Lore about ghosts and haunted places doesn’t figure prominently in French culture– at least not as much as it does in places like the US, the UK, Ireland, and Japan. One might even argue that, since the French Revolution, France has prided itself on its purported rationality, rejection of superstition, and what it often calls its “Cartesian” way of seeing the world (after the pre-Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes).
Phantoms, apparitions, haunted castles, sorcery, poltergeists and demons? All relegated to the “primitive”, pre-Enlightenment past.
Yet look more closely, and you’ll see a different picture. Especially outside Paris, tales of French ghosts and uncanny, or even terrifying, hauntings still thrive in certain corners of local culture.
So next time you visit one of the places below where apparitions reportedly roam, enjoy the lore. And keep your eyes peeled, just in case Hamlet was correct when he told his friend Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
The Murdered Monks and Dame Blanche (White-Clad Lady) of Mortemer Abbey, Normandy
The 12th-century Abbaye de Mortemer, located in Normandy about 30 km/21 miles southeast of Rouen, is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in the country.
Originally one of the largest Cistercian monasteries in the world, Mortemer has a semi-creepy origin story. The monks who built the abbey had to first dry and reclaim the marshy lands on which they planned to place the foundations, in a likely putrid spot referred to as the “dead pond” (morte mar)– giving the Abbey its name.
Chronically underfunded (or simply cursed?), it never thrived the way it was meant to, and by the time of the French Revolution, it had already fallen into significant disrepair. But a small community of monks– some say they were half-mad– still lived at and tended the Abbey when, in 1790, it was stormed by revolutionaries determined to attack religious institutions.
According to several accounts, they murdered four monks who continued to reside there, dragging them to the cellars to carry out the nefarious deed. Monks’ blood and overturned jugs of wine are said to have intermingled on the cold cellar floors, leaving a gruesome scene.
Since then, rumours of ghostly monks haunting the skeletal ruins of the Abbey have persisted for generations. There’s even an account of a benevolent robed ghost emerging from the forest surrounding the Abbey during World War II, saving an English paratrooper from enemy attack by ushering him to a hideout.
The Dame Blanche
Another ghostly presence that has reportedly spooked former residents and visitors is the Abbey is a white-clad woman who stalks the grounds, moaning and making other strange noises. Local lore maintains that it’s the spirit of the Empress Matilda of England, who was allegedly forced by her father, King Henri I, to remain confined at the Abbey for some five years.
After she died in nearby Rouen, the tales goes, she returned to the Abbey to roam it for eternity, emerging on moonlit nights to drift among the ruins. Why she would do so is unclear, since she was in fact buried in a chapel at Rouen Cathedral.
Still, locals say that if you witness the white-clad spectre of Matilda wearing black gloves, you’ll die within a year. But if she wears white gloves, luck may just be yours.
Exorcisms & Terrors
According to several accounts (none of any solid credibility, but hey, we’re having fun here), the Abbey and its adjoining 18th-century mansion struck terror in the hearts of several owners of the years, including a wealthy Parisian family called the Delarues, who performed exorcisms there in 1921 after several terrifying experiences.
One room in particular above the former refectory, simply called the Pink Room, was allegedly so haunted by both processions of ghostly monks an unnamed demonic presence that the owners soon refused to set foot in the room.
Despite having the grounds exorcised, the story goes, the nighttime terrors persisted, so the family left. It would allegedly take a decade to find a new owner.
Ghost Nights at Mortemer Abbey
The Abbey takes full advantage of the unsettling lore that surrounds it, and hosts annual “ghost nights” during the summer months that involve fight-filled candlelit tours around the grounds and mansion. It’s an extremely popular event, and reputed to be genuinely creepy. See more info here.
The Damned Neo-Gothic Mansion in Pigalle (Paris)
Anyone who’s roamed the streets of Pigalle, in Paris, after dark can easily concur that it has something seedy, if not downright creepy, about it. Pigalle has long been a quartier of ill repute: the red light district where bawdy clubs like the Moulin Rouge and far more x-rated counterparts continue to thrive; where a museum dedicated to eroticism in myriad forms once stood (sadly, it closed in 2016), and quiet, dark alleyways abound, chaotically melding into busy boulevards. There’s something– well, dark about the place.
There was even a club called the Cabaret d’Enfer, opened in the nineteenth century and closed sometime in the mid-twentieth, that stood on Boulevard de Clichy. Themed around hell and esotericism, it showed a romantic attraction to the occult among Parisians at the time.
That interest remains, I think– it’s just gone a bit underground. And one of the most haunted houses in Paris is reportedly nestled in Pigalle, behind the mysterious gates of the private Avenue Frochot. It’s an alluring, quiet lane where the likes of Django Reinhardt and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec once resided.
One neo-gothic hotel particulier (mansion), at #1, built in 1823, is reported to be cursed following a horrific murder there. Sometime in the early 20th century, someone brutally killed a servant at the house, bludgeoning him with a poker.
The murder was never solved, and the servant’s spirit continues to roam the house, according to the lore. Owners and neighbors over the decades allegedly reported loud noises coming from the house during times when it was unoccupied.
Death and disease, the legend goes, insidiously follow the villa’s owners. In the late nineteenth century, the French composer Victor Massé died in the house from multiple sclerosis; almost exactly 100 years later, the theatre critic Matthieu Galey passed away in the same room in the house– and from the same disease.
The villa’s “cursed” reputation is such that when the actress Sylvie Vartan purchased it (prior to Massé owning it and dying there) she reportedly felt ill at ease, refused to stay in it, and ended up selling the house.
Today, it’s owned by a professor of medicine who has reported no supernatural sightings or events. That hasn’t stopped the Avenue Frochot from attracting every ghost tour guide in town, of course.
Brittany’s Haunted Lighthouse at Tevennec
Improbably built on a wave-battered clutch of rocky land jutting out from the Atlantic, the Phare de Tevennec, a lighthouse in Brittany’s ultra-turbulent Raz de Sein strait, screams loneliness and romantic drama.
Built in 1875, it was automated in 1910 because of the sheer difficulty of reaching it. Madness and death, the tales claim, followed the 23 lighthouse operators who occupied it in the years up to that point.
The area itself has a history of shipwrecks. During the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship called the Séduisant crashed against the rocks, leading to the death of hundreds of sailors. Some say it’s also haunted by Celtic spirits of seafarers and warriors from centuries earlier.
Accounts claim that the first lighthouse operator, Henri Guezennec, was driven to madness after ghostly voices told him (in the Bréton tongue) to leave the place. Many of his replacements reportedly had similar experiences.
Later, after the French government made Tevennec a two-man lighthouse, they began recruiting married couples to tend it– but received few applications. The couples that did move in are said to have suffered untimely and tragic deaths, including a family with three children and a cow.
Accounts of failed exorcisms, the installation of crucifixes, and a violent storm that arrived just as one of the operators was giving birth inside the lighthouse, are all part of the lore, in a region which still openly embraces such tales, perhaps in part owing to its Celtic roots.
Familial Phantoms at the Chateau de Fougeret, Aquitaine
This little-known castle, built between the 14th and 15th centuries, stands in Vienne in southwestern France, in the region known as Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Looming atop a high cliff and overlooking a steep valley, it has all the “proper” attributes of a haunted house (although its landscaping is a bit too tidy for the ghosts to hide in).
Uninhabited for over 50 years following the world, a family purchased the chateau in 2009. Since then, they claim they’ve had numerous paranormal encounters with what they say is a family of ghosts.
They’ve been interviewed by several French press outlets in the past years, recounting stories of “chairs that move [of their own right], smells of food and sounds of a family having lunch in the living room….a woman in a red dress who appeared twice near the chimney”, and numerous others.
The owners, François-Joseph and Véronique Geffroy, reportedly hired several mediums in hopes of gaining answers around the strange sensations, apparitions and sounds they and other family members experienced in the house.
A medium named Lexa Marau told French newspaper Sud-Ouest that she had “made contact” several times with spirits at the house. “I admit that I’ve never known a place with so many entities. At least twelve or so in the chateau, and many more in the park.”
In the same 2012 interview, she claims to have held a long conversation with a certain Alice, who died at 22 in the house during the 1920s. In other instances, she said, she observed faces in the windows, vague figures floating by, and unexplained loud noises.
The family has few coherent theories on who the ghosts might be. But they’re determined, according to French newspaper Sud-Ouest, to live with them in peace– and to organize paranormal-themed tours and events at the chateau for curious tourists. After all, one has to think about getting a good return on investment.
For those who read French and wish to go down an amusing rabbit hole, the Association de Recherches et Enquêtes sur les Phenomènes Inexpliqués (Association of Research and Investigation on Unexplained Phenomena) has published a series of reports (including audio files) on the reported hauntings of the Chateau de Fougeret.
The Murdered Wife of the Chateau de Brissac, Loire Valley
The handsome, sprawling Chateau de Brissac near Angers, in the Loire Valley, is one of the area’s loveliest– and most imposing. Endowed with over 200 rooms and remarkably well-preserved, the castle was originally built to serve as a fortress by the counts of Anjou in the 11th century, then was refurbished in the early 16th. It’s belonged to the aristocratic Cossé-Brissac family since then, and is currently inhabited by the 13th Duke of Brissac.
Its immaculate appearance and consistently inhabited state hasn’t kept ghostly legends around the castle from propagating, though.
Like the Abbaye de Mortemer (see more above), this medieval site has its own reputed “White-Clad Lady” (or Dame Blanche)– who roams its hundreds of rooms on stormy evenings.
Sometimes clad in green (she then becomes La Dame Verte, of course), the apparition is said to be the restive spirit of Charlotte de Valois, the illegitimate child of King Charles of France.
She moved to the chateau after her marriage to Jacques de Brézé. Upon discovering her in bed with a lover, Pierre de Lavergne, in 1477, de Brézé murdered his wife with his own sword. She was only around 30.
The murder didn’t occur at the chateau, but instead at a farm (ostensibly nearby). Nevertheless, local legends claim that her apparition emerges on particularly stormy nights, and that the ghost has a predilection for haunting the chapel tower.
More Strange and Disturbing French Stories
If you’re still hankering for dark and strange stories from France, start by reading the following (true) ones: First, learn how Paris City Hall’s cheerful square was once the place of choice for gruesome executions.
Next, find out how to visit a pretty building in Paris that was once a site of Nazi collaboration and barbarism, and find out whether Nicolas Flamel, owner of the oldest house in Paris, was really an alchemist.