Atlas of Cursed Places

A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations


By Olivier Le Carrer

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Atlas Obscura says this lushly illustrated New York Times bestselling guide to dozens of dangerous, eerie, and infamous locations is the perfect gift for “those who believe the world is still full of mysteries to investigate.”

Pick up the acclaimed Atlas of Cursed Places and visit the world’s most nerve-wracking locations. With pithy historical profiles, vintage full-color maps, and haunting tales that will color your perspective (and send tingles down your spine), this is a clever gift for the intrepid traveler or armchair adventurer who wants to explore destinations both remarkable and daunting. Visit:

  • a coal town where the ground is constantly on fire
  • a Zambian national park where more than 8 million bats darken the skies
  • the infamous suicide location of Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji
  • the lesser-known Nevada triangle, in which dozens of aircraft have inexplicably disappeared

Beautifully packaged and written with a twisty sense of humor, Atlas of Cursed Places puts your quirky side on the map.


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Table of Contents


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With regard to curses, mankind has had a close shave. The very first pages of the Bible give a pretty clear idea of the wretched atmosphere in which the world was created. In the book of Genesis, God, infuriated by Adam's disobedience, utters the words "Cursed is the ground for thy sake!" (3:17) and informs the first human that, instead of dwelling in the Garden of Eden, he will be compelled to tire himself out working an unproductive earth in order to survive. In what looks like a general curse on the heads of all future Earth-dwellers, Adam is spared no detail of the difficulties his new status will bring: "In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken" (3:17–19).

For many of Earth's seven billion human beings, vestiges of the Creator's initial fit of pique are still, to this day, all too visible. And by no means in every case is it because the land is low-lying or barren. Since the time of the Old Testament, humanity has found more effective ways of damning itself, coming up with bizarre town planning concepts and inventing all manner of jobs, one more disagreeable than the last—in mines, factories, industrial fishing, and call centers—in other words, devising an almost infinite number of hells that no god or demon would ever have dared to contemplate back in the day.

The cases described in this book are a reminder of how much the woes of a place owe to mankind's overactive imagination. The curses uttered by the prophets of the past, awe-inspiring as they might be, were always reassuringly abstract: Only those lacking the good sense to simply ignore them were bound.

Not all cursed places are the same. There are three main rationales for awarding this distinctly off-putting appelation. The classic one, the one closest to the original sense of the word, is of course bound up with admonitions of a mystical order. Particularly abundant from antiquity to the Middle Ages, it has to be said that this category is treading water today due to a lack of authors capable of reinvigorating the genre. However, the tradition is being maintained in certain regions thanks to the zeal of readers the good old sacred texts. Edifying examples of this tendency can be found in the Middle East.

In parallel with the decline of the religious strand, a preternatural variant has experienced undeniable success over the last two centuries. This is the supernatural or paranormal phenomenon, which is capable of unleashing the most dreadful events in peaceful backwaters that have done nothing to upset anyone. From the Bermuda Triangle to the Amityville house of horrors, these are the most fascinating cases, as they are open to the wildest interpretations.

The second category of cursed place invites less controversy but is even more daunting. It consists of places that, for a variety of entirely natural reasons (appalling climate, proximity of an irascible volcano, colonies of unfriendly beasts, uncultivable land… ), enduringly blight the lives of the local populations or present a real danger to local people and visitors alike.

The third, and no less daunting, category comprises locations that have been rendered uninhabitable by human activity. The causes may be varied (pollution, criminality, financial upheavals, insoluble border disputes… ) but the results are virtually identical: hellish living conditions for the inhabitants—and, what's more, no real hope of change, the perenniality of the problem sadly being a key characteristic in this as in the other categories. It goes without saying that the three major categories of cursed place can also come together at the same site—to the enormous misfortune of all concerned.

Taking all the above into consideration, the reader may well wonder what virtue there is in concerning oneself with these unwelcoming places. The following pages will provide unsuspecting tourists with all the information they need to avoid being trapped in an impossible location by an unscrupulous tour operator. They also offer inquisitive souls a remarkable summary of the terrifying yet enthralling complexity of humanity, enabling them to draw the consoling conclusion that, although Everest and the moon may already have been conquered, many mysterious places remain to be explored and understood in the world below.







Before turning their thoughts to the intriguing legends associated with these ruins, hikers should watch where they put their feet. The consequences could be disastrous for any clumsy person who strays off the marked footpaths and loses his or her footing on the edge of the precipices that drop away on every side of this aptly nicknamed "citadel in the sky." And let us not forget that early in 1244 it was a feat of rock climbing that sealed the fate of the Cathars when they were besieged here by the army of King Louis IX. After seven months, during which traditional military strategies had brought nothing but failure, Hugues des Arcis, the commander of the forces encamped at the foot of this eagle's nest, finally decided to send a small group of particularly agile soldiers up the cliff face. Under cover of darkness, this detachment reached the summit, captured a watchtower, and installed a trebuchet, with which it proceeded to bombard the interior of the castle without respite, making life impossible for the besieged, who were forced to surrender after a few weeks.

The fate of this community, the last bastion of the Cathar faith in France, is well known. One Sunday in March 1244, the day of the equinox, the believers—more than two hundred men and women—were led down to a pyre that had been set up at the foot of the hill, steadfastly refusing to renounce their faith. What else could they do, these pacifists who had taken a vow to show courage in the face of suffering and death? The name Cathar—from the Greek katharos, meaning "pure"—was given them by their contemporaries on account of their asceticism and refusal to compromise in any way. For the same reason, those who had undergone the rite of ordination called the consolamentum were known as perfecti, although among one another they preferred the terms "good man" and "good woman." The band of sympathizers protecting the pacifist Cathars were allowed to go free provided they pledged to stop supporting heresy and swore allegiance to the king of France.

The Château de Montségur that stands today is not the same fortress that existed at the time of these dreadful events. Historians, archeologists, and local storytellers cannot agree on all the details. For example, was the Cathars' place of martyrdom the prats dels cremats ("field of the burned"), as indicated today by a stele, or was it a neighboring hill? At this magnificent site, so many questions remain unanswered. There's the legendary Cathar treasure, said to have been held in safekeeping at Montségur before being smuggled out to an unknown destination. And then there are the four men deputed by the community to slip away under the utmost secrecy prior to the ultimate surrender, carrying with them who knows what. Items of treasure? Precious documents? Mysterious keys enabling the Cathar tradition to be revived elsewhere? At Montségur nothing seems impossible. In the last century a team of German researchers came, with the blessing of the Nazi regime, to investigate, convinced that the castle housed the Holy Grail, the famous cup believed to have been used to catch Christ's blood.


What should we make of the site's architecture, of the spectacular alignment of the sun's rays at solstice time, as if its architects had wanted the castle to function as a kind of astronomical calendar? And doesn't its floor plan reflect the constellation of Boötes, with the donjon representing the star Arcturus? Is it also mere chance that "Cant del Boièr" (Song of the Herdsman) remains one of the most popular folk songs in the Occitanian canon, with some people reading into its words a coded message addressed to future generations?

"After seven hundred years the bay tree will flower again"—and with it, no doubt, the Cathar faith. Thus were the words of the troubadour in the Occitania of old. Or was it the last of the perfecti to be burned at the stake? Or even a poet born generations later? Basically, nobody knows. It is even possible that the bay tree could be an olive tree, and that the date is regularly adjusted so that it never loses its relevance. No matter. The legend remains perplexing enough for visitors to be drawn in by its verses while contemplating the ruins of what the inquisitors called "Satan's synagogue"—but never quite managed to utterly destroy.



With its breathtaking panorama, the fame of Rocca-Sparviera (meaning "rock of the sparrow hawk") would no doubt be assured, even without the help of legend. But what evil spell could have been cast on this place to cause its inhabitants to desert such sublime views? Before abandoning this place, the local people had achieved the remarkable feat of constructing a bizarre village perched more than three thousand feet up a mountainside and an hour's walk along a steep path from the nearest hamlet. The second mystery—that of its origins—must remain unanswered: All that's known is that Rocca-Sparviera goes back to the twelfth century or before. A hundred years or so later the village is recorded as having a church and 150 parishioners. Had the castle already been built by then? Opinions differ, but a contract of infeudation in the name of a certain Pierre Marquesan, who acquired the fief for seven hundred gold florins, testifies to its existence the next century. The community grew year by year until it numbered some 350 souls.

And then, at the dawn of the fifteenth century, everything started to go wrong. A swarm of locusts devastated the modest crops, causing a famine that lasted several years. A diabolical succession of outbreaks of the plague, changes in alliance that threatened the security of the village, and the financial ruin of the lord of the manor were followed in 1564 by an earthquake that destroyed a number of houses. Subsequent tremors in 1612 and 1618 eventually laid the Rocca-Sparviera village to waste. In 1723, the village priest became the last diehard to abandon the ruins.

Were these entirely natural catastrophes? Evidently not, if one is to believe accounts of the awful Christmas Eve of 1357, when Queen Joanna of Naples was staying in Rocca-Sparviera as the guest of her vassal and decided to attend midnight mass at the neighboring village of Coaraze. Nothing in the life of Joanna, who was married at the age of eight, widowed at twenty, and remarried a further three times, ever went smoothly, so plentiful were her enemies both outside and inside her family. A shattering surprise greeted her upon her return: the sight of her two murdered children, their bodies displayed on the table as if the centerpiece of some macabre banquet. As she departed the following day, insane with grief and anger and having first set fire to the castle, she is supposed to have sworn that "No rooster or hen will ever crow again on this blood-soaked rock." Although the reality of Joanna's adventures in Provence casts some doubt over the chronology of the affair, the barrenness and instability of the mountain, which left has nothing standing but these sinister yet magnificent ruins, will ultimately have lent the legend an air of truth.



Every decade is a new dawn. In the flower-adorned streets of this ancient imperial city, visitors' thoughts rarely turn, after all this time, to the sound of boots that once reverberated here before extending their murderous din across the planet. In the twenty-first century, Nuremberg is on people's lips for infinitely more frivolous and respectable reasons: Every year in early February it hosts the Spielwarenmesse, the world's largest toy fair. After this the modern, air-conditioned pavilions of the Messezentrum welcome Feuer Trutz, a trade fair dedicated to fire prevention, should any proof be needed that the lessons of the past have been well and truly learned.

The majority of visitors strolling the exhibition center are no doubt unaware that they are walking on the exact spot where Nazi troops paraded in the 1930s, for this was the heart of the Reichsparteitagsgelände (literally, "Congress Area of the Reich Party," but more informally known as the Nazi Party Rally Grounds). This immense complex was dreamed up by Adolf Hitler's architect-builder Albert Speer as a venue for the annual rally and demonstrations of military strength of the National Socialist regime. With a little application and a good historical map, the images easily take shape again. The impressive axis that extends for a little more than a mile in a northwesterly direction is the legendary Grosse Strasse, the monumental avenue leading from the Luitpoldarena, the assembly ground of the SA and SS, to the Märzfeld, the seven-hundred-hectare arena designed to accommodate several hundred thousand drilling soldiers. Between the two lay the imposing Roman-style amphitheater of the Kongresshalle and the interminable grandstand of the Zeppelinfeld, immortalized in so many photographs, with its military standards and lighting effects emphasizing the endless lines of uniforms, that it has become the very emblem of terrifying Nazi fervor.


  • " enticing tour of frightening places around the world..."—Shelf Awareness
  • "[For] those who believe the world is still full of mysteries to investigate."Atlas Obscura
  • "Olivier Le Carrer's Atlas of Cursed Places is many things - travel writing, folklore, true crime, history, map porn - all wrapped up in a rather splendid package....Given its tales of ghosts, dragons and disasters both natural and manmade, Le Carrer's Atlas represents a fresh boarding pass to leap aboard the world of geography, even for the geographaphobic among us."—BookGasm
  • "Perfect for the macabre traveler with a sense of humor."—New York Post
  • "....morbidly delightful collection of maps and essays about locations that probably make actual visitors a bit nervous."—Dayton Daily News

On Sale
Oct 6, 2015
Page Count
144 pages

Olivier Le Carrer

About the Author

Olivier Le Carrer is a journalist and passionate sailor. He has spent the last thirty years exploring the shores of the planet. He has written several books on cartography and navigation with the illustrator Sibylle Le Carrer.

Learn more about this author