Are Haunted Cities in the Bible?

Haunted houses are one thing. Haunted cities are another. They are vaster in scale and more terrible in form. In lists of the world’s most haunted cities, Baguio (in the Philippines), San Antonio (Texas) and Canberra (Australia) are consistently mentioned. But these are for specific features within the cities – abandoned hotels and hospitals are favourites – rather than the cities as a whole. Poveglia Island in Venice is often called the most haunted place in the world, and Glasgow has its own Necropolis.

I’ve already written about Haunted Houses in the Bible. I’d like to broaden this out to a blog post on haunted cities. What haunted cities are mentioned in horror fiction? And what does the Bible say about the haunting of one city in particular – the ancient city of Babylon?

Haunted Cities in Fiction

There are haunted cities in Tolkien. Minas Morgal is the most obvious example. It was formerly a twin city to Minas Tirth until it fell to the forces of Sauron in the Third Age and became the Tower of Dark Sorcery. Angmar was a northern realm rather than a single city, governed by the Witch-king, with the capital called Carn Dûm. Khazad-dûm was a thriving underground kingdom of the dwarves until the balrog known as Durin’s Bane was awakened and the place was renamed Moria, The Black Pit.

Haunted cities are more frequent and explicit in Lovecraft although possibly not quite to large as in Tolkien. Arkham is the most obvious example, the fictional city in Massachusetts that is featured in many Cthulhu mythos stories. Innsmouth is more a town than a city, and Dunwich is more a village than a town, but the extent of their haunting is more complete than Arkham. Kingsport also deserves a mention.

There are two other more fabled places in Lovecraft that can most certainly count as haunted cities. The first is the “nightmare corpse-city” of R’lyeh, the lost and sunken city in which dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. Is it Cthulhu’s house…or his prison? Read on for an answer! Then there’s Carcosa, mentioned by Lovecraft and other authors, home to The King in Yellow.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,

And strange moons circle through the skies,

But stranger still is

Lost Carcosa.

Robert W Chambers

The Haunted City of Babylon

Baylon plays a big part in the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. The ancient city of Babylon held one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and is located in modern day Iraq. In the Old Testament, the Babylonian exile was a time when many Jews from the southern Kingdom of Judea were taken captive by the Babylonian Empire, and the magnificent temple of Solomon was destroyed. You’ve probably heard about this in the 1978 Boney M song Rivers of Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137

In New Testament times, the city seemed to symbolise something even more sinister but at the same time less substantive. Babylon was personified as an evil woman – whorish, bloodthirsty, and possibly vampiric. Some believe it was used as a derogatory but indirect way of speaking about the pagan Roman Empire. Others take it as a symbol for apostate Jerusalem, for the evil world, or for the false church.

This Babylon is named as ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth’ (Revelation 17:5). Here, Babylon is portrayed as a prostitute, clothed in purple and scarlet, decked with gold, gems and perils, holding a golden cup that’s full of the “abominations and filthiness of her fornication”. The kings of the earth have drunken sex with her, and she rides on a scarlet-coloured beast, “full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.”

Babylon is Fallen

All very interesting and graphic. But where does the haunting come in to it? In the next chapter of Revelation, a mighty angel comes down from heaven, having great power, to deliver this message.

And he called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.”

Revelation 18:2

There are many fascinating points to this proclamation. Here are a few of them.

  • The word “haunt” is used explicitly by several version (NIV, ESV, Amplified Bible, Christian Standard Bible, Good News Translation, New American Bible, NET Bible, NRSV)
  • This word is a noun rather than a verb. It is type of place rather than an activity.
  • There are actually two different words in the Greek here for a ‘haunt’. One means a lair or dwelling-place. The other means a prison or maybe a hideout. (Hence, my earlier reference to R’lyeh as the house and prison of Cthulhu.) Both words are used in this verse. This means the demonic possession of Babylon is both a terror to its inhabitants and a punishment for the demons who terrorise it.
  • The overlap between demon with animal imagery is common in the Old Testament to describe such a haunted place. This is why some translations use the word “cage” to portray how these evil birds and beasts are housed in Babylon.

But what does it mean?

The Prophecy Against Babylon

Many try to interpret the Book of Revelation according to contemporary events or historical events. My belief is that Revelation is saturated with Old Testament imagery. This passage about the haunted city of Babylon is no exception. It originates from a passage in the book of Isaiah, worth quoting at length.

Babylon, that jewel of kingdoms,

the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans,

will be like Sodom and Gomorrah,

when God overthrew them—

It will never be inhabited

or lived in through all generations;

no Bedouin will pitch his tent there;

no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there.

But desert beasts will lie down there,

and their houses will be full of howling creatures;

there owls will dwell,

and goat-demons will dance there.

Isaiah 13:19-21

This is a picture of destruction and degradation, both physical collapse and moral curse. All good things have deserted Babylon. Again, we have the mix of the natural and the supernatural, of animals and demons, as in Revelation. Isaiah uses language like this to condemn other enemies of ancient Israel too, such as Edom (Isaiah 34:11-15). How do we understand this mixture?

It is not quite certain which of the words used in those passages are names of demons or goblins, and which of terrestrial birds and beasts: but there is little doubt that Isaiah, like St John, means to describe both as occupying the desolated city.

Cambridge Bible for School and Colleges on Revelation 18:2

It’s the horror trope of a ghost town taken to a metropolitan scale, but in which the ghosts are more than metaphors for abandonment. It’s a bleak picture of urban ruins combined with a ‘city of the damned’ motif. The result is a haunted hell on earth, where devils in animal form are jailers and jailed, both a whip and warning at once.

Babylon took the Jews into captivity. Now it is captive to demonic horrors and howling creatures of the night.

If that’s not a haunted city, I don’t know what is.

Photo by cheekoti shivani on Unsplash

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *