Looming In the mountains north of Prague you’ll find Houska Castle, an 800 year old structure with an evil reputation.
Legends say the castle was constructed to close off a bottomless chasm, a gateway to hell that is now covered by the castle’s chapel. Built over the remains of an older timber fortress, there are several oddities about its construction that have added to this legend. The castle is far from any strategic locations and the outside works are lacking many of the traditional fortifications expected in a 13th century castle. The fortifications that were in place seem to have been better designed to keep enemies within the castle than to keep them out.
Stories tell of half-man, half-beasts who crawled from the pit and strange flying creatures who burst out of the darkness. Convicted criminals were offered a pardon by the king if they would agree to be lowered into the hell gate and report back what they saw. The first to descend was said to have screamed in terror and when he was pulled up his hair was white. The experience drove him mad and none know what he saw in the depths.
The castle’s dark reputation followed it down through the ages. During the 30 Years War it was said that a renegade Swedish commander and his force of brigands took the castle as a headquarters. Emperor Ferdinand III reportedly called it, “the cursed castle”. Tales also tell of kings or monks who have hidden treasure within its walls. Evil still plagued the castle into the modern era and during the Second World War the castle was taken by the invading German army. There are rumors of strange interdimensional experiments by the SS being conducted in its dungeons.
Houska Castle is a site straight out of a Hammer Studios horror film and I’ve only touched on a few of the stories surrounding it. The actual facts surrounding the castle are more mundane than the legends, though no less interesting.
The castle seems to have been built as an administrative center and retreat rather than a fortress, which would help explain its location. One site states that construction was carried out by serfs who were poorly treated, leading to several civil revolts. The defenses were designed to fight mobs within the castle’s courtyard, with the garrison above and protected by battlements. The defenses were not designed to keep hell beasts from escaping the castle, they acted as a kill pocket for attackers lured into a trap. This same source indicates that Houska Castle was within sight of another fortress which could be signaled to send aid, trapping attackers between two defending forces.
Emperor Ferdinand’s declaration of the castle as “cursed” seems to be true, but the cause was his inability to maintain the castle in good condition and not from any haunting. The German army did operate from the castle during the occupation of Czechoslovakia, but as a military base and not the site of paranormal investigations by the SS.
The stories say that the hell gate was beneath the chapel, sometimes referring to it as a well, but no pictures of the castle’s chapel show any signs of its most famous legend. The chapel seems to have few surviving features beyond murals on its walls and a simple alter.
The castle was extensively renovated in the 16th century, mixing Renaissance style with its imposing Gothic structure. There are some excellent pictures of the castle available online, especially from the castle’s website. The site is in Czech, but Chrome users will find Google’s translation to be serviceable.
Whether you draw from its extensive legends or its colorful history, Houska Castle is excellent fuel for designing adventures. It’s not hard to imagine Count Orlock glaring down at you from the courtyard battlements, or British commandos infiltrating the walls in search of a hidden Nazi bunker.
I’ll have further thoughts on Houska Castle in upcoming posts.
For further reading: