In the September of 2014, I was in Prague, looking for locations to shoot the opening scene of a film script I had written called ‘The Devil’s Prayer’. I was looking for a chapel built over a fictitious ‘Gateway to Hell’. When I found Bezdez Castle, I knew I had the perfect location. The path to its chapel was made of steep, never-ending, broad steps, hacked into what looked like a single slab of granite rock. Old crumbling porticos submerged in fog marked its entry, and a ghostly hue was cast on the surrounding forest. At intervals, beside the sharply inclining steps were platforms, each carved with a small candlelit grotto marking the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
At the top of the hill, the small castellated and forbidding chapel seemed impregnable, yet was ravaged by time. The granite steps ended at its imposing, ancient wooden door. It was late afternoon when I walked back down the steep granite steps, delighted with my find. The Locations Scout Jakub suggested that if I was also planning to shoot at the Gateway to Hell, we may as well try and see it today. I laughed, thinking he was having me on and explained that the location was just a figment of my imagination.
In everyone’s life, there are a few moments when you believe in fate. It is almost as if you were led by the hand to that spot in time. Located approximately 20 kilometres away and less than half an hour later, we arrived at Houska Castle. On our way there, Jakub explained that nobody knew who built Houska Castle nor why it was built in the first place. It had no access to water and no kitchen. According to local legend, at Houska, there was once a bottomless hole in the ground from which emerged a creature that was half-man and half-beast—a centaur. It was said that black-winged creatures would fly around the centaur as it roamed the surrounding forest. A chapel was built of solid rock over the top of this hole, not as a place of worship, but to seal the bottomless pit, which was thought to be the ‘Gateway to Hell’.
When we reached the gates of Houska Castle, it looked like our luck had run out. It was a Monday, and a large sign and a padlocked gate indicated that the castle was shut to the public every Monday. Within the gates of the castle, two large, hostile black mastiffs with frothing mouths barked incessantly. It was like a scene from ‘The Omen’. The dogs suddenly stopped barking and turned around looking towards a small shed, located to the left of the castle’s imposing main door. Standing by the shed, I noticed an old man. He said nothing; he just stared at the dogs and pointed towards the shed. The dogs whimpered and scampered with their heads down and their tails between their legs and soon disappeared into the shed.
The old man shut the shed door behind him and shuffled towards the gate, waving us away. Jakub spoke to him through the high wrought-iron gate, pleading in Czech. I heard the word Australia and realised he was trying to appeal to the compassion of the old man, that I had come all the way from Australia. The old man relented. He opened the gates and led us in. He introduced himself as Milan; he spoke no English. He explained and Jakub translated that the caretaker was away as it was his day off. The three of us walked to the castle door when Milan extracted a comically large key and then proceeded to open the massive green castle door.
Once inside the castle, we soon reached a courtyard with the ancient chapel located at one end. The courtyard was strewn with a few dead birds. Milan said it was a routine task for the caretaker to remove dead birds from the courtyard before opening the castle to the public each day. He also pointed out that if you looked at the outside of the castle, it was not fortified, but the defences were facing inwards towards the inner courtyard, similar to a jail, aimed to prevent something contained within from getting out.
It is believed this chapel was built over the Gateway to Hell around the 9th or 13th Century. It was unlike anything I had seen before. It had no statues, no altar and no crosses. Painted on the walls were murals, now old and faded, depicting a vile monster, witches, black bat-winged creatures with contorted human faces and a mural of the archangel Michael pinning the fallen angel Lucifer.
In the chapel, Milan spoke about the time Himmler’s Nazi SS occupied Houska Castle during World War II. According to him, the SS guarded a team of occultists who were specifically tasked with appeasing the Devil to help Hitler win the war.
After the war, Houska Castle has been privately owned. The owners decided it was more lucrative to provide horror thrill seekers access to the castle than to guard the castle from the frequent break-ins that occurred. The owners turned the venue into a boutique conference centre where occultists and people with special interests in the paranormal and supernatural could congregate.
As we made to leave the chapel, Jakub asked me to tip Milan. I took out a twenty euro note, but Milan politely declined. He spoke to Jakub for a while and I heard Jakub say my name “Luke”. The old man nodded at me and gave me a melancholic smile, saying “Luca, Luca”. I smiled back at him. Jakub translated as Milan spoke, about a story of a young couple who lived in the castle with their five-year-old son Luca just prior to World War II.
As we walked into the courtyard and reached the base of the stairwell leading to the residential quarters, Milan turned around and pointed to the balcony at the top tier of the castle. It seems that one day the husband came home and as he reached the base of the stairs, he heard his wife calling him. He turned around and saw his wife standing in the balcony. He watched helplessly as his wife then jumped and fell three storeys below.
Distraught, the husband ran to where she had fallen and frantically tried to resuscitate her. He soon realised that she was holding a sharp kitchen knife and she had slashed her wrists as well. Moments later, whilst cradling her in his arms, her life slipped away from his grasp.
As we climbed the stairs, Milan remained silent, continuing his story only when we got to the top floor. As we walked on the old wooden floors through the castle ballroom decorated with deer heads, Milan continued. The husband ran upstairs looking for his son Luca and although he screamed his son’s name running through the many rooms of the castle, the boy did not answer.
When he stopped shouting and held his face in his hands in despair, he heard the creaking of the rocking horse in the child’s playroom. He burst open the door and there on the rocking horse was Luca, his eyes lifeless, his body perfectly balanced on the wooden horse, which was rocking in the wind. Milan wiped tears from his eyes as he recounted that the husband soon realised that his son Luca was dead as well.
The husband had feared for a while that his wife was possessed or had gone mad. The police however, did not believe his story. The police investigating the deaths determined that the boy’s neck had been snapped and the husband must have murdered his wife too. The grief-stricken man was charged with murder and was put to death.
In one corner of the top floor, we entered a room filled with abandoned children’s toys, which perhaps dated back to the 1930’s. I walked to a large window that was open and looked out at the dense forest which surrounded Houska. Suddenly, a strange wind whipped up. Some trees bent eastwards and some leaned towards the west, as if giving way to something approaching. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I heard Milan’s voice calling me gently, “Luca”. I turned around and Jakub who was standing at the window next to me did the same. Milan was looking out of another window at the far end of the room, deep in thought. We then heard the pitter-patter of a child’s feet running on the wooden floorboards towards the room. I turned puzzled and looked at Jakub who was frozen in fear, with his eyes wide open. The wind had completely subsided and the air was now very still. We both then turned towards a creaking noise that had started up. A rocking horse amongst the abandoned toys was rocking back and forth and the floorboards creaked in rhythm. It was time to leave. We thanked Milan and drove silently back to Prague.
Two days later, on the last day of my location recce, we visited Bezdez again. I thought it would be good to see Houska again to get a few more images of the interiors of the Gateway to Hell. It was Wednesday and this time the castle was open to tourists. We met with the Property Manager Ales who greeted us warmly in fluent English saying, “Film crews are always welcome, just let us know in advance so we can plan it.”
Jakub asked about Milan and the Manager looked puzzled. There was nobody called Milan who worked there. He was completely baffled as to how we got in and saw the place on the Monday just gone by. Jakub spoke about the big key and the dogs. Ales showed us the large key and confirmed that his dogs kept everyone out.
I then asked him about a woman and her young son who were killed by her husband, who was convicted for their murders. Ales looked at us strangely and then led us towards the shed. The dogs started barking excitedly as he approached. He slid inside the shed ensuring the dogs did not escape and soon slid out, carrying an old photo frame.
In the old sepia-shaded photo was a young man, his beautiful wife and his young son. I turned the frame over and saw that the picture had been taken in 1937. The man we had met was a much older version of the man in the picture and his name was Milan.
Written by Luke Gracias for and originally published in “The Gal In the Blue Mask” blogsite.