8 Spooky Places, and Why They're Like That
These strange places around the world rank among the most macabre, but have interesting explanations.
by Brian Dunning
August 14, 2012
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Also available in Italian
Today we're going to spin the globe and look at eight sites full of creepiness, places that drive the mind mad with horror and spookiness. For some, urban legends exist that give haunted explanations for the frights within. For others, bizarre cultural traditions exist that seem macabre to us but are commonplace to those who practice them. But all of them will stick with you, and tint your dreams with a little darkness for the foreseeable future.
We're going to start with something light (literally), to ease you into the depths that await. We'll begin in the Himachal Pradesh state of India:
8. Eternal Flames at Jwala Devi Temple
This Hindu temple in India is best known for its continually burning flames, said to be springing directly from nine rocks located throughout the grounds. Legend has it that they cannot be extinguished, and that no source of ignition is visible. They are the manifestation of the goddess herself, which is why no other idol exists at the temple.
According to Hindu tradition, the goddess Sati, first consort of Shiva, killed herself by self-immolation using her yogic powers. Shiva was enraged and struck out wreaking havoc. To calm him, The god Vishnu took Sati's body and cut it into 51 pieces, distributing them throughout India where each became a sacred site. The place where Sati's tongue landed became the Jwala Devi temple, and the fires still burn today.
But science offers a complementary explanation. Other than the temple, the town of Jwalamukhi has also been host to the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India. The area was first surveyed in 1835, and exploratory natural gas mines were drilled throughout the 1980s. Because oil was never struck, none of the mines were developed into commercial production, but a closer examination of the flames at the temple reveal copper pipes which are lit each day by the priests. Outside, a stone-lined pit of water bubbles constantly, revealing the natural gas' presence. Whether the copper pipe is attached to municipal service or is fed by the local natural source is not clear.
7. New Haven's Cemetery in a Basement
It's not uncommon for old churches to have crypts in their lower levels where bodies are interred, but Center Church in New Haven, CT is unusual in that the bodies in its basement are buried in a perfectly normal, cemetery-like manner: Inside caskets, buried six feet deep, with a conventional headstone. Walking through the basement of Center Church is exactly like walking through any other outdoor graveyard. Why did Center Church do this?
It turns out that the explanation is elegant in its simplicity. The cemetery was there first, and the church was built on top of it in 1812 so as not to disturb the bodies. The surrounding earth was built up so the church appears to be on level ground, yet when you visit its basement you find the true original ground level. Moisture eroding the headstones has been a problem, so the ground has been paved with dry-fit brick to allow better drainage. Other than that, you'd never know you're not strolling through the original pre-1812 cemetery.
6. Mapimí Silent Zone
In northern central Mexico is La Zona del Silencio, the Silent Zone. In this remote patch of desert, it's said that radios, compasses, and electronics refuse to function. UFO stories abound, as well as alleged magnetic vortices, visiting space aliens, mutated plants and animals, and just about any other strange phenomenon you can mention. There are no pictures or documentation, just stories and ghostly tales.
Why do these stories exist? They didn't, not until after 1970. An American Athena missile from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico went off course and crashed in the Bolsón de Mapimí desert basin. The US military located and cleaned up the mess, included soil contaminated by the fuel. A local man named Jaime, who was one of a number of locals hired by the military during the cleanup, saw dollar signs and promoted the stories to the newspapers, and even spoke of building a resort hotel. Jaime's plans were cut short when he was killed in a bar fight, so all that remains are whatever stories sprouted from the seeds he planted.
5. Underground Tomb at Okinawa
World War II saw the construction of many underground bunkers on the island of Okinawa, but one in particular has a gruesome history. The Okinawa District Headquarters of the Japanese Navy was built inside 450 meters of tunnels in the hillside overlooking the Okinawa Naval Base. When it was unsealed in the 1950s, the remains of more than 4,000 Japanese soldiers were found.
Why? When US Marines overran Okinawa in June of 1945, Admiral Minoru Ōta, commander of the Oroku Peninsula forces, ordered all his troops to commit suicide. He died along with 4,000 of his men inside the bunker, except for a few who disobeyed the order and attempted a hopeless charge against the forces outside. Damage from grenades is still visible on the walls inside.
Most of the headquarters has been open to the public since 1970.
4. The Skeleton Lake of Roopkund
High in the Indian Himalayas at an altitude of 5,000 meters (16,500 feet), is a small lake, smaller than a football pitch. Along its shores are the skeletons of at least 600 individuals. Nobody knows who they are, what they were doing there, or how they died. Its location is so remote and inaccessible that virtually any theory falls apart.
The latest studies raise as many questions as they answer. By carbon dating, we know they died around the year 850, ±30 years. From DNA sampling of 31 of the skeletons, we know that at least two very different ethnic groups were represented, one tribe of smaller locals who may have been porters, and one group of taller men from Maharashta. Most were adult men, but some women and even a few teens were found. No weapons were found or any other artifacts that indicates they were anything other than ordinary people.
One urban legend about the skeletons states that all the people were killed in exactly the same way, with a blunt force to the skull, suggesting they all died in an unusually brutal hailstorm. However, only one study ever actually made this conclusion, and plenty of the skulls do not bear the same type of damage.
One probable reason for a group that large to have been in such a remote location is that it's along one route of a pilgrimage undertaken every 12 years by followers of the goddess Nanda Devi. But how did they die? Freezing and avalanches are unlikely; the pilgrimage would not be embarked upon in the winter and Roopkund Lake is very near the top of the mountain and thus safe from catastrophic avalanches. Epidemic, fighting, mass suicide, even the hailstones cannot be discounted. The bones have yet to give up all their secrets.
3. Dead on Display at Capuchin Monastery
Perhaps the most macabre place in the world is the Catacombe dei Cappuccini, the mummy catacombs at Capuchin Monastery in Sicily. Founded in 1631 when the Capuchin friars relocated the remains of a few thousand of their forebears to a new location, this monastery is famous not only for a series of chapels in which bones are arranged as art on the walls and ceilings, but most especially for the catacombs in which mummies are displayed in various states of preservation. Some 8000 mummies, divided into the categories of Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals, are displayed. Many are arranged in lifelike poses, sometimes on furniture, and dressed in various ways. The art of embalming was raised to new levels here, culminating with a two-year old girl who died in 1920, displayed in a glass case, whose body is surprisingly intact.
The question we want most to answer on Skeptoid is why? What is the purpose of this bizarre — some might say disgusting — display? Interestingly, a satisfying answer to this basic question eludes any but a Capuchin or the devout. Their explanations are frustratingly vague. The corpses are a reminder of the brevity of life, or a link between the living and their loved ones. The official answer given by the Capuchin is "Death closes the gates of time, and opens those of eternity." As something of an amateur historian myself, I can't help but conclude that the simple indulgence of someone's morbid fascination was at least partly responsible for the catacombs, given the lack of even an attempt at a cogent explanation. It's little wonder that such ghastly displays are rare in the world.
2. Skeleton Cleaning at Pomuch Cemetery
Pomuch Cemetery in the northern Yucatan peninsula is a cemetery much like any other, except for what goes on there towards the end of each October. Relatives exhume the bodies of the dead, remove the bones from the coffins, and scrub them clean before reburying them.
It's a curious mixture of Catholicism and Mayan culture. The Mexicans who do this are Mayans, who observe la Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — the Mexican Halloween when they believe the souls of the departed return to be welcomed by their families. Souls of children return on November 1, and of adults on November 2. To honor them and show that they haven't been forgotten, the Mayans gives their bones a thorough and respectful cleaning. To Mayans, this practice is like helping to bathe or dress a family member. And as one old man has said, "There is nothing to fear from the dead. It's the living we should fear."
1. Zoroastrian Towers of Silence
One of the world's oldest religions, Zoroastrianism, is still practiced in parts of India and Iran. To this day, they place their dead in dakhmas, towers of silence. These great stone towers have an outer wall, inside of which is a round platform surrounding a central pit. On the platform, safe from scavenging animals, are laid the dead, with no preparation of any kind, with their heads to the wall and their feet toward the central pit. Dressed in whatever they were wearing at death, their bodies putrefy under the hot sun. It's as if dozens of people walked in, laid down, and died.
Bodies that have lain for a year or more are swept into the central pit where the bones and shreds of clothing pile up in a great tangle. Wind and rain and time have their way, and the remains soak through coal and sand filters and eventually seep out to the sea. Occasionally a special pallbearer may enter and sweep the dakhma clean or clear out any bones that have not yet disintegrated.
The purpose of this grisly practice has to do with the Zoroastrian tradition that dead bodies are unclean. They must not be allowed to contaminate the earth or any animals. Thus they are quickly stored high up, out of the way, and sealed from outside contact. What seems grotesque is actually an exercise in hygiene, or at least that's the idea. Technically the dakhmas have been illegal since the 1970s, but the practice does still continue unofficially.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "8 Spooky Places, and Why They're Like That." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
14 Aug 2012. Web.
28 Sep 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4323>
References & Further Reading
Adams, L. "Mexican Indians clean exhumed bones to welcome spirits of the departed." St. Augustine Record. 31 Oct. 2004, Newspaper.
Editors. "Roopkund Lake Mystery." Roopkund. Indiahikes, 25 Jun. 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.roopkund.com/component/content/article/3-documentation/14-roopkund-lake-mystery.html>
Editors. "The Crypt." NewHavenCenterChurch.org. Center Church on-the-Green, 25 Dec. 2005. Web. 11 Aug. 2012. <http://www.newhavencenterchurch.org/crypt.html>
Editors. "Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters." Okinawa Story. Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://www.okinawastory.jp/en/view/portal/0600007616/>
Editors. "Religion: The Towers of Silence." Time. 1 Apr. 1974, Magazine.
Gill, A. "Where the Dead Don't Sleep: Sicily's Mummies." National Geographic. 1 Feb. 2009, Volume 215, Number 2: 118-133.
Kaus, A. Common Ground: Ranchers and Researchers in the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve. Riverside: University of California, 1992.
Sharma, B. "Why ONGC drilling operation in Jawalamukhi was shut down midway?" Hill Post. Himachal Media Pvt. Ltd., 21 Dec. 2007. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://hillpost.in/2007/12/21/why-ongc-drilling-operation-in-jawalamukhi-shut-down-midway/4028/general/bijender-sharma>
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