The World's 100 Scariest Places

Excerpts: Published by American Media October 2019


Door to Hell, Derweze, Turkmenistan

Eternal Flame in the Desert

It’s spooky enough to see a perfectly round hole the size of a football field punched in the desert floor — but when night falls, and the flames lick above the crater’s lip, it’s as if Satan himself is having a bonfire.

Locals in the remote wilderness of Turkmenistan call it the Door to Hell. The fires inside burn day and night, emitting a dull roar and warming the air even on the coldest winter evening. 

But this billowing cauldron isn’t the work of the Devil — it’s the accidental result of a natural gas drilling operation gone wrong. In 1971, a drilling team tapped into a cavern just below ground, filled with natural gas. The roof of the cavern collapsed, creating the crater and releasing a massive cloud of methane. Desperate to prevent the gas cloud from spreading, the workers lit it aflame. 

They expected the fire to burn for two weeks, tops. Nearly 50 years later, the Door to Hell is still wide open. 

Exorcist Stairs, Georgetown, Washington, DC

Tall, Dark, and Fearsome

In the harrowing finale of the 1973 horror film “The Exorcist,” a desperate priest hurls himself out the window of a little girl’s bedroom and tumbles down the long, dark stairway below — taking with him the evil spirit that had possessed the child. 

It’s one of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed — and nearly every night, fright-loving fans of the film gather at the foot of those very stairs, reliving that bone-chilling moment. Extremely narrow and dangerously steep, the stairs connect the Colonial-era neighborhood around Washington, DC’s Georgetown University with the Potomac River waterfront below. 

Cast into dark shadows by streetlights, from below the 75 stone steps seem to disappear into the darkness. Climbing into that inky blackness, nervous adventurers can almost hear the growling of the demon, the crashing of the window glass, and the bone crunching impact of the doomed priest. 

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize

Crypt of the Crystal Maiden

We will never know the 18-year-old-girl’s name, but we know she died horribly. Two of her vertebrae were crushed, and then she was hurled to the ground — where she has remained, legs splayed, arms spread, for at least 1,100 years.

She is known as The Crystal Maiden. In the dark, dry air of Belize’s Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, her bones have calcified and taken on a sparkling, almost crystalline appearance. 

And she is not alone. This was a cave of Mayan sacrifice, a place where men, women, and babies as young as one were sacrificed to the rain god Chac. Nearly all had their skulls crushed. Death lies sprawled in every shadow. Each rocky crevice seems to hide another shattered victim — so many that visitors must be careful not to accidentally crush any skulls underfoot.

The Mayans believed the Gates of Hell waited somewhere deeper in the cave — even as they created a Hell on Earth here, in the Devil’s waiting room. 

Island of the Dolls, Mexico City

A Realm of Lifeless Eyes

On a tree-covered island just outside Mexico City, hundreds of tattered, weathered, and downright creepy dolls hang from the trees, their lifeless eyes bearing witness to a young girl who drowned here decades ago.  

Mexican culture has always had a taste for the macabre, but there’s no stranger, more unsettling place in the country than Isla de las Munecas, the Island of the Dolls. 

Everywhere you look, dolls hang limp from branches. Some dangle on nooses. Many are missing arms and legs. Most of the dolls’ heads droop forward — and some decapitated heads are grotesquely impaled on branches. If the pitiful dolls’ once-colorful clothes aren’t fading and rotting away, the poor things hang there naked. Many stare ahead with one eye closed, as if winking. 

Locals say a young girl drowned near this island, and when her doll was found floating nearby it was lovingly placed in some branches as a memorial. 

But now there’s nothing sweet or quaint here. The Island of Dolls is a nightmare come to life. 

Bodie, California

The Curse That Follows You Home

For decades, visitors to the ghost town of Bodie, California, have taken a little bit of the place home with them: A nail, a rock, a sliver of wood. But what they’ve also brought along is a big, scary hunk of the Curse of Bodie.

Bodie was once a booming gold rush town in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about 200 miles east of Sacramento. But the boom went bust, and within just a few years not a living soul remained. The town fell into a silent stupor. 

Years later, after Bodie became a state park, tourists found the countless artifacts lying around irresistible. That’s when the trouble started. Now park rangers regularly receive envelopes and boxes, usually with no return address, containing those very souvenirs. Anguished notes from victims of the curse fill an entire album in the park headquarters.

“I am SORRY!” reads one. “I collected some items and brought them home. I started to think about the car accident, the loss of my job, my continuing illness and other bad things that have haunted me since my visit and violation. 

“Ask the spirits to see my regret.”  

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA

Shot Through With Ghosts

From the moment its cornerstone was laid in 1884, the Winchester House has been bathed in blood. 

Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester — creator of the Winchester Repeating Rifle — was obsessed by the countless deaths caused by her husband’s invention. A psychic told her the only way to atone for them was to build a house for the spirits of all those victims. So for 38 years, workmen hammered away day and night, feverishly adding room upon room, floor upon floor. Windows opened into other rooms. Stairways went nowhere. Always more rooms — more rooms for ghosts. 

When Sarah died in 1922, her house had 161 rooms including 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, more than 10,000 panes of glass, and two basements.

Visitors sometimes feel an otherworldly presence at the Winchester House. Some have even seen “the wheelbarrow ghost,” the ethereal figure of a workman, still adding ghostly rooms for all eternity. 

And there’s no escaping the haunting sense that Sarah Winchester has been united at last with the souls who paid for these walls with their lives. 

Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas

Camelot’s End

The Texas Schoolbook Depository. How mundane a name is that? Yet for a generation of Americans, that nondescript, brick warehouse at the northeast corner of Dallas’ Dealey Plaza stands as a reminder of one of America’s bleakest days.

From an open window on the sixth floor, a depository employee named Lee Harvey Oswald took aim and fired at the head of President John F. Kennedy. The President slumped forward — and the nation was changed forever. 

There’s a museum up there now. The assassin’s perch has been recreated. You can even look out the windows and see much the same landscape Oswald saw. 

But even more chilling is the experience of standing down at the curb, right where JFK’s limo shuddered from the shots, where his beautiful wife crawled onto the trunk in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. You still can look ahead down Elm Street and see the last thing JFK saw: A low concrete overpass, and the road disappearing into the darkness beneath. 

East Martello Fort, Key West, Florida

The Devil in Paradise

Visitors to Key West’s East Martello Fort, built in 1862, enjoy the museum’s many artworks  — until they come face-to-face with a devil doll named Robert.    

Robert is the size of a small child. His “face” consists of two dead button eyes and mere traces of a painted nose and mouth. In the crook of one arm he caresses a bizarre dog-like figure. 

And Robert the doll is haunted. 

In the early 1900s, Robert was given as a gift to a young boy named Gene Otto. Bad things started happening around the house. Things broke. Toys got mutilated. Gene’s parents accused him, but the boy always insisted: “Robert did it.” 

Gene Otto became a prominent Key West artist. For years passers-by swore they saw the doll moving from window to window of his house. A plumber freaked out when he heard giggling, turned, and saw that Robert had moved across the room on his own. 

After Gene died in 1974, Robert was donated to the museum — where staffers warn visitors not to take Robert’s picture without asking his permission. 

Tourist trap nonsense? Perhaps. Yet nearly every day, letters addressed to Robert arrive from around the world. They ask his forgiveness — and beg for release from curses ranging from health problems to ruined weddings. 

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado

Rooms With A Boo

Checkout time at the Stanley Hotel is half-past eternity: The place is so haunted it even creeped out horror master Stephen King — who based his chilling novel The Shining on his one-night stay there.

The hotel was the gem of the Rockies when it opened in 1909, but as the railroads failed, the place fell into near ruin. In those darkened, peeling hallways, guests began to experience lights flickering, doors slamming shut on their own, waves of deathly cold air, and the otherworldly sound of distant children laughing. 

Many of the rooms have their own personal ghost, including Mrs. Wilson in Room 217, the one King stayed in that fateful night. They say Mrs. Wilson likes to move furniture, unpack guest’s bags, and flick the lights on and off.  

And if you’re one of the last guests to leave the hotel’s concert hall after a show, don’t be surprised if you hear a disembodied voice yell, “Get out!” That’s Paul, the hotel’s late security guard, still enforcing the Stanley’s old 11 p.m. curfew.