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Houska Castle: Europe’s Gateway to Hell

Some fifty kilometers north of Prague lies a castle shrouded in mystery. Surrounded by thick woodland crisscrossed with low peaks and rushing streams, Hrad Houska is an architectural anomaly. Jutting from a sheer rockface, it blends both Renaissance motifs with gothic design; pagan murals with Christian symbolism. But it’s not what’s on the outside of the castle that makes it so endlessly fascinating… but what’s rumored to be on the inside. According to sources, Houska was originally built with its defensive walls facing inwards, as if its owners were terrified of something getting out. The nature of that “something”? Well, it’s here we tiptoe into X-Files territory. Sixteenth Century chronicles record that the builders thought they were constructing their castle atop a doorway to Hell itself.

Long since renovated by later owners, Houska today retains little evidence of its spooky past. But telltale signs still remain, from creepy murals painted centuries ago, to accounts of the SS using the castle for occult experiments during WWII. In today’s Halloween edition, Geographics is exploring the spooky tales surrounding this infamous Czech castle… and attempting to separate fact from terrifying fiction.

The Shunned House

About halfway between Prague and the Czech-German border lies a densely wooded land.

Known as Kokořínsko, it’s famous among domestic tourists for its rock peaks and deep valleys; for its cycle trails and romantic castles.

But there is one castle in Kokořínsko that never makes it onto lists of romantic places. One that, until the collapse of Communism in 1989, had been shunned and unoccupied for aeons. 

Known as Hrad Houska, it has a claim to being Europe’s most-terrifying castle.

With anywhere as mythologized as Hrad Houska, it can be tough figuring out what’s real and what’s not.

So rather than muddle through conflicting sources, we’re going to give you separately both the creepy and the not-so creepy versions.

And, since this is Halloween, we’re starting with the creepy stuff.

One of the spookiest mysteries about Houska Castle is why it exists at all. 

Constructed sometime in the mid-13th Century – although some sources trace it to the reign of  King Wenceslas I – Hrad Houska’s location makes no logical sense.

Surrounded by impenetrable forest, it sat alongside no medieval trade routes.

Nor was it a place of great strategic importance, or near a military frontier.

The castle was also built far from any water source, with only a heavy stone cistern that caught the rain stopping those inside from dying of thirst.

In short, life here for medieval Czechs would’ve been a gigantic pain the zadek

But that assumes people actually lived in Hrad Houska.

Weirdly, the castle was built without a kitchen, suggesting people only stayed there fleetingly at best.

Weirder-still, there were no defensive walls – something of a rarity in these war-torn times. At least, there weren’t on the outside.

Although it’s long-since been torn down, there’s evidence an old defensive wall used to exist facing inwards, into the courtyard.

In European castle architecture, such a layout is totally unique. Which naturally begs the question: Why?

Why go to all that trouble, building a weird, inverted castle in a completely useless place?

Of course, there are multiple theories. But, for now, we’ll stick with the freaky ones.

According to the oldest-known source, Houska Castle was built to keep “something that must not be named” from escaping into this world.

From this point on, the story goes full H.P. Lovecraft.

Oral tales from this time say the castle was built directly over a fissure in the hill, one from which foul-smelling fumes escaped.

They further say that the fissure was so deep, no-one could see the bottom of it – just endless darkness.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, legends arose that this fissure was an entrance to Hell itself.

Certainly, it seems something spooked those living nearby.

Accounts of the time are full of tales of strange creatures that would crawl out the pit at night; chimeras that were part-animal and part-human. 

Others talk of vaguely-human shapes with vast, leathery wings that would fly out the fissure and attack cattle or destroy crops.

While all this might smack of medieval peasants having a bit too much slivovice, the authorities were seemingly spooked enough to seal off the crack from the outside world.

But, when the time came to start construction, no-one wanted to just build across it without figuring out what this pit really was. Without finding out what was really down there.

What they discovered would make the legends of Hrad Houska seem more terrifying than ever.

The Creatures of the Pit

In terms of bad choices, they don’t come much worse than those offered to the prisoners in 13th Century Kokořínsko.

Just before construction began on Hrad Houska, the local authorities rounded them all up and asked them to choose: life in a medieval dungeon, or to do one little task for them and then walk free.

When the prisoners asked what the task was, we can only imagine the authorities gave a chilling smile, before saying:

Be lowered into the crack in that rock and tell us what’s down there.

Now, there are many versions of what supposedly happened next, but they all agree on some basic points.

First: that a small group of prisoners finally volunteered, and were all led to the rock together.

Second: that one man was selected to be the first down. The authorities lowered him on a rope into the pit and told him to shout if he got into trouble.

The third thing the stories agree on is what happened next.

Within seconds, the man started screaming, begging to be pulled back up. The other prisoners hauled him back to the surface… 

…only to find his mind had snapped.

The man was crying, raving. In one version, his hair had gone white and he looked “like he had aged 30 years.”

The man died the next day, or maybe the day after that. The cause was given as fright. 

After that, the other prisoners refused to be lowered into the pit, and the authorities set to work covering it up as fast as they could.

A sculpture carved into sandstone in Kokořínsko
A sculpture carved into sandstone in Kokořínsko by Petr1868 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In some sources, the reigning king at the time – either Wenceslas I or Ottokar II – heard what had happened and added his own resources to the build.

In no time at all, the pit had been sealed. A chapel was built atop it, in the hopes that whatever might be living down there wouldn’t be able to cross sacred ground.

Then the defensive walls were erected, facing in towards the chapel. Archers may have been stationed there, with orders to kill anything that emerged.

But nothing ever did.

After Hrad Houska was built, tales of beasts and chimeras stalking the land began to fade almost entirely away.

Around the 14th Century, some unknown hand added demonic frescoes to Houska chapel, possibly as a record of these bygone folktales, possibly as a warning.

After that, the castle gradually began to fade from memory.

Because it was only rarely occupied, there were only occasional reports of things like faint scratching sounds beneath the chapel floor. 

Not that the legends ever completely disappeared.

During the Thirty Years War – on a per-capita basis still the deadliest war ever fought in Central Europe – an officer from the occupying Swedish force became obsessed with the legends of Houska.

Sources report that a local hunter assassinated him after rumors spread that the officer was conducting black magic rituals in the chapel.

After that, the myths around Houska went silent for a long time.

Sometime in the Sixteenth Century, the inward-facing defensive wall was knocked down, and the whole castle rebuilt in a Renaissance style.

After that, it was more-or-less ignored by history. 

Now, there is a story that Czech romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha stayed at Houska in the 1830s, and subsequently wrote a letter to a friend about seeing demons in his nightmares, but most modern literary scholars consider it a fake.

But the same can’t be said about records of the next high-profile figures to occupy Houska.

When WWII finally hit, there would be one group that was very interested in all aspects of the occult: The Schutzstaffel.

Popularly known as the SS, they occupied Houska Castle soon after Hitler annexed the Sudetenland. 

What they did while there would spark controversy for decades to come.

Days of Darkness

Here’s the deal with Houska Castle: it was built in something known as the Sudetenland, a region of Bohemia settled by ethnic Germans in the reign of Ottokar II.

For centuries, Germans and Czechs were cool with this arrangement, until suddenly the 20th Century happened, and everyone became very Not Cool. 

In 1938, Hitler demanded the region be allowed to split from Czechoslovakia and join Germany.

This led to the Munich Agreement, a polite way of saying the Allies rolled over and let the Nazis take everything they wanted.

That fall, German tanks occupied most of northern and western Bohemia, and Houska Castle suddenly found itself a part of the Third Reich.

For the first time in centuries, people began paying attention to its spooky past again.

Those people were the SS, who confiscated the castle soon after the war started.

Naturally, their Houska base was off-limits to ordinary people. Not surprisingly, it soon became a source of intense speculation.

The leading theory was that Houska had been turned into an outpost for the Nazi Lebensborn program. 

A plan to breed a race of Aryan supermen by having Germanic women and SS members go at it like fascist rabbits, Lebensborn centers were set up in multiple occupied countries. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a suitably remote castle might’ve been used for these purposes.

But, let’s get real: the Lebensborn project isn’t what most people associate with Nazi activity at Houska.

For decades now, rumors have swirled that the SS were interested in the castle’s haunted pit.

Pretty much since Berlin fell to the Red Army’s onslaught in 1945, there have been claims that parts of Nazi high command were fascinated with the occult.

Some of these claims include a portion of the SS that – as the war turned against Germany – actively began searching out supernatural phenomena that could be used as weapons.

If that’s true – and it’s a big “if” – then Hrad Houska would’ve been a perfect match for their crazed plans.

Certainly, there are stories that “inhumane experiments” were performed on prisoners there, although what those experiments involved, we can’t say.

There are also tales of the SS trying to locate the pit itself, and even performing dark rituals inside the chapel.

Sadly, we can’t say for certain if any of this is true.

At the end of the war, when it became clear all hope was lost, the SS abandoned Houska. Before going, they set fire to all their records, leaving no trace of their activities except ashes.

When the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia just three years later, the castle was confiscated by the state and placed off limits to visitors.

It was only reopened in 1999, by which time any evidence of what happened between its walls had been lost for good.

So, that’s the story of Hrad Houska, the creepy place where to this day cars refuse to start, and faint scratching sounds are sometimes heard from underneath the chapel.

But there’s another Houska in the records. One with a history perhaps less fantastical, but equally interesting. A history of war, of protest, and – yes – of Nazi occupation.

It’s time to learn the tale of the other Hrad Houska.

A Complex Past

No matter which version of Houska’s story you’re hearing, the first thing you need to know is that there is a lot of information missing from the record.

Houska Castle
Houska Castle by Ben Skála is licensed under CC-BY-SA

For example, it’s theorized that a fortification stood on this site as early as the 9th Century, but who built it or why is something that’s been lost to time.

However, we do have a remarkably good explanation for why Hrad Houska stands in such a remote place.

In the aftermath of Ottokar II’s death, the Kingdom of Bohemia fell into a troubling period of uncertainty. 

This was an era when fortunes could be made, or lives broken. An era for bold action when it came to expanding your territory.

And Hynek of the Lords of Dubá was all about territorial expansion.

The area Houska is in sat right next to Hynek’s ancestral estate. When Ottokar II kicked the bucket, Hynek began immediately buttering up his heir, the child-king Wenceslas II, in the hopes of enlarging his territory.

But Hynek didn’t want to be too subtle about it. So, according to the Czech Republic’s dedicated castle website Hrady.cz, he built a whacking great gothic fortress there as a kind of hint.

Designed to make a point rather than be lived in, it’s this empty structure that became the basis for Hrad Houska.

However, the castle didn’t stand empty for long.

In 1316, about twenty years after Hynek did his rich people version of squatters’ rights, his son (also, confusingly, called Hynek) opened Houska for habitation.

By the 1370s, it was finally busy enough for the family to commission the building of a chapel.

As you’ll recall from our folklore version of the story, this chapel supposedly stands above the pit into Hell.

But what’s interesting about this is that early sources say nothing about the chapel being built above anything.

No. The first mention of the pit makes clear it was in another part of the castle entirely.

Published in the 1540s, Kronika česká by Václava Hájka was one of the first, greatest works written in vernacular Czech.

Tracing the history of Bohemia across centuries, it’s the Czech equivalent of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain.

It’s also the first source to record the tale of Houska’s pit to Hell.

According to Hájka:

“A hole was found near the castle, near a great rock, in the hole a number of different spirits inhabited…” 

He goes on to say these spirits walked the paths near this pit, and appeared so terrifying that people refused to go there. It was only when the “desolate castle” was finally built that the area was tamed.

What’s fascinating is that Hájka locates the Hell pit “near” the castle, rather than below it, and no mention is made of the chapel.

Like most legends, it’s clear the Houska story evolved over time.

Still, it’s clear a large part of the modern version is grounded in fact; both via Hájka’s record and later historical events.

For instance, Houska really was occupied by the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War. 

But while no records of an officer obsessed with the occult survive, we do know it was nearly demolished to stop it falling into enemy hands.

In the end, though, only the moat was filled in, to weaken the fortress as a defensive structure.

Not that Houska would ever be used for defense again.

In 1700, the noble family in charge finally relocated elsewhere. Houska was left with a single official to look after it.

And so Hrad Houska began to slip into obscurity. 

But it would never truly fade away. 

In the 19th Century, the castle would be resurrected not as a defensive fortress or seat of aristocracy… 

…but as a place of legend. 

Making a Legend 

If you ignore the likely-fake letter supposedly written by Karel Hynek Mácha, then the next time Hrad Houska appears in the record is the 1870s.

Interestingly, it features not in a report, but in a short story by Ernst Wenzel, which partially revolves around a convict being lowered into the pit below Houska and returning half-crazed by what he sees.

Although it’s possible Wenzel was basing his tale on real-life folklore, it seems more likely that this is a case where the folklore followed the fiction.

Yet there are still plenty of odd things about Houska, even on the official record.

Take the frescoes in the chapel. 

While not exactly “demonic” as some websites claim, they are certainly both tinged with paganism and relatively violent. 

There are centaurs and dragons, and creatures apparently devouring people. Nor are they later additions.

Around 1929, when the castle was owned by head of Skoda production Josef Šimonek, renovation work uncovered the frescoes beneath some plaster. 

Thought to date to the 14th Century, they’re one of the most-atmospheric sights in Bohemia.

Likewise, Nazi interest in Houska during WWII is something that can be easily verified.

In the 1940s, the Reich Main Security Office (or RSHA)’s Ämter VII department set up an office there.

But rather than conduct occult experiments, its main purpose was to use Houska for holding millions of stolen manuscripts.

As the war raged across Europe, the Nazis looted books on Jewish history and mysticism, Masonic rituals, occult practices, and all sorts of esoterica. 

That classic image of Nazis as book burners who hated the written word? As journalist Anders Rydell proved in his recent The Book Thieves, that was total nonsense. 

Instead, the Nazis were obsessive collectors who hoarded the libraries of those they killed. 

Initially, this hoarding was done in Berlin. But, when Allied bombing raids began, the RSHA moved its manuscripts to safer locations.

One of these was Hrad Houska, which became a gigantic repository for – among other things – rare books on Jewish mysticism.

Not that Houska was the only Czech castle involved.

Historian Patricia Kennedy Grimsted has tracked many of these stolen collections, including the one that wound up in Nový Falkenburk, a grand chateau just 40km north of Houska.

There – under the direction of SS officer Werner Göttsch – a vast, occult library was established. 

This library became the foundation of a top secret occult research project that may have been intended to create a Masonic-style sect within the SS.

It’s not so hard to imagine locals who overheard rumors of an occult project at a castle in the region naturally assumed it would be taking place at weird and spooky Houska; rather than ornate and comfy Nový Falkenburk.

Sadly, the exact records of which books were kept at Houska have been lost forever.

After the war, the new Communist government in Czechoslovakia confiscated the entire castle, rare books and all.

They turned it into an outpost for the National Library, before shuttering the place in 1970 and dispersing the collection far and wide.

Although dedicated researchers have tracked many of the looted books down, many more remain missing.

But we’ve still not quite answered the major question of our story: how? How did Houska go from a neglected library outpost to the most-infamous castle on the internet?

Let’s find out.

A Game of Telephone 

From the shutting of the National Library outpost in 1970 until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, almost nothing of interest happened at Houska Castle.

There was a half-baked attempt to turn it into a spa retreat that involved digging a deep well in the courtyard, but it was eventually called off.

The one genuinely notable thing that did happen was when rock group Plastic People of the Universe recorded their debut album there.

It was this album that led to their arrest by the Communist government; in turn leading to playwright Vaclav Havel penning the anti-regime Charter 77; which in turn made him Czechoslovakia’s leading dissident and left him perfectly placed to become president after the 1989 revolution.

So there you have it. Hrad Houska’s small, yet-pleasing role in both music and political history.

Speaking of the Velvet Revolution: by the time democracy was restored, Houska Castle was in a dreadful state.

Returned to the Šimonek family, it languished for years as a barely-known ruin. Another victim of the Communist era’s rampant neglect.

It wasn’t until 1994 that its fortunes began to change.

That was the year the epic series Čas hradů v Čechách (in English, The Time of Castles in Bohemia) began publishing.

Intended as a comprehensive guide to every castle in the region, it delved deep into history and folklore.

It was in Volume 3 that the modern public first learned the spooky tales associated with Hrad Houska. 

Of course, a castle reference guide written in Czech is never going to popularize a story, no matter how fascinating that story is. 

But it was enough to catch the attention of journalists, some of whom reprinted the tales without first framing them as folklore.

Fantastická Fakta magazine, for example, published a long piece in September of 1997 that both borrowed from the castle reference guide, and added its own flavor.

It’s to this very article that the idea of the defensive walls facing inwards can seemingly be traced, along with the idea that the location of the castle is a mystery in and of itself.

Still, the tale might have died there, had something momentous not happened in 1999.

Hrad Houska finally reopened to the public.

Now, if you live in Czech Republic – like both me and the scriptwriter for this video – you’ll know that most Czech castles aim less to attract the “paranormal investigator” market, and more the “middle-aged cyclist with an impressive beer gut and a love of klobasa” one. 

So we’re not trying to imply these stories were a cynical marketing move by the owners.

But the opening did mean that TV suddenly had much easier access to this creepy castle. 

That same year, Prima Television sent a team out to investigate, bringing Houska’s mysteries to a wide Czech audience for the first time.

Two years later, when Plastic People of the Universe founder Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa died, a whole new slew of camera crews showed up. 

From that point on, shows about Houska’s creepy past became a core part of European TV programming.

Remember, this was the peak era for paranormal reality shows, when filming psychics talking about evil energies in random cellars was considered primetime entertainment.

As Houska’s reputation grew at home, it’s story soon began migrating onto English-language message boards. 

Before long, anyone online and into creepy tales or mysteries knew about it – or, at least, the version that had appeared in Fantastická Fakta magazine. 

The idea of inward-facing defensive walls and a pit to Hell below the chapel became such an accepted part of the lore that it’s almost impossible to find an English-language source that doesn’t repeat them – it was only thanks to a whole bunch of Czech articles and Google Translate that this video was able to give you anything like the truth.

Today, Hrad Houska is an essential part on the “legends of Prague” tourist trails, as associated with the Czech capital as the Golem or Rudolf II’s alchemy. 

To be honest, it probably deserves to be there. The 1540’s mention in Kronika česká is legit creepy; and the chapel frescoes and Nazi history are alternately fascinating and terrifying. 

But, in a way, it also does the real history of this place a disservice by only focusing on the folklore.

Here is a castle that experienced over 800 years of turbulent European history. A place that stood witness to events as diverse as the Thirty Years’ War, the Third Reich, and Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime.

It was within Hrad Houska’s walls that music history was made, that the path was indirectly set for Vaclav Havel to one day become Czech president. 

It was also here that perhaps millions of invaluable Jewish manuscripts were sadly lost, victims of a fanatical SS need to steal not just their enemies’ lives, but their culture and memories too.

When the real history of a place has been overshadowed by its folklore, it’s easy to get negative: to bemoan all the unsourced articles looking to only serve up a quick Halloween chill.

But there’s also a positive way of looking at it.

Without that folklore, it’s doubtful anyone would pay attention to Hrad Houska. It’d just be another castle in a country with an overabundance of them. 

It’s only because of its spooky reputation that we commissioned this video, that Morris wrote it, that I presented it, and that you watched it. And yet, thanks to that impulse, we now all know far more about both the castle itself, and several overlooked events in European history, that we ever did before.

Today’s video may not have quite been the creepy tale you were expecting. But hopefully, you found some value in it. 

And, if you ever are in Hrad Houska, listening out for the scratching coming from beneath the floors, do take a moment to think about all the things that happened here.

Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it’s our belief that history is almost always equally interesting.

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