Mar 11, 2015 I Brent Swancer

The Evil Island of Italy

Some places in this world easily lend themselves to stories of hauntings or curses. There is a certain look and a certain bloody background that just make them ripe pickings for scary tales, and they become the very incarnation of what our mind envisions when we think of what a haunted place should be like. Considering this, there are perhaps few places on earth that quite so perfectly match the criteria for a haunted place as the morose, lonely island of Poveglia in Italy. Gruesome, gory history? Check. Mass, secret burial grounds? Check. A long tradition of human suffering? Check. Crumbling, darkened buildings overgrown with weeds? Check. Abandoned insane asylum full of creepy stories? Check. As we shall see, there are a great many reasons why this mysterious island has earned its reputation as “the world’s most haunted island,” and has been variously called “The Island of Madness,” “the world’s darkest epicenter,” and “a cesspool of dread.”

Poveglia Island is one of the many small islands that dot the Venetian Lagoon of northern Italy, and is located between Venice and Lido. The island is thick with a long, twisted, and tumultuous history that has a large shadow of evil and sinister goings on looming over it. The first inhabitants here came in the year 421 AD in order to escape the barbarian hordes that were ravaging Venice at the time. It was not a peaceful lifestyle. These bedraggled early inhabitants were beset by the rampaging barbarians and regular fighting was commonplace as they fought to keep the hordes at bay.

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Poveglia Island

In the 9th century, despite the huge amount of blood that had been spilled on its soil, Poveglia became more populous and was steadily inhabited for centuries until its people were displaced in 1379 in order for the government to use the island as a station with which to battle attacking fleets from the Genoese, with whom the Venetians had a long standing bloody rivalry. The intimidating octagonal battlement that was erected for this purpose still stands today. There are also rumors that say Poveglia was used as a base by the English from which to ambush and slaughter French soldiers during the Napoleonic War, a claim which is somewhat supported by the various French shipwrecks still littering the bottom of the lagoon. It is said that French commandos who were captured were then brought onto the island and ruthlessly burned alive, adding to the turbulent violence that already plagued Poveglia’s past.

The island then remained uninhabited and mostly forgotten until the bubonic plague swept through Europe leaving death in its wake. The government, famous for its strict sanitary laws, turned several of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, including Poveglia, into special quarantine stations, referred to as lazzarettos, starting from 1403. These quarantine stations were typically used to confine people who displayed symptoms of the plague and were thought to be ill, after which if they were found to be healthy they could go on their way after a set time had passed and they had been given a clean bill of health, usually about 40 days. It is in fact the Italian words for 40 days, quaranta giorni, from which the modern term “quarantine” comes from.

However, as the plague grew worse and the death toll mounted, these quarantine stations went from slightly unpleasant holding facilities to more like Hell on Earth. As the plague reached a furious pitch, those who exhibited even the slightest symptoms were banished to the island to live out their remaining days in agony, and the quarantine stations became dumping grounds for the thousands of rotting bodies that were left in the wake of the disease, which were thrown into hastily dug grave-pits and buried or burned. During the worst outbreak of Black Death, between 1629 and 1631, an estimated 80,000 people perished in just 7 months, and the Venetian lazzarettos earned a reputation for being putrid pits of decomposing, diseased corpses and the sickly walking dead. As the panicked government desperately tried to staunch the spread of the disease, many people were dragged unwillingly away from their homes and families to be brought kicking and screaming to Poveglia to die or even be hastily thrown onto the many stacks of bodies that were being incinerated while they were still alive. The victims would live in squalid conditions, often in great pain and anguish, with the threat of being burned alive hanging over their heads and very little in the way of treatment from the somber doctors that patrolled the island wearing creepy long-nosed masks packed with herbal concoctions in an attempt to prevent contracting the illness themselves. Italy would eventually lose around one third of its population to the plague, and many of the victims found their final resting places in the scorched, blood soaked earth of Poveglia and other islands like it.

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Plague pit filled with human remains

Even when the worst of the plague was over, Venice remained vigilant. In 1776, Poveglia was taken over by the Public Health Office, or Magistrato alla Sanità, and subsequently used as a quarantine checkpoint for all people and goods being transported by ship from the Adriatic Sea to the Venetian Lagoon. After two cases of the plague were found aboard ships in 1793, Poveglia was once again transformed into a confinement station for suspected victims until the lazaretto closed its doors in 1814. It is thought that over the island’s history during the dark years of the bubonic plague, the corpses of around 160,000 men, women, and children from all walks of life and levels of society ended up here, so many that it is said much of the island’s soil is composed of human ash.

By the 1900s, a dark history of death and decay already saturated the land here, but Poveglia had not yet seen the end of its morbid destiny. In 1922, existing buildings on the island were renovated and turned into an asylum for the mentally ill. Not long after, the patients here started complaining of seeing ghosts and hearing disembodied wailing voices, but at the time these claims were treated as merely the ranting of deranged, insane minds. Poveglia’s history as a psychiatric hospital contains a good deal of dark lore. It is said that one sadistic doctor there began performing demented experiments on the patients, and was convinced that lobotomies were a sound way to treat and cure whatever was ailing their tortured souls. The doctor allegedly conducted all manner of lobotomies on his unwilling patients, using tools such as hammers, nails, drills, and chisels, with very little of it having any sound theoretical basis and none of it done with any sort of attention to safety and sanitation. The doctor also purportedly performed other mysterious experiments on patients within the hospital’s bell tower, and it was not uncommon for patients to be kept awake at night by the screams of pain and despair emanating from the tower at night to add to those of the ghosts they already heard.

Things did not end well for the good doctor. The story goes that the doctor began to be harassed by ghosts, menacing shadows, and strange voices gibbering away in his head. After being driven stark raving mad from the constant phantom assault, it is said that the doctor proceeded to throw himself, or in some accounts was thrown by some unseen force, from the top of the bell tower, the very same one where he had committed his deranged atrocities. A nurse who purportedly witnessed the event would later claim that the doctor had survived the initial fall, but his twisted, broken body had then been wreathed in a mysterious mist as he lay there in agony which then violently choked him to death. A persistent rumor is that the doctor’s body was subsequently bricked up within the walls of the hospital. The asylum was closed in 1968, but a time worn, washed out sign reading Reparto Psichiatria (Psychiatric Department), still marks the location and serves as a reminder of its creepy past. The decrepit buildings also remain standing as well, complete with barred windows, stacks of abandoned, moldy beds and bedframes, and institutional, drably painted halls perhaps still prowled by the ghosts of long dead lunatics.

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The Poveglia asylum as it appears today

Upon the closing of the hospital, the island was used mostly for agriculture, such as vineyards, and was only sporadically inhabited. The stories of those who have tried to purchase the island and live on it are surrounded by weirdness. One person who owned the island in the 1960s quickly abandoned it for unknown reasons and another family who had planned to build a vacation home here suddenly gave up on their dream. Although they would not elaborate on why they had abruptly decided not to live here (a history of plague, murder, and death perhaps?), rumor has it that the daughter of the family had mysteriously had her face split or ripped open while on the island, a grievous injury that had allegedly required 14 stitches. There has never been any explanation as to what happened to her to inflict such a wound, but the popular rumor is that some violent entity brutally attacked her.

With such a long, gruesome history of blood and misfortune, it is perhaps no surprise at all that Poveglia, with its spooky crumbling buildings overrun with weeds and its earth filled with plague pits and the skeletons of anguished souls, is considered to be intensely haunted. This is a place that exudes a sense of menace and malice. Many who come here report being immediately beset with a heavy feeling of dread and despair which seem to hang in the air like a tangible cloud. There are those who upon setting foot on the island are suddenly overcome with the uncontrollable urge to turn back and flee. There are also the reports of tortured wailing or moaning emanating from the island’s various dilapidated, darkened buildings, as well as the inexplicable tolling of the bell tower’s bell even when no one is there, an especially creepy thought considering the tower’s sadistic history. Some shaken witnesses have described picking around in the remains of the old asylum and being commanded by an unearthly voice to leave and never come back, and it is not uncommon for people to report seeing shadowy figures skulking about in the dim ruins of the island. Psychics who have visited Poveglia in particular have described it as a harrowing place filled with malignant, long suffering, and very angry, vicious entities that seem to have a nasty and malicious disdain for trespassers. Most such psychics have found this potent, malevolent energy so unbearable and traumatic that they refuse to return.

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Zak Bagan of Ghost Adventures

Other ghostly encounters are more aggressive and physical. Reports of being brushed, nudged, or shoved by invisible hands are not uncommon, and there are cases of attacks by unseen forces that are almost brutal in nature. One of the most infamous ghostly incidents on the island was captured on film by the TV show Ghost Adventures, which surely got even more than they had bargained for. In 2009, the crew, along with host Zak Bagan, basically stranded themselves on the island for 24 hours to see what they could come up with and immediately had their equipment giving weird readings that were blazing off the charts. This was quickly followed by inexplicable equipment malfunctions and a pervasive, dire sense of dread that overcame all involved. The crew experienced disembodied voices and footsteps, EVP phenomena, and captured mysterious orbs on camera. So far, so creepy, but things apparently got even more out of hand when Bagan apparently was wandering the island provoking the spirits in Italian when he was seemingly viciously assaulted by some unseen and obviously unfriendly entity that appeared to want to possess him. In the footage, the terrified Bagan can be seen flailing and trying to fight off whatever it is that is tormenting him with such rage. Although there is no way to prove that this was a real occurrence or that actual ghosts were involved, it certainly remains a remarkably eerie piece of footage.

Whether it is really haunted or not, Poveglia is certainly a place that invites fear and a sense of desolation. The buildings that remain here, including a church, bell tower, the hospital, housing for hospital staff, and administrative buildings, are in various states of decay, with only very fleeting efforts to maintain them or erect supports to stave off the entropy that threatens to send them toppling to the ground. Some of the buildings on the island are so choked with weeds and ivy that they are barely recognizable, instead appearing as mounds of vegetation with half-buried structures occasionally poking through like some ancient, forgotten ruin in a remote jungle. Within the buildings is nothing but murky corridors full of peeling paint, rooms with moldering abandoned furniture, torn, discarded books, rusty medical equipment, and various other debris, all covered in an ever present film of dust and grime. Occasionally graffiti from illegal visitors to the island can be seen scrawled across walls. Outdoors, one is never far from the thought that they could be treading over one of the buried mass grave of countless plague victims or that much of the muck and soil here is permeated with human ash and blood. Sometimes skulls or skeletons turn up unearthed out in the open, are washed up on shore, or dragged up in fisherman nets in the surrounding waters; grim reminders of what this place once was. It seems that one is never far from the forgotten relics of death and decay on Poveglia. The place has a definite air of evil and if it is not truly haunted, then it somehow seems like it should be.

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Abandoned structure on Poveglia Island

Currently Poveglia Island is uninhabited, and is used mostly for agricultural purposes such as vineyards. Its sinister rumors and history for the most part seem to do a good job of keeping most people at bay. It is said that fishermen tend to avoid the island and that the only time most people are willing to go there is to harvest the grapes in the island’s vineyards. For those that have a morbid curiosity or macabre fascination with the “Most Haunted Island in the World,” it is possible to venture there but due to the Italian government’s closure of the island to tourists it requires a special permit obtained through a load of arduous paperwork. Even having a permit is by no means a guarantee of reaching Poveglia, as few boats are willing to go there and those that do are expensive and intermittent. Despite the government’s ban on visiting the island, it has become a popular place for thrill seekers hoping to see something bizarre or ghostly. It seems distinctly odd that in the middle of one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, among burgeoning resorts and just a stone’s throw away from Venice’s famous Grand Canal there is this rotting, neglected island of dread that no one goes to.  Although Venetians have tried to downplay Poveglia’s creepy reputation and horrific past, the island is still seen by much of the outside world as a ghoulish, feral place full of dark death and dread.

This somber reputation and the lurid stories that circulate about Poveglia have proven to be a hurdle for those wishing to develop the island into yet another resort. In 2014, the Italian government announced that it would issue a 99 year lease to potential buyers in an attempt to ease its public debt, with the hope that any takers would turn the land into a tourist resort as has been done with other lagoon islands such as Sacca Sessola and San Clemente. Such plans have met opposition from locals, who resist the ever tightening grip of mass tourism on their historic city, with many beloved locations transformed in recent years into mazes of luxury hotel resorts and souvenir shops populated by throngs of visitors and a cacophony of noise. At least one local group wants to turn the island into more of a relaxing recreational area rather than just another luxury resort, with two thirds of the land available to the public for outdoor activities such as camping and picnicking. Locals hope to raise enough money to pay the lease and move forward with their plans. With the island’s horrific, gloomy past and persistent legends of specters and ghosts stalking its ruins, it seems that any plans to turn the spooky island into a resort or even a recreational area is likely to be a hard sell.

When hearing all of the stories, it is natural to wonder if perhaps this island really is the lair of ghosts or at the very least an intangible evil force. Or what if its past has somehow become imprinted upon it, much as an image becomes imprinted on a photograph?  How much horror does a place have to endure before it becomes absorbed into its very fabric? How many grotesqueries must play out in a location’s history before this suffering and horror somehow congeal and materialize into our reality? Is this perhaps what has happened on Poveglia? Whatever the case may be, this abandoned island is certainly a place that has seen a long history of tragedy and certainly has earned its place as one of the creepiest places in the world.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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