On the surface, the ghost towns in this special new edition of LIFE might seem to have nothing in common—other than that they were abandoned. Some were once royal residences in the Far East, while others were rustic mining camps in the American West. Some were deserted over the course of many years; others died out virtually overnight. A handful were destroyed due to human calamities (asbestos poisoning, nuclear meltdowns, civil war). Others were obliterated by natural disasters (earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions). Though most of these towns have well-documented pasts, a few remain shrouded in mystery, their ancient secrets replaced with modern lore. One fort in India was supposedly cursed by a tantric magician, while an Italian castle was allegedly the site of a mass murder spurred by one man’s obsessive love.
Despite their considerable differences, many of these once-thriving communities have histories that seem ripped out of adventure yarns. And now told in the thrilling edition of LIFE that’s available here. Here, you’ll find wandering ghosts, vengeful barons, and lost fortunes galore. Above all, these places share a haunted, melancholy beauty: Their desolate streets, decaying houses, and crumbling castles seem to echo with voices from the distant past. “Certain twilights, certain places, try to tell us something,” wrote the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “or they say something that we ought not to have lost.” In the end, these eerie ruins are a reminder that nothing lasts forever…and that every town will eventually be left to the ghosts.
— J.I. Baker