unspeakable horrors that quickly left the castle abandoned and the surrounding countryside in terror. 

For 300 years, giant creatures with leathery wings stalked the sky, picking off livestock and travelers that got too close to the hole. Half-human, half-beast hybrids attacked people in the woods. Crops wilted and died. Any effort to investigate or seal off the hole was met with frustration at best. It was so deep that none could see its bottom; though the villagers tried to fill it with rocks, it simply swallowed them whole.

Come the mid-1200’s, one Duke Ottokar decided that something had to be done. The Duke set up a little experiment: prisoners condemned to death would be released from their sentence if they would agree to be lowered into this pit and report back on what was down there. The first man to go was a young, eager fellow. He held tight to his rope while the crowd watched the shadows of the pit swallow him. The rope went a little further down, then a little further. Then the screaming began. 

Ludmila trying to keep them demons at bay.

The man’s howls echoed in the hole, his rope trembling in the hands of the men desperately pulling him back up. By the time he reached the surface, it was too late. The man’s hair had gone completely white, skin withered and gray, eyes wild, speech hysterical and rambling. He blubbered about a terrible smell, screams in the dark, and then lapsed into incoherence. A few days later, he would die without offering the frightened people any more information. 

Some say that the Duke repeated experiment a few more times after that, with similar results. Others say that after seeing what happened to the first guy, no other prisoner volunteered for the job. Either way, if it wasn’t obvious before, it was now: The pit was clearly a gateway to Hell. It had to be covered up.

Down the rabbit hole

The Duke set his men about the long and expensive task of saving the countryside. First the pit was covered with tons of heavy slabs. Then they built  a chapel on top of that, with the hope that its symbolism and power would keep the demons permanently at bay. Around that chapel they erected a castle, all of its fortifications built inside out: it was not meant to keep invaders out, after all, but in. 

It was a great effort, but not entirely a success. To this day, disturbing visions plague Houska’s surrounding hillside: A horse (or man) runs full speed, their headless stump of a neck gushing blood. A woman in white peeks out of the castle walls. A group of shackled men shuffle forward, carrying dismembered body parts and cringing against attacks from a great black dog. 19th-century poet Karel Hynek Mácha spent the night and not only saw a disturbing funeral procession, but also had a prophetic dream of the year 2006. It’s not exactly a walk in the park. 

A shot of Houska’s interior.

Add to that the strange, sometimes evil things that keep happening there. Houska has been used variously as a hunting lodge (it is filled with an insane number of deer heads), a dumping ground, and a sanitorium. During the ugly Thirty Years’ War, a sadistic Swedish officer named Oronto took up residence in the castle, hoping that its power would boost his black magic. In a last, desperate effort to stop him, a party of hunters set out to shoot him down. They finally managed to get him through a window of the castle, but as he died, he called out for his black hen–presumably in an effort to work some spell to keep himself around for a while yet. While he didn’t survive, his spirit did, and haunts the castle still.

Then there were the Nazis. Houska was one of several castles that they holed up in during the war, where they stored thousands of confiscated books. It is said that they might have conducted human experiments within the castle walls. Certainly they would have tried to plumb its depths for knowledge of the occult–one of their increasingly desperate tactics to get any edge they could. We may never know; when the Allies defeated them, they burned all records, leaving only nasty memories (and a set of bikes) behind. 

Flip that castle

Has the bright light of modernity made the castle any happier of a place to be? Yes and no.

“Yes” in that there are no longer human experiments conducted there (so far as I know…). The castle is now open to the public and can be visited April through October. There are brightly lit, cheerfully decorated parts of it that would fit in in an episode of Gilmore Girls. These can be rented out for various personal, corporate, and artistic occasions–you can even have your wedding there

“No” in that weird stuff keeps happening. Car batteries won’t start. A wine glass floated several feet into the air in the middle of a conversation. A couple that was winding down in the hunting lodge one evening heard a loud thump.  Alarmed, they turned and were faced with two shadowy figures, which approached and started whispering about killing little girls.

Houska, ext.

But modern science and historical sleuthing can explain this stuff away, right? The visions could be the result of noxious gas leaking out of the crack in the limestone. The reason that Houska didn’t have the usual human accommodations or strategic positioning could be that it was built simply as an administrative building. 

The Astonishing Legends podcast (besides being a great resource for those who want to dig more into Houska in general) explores the gaps where these common explanations don’t quite make sense. Why would Duke Ottokar choose to build an administrative building over a giant hole in the ground? Houska is not situated over a volcano…any noxious gas that the initial crack might have produced should have dissipated over the centuries, right? And what kind of gas would it be, exactly, that would cause everyone to have the same types of visions over the years, that wouldn’t automatically kill anyone who got close enough, and that, instead of making people tired and dull, would make them active and fearful (like the poor sap that was first lowered into the pit)? 

My favorite myths are ones that can’t be fully dismissed. Houska is one of them. If nothing else, it is a bottomless pit of mystery, and will hopefully leave us guessing for years to come. 

Did you know that “Houska” means “braided bread roll” in Czech? Figure out the significance of that sh*t in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: A big thank you to Ladislav Boháč for Houska in the hills; Scary Side of Earth for both the chapel and the chandelier; ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) for Ludmila; and ladabar for Houska’s exterior.

Trussst in me: the Flathead Lake monster

I love old maps. Maps used to be full of monster drawings, especially pre-17th century ones created for the upper class. Cartographers weren’t just trying to dazzle people–they were trying to educate them, and illustrated creatures based on real sailors’ reports. Why is it, then, that so many include a beast like this?

sea monster
You know, the one with the humps?

This full moon, let’s take a look at a specific example of one of these serpentine horrors: a Loch Nessian-style monster right here in the U.S.

Flathead Lake sits in northwestern Montana, and is the largest lake in the contiguous U.S. west of the Mississippi. It’s nearly 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, and can get up to 370 feet deep (over 34 stories). In short, it’s a lot of water. 75 million years ago, Flathead Lake was actually an inland sea, one full of sharks and the aquatic reptiles of the dinosaur era. Some people–lots of people: lawyers, doctors, policemen, engineers, biologists; locals and non-locals alike–say that not all of those monstrous species have left.

Take Julia and Jim Manley, who had considered themselves skeptics of the strange sightings. One beautiful, breezeless summer day in 2005, they went out on it in their boat to enjoy the water. When they tried to go home, their engine wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. They were stranded out in the open lake, with not a single other soul in sight.

Anxious, they called their daughter, hoping that she could come rescue them. She said she was on her way. But as the Manleys settled in for their wait, they heard a loud, heavy slap against the water. They heard the sound again–it was close, worryingly close. Then they looked over the side of their boat and saw it.

Per Julia: “The first feeling I had seeing it was just shock. I knew I was seeing it, but it’s so unbelievable to think about it–”

sea_serpent_cape_ann_1639
Like this, maybe, only the monster’s head wasn’t showing and also it was 2005.

There were black, sinuous humps slithering through the waves–a giant chain at least as long as their 24-foot boat. As they stood in horrified silence, they saw something else coming at them over the horizon: their daughter’s boat. The monster slipped away into the water before she could see it, and the Manleys realized that now they were the ones who would have to convince those skeptical of the monster of Flathead Lake.

Consider this combined with with the accounts people have shared of schools of fish jumping out of the water, as if fleeing a massive predator.  Or the account of a man’s fishing nets having enormous, unexplainable holes in them. The account of the fisherman whose boat was violently rocked by a “monstrous shadowy shape.”  The account of the 3-year old that fell in the lake, and when asked how he survived, said “the Flathead monster lifted me up.”

Flathead lake Monster
Legit.

The first Flathead monster sighting recorded in writing was in 1889, when 100 steamboat passengers saw the beast and someone freaked out and shot at her. Before that, there was a Kutenai legend that involves a giant monster breaking through the lake ice and drowning half the tribe. All accounts are surprisingly consistent, in spite of people not knowing each other and outsiders not knowing what might be in the lake. “Flessie” (as the locals call her, a play on the very similar “Nessie” of Loch Ness) is between 20 and 40 feet long, eel-like, with dark brown or blue-black skin and dark eyes. Sighting reports roll in at a rate of about 1 to 2 per year, with 92% occurring between April and September.

The only time this varied was in 1993, when there were a whopping 13 sightings, some within 20 minutes of each other. With how big the lake is, that temporal proximity leaves us with a few possibilities: a) someone is lying, b) someone saw a log, or c) there might not be one Flathead Lake monster, but two.

Some reports say that nearly all people local to Flathead Lake have seen Flessie at some point; others say that there are fisherman that have been out on the water for decades without catching so much as a ripple. Regardless, the monster has been around for a long time, and doesn’t seem to be going away. Skeptics blame sightings on everything from a dead monkey to an escaped buffalo, but belief persists. Many who come forward to share their stories have been reluctant to do so, not wanting to seem crazy, but needing to share their story with someone. Perhaps it is to all of our benefit that they do.

You never know when it might be important to know where there’s a monster on the map.

What’s your favorite water-based cryptid? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

All images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. See map image here; old-timey illustration here, and glow-in-the-dark eyeballs here.

The Bunyip: Swamp Monster of the Down Under

Let’s play a game. What is thirteen feet tall, bipedal, and with scales all over?

By Robertpeters9 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
No idea? Okay, what is snake-like, but with flippers, and black fur all over?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Not quite? What is essentially an enormous dog, only aquatic and possibly covered with feathers or featuring tusks?

By Macfarlane, J. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Still don’t get it? Surprise! This is the same creature, one and all. Regardless of how it’s appeared, this puppy has been terrifying Australians for some 50,000 years, ever since they first arrived on the continent. It lurks in the swamps, riverbeds, and billabongs;* howls in the night; and has a hunger for human flesh–especially that of women and children. Ladies and gentlemen, meet…the bunyip!

The stories surrounding this terror are only slightly more straightforward than its physical description. The bunyip was said not only to kill people by eating them, but to crush them to death with its arms. Indigenous Australians thought the bunyip to be a malevolent spirit from the Dreamtime, the realm in which earth itself was created.  As such, it was purported to have supernatural powers,  and on a continent full of things that can easily kill you, it scared some people so bad that they would actually avoid water sources for fear of falling in its clutches. Some have suggested that this might account for its varying descriptions–if a person was lucky enough to run into a bunyip and survive, she was likely too afraid to have taken careful stock of what the thing actually looked like.

When white settlers showed up, stories of the bunyip not only persisted, but proliferated. On July 2, 1845, the Geelong Advertiser provided the first written mention of the creature, interviewing indigenous Australians upon the discovery of a strange new bone:

“[T]hey one and all recognized the bone and picture as belonging to the “Bunyip,” repeating the name without variation. One declared he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated his mother was killed by one of them, at at Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon at South Geelong. The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal.”

They weren’t the only ones talking about it. In 1852, escaped convict William Buckley returned from his adventures living with the Wathaurong people to write a memoir. He himself had seen the bunyip several times–but only a large back drifting through the water, never a tail or head. He, too, knew of a woman who had been killed by one.

But even as the settlers were infected by bunyip fever, descriptions–and interpretation of–the creature began to change. In a rash of sightings in the 1840’s and 50’s, the bunyip went from being a horrifying supernatural predator to a shaggy herbivore the size of a large dog. In March of 1846, the Port Phillip paper reported the sighting of a bunyip (or an immense platypus) sunning himself on the side of the river Yarra. A crowd gathered and a team went to investigate, but the creature disappeared when they came within a few feet away. In 1852, a pair of friends canoeing on Lake Tiberias actually bumped into a bunyip with their boat, whereupon it simply turned and swam out of sight. As the years passed, the bunyip got even smaller–on one occasion in 1886, a couple of horseman came across one near a river, and threw rocks at it to drive it away.

A lack of recent sightings has led some to believe that if the bunyip did exist, it’s gone extinct. But with such a long and complex history, it would be foolhardy to say that nothing could have existed at all.

Even if you disregard supernatural explanations, the bunyip still represents a cultural terror passed down over millennia–a terror that might have been carried over from something very real. It could have been from something as simple as the saltwater crocodile–a known aquatic mankiller–but there were other, bigger things around when humans first arrived on the continent. Take the Diprotodon, the largest known marsupial to have ever lived, who could have existed alongside humans for as much as 20,000 years and whose name means “two forward teeth.” This is the creature crytozoologists point to most often as the inspiration for the bunyip, but there is also the Nototherium, the Zygomaturus, and the “ancient leaper” Palorchestes to consider.

Then we have the theory that for later sightings, witnesses might actually have encountered escaped convicts skulking in the swamp. Nicknamed swaggies, these fellows would evade capture by hiding out in one of the more inhospitable environments of Australia, only to rise, dripping and covered with muck, when the coast was clear. If the observer were forced to choose between that and a supernatural man eater, in theory the former would win, but it’s difficult to say by what margin.

Regardless of what the bunyip is or where it came from, I’ll leave you today with the wise words of a children’s song from Dot and the Kangaroo:

“So you better come come quickly

You better hide very soon

Or the bunyip’s going to get you

In the bunyip

Moon…”

Thanks for reading.

Have you ever seen a bunyip? Perhaps in your local sewer drain, creek, or the quagmire of your neighbor’s overwatered yard? Share your story in the comments below.

*billabong = stagnant river backwaters