Walk into Portugal’s Chapel of Bones and you’ll realize something eerie: you’re surrounded by the calcified remains of 5,000 people. There’s no escaping these bones—they occupy every sight line. That superbly curved crown molding? Rows of human skulls. Those patterns on the walls? Precisely stacked ribs and tibias. And every year, plenty of travelers come to the town of Évora to be creeped out.
This necropolis-turned-chapel is not unique. With their diabolical displays and professed obsession with mortality, macabre destinations around the world draw hordes of visitors each year, reminding them that death, indeed, is inevitable.
Why do we get a kick out of being scared stiff by ghoulish places? “It’s like watching a good horror movie,” says Andrea Holden, media relations manager for Czech Tourism USA. Of course, visiting a creepy place is more like living in the movie. And, Holden says, the Czech Republic has its own scary spot—a 15th-century Gothic church about 90 minutes outside Prague containing 40,000 human bones. Would she spend the night there—alone? No, she admits, “It’s a very scary place.”
At these morbid must-sees, the subject matter ranges from religious to political to archaeological to bizarre. The Torture Museum in Amsterdam, for example, documents man’s cruelty to his fellow man. Both real and reconstructed torture devices give visitors a sense of how deep that cruelty can run. But if you’ve ever wanted to see a skull cracker or limb-dislocating rack, this is the place.
And you don’t have to travel overseas to find creepy attractions. Sunny California has its own dark side. The 160-room Winchester Mystery House in San Jose was built by the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune to appease the spirits of those killed by her family’s guns. At least three ghosts are said to live in this labyrinthine Victorian mansion with 2,000 doors and 10,000 windows. The home’s twisting hallways and dead-end stairways may have been designed to confuse unfriendly spirits, but even with 160 rooms, there are only so many places to hide.
“Usually, scary is in the eye of the beholder,” says L. Andrew Cooper, the author of several books on creepy topics including Monsters and Gothic Realities: The Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture. “For some people it’s the site of some horrible murder or injustices against humanity; for others it’s the Chernobyl site,” says Cooper. “Personally, I have a claustrophobic reaction to places that are very small, like the Paris Catacombs. Small places full of skulls do get creepy after all. It’s not just like in the movies—it’s real.”
Whether you’re spooked by skeletons, ghosts, mummies, or murderers, get ready to cover your eyes at the world’s creepiest attractions.