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A Haunting in Mitla

“How was it? What’d you see?” I asked, accosting him in the murky, cramped passage. 

“It’s…I’ll let you look for yourself,” he replied, panting, “just keep in mind it’s really dark in there.” The corridor and stairs were so narrow, the two of us could barely sidle past one another. I was already claustrophobic from the musty rooms above ground. Now, in the crypt I could scarcely breathe; my eyes detected shadows in the gloom. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to observe in the chamber: its occupant and his accoutrements had long been excavated. Just an empty space. I hastened out into the sunlight.

“So…d’you see him?” Mark leaned in to whisper. He was one of the members of our guided group at Mitla. We’d briefly bonded over our camera lens preferences.



I laughed. “What?”

“Look…I’m not…y’know one o’ those supernatural nuts, but…you didn’t…I mean you had to have seen the guy in there…right?”

“Uh…it’s an empty tomb, Mark.”

“Right…no…right, yea….”

The back of my neck prickled. “You thought you saw someone in there?”

“You didn’t?”

Our guide summoned us for a lecture so we hurried off, but I was distracted. I don’t believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, this ancient ruin could be teeming with them. Mitla, a nahuatl word meaning “Place of the Dead,” may refer to the annihilation of this city by the Aztecs. Even prior to its conquest, constant skirmishes between Mixtecs and Zapotecs left the ceremonial center ravaged. Our docent, James, explained all this carnage to us in precise numbers and calendar dates. I, however, kept wondering about the phantom. Had Mark been hallucinating, or playing a joke on me, or had he mistaken another visitor? A part of me began to speculate whether I had felt the semblance of a presence from long ago.

What makes historical sights come alive for me are details — the uncovered relics, the disinterred murals, the archaeological detritus. I enjoy incorporating these discoveries into imagining how a culture once lived. But, too often the evidence is austere and unrevealing. Though crucial for authenticating what happened in the past, it doesn’t impact my emotions, doesn’t plummet me into a narrative. 

Perhaps that’s the reason ghost sightings have remained popular through the centuries, finding new avenues in our digital world. The haunting account of a single soul determined not to be forgotten captures our imagination. Whether it’s a tragic love story or a horror recounted, apparitions involve us with history much more forcefully than artifacts. They remind us that the past is never really gone.      

Our chaperoned presentation ends. We’re allowed to roam Mitla on our own. Mark and I return to the burial chamber. It’s silent and vacant. We pop into a couple of other rooms hoping to catch the specter, but he’s elusive. There’s only the faint whistling of wind, the tingling of hair on my lower arms, the shuffle of our footsteps. Then, as we’re exiting the doorway of the last priestly accommodation, we both hesitate, turn back, peer into the grayness. Is it a ghost, is it the shape of our fears, or is it Mitla shifting under the weight of history?


Mitla’s most striking feature is its architectural geometry. Intricate friezes are carved into the sides and interiors of temples and living quarters. Archaeologists are beginning to uncover the cultural significance behind some of the fretwork patterns depicting the Zapotec life cycle, thunder, and maize.

Have a ghost story? I’d love to hear your favorite spooky tales below in the comments!

109 replies »

  1. I love getting an insight into your thought process as you explore new places – it’s interesting because I too like to imagine how cultures once lived! Gorgeous photos as usual!

  2. Your photos are so enticing… We call them “ghosts” but I think perhaps that’s just our label for spirits which are everywhere I believe. Especially since living in Asia where pretty much everyone believes in spirits. In Vietnam for example, every single home and restaurant has a personal shrine to deceased family members who are spoken to each day. In Bali in Indonesia offerings are put out daily for the spirits – to attract good ones and good karma and ward off evil. It can’t all be meaningless…


    • Thank you Peta! I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. In Mexico as well, spirits are a part of ancestral lore and family stories. Locals here are far more integrated into the tapestry of ghost narratives than I can ever be and I find this a wonderfully intriguing part of their philosophy.

    • I’m tempted to go….thinking about it….and that is a good nudge, sounds interesting. Of course I’m aware of Day of the Dead, but I’m sure if you’re there in Mexico and hear about it from local sources, it will have a much deeper meaning.

      • Speaking of the Day of the Dead…before exploring Mexico I’d had the idea that it was some sort of macabre festival, but for most locals here it is a time to gather with family and reminisce about loved ones, honor their forebears, as well as tell ancestral stories. Though, Mexico City does have an impressive parade for the holiday!

  3. It’s a fascinating story and very thought provoking. If it would be O’K for me to meet certain ghosts, I would feel fine. Otherwise it’s spooky. I went on a guided tour of Pushkin museum in Saint Petersburg and our guide told us that a coffin with a body of the poet was kept in a small room for people to bid their last farewell to him. He was mortally wounded during a duel and died. According to our guide visitors often faint in the room, where the coffin was displayed. However I felt fine. Another time we walked around an old cemetery next to San Miniato basilica in Florence and I wanted to get out of the cemetary ASAP. Old Irish cemetaries looks pretty friendly to me. Maybe it’s because Irishmen are famous for their sence of humor?

    • How wonderful that you enjoyed my post and related some spooky encounters of your own! I believe so much of that eerie feeling we get has to do with atmosphere more than location. I’ve never been to an Irish cemetery but you’ve got e wondering if Irish humor does lend to friendlier graveyards. 😁

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