The first edition of this post first appeared as two feature articles in the October 2015 issue of my newsletter, Off the Easel.
Narrowing down our list of favorite haunted locations turned out to be quite difficult. Even though you may frequently find them on such lists, some of the most meaningful places to me I would not call simply inhabited by ghosts, but rather, are sites woven into the rich tapestry where mythology, folklore, and history become one. “Haunted” seems too limited a word for these complex places. Lough Gur and its surrounding sacred landscape in Co Limerick, the Republic of Ireland, is one such place.
Certain locations also have a rich history of association with the origins of this holiday long before it was known as the Halloween we know today. Two of my other favorite sites in the Republic of Ireland — the otherworldly Oweynagat Cave in Co Roscommon and the Hill of Tara in Co Meath — both have powerful historic and legendary associations with this time of year.
Wild expanses that I love dearly such as Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, England almost seem too broadly spectred to narrow down to just one listing. A wide variety of manifestations call Bodmin Moor home — from the well-documented Beast of Bodmin, the Arthurian Lady of the Lake and the ghost Jan Tregeagle at Dozmary Pool, to a variety of spooky denizens at the reputedly well-haunted Jamaica Inn, immortalized by author Daphne du Maurier. Like Dartmoor in Devon, England, Bodmin Moor is much greater than the sum of its parts.
By this definition, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA should be here rather than kicking off our Top Ten. You might say our ghostly travel adventures began in this city that certainly deserves an honorable mention on our list. October marks our honeymoon in this, the birthplace of Anne Rice’s vampires. Be sure to take a walking haunted tour as well as a cemetery tour here. You’ll see the famous tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, as well as the House of the Rising Sun, an 1800’s brothel haunted by its madame that was the inspiration for the 1960’s song. We also drove out to Oak Alley Plantation, the focus of numerous professional ghost hunts.
These favorite places have inspired my art as well as my heart, and have only served to further feed my wanderlust.
Amy and Jimmy’s Top Ten List of Haunted Places
It’s no secret that my husband James C. Williams and I gravitate to liminal sites — if it’s ancient, mythical, folkloric, or haunted, whenever possible, it goes on our itinerary! For October, I thought it would be fun to list our Top Ten Haunted Places we’ve visited.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list by any means, for I’ve come to realize that I could list almost every location we’ve ever been. Our home state also has its fair share of ghosts. Deciding which site should rank higher than any other also felt like splitting hairs — a visit to any on this list should prove rewarding.
Famous haunts like the Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle are definitely well worth a visit, but for the most part, we’ve tried to create a list of sites slightly more off the beaten path. I highly encourage interested readers to learn more about the fascinating history behind these sites — and their preternatural inhabitants!
Not a believer? No problem. Each of these sites are well worth a visit solely on the merits of either history or dramatic location, factors we also took into account when making our selections.
10. Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It’s no wonder Dunnottar is considered one of Scotland’s most haunted castles, considering these stones have witnessed such events as William Wallace’s army burning down the chapel containing a garrison of English troops in 1297, and the cruel mistreatment of a group of Covenanters seeking religious freedom, who were imprisoned there in 1685.
You will enjoy this spectacular cliff-top location whether the ghosts decide to show themselves or not. While neither of us had any such encounters there, the rich tales of Dunnottar’s plentiful otherworldly occupants inspired me to create the photograph above. Email me to learn the full story behind this piece!
After a lovely day at the castle, for a truly hair-raising experience, head to the nearby Dunnottar Woods and take a walk to the Neolithic cairn known as Gallows Hill.
9. Dunluce Castle, near Bushmills, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland. You might recognize Dunluce as the castle inside the Led Zeppelin album cover for Houses of the Holy, or more recently, as a shooting location for the popular HBO program, Game of Thrones. Like Dunnottar, Dunluce is strategically built on a dramatic promontory. Here you may experience tell-tale cold spots, poltergeist activity, and will hear tales of a white-clad Bean Sidhe (Banshee).
My favorite story of Dunluce is the contested local legend that during a fierce storm in the 1600’s, part of the kitchen fell into the sea, along with the pots, pans, and servants! During storms, it is said that you can sometimes still hear their cries.
I did not have any personal experiences here, but I was artistically inspired by the atmospheric location and evocative ruins.
Be sure to also take in the nearby Giant’s Causeway. Legend says it was built by the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.
8. Wistman’s Wood, Two Bridges, Dartmoor, Devon, England. This eerie and moody grove of ancient, stunted oaks could very well be the most haunted place on Dartmoor.
Stories of a ghostly procession, spirits, and black hell hounds leading the otherworldly Wild Hunt all abound. Boulders are thickly covered with lichens and mosses underneath the twisted dwarf trees. Their undulating branches evoke the adders associated with this Wood, and you can easily imagine the ancient Druids worshiping underneath them.
The whole of Dartmoor is well worth a visit, as it is littered with prehistoric remains as well as more haunting locales. Should you find yourself “Pixie-led” across its bleak beauty, beware the Hairy Hands on the B3212 road between Two Bridges and Postbridge!
7. The Rollrights, King’s Men Stone Circle, the Oxfordshire and Warwickshire border, England. These weathered stones had an undeniably supernatural air, and Jimmy’s friend was previously knocked down here by an unseen force. This is a place chock full of myth and legend, and while it may not fit our personal definition of haunted, because of what happened to our friend, we have ranked it fairly high on our list.
To read my full account of our visit to the Rollrights and how this stone circle inspired me to paint the diptych pictured above, please see the article, Origins of a Painting, in the April 2015 issue of my newsletter.
6. Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Chapel at El Morro is definitely one of those places where you feel like you are being watched, even though you are alone. Despite your proximity to the busy visitor’s entrance of this popular tourist destination in the light of day, the hairs are firmly raised on the back of your neck.
Based on the strong sensations I felt in this chapel, I wasn’t at all surprised to see El Morro appear on a popular US ghost investigation program. The lighthouse is also said to be haunted.
While you are in Old San Juan, be sure to stay at Hotel el Convento, a former convent converted into our favorite hotel. After she became a widow, a Spanish noblewoman transformed her home into a Carmelite Convent, and she still haunts the hotel. If you oversleep, you might be awakened by a ghostly nun, and bats visit the 300 year old Nispero fruit tree in the open air courtyard!
5. West Kennet Long Barrow, just over a mile from Avebury, Marlborough, Wiltshire, England. Though you may read stories of a man and his dog appearing at Midsummer on top of this Neolithic burial mound, I tend to classify this powerful site as more ancient and primal that simply “haunted”, though haunted it may be. Around 50 prehistoric ancestors were buried within, after all. One definitely does not feel alone here, and for me, the presence was tangible as I approached the entrance.
While in nearby Avebury, one of my favorite sites in England, you might as well pop into The Red Lion, said to be quite haunted. Considering the village is in the middle of such a large, impressive stone circle, why not?
4. Quin Abbey, near Ennis, Co Clare, Republic of Ireland. Jimmy relates his experience at this 15th century Abbey during our trip there in 2003:
“When we approached the abbey, Amy went one way around it and I went the other. As we met on the opposite side, she told me to investigate the inside of an arch which seemed creepy.
“After I got to that location, I pointed my camcorder upward into the arch, and then down. As I turned the camcorder downward, I thought I saw a face in the monitor, and yes, Amy was right — that spot made me physically shudder! I later told Amy about my experience, and we reviewed the tape. It only showed stone and shadows — no ghostly face.
“Several days later, before returning home, I bought a book of tales from that region by storyteller Eddie Lenihan.1 As we were flying home, I read a ghost story from Quin Abbey. In the tale, while some boys were seeking treasure, they encountered the ghost of a monk in the bottom of that very same arch where I had seen the face!”
3. Alsia Well, St Buryan, Cornwall, England. Alsia is one of those Cornish wells where if you don’t already believe in Piskies,2 you will be charmed into it on your first visit, for this is one of the most magical places in Cornwall.
Once we found the right house, the delightful landowner gave us a warm welcome, entertained us with enchanting stories, and led us on a personal tour of the grounds. On the way to the well, he pointed out the remains of an ancient wall, which may suggest that the Alsia well was indeed venerated long ago.
A swath of frothy blackthorn — a tree symbolizing death and rebirth — made a natural archway over the simple entrance gate. The low well, surrounded by lush, delicate vegetation, sent its gentle trickle of water out onto the ground. A green-clad earthen embankment rose behind the well.
Prior to approaching the well, I opened my backpack to get a bottle for gathering water. I had just placed it in my pack in the car, but now, it was not there. As I turned to go back to the car for another, there was my empty bottle, right by the gate! It was resting several feet away, at an angle where it could not have rolled — not to mention, I believe I would have noticed such a large item falling out of my bag!
Later, while seated in front of the well, I saw the reflection of a woman in white, as if she were standing on the embankment above the well in front of me. Her face was in sharp perspective, making it impossible to see facial features. After daring to glance up, I saw no one, and then the reflection was gone.
Excited by what we had experienced, we returned the next day to tell the landowner about our encounter. He then told us a story that offered an explanation, and we were treated to his own tales of such phenomena.
There had recently been a healer in the village named Jean. When she passed on, it had been her wish to have her ashes buried at the gate to the Alsia Well. Had Jean taken my water bottle to get our attention?
2. Penrhiwgwair Cottage, South Wales. Please note this is a private residence, in use as a bed and breakfast at the time of our 2008 stay. When we made our reservations, we did not know of its haunted status.
Some guests have experienced animal phenomena during their stay. This 16th to 17th century Welsh longhouse may date from as early as 1542. On the ground floor, cows were originally kept in what became the breakfast room so as to keep them warm and to protect them from thieves.
A bedroom above used to be the hayloft. One guest thought the hosts had a cat, since she felt the weight of a feline presence curl up on her bed one night – only to discover the next morning that no physical cat lived there!
But it is the other resident of the house who we encountered.
Our first evening there, I got up in the night, and when I went into the hallway, I felt an extraordinarily strong presence standing there. It seemed very accusatory and territorial. I could not move fast enough to rush back to my room and get under the protective covers!
The next morning over breakfast, as casually as I could muster, I asked our hosts, “Uh, so, by chance is the cottage…haunted?” It was then we learned of the woman who had lived in the cottage and died within recent memory, the grandmother of a local man. As a result, Jimmy and I refer to her as Granny.
A friend of the homeowners had a more tangible experience with her. As he climbed the stairs, he spoke to a lady on the landing. “She asked what he was doing, and when he said he was visiting friends, she said, ‘Well, that’s very nice for YOU,’ in a slightly huffy way,” the homeowner recalled.
I felt Granny in the hallway every night, until our host’s young daughter came to visit during the weekend. At that point, I felt Granny retreat into the daughter’s bedroom, as if to protectively keep watch over her. When asked about his memories of this apparition, Jimmy said, “Granny gave me the shivers!”
The region around the cottage is also rich with folklore. A pwca 3 lives just up the road, and a ghostly woman searches the moor looking for her lost buckle.
My friend just told me of another house legend at the cottage. If you hear the horses and hounds of the ghostly Wild Hunt outside, death is imminent. When a guest who did not know this story came down for breakfast, he told his hosts that he’d had a vivid dream about a hunt gathering outside the window. “We did check him out online for quite some time,” shared my friend, “but all seemed fine!”
And for Number One, we had a tie:
1. Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland. This is Jimmy’s Number One on our list, because it is the only location where he has ever captured a full body apparition with his infrared film. Based on the grisly history of this cemetery, Jimmy exclaimed, “It’s no wonder the place is so haunted. I’m surprised I only caught one apparition!”
Founded in 1561, Greyfriar’s saw a particularly tragic event in 1679. Some 1200 Covenanters were imprisoned and mistreated in an area of the churchyard that featured vaulted tombs; the area became known as the “Covenanters’ Prison.”
Reported poltergeist activity experienced by visitors in the so-called Black Mausoleum includes bruises, scratches, burns, being knocked unconscious, and broken bones. Thankfully, no one in our tour group had any such unwelcome advances.
This poltergeist activity is attributed to Bloody or Bluidy George Mackenzie, whose tomb is depicted in Jimmy’s photograph. In life, the Lord Advocate Sir George Mackenzie persecuted the Covenanters, but since his death in 1691, he haunts Greyfriars — or at least since a homeless man disturbed his tomb in 1998.
What do you see in Jimmy’s photograph above? The ephemeral figure does NOT appear in the frame just before this shot, so you decide — ghost, or a trick of the light?
Harry Potter fans will want to ramble around the tombstones of Greyfriars in the daylight to find the names that inspired J.K. Rowling as she was writing her first novel about the young wizard hero.
Be sure to take a walking tour of haunted Edinburgh that also takes in the Edinburgh Vaults. After the vaults were opened in 1985, numerous accounts of paranormal activities have been reported. There was one particular vault that I felt was quite haunted. It is perhaps not for the faint of heart, however, for the presence did not feel at all friendly.
1. Pengersick Castle, near Praa Sands, Cornwall, England. Said to house an excess of 20 ghosts, some call Pengersick the most haunted castle in all of Europe. The tower bedroom is at the very least considered Cornwall’s, if not Britain’s, most haunted, and based on my own experiences there, I concur! This earns Pengersick my vote for the top of our list.
We had the pleasure of attending a haunted investigation at the castle. Every one of our numerous personal experiences and vivid impressions were substantiated afterwards by reading the books of evidence, history, and other visitor accounts that were placed in each room, as well as in conversation with our guide following the investigation. I appreciated that our excellent guide, a published author, recommended that visitors consult these books only after having sufficient time within each room so as to draw our own conclusions.
I will refrain from elaborating on the specifics of our experiences further so as to give you the same opportunity to confirm your own encounters there, but if you’d like more information, feel free to contact me!
OK, you caught us — this ended up being a Top Eleven List, but where’s the alliteration in that?
I hope you’ve enjoyed our haunting itinerary! Just think, we haven’t been to places like Ireland’s infamous Leap Castle, the Paris catacombs, or The Stanley Hotel in Colorado yet — what stories will we come home with next to fuel our art?
Where should we go next? Do you have a location you would recommend to readers seeking a haunted itinerary? Please leave a comment and let us know your suggestions!
1. Eddie Lenihan, Long Ago by Shannonside (Mercier Press, 2002), 55-57.
2. Cornish pixies
3. Pwca: Welsh; in Irish it is the púca. Also pooka, a shape-changing creature who can be benevolent or mischievous.
If you have any questions about his photograph, please contact Jimmy. Many thanks for his assistance in preparing this Top Ten List!
Many thanks to our friend in Wales for the information she provided for the entry on Penrhiwgwair Cottage!