From the chalk-white remains of a once-bustling holiday hotspot, to the town that’s secretly on fire: these are some of the eeriest places we visit in Abandoned Engineering.
Arguably the best-known ghost town on the planet, Pripyat in Ukraine owes its infamy to the disaster that turned it into a desolate shell of its former self. One night in April 1986, the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant engaged in a safety test that went catastrophically wrong. The ensuing explosion led to 400 times more radioactive fallout than the atomic attack on Hiroshima, meaning the Soviet Union had to immediately evacuate neighbouring Pripyat.
Now within a “Zone of Alienation”, or exclusion zone, Pripyat is a vast and poignant time capsule of the 1980s – an era of Cold War tensions and Soviet domination in eastern Europe. Tour operators take visitors amid the dusty buildings whose floors are still strewn with books, newspapers and posters from the era, while a skeletal Ferris wheel looms over the dead streets of a once-thriving city.
While some still have qualms about the radiation in the area, many visitors can’t resist the dark lure of the place – both because of its macabre grandeur, and because of its special place in Cold War lore.
Once upon a time, there was an idyllic vacation destination in Argentina which drew some of the nation’s wealthiest citizens. This was Villa Epecuen, which was perched on the edge of a salty lake whose waters were said to have therapeutic properties. The rich and famous flocked to the resort to bask in the water and let the kids run free. Then, in November 1985, something catastrophic happened.
A nearby dam broke, causing water levels to gradually rise over 30 feet, until the town was consumed by those famous, soothing, saline waves. The local people had to be evacuated, thinking it was just a temporary event. It wasn’t. For decades the place remained submerged, until drier weather conditions caused the waters to evaporate and finally recede. They left behind a ghostly wet wasteland of dead trees, rotting vehicles and dead buildings, given a suitably corpse-white colour by the salt in the water.
Interestingly, one person wasn’t put off the wrecked state of the old resort. A former resident, octogenarian Pablo Novak, returned in 2009 to settle back in as the last resident of Villa Epecuen, residing alone in an old house amid the sprawling, post-apocalyptic backdrop of a once-beloved resort.
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Somewhere in the US state of Pennsylvania, there’s a place where toxic smoke curls out from sewer grates, and where the cracked roads are hot to the touch. This is Centralia, a virtual ghost town that’s been dubbed the “real Silent Hill” because of its resemblance to the eerie, mist-shrouded town of the eponymous video game franchise.
The strange calamity of Centralia dates back to 1962, when locals intentionally set fire to a landfill to clear it out. The fire spread to the subterranean labyrinth of tunnels that lie beneath this old mining community, where the rich seams of coal have provided enough fuel to keep the flames burning ever since. In fact, it’s thought the underground inferno will carry on for at least 250 years.
After failed attempts to stifle the blaze, most of the citizens relocated in the 1980s. Most of the original buildings were levelled, leaving behind grids of ghost streets leading nowhere, along with ominous signs warning of toxic fumes and the risk of sinkholes opening up beneath your feet. As a result, Centralia has become a (literal) hotspot for dark tourists and seekers of the strange. Even before it became a ghost town, people flocked to Centralia to experience the uncanny atmosphere.
As one former resident put it: “Everyone wanted to trick or treat near me. They didn’t care that they got less candy. They wanted to be scared. A few years some of that steam would rise, or it would be foggy. With all the abandoned houses, it was better than a haunted house to them. Me, it was another day.”
Most ghost towns originated in modern history, but Craco is a picturesque exception. Located in southern Italy, it has its origins in the medieval era, and was constructed on a steep hill for defensive purposes. At a distant glance, it looks like any other pretty, ornate, rustic Italian community – the kind of place you might imagine hobnobbing with locals and having a bite in a family-run café.
But get closer, and its desolate nature is revealed. Thanks to the forces of nature – think landslides and earthquakes – the locals migrated throughout the 20th Century, and it was completely deserted by the 1980s. Today, visitors can only access its winding, abandoned streets through official tours, which reveal the ancient piazzas and fading frescoes of a place that was inhabited for many centuries.
That said, the hustle and bustle does return to Craco on occasion, when it plays host to annual religious festivals. Its stark and striking architecture has also made it popular with filmmakers, with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the James Bond movie A Quantum of Solace shooting in the ghost town.