The Castle Built to Trap Demons: Hrad Houska

On the slopes of Mount Zámecký, overlooking the village of Houska in the Česká Lípa of the Czech Republic lies Hrad Houska (known in English as Houska Castle). This building, which lies 47 km north of Brague, was built sometime between 1253 and 1278, during Ottokar II’s rule. This Gothic castle is, oddly, miles from any reliable water source, had no strategic importance, had no nearby trade route or border, was next to a deep forest unsuitable for hunting, lacked a kitchen, and was mainly uninhabited over the years. Supposedly, Ottokar II of Bohemia had this castle built as a location to manage his royal estate. And while this could very well be true, it is not the best-known reason for the castle’s construction.

Hrad Houska
Hrad Houska, courtesy of Petr Kratochvíl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Local legend tells that Hrad Houska was built over a pit to hell. The pit broke open at the end of the ninth century, expelling sulfurous odors. Before the castle’s construction, locals attempted to fill it in with stones, but to no noticeable effect. They also claimed to see and hear demons crawling out of this hole to harass the countryside. The castle’s oddly placed chapel is supposedly located directly over the pit, serving to seal it away. A popular offshoot of this legend tells of a period shortly before the sealing occurred: Prisoners set to be killed were offered their freedom if they agreed to be lowered into the pit and report back on what they saw. One man took this deal. He had barely been down there for thirty seconds when he began screaming. When they pulled him up, his skin had wrinkled and all of his hair had turned white — as if he had aged decades in mere seconds. He babbled incoherently about creepy human-animal hybrids and winged demons, and died two days later in an insane asylum. 

A fresco, courtesy of ŠJů (cs:ŠJů), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Sealing the pit has not fully stopped supernatural events, however, with most (though certainly not all) of the activity centering around the chapel and inner courtyard. Visitors have reported hearing screams and scratching claws coming from the floor of the chapel. Others have heard howling coming from the nearby woods at night — sometimes accompanied by a human-frog-dog hybrid figure. Dead birds are often found in the inner courtyard. Cars refuse to start too close to the castle. Even during droughts, the walls of the castle are supposedly always moist. The cellar is best known as “Satan’s office,” and has a throne complete with horns and a trident. And this is not even the full extent of the castle’s spookiness. 

The inner courtyard, courtesy of Lukáš Kalista, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

But first, let’s get back into the history of the castle. Its original design was certainly strange — most of the windows were fake, with solid walls behind them, for example — but it has undergone many modifications over the centuries, and has played host to many not-so-normal inhabitants. There were some renovations made to the castle between 1584 and 1590 — ones that were certainly needed, given how long it had been since the last update was made to the building. In the 1630s, Oronto, a mercenary leader who was also supposedly an alchemist and black magician, inhabited the castle. It is said that he practiced his dark arts in his lab until a group of locals, tired of his cruelty, assassinated him in 1639. His ghost is reported to be very angry in its hauntings.

Another view of the courtyard, courtesy of ŠJů (cs:ŠJů), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Further renovations happened in the 18th century, when it was turned into something of a chateau, but it soon fell into a state of disrepair. Further attempts to restore it were made in 1823, but it was still a fairly dilapidated building when the poet Karel Hynek spent the night there in 1836. He is said to have had a dream about the 2006 version of Prague that was fairly accurate. It is unclear if this was thanks to his own abilities, the castle’s aura, or simple happenstance. 1897 saw the building bought by Princess Hohenlohe, though in 1924 it was sold to the President of Škoda, Josef Šimonek, of the First Republic. 

An interior shot, courtesy of Lukáš Kalista, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most disturbing things to happen in the castle — even more so than the hauntings — happened during the second World War: Hrad Houska fell to the Nazis. What exactly they did with the castle is up for debate, but it is well known that the Nazis were obsessed with the supernatural. They may have performed inhumane experiments (though with Nazis, there was never any other type) to attempt to harness the evil under the castle for their own purposes. Another option is that Hrad Houska was used as a selective breeding location for the SS. The true horror of what went on during the occupation will remain unknown — as will whether or not there really is a pit to hell under the chapel. Thanks to the numerous landmines the Nazis laid in the area, it is too dangerous to excavate the castle. Most landmines have been removed, but there is no way of knowing whether or not all of them are truly gone. That being said, we do know a little bit about what happened — or can assume. Three skeletons of executed German soldiers were exhumed from the inner courtyard.

One of the impressive pieces of art, courtesy of Lukáš Kalista, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite its dark history (or perhaps because of it), Hrad Houska is definitely worth a visit. It has fascinating frescoes, late-gothic paintings, and a plethora of spooks. In addition to the aforementioned spirits, people have also reported seeing a headless black horse running around, a chained group of people with various grievous injuries marching towards the castle while a black dog attacks them, winged creatures flying around the courtyard, a beautiful woman in a white dress, among many others. The castle is currently under repair by its current owners, Jaromir Simonek and Blanka Horova. Guided tours are available for a small fee several times a week — but make sure to have a ride, as there’s no public transport available to this historic locale. Despite its out-of-the-way location, its haunting history is absolutely worth a visit. 

An interior wall, courtesy of Lukáš Kalista, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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