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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. Well, Mexico has been famous, for ages not only because it’s surrealism, but because day of the Death, and the rich legends of “Aparecidos” (goshts stories) specially in the old days before TV when people will seat and talk unlike today, I listen as a child, to countless stories, from the old people in the family, where the death live within the living, or we the living live within the death, that would give you nightmares, however check this link to give you a better idea. 🙂

  2. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I’m too rational for that. But, put me in a dark room, near a cemetery, and I’m sure my mind will start playing tricks. 🙂 I think, it’s one of those things we’re taught to fear as kids. The fear of the unknown and afterlife. The horror movies, stories told by parents or friends, and our own imagination can add so many dimensions to a situation or place. It would be interesting if the guide wasn’t joking. 🙂

    • Ghost stories have been a part of the human culture for so long. I find these narratives to be fascinating insights into the various ways we think about death, loss, regret, and spirituality. Sadly, the guide at Mitla was not joking about the violence the city suffered, but I imagine that’s no different than many ancient places that have witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations.

      • I know what you mean. Travel can be such a fantastic way to learn about where ‘we’ (as humans) got it wrong. We can only learn from the past and hope to leave a better place for the next gen.

  3. Seems like folks see and believe what they expect or want to see, even if it isn’t there or if there’s something else there. Just the same, my wife will swear up and down she saw ghost in a coffee house a few years back – and who am I to argue with my wife?

  4. I don’t usually ‘believe’ in ghosts, but I do remember once staying in a strange, old house in Germany with my family when I was a teenager. We were all of us unaccountably uncomfortable there, and my sister and I both thought we had sensed an unhappy presence on the landing near the bedroom where we were sleeping. I’ve never felt that sense of ‘presence’ before or since.
    By the way, I had never heard of Mitla before I read your posts. Your photographs are gorgeous. It looks amazing. xo

    • I’m so happy I could introduce Mitla to you! It’s not as famous as some of the larger archeological sites in Mexico, but very picturesque, especially with all that gorgeous fretwork. Thanks for relaying your “ghostly” experience; I too have had that uncomfortable feeling in old houses.

  5. Great photos! I sometimes forget that places like this exist in Mexico and that the country has such history – it’s not all tourist beaches and drug gangs.

    • Hahaha…so much of the coast has sadly become tourist resorts. I’m hoping regions like Oaxaca continue to work hard to maintain the balance between welcoming outsiders like myself and being good stewards of their heritage.

  6. I admired one of these photos on Instagram today; they are all so full of photographic (and real life) depth. I’m one of those “sensible” types who doesn’t believe in ghosts, but places like this can certainly give me a tingle of … something! The history, often the darkness, the cool stone contrast with a hot sunny day – they all sometimes combine for a frisson of fear, doubt, or mystery. And who’s to say that’s not what a ghost is?!

    • EXACTLY. I so agree with you. I don’t believe in them either, but who’s to say? I love that you mentioned that contrast between the cold interiors and the hot sunny day which really does make for a tingly experience.

  7. Magnificent photos and story! My husband and I have had a couple of eerie experiences too and we haven’t been 100% sure either that what we witnessed was a “real” paranormal event. But what does it matter? If it makes you even more curious to learn about the history — and makes the trip more memorable too — it’s all good. Great post!

      • Our experiences were while traveling, thankfully — because I don’t think I could live in a haunted house. The first was just an overwhelming sense of dread that overtook us both as we walked through an alley in Edinburgh. We blamed it at the time on the dark, cramped space — but many years later we learned in a History Channel program that this was one of the “closes” where plague victims were walled in to die during the Middle Ages. But the REALLY eerie encounter happened in Sedona, Arizona, when we were hiking through a narrow canyon. We heard tires on gravel coming up behind us on the road, as if a car was following us slowly, but saw nothing when we looked over our shoulders. Over the next minute or two the sound kept coming closer and closer, but still nothing. And then it passed us! It sounded like someone had driven right past us — except we were the only ones on the road. My husband is a born skeptic but even he was freaked out a bit. After much discussion we theorized that we’d heard an echo of a car driving above us, near the edge of the canyon … but that doesn’t explain the weird feeling we both had as it happened, like static electricity. I’m glad my husband was there both times to corroborate because otherwise I might have thought my imagination was playing tricks on me.

        • What fantastic stories, though of course at the time you and your husband didn’t feel that way! I’ve had that sense of dread while in certain old houses, but never thought to ascribe it to ghosts. I suppose, since I’m a nonbeliever, I always think it’s my too-active imagination. Thanks for letting me in on your spooky adventures!

  8. Those geometric stepped-fret designs are amazing, makes me want to paint something like that, it’s mesmerizing.One could only imagine what it was like back then. It would have been interesting to “talk to the ghost”.

    • “It would have been interesting to “talk to the ghost”.” I know! If only I were more of a ghost whisperer. As for the fretwork — isn’t it stunning! You would love also the massive work done on the inside of the chambers as well.

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