This post is the first in a series of three, leading up to Halloween. While Halloween as we know it is not widely celebrated in the Czech republic – All Saint’s Day (Dušičky) remains a sombre affair here, to be explored in a later post – the gathering autumnal chill and early dusks are crying out for some spooky Bohemian stories. Therefore I’ll be telling you three of Prague’s most infamous horror tales, from the places they are purported to have happened…
It seems absurd to speak of a house as a monster. This one no less than any. Poised on the edge of Prague’s Charles Square, it is certainly imposing. Conversely to the dark stories surrounding it, the first thing to strike passersby is its pastel pink facade. Stark against this rosy hue, a flickering neon green cross signifies a pharmacy within – an indication of the house’s current purpose as home to Charles University’s First Faculty of Medicine. Surely this can’t be the inspiration behind some of this city’s most chilling urban legends? Yet, there above the door is the unmistakable gold lettering: Faustův Dům. The House of Faust. Standing before that curious portico on an autumnal Friday evening, it is almost impossible to divorce the house from the busy square it is set on and imagine the rumoured horrors of its history. Yet after a time, the unease sets in precisely for that reason: the house has never been open to the public. Unless one has the luck to be a guest of the Medical Faculty, the mystery of its interior is left entirely to the imagination, the austere baroque frontage refusing to confirm or deny the strange tales surrounding it.
What is known for certain about the house is that it was first constructed as a highly defensible structure in the 12th Century, on the site of an ancient Celtic place of sacrifice – a history that immediately sets the imagination spinning. Since those mysterious beginnings, the house has undergone several changes in ownership— from an illegitimate prince to the alchemist Edward Kelley himself— and alongside those changes, many different visages, its pink baroque facade only making an appearance in the 18th Century.
From the 14th Century, when aristocratic alchemy enthusiast Prince Vaclav of Opava occupied the house, it has had an almost constant link with the more esoteric side of natural science: astrologer Jakub Krucinek lived there for a time, whose younger son killed the older, driven mad by the conviction that the dwelling housed some secret treasure. These early stories of desire for knowledge overcoming humanity certainly contributed to the house’s association with Faust, but the tales surrounding Dr. John Dee’s assistant, the court alchemist Edward Kelley’s occupation of the house most probably cemented its occult reputation. Alongside his employer John Dee, Kelley was known for contacting angels through scrying, attempting to transmute base metals into gold, and, while in Prague, seeking the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II, himself notorious for his interest in magic and collecting the most arcane of curiosities.
Recent inhabitants have been no less perplexing in their penchant for darkness – the priest Karel Janiga lived in the house in the early 1900’s, and while he didn’t necessarily share his predecessors’ interest in alchemical science, he demonstrated an unnerving dedication to the subject of death. He furnished the house with gallows and a collection of human skulls, and slept in a coffin, leading to rumours that the vicar was in fact a vampire. More recent still was the discovery of several skeletal cats built into the walls of the house. Similar feline sacrifices have been discovered around South-East England, and are believed by some scholars to be the product of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries.
With so much unnerving canon based in fact, the house has no lack of grim tales. However, the qualities of its unusual inhabitants make it no great feat of imagination to number the legendary Faust amongst them. The German folk story about the hubristic young man who exchanged his soul for knowledge in barter with Mephistopheles has been most notably popularised by Christopher Marlowe’s English retelling and Goethe’s theatrical treatment. While neither mentions Prague as the setting for Mephisto’s eventual claiming of Faust’s mortal soul, local accounts have two dramatic variants of the event: In one, Mephistopheles fought Faust in the house’s tower, and dragged him away leaving strange stains on the wall that cannot be painted or papered over. In the second, the demon carried Faust away through a hole he blasted in the ceiling of his chamber – a hole which inhabitants have tried and failed to fill in ever since the purported event.
This leads us to what can only be described as the Czech Republic’s own sequel to the Faust legend, related in the style of a true Hollywood spin-off. The story is set years after Faust’s unholy abduction, when a homeless student found his way into the now-abandoned house and spent the night there. After spending his first night there, the student found that a single coin had appeared on the table – just enough to feed him for the day. After several days of this phenomenon reoccurring, the student became greedy and, searching for a way to harness this magic for his own gain, began to read the occult books left by the previous tenant. Days later, concerned neighbours entered the house to find the student gone, and the blackened hole in the ceiling once more.
After a tense few moments outside the doors, as if waiting for some hellish spectre to rustle the curtains, I turn my back on Faustův Dům – the ancient burial site, the alchemists’ study, the house of horrors – and rejoin the crowds of Charles Square. I can’t decide which is the better explanation for the house’s bizarre history: was it simply that the infamy of past occupants drew further eccentrics to live there, perpetuating the strangeness over time? Or was there something about the house itself – some curse that took well-meaning scholars and twisted their minds? I know which is the more likely. But I also know which is the more shiver-inducing, and having come face-to-face with the site of so many stories that defy belief, I think I’ll give subtle horror the benefit of the doubt.