Thursday, November 28, 2019

What Lies Below: the Mystery of Houska Castle

The Middle Ages were a turbulent time, to say the least. If famine, malnutrition or disease didn't get you, then childbirth could finish you off. If you managed to dodge those problems then you could have the bad luck of being just one of the many people the Inquisition took offence to and end up burnt at the stake. Even traveling to the next town over to do some shopping or visit family wasn't safe, with so many robbers around you could easily end up being robbed and left for death in the nearest ditch. Why did the folks in charge not do anything? Well, when they weren't going to war with other countries (or eachother) then they were going off on religious crusades, or having to deal with Genghis Khan, who was busy taking over a large chunk of Europe. But, hey, at least you could rely on being able to take refuge in your local fortress in times of need, right? 
Not if your local fortess was Houska Castle.
Houska is a sinister and looming building. Built sometime in the 1200's, in an area of mountainous terrain and dark, dense forest in the Czech countryside, it's also a bit of a disaster. It has no fortifications and isn't in an area of strategic interest. While it has a lot of windows, most of them are false, being glass panes over brick walls. There's no water source to be found there and no kitchen. Even if the castle did have a kitchen, it's nowhere near any of the trade routes that existed then, making acquiring the amount of food an functioning castle would need pretty impossible. There were some nearby villages, but those would not have been able to support the castle. Essentially, Houska castle was not designed to be lived in and, for the most part, it wasn't.
For decades it bounced from owner to owner, from royalty to nobility and back again, quickly being passed on, like that one Christmas present that nobody really wants but they just keep regifting it rather than throwing it away. During World War II, the Nazi's moved in and spent their time in residence turning it into a scientific house of horrors. They used the building to perform horrific experiments not just on prisoners of war but on the defenceless locals as well. At this point Houska had been abandoned for many years, so why choose it for a prison when it was clear nobody wanted the place? The way the castle was constructed makes it the worst possible base, but realistically it's likely that they just never thought the castle would need to be defended or used as a fort, that the location being so remote would reduce the amount of witnesses to their crimes, while making it more difficult for anyone trying to escape. That would be the logical reason, but there is another theory that links the Nazis fascination with the Occult to the castle itself.
Photo by Dr Janos Korom, CC BY-SA 2.0
The folklore that surrounds Houska Castle existed before it was even built and tells us that the castle was built to hide something, to bury that thing so deep that it could never again see the light of day. Essentially the castle itself is little more than a very elaborate plug. Buried under the castle, sealed off by the foundations, is a deep pit. A cave opened by the elements or perhaps a sinkhole, we don't know which, but we do know that it was so deep that the bottom could not be seen. It was considered to be bottomless and filled with horrors. The ancient folklore of that region says that the hole was an entrance to Hell itself, home to winged, half human, half animal monstrosities. These creatures would come crawling out of the pit in the dead of night to fly around, terrorising the countryside. The locals were terrified, the Middle Ages were horrifying enough without running the risk of being carried off by some Mothman wannabe. As reports of that exact thing happening started to skyrocket, people started to barricade themselves inside at night, too afraid to leave their homes. They wouldn't venture near the hole during the day either, just in case something decided to pop out and grab them. Something had to be done. Eventually, those in charge did just that and work began on building the castle, using prisoners as workers. A pardon was offered to any prisoner willing to allow themselves to be lowered down into the hole, in an attempt to investigate what it contained before it was sealed up forever. One brave soul, wanting his freedom, allowed his captors to lower him down there, but only lasted a few seconds in the pit before he began to scream for help. He was quickly pulled up but, within the short amount of time he had been out of sight, his hair had turned white and he resembled an old man instead of the young man who had volunteered to explore the depths. Whatever lurked below had driven him insane and he died a few days later. He never spoke of what he saw down there. Despite this tragedy, it has been said that people in charge were still curious and the prisoners convicted of more serious crimes were just thrown down the hole, with the hope that those that made it out could shed light on what was going on. Nobody got out, so we're still none the wiser. The castle was completed, the thickest walls and floors being the ones above the hole. This is also where the castle chapel was placed and dedicated to St Michael, legendary winged monster hater, as a little extra insurance perhaps. It's in this chapel that hints to why the castle was built can be found, in the ancient and decorative murals that cover the walls. Said to be some of the oldest in Europe, they contain the usual paintings of Saint Michael and Jesus, they also show winged beasts being slain and half human creatures attacking humans. With such a well standing folkloric tale behind it, you can see why people have drawn a link between this story and the Nazis. Their obsession with the unknown has been well documented, even going as far as to be featured in popular media; Indiana Jones and Hellboy for example. So it comes as no surprise that the popular theory is that their real reason for being there was the Hell Hole, to try and harness it's power, using prisoners as sacrifices and guinea pigs. We may never know the true extent of what they were really up to at Houska, luckily for us it would seem that they failed. But they failed at the cost of innocent lives.
Photo by Ladabar, CC BY-NC 2.0
As for the hole itself, all we have are records of it. The current owners of the castle have, perhaps influenced by it's sinister reputation, forbidden any investigations or excavations that might reopen it. Considering the frequent reports from the castle, I can't blame them. People have reported scratching noises in the rooms above the pit, loud enough to be heard despite the thickness of the floors there. The sound of nails or claws scrabbling desperately against the underside of the stone floors, from the side facing pit itself. This chilling sound is often accompanied by the muffled sound of a chorus of screams. Perhaps the trapped spirits of the men thrown down there or unholy abominations seeking escape, maybe both. Above ground, things aren't much better. As well as having the usual White Lady spirit, the castle is home to shadow people, a phantom hound, a bloody headless man and a group of spirits who shuffle through the castle, bound together by chains. Some poltergeist activity has been reported as well. In addition to those other spirits, the castle home to a rather infamous being, a twisted hybrid between a human, a bulldog and a toad. This bizarre and creepy beasty likes to roam the dark corners of the castle, growling and grumbling to itself, and scaring all who see it. It's not clear what the creature is, but looking back at the castles story, it could well be one of the creatures from the hole, forever looking for a way back in. If you want to try and see this mysterious creature, then you might consider visiting the castle, as it is open to the public. Not a sponsored recommendation, but a personal one. If you do visit, then it would probably be best to leave your dog at home, since dogs apparently dislike and act up in the castle.
Personally I can't get my head around Houska's hauntings. I like to be able to explain hauntings, maybe come up with a theory that can explain what's happening. I'm a believer in the paranormal, but I'm also a skeptic. I believe there is some truth about the folklore, since all stories have an element of truth to them. The hole itself is there. But the flying monsters? My first reaction is to blame it on large bats, perhaps an undiscovered species, but none of the bats in the Czech Republic are big enough to carry off a human. Owls could be a culprit. The region is home to Eagle Owls and Snowy Owls, both very big birds that could have been mistaken for something worse, if seen in the dark by a superstitious passer by. With potential robbers on the roads, trying to make ends meet, people going missing while traveling at night could be explained as highway robbery and murder. I'm not even going to try and come up with a theory of how to explain how the hole could have been bottomless, because it couldn't have been. If it was then it would have come out somewhere in New Zealand. True or false, this is a fascinating story to me and there's no doubt that the building is very, very haunted.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Is there truth to the folklore? Or did someone get bamboozled by a low flying owl? Have you been to Houska Castle and experienced it's strange paranormal activities for yourself? I'd love to hear your story! Leave a comment in the comments section below or link me in a Tweet!