UPDATE: I first posted this piece just before Halloween 2009. Obviously a lot has changed over the past three years: Daylight Savings Time ends on Nov. 4 this year, for example, and Michael Ignatieff was not on the speakers list at Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors this year. So I’ve crossed all that out.
But the creepy castles are still interesting so let’s look at them again.
We’re coming up on a very scary time of the year this weekend, kids — the end of Daylight Saving Time at 2 a.m. Sunday, when we have to figure out how to turn all the clocks on stoves, microwaves, TVs and radios back an hour. Oh, and it’s Halloween on Saturday.
In honor of those two scary events, this week’s Nosy Parker blog posts will be all about ghoulish, creepy things. (I know, I know, they usually are — speaking of which, did I mention Michael Ignatieff was on stage at Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors on Sunday?)
For starters, let’s look at Five Spooky Castles.
1. Orava Castle, Slovakia
You know Orava Castle if you’ve ever seen Nosferatu, that great 1922 silent German horror film based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by F.W. Murnau and starring the incredibly weird Max Schreck as Count Orlok.
Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Orava Castle, above, and the real actor Max Schreck, below.
(Nosferatu’s producers didn’t buy the rights to Dracula, by the way, so Stoker’s estate sued and won — driving the fledgling film production company out of business.)
Anyway, Orava Castle/Castle Orlok — built in the 13th Century on the edge of a towering cliff — has to be one of the spookiest castles ever — if only because of its association with Nosferatu.
2. Poenari Castle, Romania
Poenari really was a lair of the living Dracula — Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (although he invaded Transylvania a couple of time and hid out there when he was overthrown in Wallachia).
Vlad the Impaler — Vlad Tepes — was actually considered a hero of Christian Europe because his fiefdom was on the cutting edge of Europe’s war with the invading Muslim Turks.
Vlad was constantly at war with the Turks (and many of his noblemen and relatives, too, when he had time). He was a ruthless and bloodthirsty battlefield commander who struck fear in his enemies by impaling his prisoners on spikes.
Most well-known portrait of Vlad Tepes, above, and an old woodcut print of Vlad impaling his victims, below.
After winning a battle, Vlad would supposedly impale thousands of captured Turks and their allies at a time. Vlad was even said to have banqueted on the battlefield, eating and drinking, while he watched the slow, agonizing deaths of his victims.
Poenari was one of Vlad’s fortresses, originally built by his grandfather, guarding a strategic pass. It is in ruins now but can still be visited — if you’re willing to climb the 1,480 steps to reach it.
Wikipedia calls Poenari “one of the most haunted places in the world.”
(Vlad got the nickname Dracula because “dracul” means “dragon” in Romanian. Vlad’s dad was made a member of the Holy Roman Empire’s Order of the Dragon for his defence of Europe from the Turks. So dad was Vlad Dracul. “Dracula” is the diminutive of Dracul, so sonny boy became “Little Dragon” — Dracula.)
I’m writing most of this from memory, so if I’ve got anything offbase, I’m sure Dr. Elizabeth Miller, Toronto’s own Baroness of the House of Dracula, will let me know — and I’ll correct it.
3. Bran Castle, Romania
Bran bills itself as Dracula’s Castle — but it isn’t. Bran was never the residence of Vlad the Impaler, although he may have spent one night there while passing through. Still, any place that can get away with calling itself Dracula’s Castle has got to get at least a nod — even if it isn’t as authentic or scary as Poenari.
4. Leap Castle, Ireland
Leap Castle in County Offaly (awful things involving offal happened there) is considered Ireland’s most haunted edifice. The first part of the castle was begun about 800, so there has been a lot of time for terrible things to take place there.
Most owners of the castle have met bad ends and any number of spectres are said to haunt its halls. The worst is a small, hunched creature that scuttles through the castle, trailing the stench of death.
About 15 years ago, workers found an oubliette just outside the castle. An oubliette is a dungeon where prisoners are thrown and left to die, without food or water. This oubliette has spikes at the bottom of the pit (still there, although covered up now). Workers were said to have had to haul away three carts of human bones when they cleared out the pit.
5. Chateau Machecoul, France
The chateau, now in ruins, was one of the residences of Gilles de Rais, a comrade-in-arms of Joan of Arc and a monstrous serial killer, convicted of raping, torturing and murdering anywhere between 60 and 200 local children in western France in the 1430s. It is said no one can look on the ruins without being overcome by a massive, wrenching sadness. (I just made that part up, but I can’t conceive of being in that place of misery and not being overwhelmed by grief.)
Bonus: Dragsholm Slot, Denmark
“Slot” is castle in Danish and, although it doesn’t look like much of a castle now, Dragsholm has a long and storied history with at least three murdered ghosts said to be in residence.
My favourite is The White Lady, the daughter of one of the castle’s noble lords who defied her father to marry a commoner. Dad supposedly locked her away in her wedding gown and left her to die.
It has been reported (and it’s too good a story for me to bust the myth) that workers installing new plumbing in the building in the 1930s found a skeleton in a white dress in a bricked-up, windowless room. Ooooooooooooooooooo.