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The gateway to hell: Why was Houska Castle built?
Deep in the Czech forest near Lake Máchovo in Central Bohemia is a structure with an extraordinary history. It’s a place where ghosts are said to roam the corridors, where fantastical monsters and demonic creatures supposedly dwell, and where the Nazis are rumoured to have carried out diabolical experiments and occult rituals. This is the mysterious world of Houska Castle.
The fortress in the middle of nowhere
Built atop a rocky cliff in the 13th century, possibly on the orders of Ottakar II of Bohemia, Houska Castle has baffled people for hundreds of years. It was built nowhere near anything of note; it had no water source except for a cistern to collect rainwater; it was placed near no trade routes; it had no strategic value; it was built with fake windows and without a kitchen and, when it was completed, nobody lived there. So why on earth was it constructed? Why go to all that trouble and expense to build a castle in the middle of a forest for no apparent reason?
Local legend has it that the castle was built over a large pit that many people in the area believed was a gateway to hell. The pit was said to be so deep that, when the locals tried closing it up, no amount of stones could fill it in. It was claimed that strange creatures had been seen emerging from it, such as winged monsters, demons, ghosts and a headless horse. There were even claims of bizarre human hybrids, like a man with the head of a bullfrog.
In a deeply religious age, such a hellish place could not be left to spread its evil far and wide. After much deliberation, it was decided that a fortress should be constructed around the pit, and a chapel should be built directly over it to keep the diabolical spirits at bay.
A pardon in exchange for a journey into hell
During construction, it was said that prisoners who had been condemned to death were offered the chance to be lowered into the hole and report what they saw in exchange for a pardon. The first to take up the offer was a young man. Shortly after being lowered into the hole, he let out a blood-curdling scream. When he was pulled back up, he was a gibbering wreck and, to everyone’s horror and amazement, had aged 30 years. He died two days later. Not many prisoners chose to follow him, preferring death to being lowered into this supposed gateway to hell.
The castle was completed in 1278. Its chapel was dedicated to the Archangel Michael who, according to scripture, is the angel who raised an army against the forces of Lucifer when he rebelled against God. On the chapel’s walls were painted religious frescoes depicting Michael fighting a dragon and weighing the souls of the dead on the Day of Judgement. There was also a painting of a female centaur wielding a bow in her left hand. It is highly unusual for a pagan symbol to be found in a Christian chapel, especially a left-handed one, as left-handedness was seen as a mark of the Devil in the Middle Ages.
Some say that the ghost of a monk, clad in black, also guards the entrance to the pit. The castle’s fortifications, meanwhile, face inwards, reversing a castle’s traditional purpose of keeping intruders out.
Black magic and murder
As the centuries passed, the castle was occupied by several noble families. According to another local legend, a Swedish practitioner of black magic named Oronto lived in the castle in the 17th century. He is said to have carried out diabolical experiments while trying to discover the secret of eternal life. When locals got wind of what he was up to, legend has it, two hunters broke into the castle and murdered Oronto in his laboratory.
After that, the castle lay abandoned and fell into disrepair until it was renovated 1823. In 1924, Houska was purchased by Josef Šimonek, the President of Škoda. It is owned by his descendants to this day. In the 1940s, the fortress was occupied by an invading army that only enhanced the castle’s malevolent reputation.
The Nazis take over the castle
Following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Houska Castle was taken over by the Wehrmacht, who occupied the building until 1945. During that time, locals claimed to have heard strange noises and to have seen bright lights coming from the castle. This led people to believe that the Nazis were conducting sinister experiments in there, possibly even trying to open the gateway to hell under the chapel and harness its evil power to defeat the Allies.
It is unclear exactly what the Nazis got up to in Houska Castle as all records of their activities there have either been lost or destroyed. Theories range from them using it as a base to conduct experiments in so-called ‘paranormal weapons’, to them using the castle as a breeding centre for super soldiers.
While these theories may sound absurd, they are no more fanciful than other claims put forward over the years that the Nazis tried to find ancient artefacts such as the Holy Grail, the Spear of Destiny and the Ark of the Covenant to help them win the war.
The castle today
After the war, the castle was returned to the Šimonek family and was all but forgotten until the fall of communism in 1989. Now it is a popular tourist attraction with people coming from all over the world to visit the fortress and chapel.
To this day, people say they have seen ghosts stalking its ancient corridors, and some even claim to have heard scratching noises coming from under the floor of the chapel. Could these noises be demons trying to claw their way out? Let’s hope nobody ever tries to find out.