Temples, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and so on are meant to protect us from evil, or at least serve as temporary refuges. Even the demonic gargoyles and grotesques on Gothic Christian cathedrals, as well as their cross-cultural counterparts, are only supposed to remind us of the forces of darkness—never to invite them inside.
And that may be why so many places of worship appear to attract ghosts, as lost, tortured souls in search of belated salvation. But some of them are allegedly haunted by worse, particularly, though not always, once they’re abandoned…
10. Ari Sephardi Synagogue, Israel
The Ari Sephardi Synagogue of Safed, the most elevated (and coldest) city in Israel, was already pretty ancient when Yitzchak Luria moved to the area in 1570. The old Jewish mystic, founder of modern Kabbalah, is said to have met with the long-dead Prophet Elijah there to discuss the mysteries of the Torah. And to this day, the tiny, cave-like room where they stood is considered a sacred spot.
But the building has also been haunted by apparently more malevolent entities. On a visit to Safed in 1921, the young Baba Sali, Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira of Morocco, was told that demons had infested the temple. Anyone who went in, he was warned, never came out alive. In fact, things got so bad that the beadle (a kind of usher) had locked up the synagogue for good.
At first he refused to allow even the Baba Sali to get through the door, insisting the building was full of immovable corpses and that entry meant certain death. Eventually, however, the gatekeeper acquiesced—albeit begrudgingly and only to avoid obstructing his visitor’s “holy mission.” Besides, the Baba Sali assured him, the temple would be clear within minutes.
With his aide clinging to his side, the Moroccan stepped through the door and into the main synagogue, finding it filled with a strange blazing light despite the sun setting outside. Undeterred, the Baba Sali made his way to the Ark and read aloud from the Torah scroll, followed by some chants of prayer, until he felt that the danger had passed. He then invited the beadle to come through, dismissing the old man’s sheepish apologies for earlier refusing him entry. Since that time, the synagogue has been open to the public.
Still, the Ari Sephardi’s close proximity to the Safed Old Jewish Cemetery, which has graves dating back to the first century AD, as well as the devastating earthquakes that twice leveled this synagogue to the ground, all continue to uphold its formidably spooky reputation.
9. The Amherst Synagogue, USA
At the other end of the synagogue spectrum, on the surface at least, is the Amherst Synagogue in Williamsville, New York. Built in the 1980s, it remains a modern building even by American standards, with a red brick facade, large windows, and picnic tables outside; but nowadays it sits largely forgotten.
According to local rumor, the bodies of several kidnapped children were buried here, having been lured to their deaths by a mysterious man—a theory attested to by the people who claim to have seen their ghosts. One group of friends, for example, all swear they saw “a ghost child come from the ground.” Another visitor claimed they usually emerge at midnight.
The synagogue is also alleged to have been built on Native American land, hence the (admittedly dubious) photo of a phantom Indian in ceremonial garb at the site. Ghost hunters claim to have witnessed other entities too, including “a heavy set woman, something not human, and a priest or Spaniard … [with] long brown hair and a cross.” Some even say they’ve been chased away by someone or something with an axe. Suffice it to say that many visitors to the site consider it the most haunted they’ve ever been to.
Yet despite three men apparently having lost their lives during the synagogue’s construction, there’s very little information about it.
8. Oiwa-inari Tamiya Shrine, Japan
The suburbs of Tokyo are supposedly home to many vengeful ghosts, or onryo—spirits believed to be capable of causing physical harm. They’re so entrenched in the city’s mentality, in fact, that property developers sometimes forgo profits to avoid disrupting their haunts.
Perhaps the best known—thanks to numerous stage, film, book, and TV dramatizations—is the restless spirit of Oiwa, a woman killed by her cheating husband in 1636. Her ashes are meant to be buried outside the Buddhist Myogyo-ji Temple in Sugamo, where she is said to appear as a horrifically twisted, or “molten,” face in a lantern—her husband’s choice of poison having also destroyed her beauty.
According to legend, Oiwa’s onryo immediately set about destroying her husband’s remarriage from beyond the grave, forcing him to poison his new wife and family. And when she killed him off as well, her remaining relatives built a Shinto shrine to placate her ghost.
While there are justified doubts as to the truth of this story—with some claiming it was all just made up by the kabuki playwright Tsuruya Namboku IV—theatre and media companies are known to pay their respects at the Oiwa-inari shrine before embarking on any adaptation of her story, apparently to avoid fatal “accidents” during production.
7. Avebury, UK
It’s unclear whether the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire was erected as a place of worship, but it has become one for Neopagans and Druids. Older and larger (by total area) than Stonehenge to the south, Avebury has long been steeped in magic and mystery. And, unsurprisingly perhaps, it has also seen its fair share of hauntings.
In the 1960s, for example, a passing driver claimed to see ghosts in period dress dancing among the stones. Dwarf-like creatures have also been seen here, as well as other phantom “fairy folk.” Some of the stones themselves may even be haunted; for instance, the 40-tonne “diamond stone” to the northwest of the site is said to uproot itself at midnight and cross the A4361 road, while the “devil’s chair” stone to the southeast allegedly spews black smoke.
Poltergeists are also said to be common, particularly in the cottages around Avebury that were built using sarsen stones from the site. Meanwhile, St. James’ Church, which lies entirely within the confines of the stone circle and dates back to the 11th century, is reputedly haunted by a little Victorian boy who hops up and down on a tomb by the door.
6. Doryo-do Temple Ruins, Japan
Officially, the ruined Shinto Doryo-do temple in Hachioji, Tokyo, was named for the kami (spirit) Doryo, but its ambiguous name can also mean “End of the Road Temple.”
It was built alongside a major highway during the Edo period and enjoyed regular foot traffic until the opening of the Yokohama Railway in 1908, when it fell into relative obscurity. But it gained some notoriety in 1963 when its elderly caretaker was brutally murdered—stabbed through the heart and slashed across the throat—during a robbery of the temple’s funds. Two years later, visitors began to report sightings of her ghost among the surrounding trees, as well as the sound of her weeping.
Then in 1973, a university professor lured his pregnant undergraduate mistress to the temple and strangled her to death. Since he threw himself, his wife, and two children from a cliff just months later, her body went undiscovered for some time. Allegedly, it was only when locals heard a young woman crying out “Here! I’m here!” in the woods near Doryo-do that her buried remains were found.
The temple was finally closed in 1983 and torn down in 1990. But to this day the Otsukayama site where Doryo-do once stood (and only its foundation remains) is considered “the most haunted graveyard park in Tokyo,” and possibly the whole of Japan, attracting ghost hunters and paranormal investigators from around the world to uncover the ruins’ secrets.
5. St. Botolph’s Church, UK
Named for the East Anglian patron saint of wayfarers, a man reputed to have cleared demons from swamps, St. Botolph’s Church in Lincolnshire, England, shouldn’t by rights be haunted. But for decades this abandoned 13th-century building, protected by English Heritage and the Churches Conservation Trust, has apparently been a hotspot for ghosts, ghost hunters, and alleged “Satanists.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, when Christian worship here ceased, it was even nicknamed the “Demon Church” by locals. According to the rector of nearby Louth in 2004, the isolated site had been repeatedly desecrated by devil-worshippers starting fires, sacrificing animals, and painting black satanic symbols on the masonry.
Many visitors to the site feel a sudden chill upon entering the graveyard, even on sunny days, along with a sense of doom. Some have also reported phantom footsteps and the sound of thunder, ghostly hooded monks, and the grip of icy cold hands on their own. Eerily, some of the sunken graves apparently show skeletons within.
Local investigators, the Bassetlaw Ghost Research Group, spent a night at the church in the summer of 2003. Among other things, they claim to have seen “small babies among the gravestones and grass.” They also claim to have recorded hundreds of cylindrical “rods” up to a foot in length shooting across the sky.
The site continues to attract paranormal investigators and explorers. Just last year a drone operator ran into some technical interference over the church and stuck the video on YouTube.
4. Fengdu Ghost City, China
Fengdu Ghost City sits on the bank of the Yangtze River in Chongqing, China, and comprises numerous shrines, temples, and monasteries, as well as plenty of statues of ghosts. Visitors to the site, which combines Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist elements, are invited to rehearse their own passage to the afterlife, crossing over the “Bridge of Helplessness” in their journey to the underworld—or Diyu, upon which the entire complex is modeled.
On the surface, Fengdu Ghost City is something of a quirky, if religious, theme park, showcasing the various hells and punishments that await the less pious among us. But at night, it is said to swarm with the souls of the dead who are making the journey for real.
3. Le Grand Cimetière, Haiti
Death is so firmly a part of the Haitian Vodou tradition that cemeteries become places of worship.
At le Grand Cimetière (Grand Cemetery) of Port-au-Prince, for example, services and ceremonies are held among the graves in makeshift marquee churches. People also make offerings and animal sacrifices to the loa (deity spirits) at altars scattered throughout the grounds. Some worshippers even come to bathe naked with the bones of the dead.
The tombs themselves, as well as the trees, are often covered in symbols, slogans, dolls, and other artifacts of the religion—usually in reverence of Baron Samedi, the loa of the dead and ruler of the underworld.
Naturally, le Grand Cimetière is also thought to be haunted—although ghosts wandering through the graveyard may be the least of visitors’ problems. Simply leaving a gift for the loa—a couple of Cuban cigars, for instance—can be fraught with paranormal danger. Specifically, after making their offering, if one doesn’t “close the door” to the underworld by knocking three times on the loa’s altar crucifix, the spirit could accompany them home. And given that some are associated with violence, it may be prudent to go along with the custom.
2. Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb, India
Another allegedly haunted ruin, this one in Delhi, dates back to the early 16th-century and the rise of the Mughal Empire. Now part of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park near the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Qutub Minar, the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb is among the better known sites on this list. But it tends to be eerily quiet. Even the one security guard on duty can seem like a specter at times.
This is the final resting place of the Sufi saint “Jamali,” aka Shaikh Fazlullah or Jalal Khan, and another man (or possibly woman) known only as “Kamali.” Although the official description outside the entrance to the site describes the pair as brothers, some believe they were actually gay lovers—or at least two men bound in the traditionally loving Sufi master-and-disciple relationship. Either way, it’s thought that Kamali died first and Jamali, who enjoyed considerable influence at the time, commissioned the elaborate tomb.
While access to the burial chamber is reportedly limited, visitors to the abandoned mosque have noted all kinds of paranormal activity—from strange white lights and apparitions to the sounds of animals growling. A few become convinced of a presence in the building with them—someone or something watching them from behind a pillar, for instance—while others hear ominous laughter. At least one person claims to have been slapped by an invisible force while exploring the historical site.
Whether these experiences can be attributed to ghosts, or indeed jinns—the Quranic trans-dimensional entities with a fondness for derelict spaces—was a question one visitor posed to the security guard. His response, given the vandalism at the site, was that humans are more problematic.
1. Mehandipur Balaji Temple, India
The problem of humans is far more in evidence at the Mehandipur Balaji Temple in northwest India, where even just queuing outside can turn into a fight for survival against a crowd heaving and stampeding to get in. To be fair, though, most are seeking help with ghosts or demons of their own. Not only is Rajasthan’s so-called “witch temple” said to be haunted but actual exorcisms are routinely carried out here.
The building itself is imposing but old, with towering columns, grimy brickwork, blocked up windows, and crumbling balconies. Pilgrims travel for miles through lifeless desert to get there, only to find themselves in a “dusty haze,” as author Edward Hower puts it, surrounded by “scrawny children,” “ghostlike women,” “scab-eared” dogs, and crows circling overhead “like ashes rising from a smoldering fire.” Inside the temple, the air is filled with pungent smoke and the agonized cries of the “possessed,” while visitors are encouraged to offer strange black balls into fires.
Some families keep their supposedly demon-inhabited loved ones here for weeks on end, putting them up in dharamsala (religious rest houses) and contributing years’ worth of their savings to heal them. This often entails having a priest chain up and mercilessly beat their relative until they purge out the offending preta (hungry ghost). Many families then invest in a kind of gravestone outside, a marker to keep exorcised spirits from following them home. Visitors are also warned not to look back as they leave, or to consume anything at all—even water—because of how densely haunted the area is thought to be.
Understandably, while most psychiatrists tend to think of these “possessed” individuals as merely neurotic, even the most skeptical of visitors are bound to find this strange Hindu temple unsettling.