Sighişoara: Where better to spend Halloween than the birthplace of Dracula himself? Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, was born in this unspoiled, atmospheric Transylvanian town in 1431. Sighişoara’s spiky spires, crumbling battlements and medieval townhouses make it all too easy to picture the original vampire haunting the narrow streets even today.
Mütter Museum: Philadelphia’s most macabre attraction began with a donation of anatomical specimens in 1858, and the Mütter Museum still retains the feel of a Victorian-era curiosity cabinet. Easily digestible in size but occasionally stomach-turning, this cringe-inducing collection contains skulls, tumors, conjoined fetuses, a saponified corpse, an example of cornu cutaneum (human horn) and various bits of historical figures, such as the thorax of John Wilkes Booth.
Eastern State Penitentiary: Opened in 1829 as the world’s first penitentiary (a prison intended to inspire remorse and reform), Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary became a model for incarceration facilities around the world. It grew into a huge prison, housing notorious felons such as Al Capone, before finally closing in 1971. As various plans for its redevelopment were debated, it fell into ruin, and those ruins still stand today as a museum. The engrossing audio guide, narrated by Steve Buscemi, takes visitors through the atmospherically crumbling cell blocks, left mostly as they were when the prison closed. The decaying infirmary, accessible with complimentary guided tours, cannot help but send shivers up your spine.
Kostnice, Sedlec: On the outskirts of Kutná Hora, a perfectly nice Czech town about an hour from Prague, stands a small, Gothic-style cemetery church. In its vaulted basement, the bones of thousands of plague victims and casualties from the Hussite Wars decorate the walls and ceiling. Starting in the early 16th century, monks disinterred bones from old graves to make way for the newly dead. These bones ended up in the ossuary. Not content to simply stack the bones, monks arranged them to form crucifixes, monstrances, a coat of arms and even a chandelier.
Capuchin Catacombs: Italian Capuchin monks also felt compelled to create displays with disinterred bones. In Rome, the bones of some 4,000 monks decorate the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione on the Via Veneto. But Palermo’s unforgettable Catacombe dei Cappucini achieves an entirely new level of the grotesque, with its collection of 8,000 mummified Sicilians. The conditions in these immense catacombs are ideal for preservation, and between 1599 and 1920, locals were apparently eager to take advantage of them. Most mummies, still wearing their decaying original clothes, stand in rows along the walls, gaping at visitors. Others have been arranged in tableaux, as though they were mannequins. Needless to say, these catacombs can be quite upsetting to young children, and, frankly, to teenagers and adults as well.