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updated 10/29/2008 12:24:23 PM ET 2008-10-29T16:24:23

Step away from that pumpkin! While we're more than happy to get into the swing of Halloween, we refuse to do a roundup of the trite and not-so-true haunted hotels around the world. Nonetheless, in our travels we've happened upon a number of places that are genuinely creepy, from a dive site among WWII wrecks in Micronesia to a tour through the eerie, abandoned town near Chernobyl in the Ukraine. You'd be wrong to dismiss these destinations as merely spooky stop-offs, too. Many have true historical significance (the Paris Catacombs and its links to the French Revolution), while others are destinations of great beauty (the Easter Islands in the Pacific Ocean). So in the spirit (sorry) of the season, here are 13 (sorry again) of the world's weirdest destinations. Sensitive souls should read on with caution.

For a complete slideshow of the World’s Creepiest Places, click here.

1. Bhangarh, India
India's Bhangarh, in the Rajasthan region north of Jaipur, is a town with a mysterious history. Built in the 1630s, it was abruptly abandoned ten years later for reasons that are still unclear. Legend has it that after a convoluted series of events involving a princess and a jar of enchanted oil, a massacre occurred and the town was never repopulated. Nowadays there are tourists aplenty by day, but no one stays at night. This might have something to do with the supposed curse placed on the town by a jealous shaman. Even the local archeological office is located half a mile away (better safe than sorry). But the magnificent ruins—not to mention the Palace of Prostitutes—imply that Bhangarh was something of a Gomorrah of extravagant goings-on. Perhaps that history—and not the ghost stories—is why a sign at the entrance reads, "Staying here after sunset is strictly prohibited." Either way, we're happy to rest our heads at the ultra-luxe Amanbagh resort six miles away.

Amanbagh
Tel: 800 477 9180 (toll free)

2. Mütter Museum, Philadelphia
From the sliced human head floating in a glass case, à la Damien Hirst, to the gruesome collection of preserved presidential tumors and a plaster cast of Siamese twins Chang and Eng (as well as their actual conjoined livers), Philadelphia's Mütter museum is a must-see, especially for those who found the movie "Dead Ringers" oddly compelling. Part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical school complex in North America, it combines exhibits of pathological objects, surgical tools, and anatomical curiosities. Other wonders on display include the tallest skeleton in North America and a collection of 2,000 objects removed from people's throats, each with its own case history. There is an almost gleeful disconnection between the museum's mission—"to advance the cause of health, and uphold the ideals and heritage of medicine"—and the often shocking displays. High on the ugh-list are the painted papier-mâché models of the effects of gangrene and the wax faces with various eye injuries; the air outside is bound to seem fresh afterward, no matter what the weather.

Mütter Museum
Tel: 215 563 3737

3. Truk Lagoon, Chuuk, Micronesia
A ship ripped neatly in half offers a perfect cutaway view of life and death on the high seas. Everything is encrusted with barnacles, from cabins and boiler rooms to onboard assault tanks and airplanes. Much of the Japanese Navy's WWII fleet lies in the shallow Truk Lagoon in a volcanic valley in Micronesia, part of the Caroline Islands 3,200 miles southwest of Hawaii. Now a deep-blue diver's paradise (it was the subject of a Jacques Cousteau documentary in 1971), this was where the Allies sunk more than 60 battleships and aircraft carriers in 1944, many going down with their crews trapped inside. While swimming through the wrecks, you can spot gas masks, sake cups, and the odd "human remain." The ships are corroding fast and many have become full-fledged coral reefs, but they still provide a jaw-dropping testimony to the ravages of war. Tour companies, including the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop, offer excursions for experienced divers.

Blue Lagoon Dive Shop
Tel: 691 330 2796

4. Sonora Witchcraft Market, Mexico City, Mexico
Witches packed into tightly spaced stalls proffer advice and spells for $10, promising quick ends to poverty and spousal infidelity, while some rather unhappy-looking exotic animals—iguanas, frogs, and wild birds—are for sale in cages. This is the Sonora Witchcraft Market, open daily to pilgrims from Mexico City and far beyond who come to have their fortunes read and attempt to find a shortcut to a better life.

The market is a labyrinth of stalls that cover a few city blocks, and it's the regional source for "spiritual" stuff ranging from potions derived from ancient Aztec recipes to Buddha statues. For hard-core enthusiasts, perhaps some rattlesnake blood or a dried hummingbird will give your fortunes a jolt. But you should be aware that witchcraft in Mexico is no joke: The National Association of Sorcerers has weighed in on presidential elections, casting spells to make them free and fair. And of course there's a dark side, such as bad-luck charms from the Santería;—a religion that scares the daylights out of locals—and don't give anyone in Mexico a black candle unless you really, really mean it.

5. Easter Island, Chile
One of the most unnerving things about the 30-foot carved heads that dot Easter island is that they're not looking out at you as you arrive; the famous unsmiling moai sculptures look inward from the sea, as if guilty of some crime. Perhaps it has something to do with the virtual disappearance of the people who made them. At only 63 square miles, tiny Easter Island is home to more mystery for its size than just about anyplace else on earth. The Rapa Nui people, nearly extinct a century ago but flourishing now, kept no written records of how they moved the enormous moai around the island, sometimes as far as 14 miles, from the volcanic quarry where they were carved. We like the theory that UFOs were behind it all. It's said that the Rapa Nui grew so devoted to their stone heads that they sacrificed their civilization in the interest of bigger, better, and more perfect specimens. The island's now accessible via Chile (a five-and-a-half-hour flight), and the new Explora property offers a range of treks, as well as luxury accommodation.

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Explora on Easter Island
Tel: 866 750 6699 (toll free)

6. Manchac Swamp, Louisiana
As your boat pushes out into the swamp by torchlight, ancient cypress trees and Spanish moss drape across the water. That far-off howl you hear might just be the Rougarou, the Cajun version of the Wolfman. The Manchac Swamp, a.k.a. the "haunted swamp," near New Orleans is a Southern Gothic fan's dream. An imprisoned voodoo queen is said to have cast a curse on these watery surroundings around the turn of the last century, resulting in the disappearance of three hamlets in a hurricane in 1915. The occasional corpse still surfaces in this otherwise untouched bird sanctuary, left alone by commercial development for more than 100 years. Torchlit nighttime boat tours are offered by the Old River Plantation Adventure. But beware: As anyone who has spent a night in the wild can tell you, nature can be anything but gentle, and the staring red-eyed alligators can give you a real fright as they watch your boat cruise slowly by.

Old River Road Plantation Adventure
Tel: 866 671 8687 (toll free)

7. Bran Castle, Bran, Romania
A vertiginous hilltop climb leads to a storybook castle that seems to have no horizontal surfaces: Endless stairways and towers are all that is visible. Inside, underground passageways connect dozens of rooms containing rococo antiques and suits of armor. All that's missing from Dracula's Castle, as Bran Castle is known, is a stormy night and a lightning bolt to illuminate the scene. A cloud of legend, local folklore, and literary pedigree hang over the dramatic fortress, perched 200 feet above the Romanian town of Bran.

The castle has certainly reaped a PR bonanza as the setting for Bram Stoker's "Dracula", with a reported 450,000 visitors a year—not bad for an isolated spot in Eastern Europe. The name comes from the notoriously sadistic tyrant Vlad the Impaler, known as Vlad Dracula, who is said to have used the castle as an occasional base of operations. Vlad earned his nickname by hoisting tens of thousands of enemies on stakes; one engraving shows him feasting alone at a table surrounded by a veritable forest of his victims hanging on spikes. Bram Stoker got wind of Vlad's legend and, after a visit to Romania, modeled Count Dracula's castle on this one. The castle is quite tourist-friendly, but just be aware that it closes at 4 p.m., lest the sun set before visitors are safely away.

Bran Castle
Tel: 40 268 238 333

8. Paris Catacombs, Paris, France
Bones and skulls are stacked on either side of a narrow corridor like merchandise at a warehouse—a lot of merchandise. The air is close and cool, with just a hint of decomposition, and there's rude graffiti dating from the French Revolution, mainly about the king and the feeble nobility. Once inside, you can easily see why Victor Hugo and Anne Rice have set stories in Paris's famous Catacombs. Snaking some 187 miles through underground passages around the city, only a tiny portion is open to the public—it's said that the rest is patrolled by the legendary cataflics, a special underground police force.

Though guided tours are available, it's more creepy and effective to go on your own, when it's just you and millions of bones lit by the occasional low-wattage bulb. The catacombs were originally a Roman-era quarry, but when the Innocents Cemetery in central Paris started overflowing to the point of being a public health hazard in 1785, the tunnels came into their present state. Bones were carted off in elaborate nighttime ceremonies, and until 1814 the catacombs filled up with Paris's dead. You can reach out and rattle the ivory yourself if you like, but the greatest chill is in wondering which of them didn't die of natural causes.

Paris Catacombs
Tel: 33 1 43 22 47 63

9. Winchester House, San Jose, California
The Winchester "Mystery" House is a colossal construction built on a foundation of superstition. It's said that Sarah Winchester, heiress to the arms company, was told by a soothsayer that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles would haunt her unless she moved from Connecticut to the West and built a house that could never be finished in her lifetime. Construction started in 1884 in San Jose, California, and kept going nonstop for 38 years until her death. Now the house's 160 rooms are haunted by her madness and packed with bizarre details: Staircases go straight into the ceiling, doors open onto blank walls, spider motifs abound, and candelabras, coat hooks, and steps are arranged in multiples of 13. Reports of banging doors, footsteps in the night, moving lights, and doorknobs turning of their own accord have been occurring since the house was opened to the public. Tour options include Flashlight Tours every Friday the 13th and Halloween. But you don't have to believe in ghosts to be blown away by the scale and intricacy of the place, or the folly involved in building it.

Winchester House
Tel: 408 247 2101

10. Szoborpark, Budapest, Hungary
A towering Lenin addresses a now-absent city square, while Marx and Engels, wearing holy robes and carrying religious-looking texts (surely their own), are crumbling nearby. Budapest's Szoborpark is a collection of retired Soviet-era iconography just outside Budapest. A pavilion warehousing 40 years of often kitschy, sometimes terrifying, and overdone public statuary, the park is a brilliant solution to the problem that came up with liberation from Soviet tyranny in 1991: What to do with all that official art? While the rest of the former Soviet republics couldn't get rid of their Lenins fast enough, the Budapesters decided to round them up and put them on display. As you walk around, all those stony stares create the uncanny feeling that you're being watched (see video). Take a 30-minute public bus ride from the city's central Déak Tér stop; you have 40 minutes to wander before the bus goes back into town.

Szoborpark
Tel: 36 1 425 7500

11. Abbey of Thelema, Cefalù;, Sicily, Italy
Aleister Crowley is perhaps the world's most infamous occultist, and this now-overgrown stone ranch-style house with hallways full of dark pagan frescoes was once the world capital of his satanic orgies. Or so it was reported in the 1920s. Crowley is now known for his famous fans, including Jimmy Page and Marilyn Manson, and the fact that he appears on the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album. He founded the Abbey of Thelema—named after a utopia described in Rabelais' "Gargantua" whose motto is "Do as thou wilt"—in 1920 in the beach town of Cefalù;, Sicily.

It became a free-love commune with a dark side: Newcomers were forced to spend the night in the "Chamber of Nightmares," where, high on hashish and opiates, they stared at frescoes of earth, heaven, and hell. After a British society dandy named Raoul Loveday died of a fever contracted at the Abbey, the press had a field day, leading an embarrassed Benito Mussolini to expel the commune in 1923. Notorious underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger unearthed the compound in 1945 and made a movie there, although mysteriously the film was subsequently lost. The Abbey is now a collapsed semi-ruin, overrun with vegetation, but inside there are some original hellish frescoes that Crowley used to scare his disciples into shape. Intrepid and esoterically minded visitors visiting Sicily can wander the grounds and get some vibes, though no official tours are available.

12. Mary King's Close, Edinburgh, Scotland
Hidden below Edinburgh's medieval Old Town is a series of subterranean streets with an unsavory past. Mary King's Close is where plague victims were quarantined and where there are tales of many people dying in the 17th century. Paranormal activity abounds down there. You might, for instance, feel some gentle tugging at your hands and legs by an unseen force. The cause is believed to be the ghost of Annie, a young girl abandoned by her parents in 1645.

Image: Mary King's Close, Edinburgh
Ronnie Baxter  /  Courtesy of Real Mary King's Close
Mary King's Close, Edinburgh
More than a hundred years later, in classic horror-tale fashion, a grand new building was constructed over Mary King's Close, leaving the streets, including the plague ghosts, intact underground. In 2003, the surprisingly well-preserved Close was opened to visitors, drawn by tales of its supernatural goings-on. Tour guides will accompany you down a stone staircase to the vaultlike, oppressive lanes. In addition to Annie's Room, there are typical re-creations of bygone lifestyles and plague deaths. Just remember to keep on moving, especially when you feel a sudden chill.

Mary King's Close
Tel: 44 870 243 0160

13. Chernobyl, Pripyat, Ukraine
Walk through the abandoned town of Pripyat in the Ukraine, and you'll find a large-scale crime scene abandoned in a hurry: A nursery full of children's shoes, and apartment complexes with the morning newspaper, dated April 28, 1986, open on the breakfast table. Two days before, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, minutes away, melted down, but it took 48 hours for the authorities to alert locals and clear them out of the world's biggest nuclear disaster site. Now that radiation levels are safe for short-term exposure, Chernobyl's nuclear complex has become an unlikely tourist attraction since opening to visitors in 2002.

Slideshow: Haunted destinations (on this page) The power complex is at the center of the 20-mile-radius "Exclusion Zone," a regrown area of forests now populated by wolves and bears. Reactor #4 is the star of this sad show, today sheathed in a concrete and lead sarcophagus 200 feet high. A tour organization called Welcome to Ukraine offers day trips from Kiev via bus (you're advised to book two weeks in advance): You'll tour the forest and get to inspect the plant's exterior, including mounting an observation post to see the reactor, before walking to Pripyat, which was built in the 1970s and celebrated in official USSR propaganda as the "world's youngest town." It died young, but failed to leave a beautiful corpse.

Welcome to Ukraine Chernobyl Tour
Tel: 38 0 44 493 7849

Photos: Haunted destinations

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  1. Bran Castle

    Bran Castle, Dracula's castle, in fog, Transylvania. (Gavin Quirke / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Myrtles Plantation

    Now a bed and breakfast, this antebellum estate northwest of Baton Rouge has been called "America's Most Haunted Home." Reported phenomena include an oil portrait whose features become animated, a "bloody handprint" on the adjacent wall, and doors that open and close by themselves. (Courtesy of The Myrtles Plantation) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pfister Hotel

    Built in 1893, the Pfister is the most regal address in Milwaukee, Wis., having hosted every U.S. president since William McKinley and scores of celebrities. But rumors abound that late at night, the spirit of hotel founder Charles Pfister, who died in 1927, arrives to check in. Some guests report hearing strange noises and having paranormal experiences. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Alcatraz

    The former maximum security facility on an island in San Francisco Bay was once home to Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It is no longer used as a prison, but visitors and tour guides have claimed to hear screams, slamming cell doors, and footsteps. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Amityville house

    The house at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York, gained infamy in a best-selling book and several movies. Former owners reported creaking noises, voices, the music of a full marching band in the middle of the night, foul odors, and a black, shapeless apparition. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Edinburgh Castle

    This ancient stronghold overlooking Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions. It is reputed to have many ghosts, including a drummer who only appears when the castle is about to be attacked, and a piper who disappeared in the tunnels underneath it. (Jonathan Smith  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Paris Catacombs

    In the 1800s, Paris’s cemeteries were coming dangerously close to being filled, so some bodies were moved to tunnels that had been dug beneath the city by workers quarrying for building materials. Bones and skulls are stacked up throughout the Catacombs, and visitors have reported strange voices. (Fred De Noyelle / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Hotel Chelsea

    A familiar haunt for artists and bohemians in the Chelsea district of New York City since it was built in 1883, the Hotel Chelsea still puts up guests today ... if they don’t mind sharing accommodations with the reputed ghosts of former residents Dylan Thomas, Eugene O’Neill, and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Eastern State Penitentiary

    Located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, this prison was designed to encourage solitude, supposedly helping prisoners open themselves up to God. But it is said that many went mad instead ... which may explain the eerie noises that have been reported since it closed. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hotel del Coronado

    In 1892, a young woman checked into this luxury hotel on California’s San Diego Bay to meet her husband. He never arrived, and a few days later, she was found dead on the hotel steps. Since then, guests and staff have noticed the pale figure of a young lady in a black lace dress.... (Nathan Hughes) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Inverary Castle

    It is said that the ghost of a harpist who was hanged in 1644 for peeping at the lady of the house can be seen wandering this castle in western Scotland, and can be heard playing every day in its library. The castle is home to the 13th Duke of Argyll today, but sometimes opens its doors to brave visitors. (Graeme Cornwallis / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. New Orleans

    The Big Easy’s French Quarter is well-known to tourists for its hot jazz and spicy food. But New Orleans is also the historic center of voodoo traditions that African-Americans brought to Louisiana during the days of the slave trade. Although those customs were suppressed by slave owners, they linger on today. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Petzow Castle

    This 18th-century castle near Potsdam in eastern Germany is a hotel and restaurant today ... but its corridors harbor a dark history involving murderous barons. (Sven Kaestner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Forks, Washington

    Michael Gurling, right, of the Forks, Wash., Chamber of Commerce, talks about the bonfire location on a beach in LaPush, Wash., that is portrayed in Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful vampire-themed "Twilight" books and movies. (Ted S. Warren / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Point Hicks Lighthouse

    In 1947, the keeper of this historic lighthouse on the eastern coast of Australia mysteriously disappeared. Afterward, many visitors have claimed to hear his hobnail boots at night, and it’s said his ghost continues to keep the tower’s brass doorknobs polished to this day. (Oliver Strewe  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Salem, Massachusetts

    The location of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, dramatized in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” is today a mix of important historical sites, New Age boutiques, and witch-kitsch attractions. The Salem Witch Museum claims to be the most visited one in town. (Ed Young / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sleepy Hollow

    This picturesque village 30 miles north of New York City was immortalized in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving’s classic tale of schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and the fearsome Headless Horseman. Irving implied that the apparition Ichabod saw was a fake, but a number of visitors also have claimed to see the Horseman, supposedly a Hessian trooper whose head was carried off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. (Susan Rosenthal / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Stanley Hotel

    This neoclassical hotel in Estes Park, Colo., was the real-life inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining.” It is named for Freelan O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, whose ghost has been reported visiting its billiard room and bar. Guests also complain about children playing in the hallways at night ... even when no children are checked in. (Rob Lee) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Tower of London

    The ghosts of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, just two of hundreds of victims executed on Tower Hill over the Tower of London's bloody 900-year history, are among many that have been seen in what is called England's most haunted building. Legend has it that in 1816, a guard died of fright after seeing an apparition of a bear approaching him. (Scott Barbour / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The White House

    America's most famous residence is the setting for a number of ghost stories, some of which have even made it onto the official White House Web site. The spirit of Abigail Adams supposedly continues to do laundry in the East Room, while the ghost of Dolley Madison has been reported looking down upon the Rose Garden. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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