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Hawaii’s Cursed and Haunted Leper Colony in Paradise

Jutting off the Hawaiian island of Molokai is a fish-shaped strip of land called the Makanalua Peninsula, considered to be one of the most remote places in the archipelago. Inhabited since 650 AD by native Hawaiian fishermen who left behind mysterious rock walls and their stone and coral fish shrines, called heiau dotted throughout the area, it is an intensely scenic place covered with velvety green terrain and rugged canyons and ravines, all surrounded by sweeping, towering cliffs that are some of the highest in the world and look out over the azure waters below. Indeed, the peninsula is widely considered one of Hawaii’s most beautiful locales, and it is an almost mystical, magical place where nature’s grandeur is on full display and which seems far removed from suffering and death. Yet, this land of breathtaking majesty and beauty has a dark history lurking behind the natural splendor, and it is simultaneously known as one of the most cursed and haunted places in all of Hawaii.

Back in the year 1865, the Hawaiian Islands were hit by an epidemic of Hansen’s disease, also more commonly called leprosy. In those days, leprosy was a terrifying, poorly understood disease, a dark specter with no known treatment and very little known about how it spread. Most areas of the world dealt with the scourge of leprosy by locking off the victims of the disease to quarantined colonies, where they were separated from the rest of the population and basically sent to languish and wither away to die. Hawaii was no different, and in the face of the frightening epidemic King Kamehameha V had all known lepers moved to a colony on the Makanalua Peninsula called Kalaupapa. Here people of all ages were whisked off to be locked away amid the majestic beauty in total isolation, left with no amenities, buildings, or even potable water. Here they were abandoned to fend for themselves, often after being forcefully separated from their beloved families, only occasionally having supplies thrown into the water offshore for them to retrieve through the frothing surf, and many died. It was a bleak, desolate, and lonely place where dreams died and hopes were shattered, with the famous author Jack London writing of its reputation as being “the pit of hell, the most cursed place on earth.”

The Molokai Sea Cliffs

In 1873, a Catholic missionary priest from Belgium by the name of Father Damien deVeuster arrived at Kalaupapa in order to look after these doomed, forgotten people. There he found amongst the beauty around him and nestled at the base of those soaring cliffs a landscape full of wandering wraiths, people who were gaunt, without hope, their bodies falling apart, and looking like the walking dead. Horrified by what he saw, Father Damien immediately had proper housing constructed to replace the ramshackle huts and dank caves in which they had lived, and shaped the colony into something more reminiscent of an actual town. He also planted trees, flowers, and modest crops, built a hospital, church, and other structures, and made actual coffins and a cemetery where the dead could receive proper burials rather than being unceremoniously dumped into shallow graves out in the barren hills. Father Damien would eventually contract leprosy himself, and later be joined by a Brother Joseph Dutton, who assisted him as his physical health gradually deteriorated, a Mother Marianne also arrived to serve as a nurse and teacher, as well as the physician Arthur Albert St. Mouritz.

Father Damien would pass away in 1889, eventually being canonized as a saint by the Catholic church in October of 2009 for his work there, and despite his passing the colony would soldier on. Yet, even though living conditions were better than they had been at first, and they had Brother Dutton and Mother Marianne to help them, this was still a less than desirable place to be. They were still barely eking out a living, and the incurable disease took its toll, with the dead soon outnumbering the living. Indeed, to be sent to Kalaupapa was considered to be synonymous with a death sentence, and although the treatment called sulfone was developed in the 1940s and made leprosy more manageable, mandatory isolation was not abolished here at Kaluapapa until 1969, by which time 8,000 people had died here in this tiny settlement over the previous century, filling the paradise with graves.

Even after the isolation was ended and the residents of Kalaupapa were free to go, it was still a stigmatized place, yet even then some of the original inhabitants did not want to go and have stayed here ever since. There are still around a dozen elderly residents at the former leper colony, which is now a National Historical Park, and there is even a working post office. It is possible to visit the area, but access is extremely limited, with the only way to legally go there being through a single tour company called Father Damien Tours, where you will either fly in a small plane into the miniscule airstrip or take a mule along a perilous seaside cliff trail, and there are many strict rules in place in order to ensure the privacy of the remaining residents. This is a solemn, sacred place that is not for morbid curiosity secrets or seekers of the macabre, and National Historic Park Superintendent Erika Stein Espaniola has said in an interview with the Huffington Post about the quality of this place:

Kalaupapa is not a recreational park. Many people see the whole landscape as a large cemetery so people need to know this before they go off to learn and experience Kalaupapa themselves. I think the duality of how sad and emotional the histories can be, coupled with the beauty of the place, is difficult for people to process and it has an incredible impact.

The Kaluapapa colony today

With this grim history of loneliness, despair, and death, it is perhaps not surprising at all that Kaluapapa is also said to be quite haunted, as well as its surrounding area. Park workers and visitors alike have described hearing strange sounds at night, or of seeing shadowy figures standing on cliffs or roaming about. Those who have stayed overnight have complained of being disturbed by incredibly vivid dreams and nightmares that they wake from suspecting something more is going on. One visitor to Kaluapapa, journalist Léo Azambuja, wrote of his eerie experience there.

Today you’re not allowed to go into Kalaupapa Town unless you work there or you’re invited. I was fortunate enough to visit the settlement a few times 10 years ago, when there were about 18 patients still living there by choice. I went mostly to report on their community meetings. Kalapapa is an idyllic place. But underneath that layer of beauty, there are signs of suffering everywhere. Innumerable cemeteries, resting places for all those suffering souls, are spread among houses, churches and other buildings. You just can’t help but imagine the suffering, humiliation, isolation that thousands of people went through unwillingly. You just cannot walk away untouched. In one of those trips, my girlfriend and I befriended a state caretaker, and he invited us to spend a night there. He took us all over the place, and gave us a really good insight of the place; historically, culturally, geographically, religiously and socially.

 

We spent the night in one the rooms built for the patients’ visiting families. It was an old building; it probably preceded my grandparents’ birth date. A long, skinny building next to the dorms reflected the suffering by the families affected by the disease. Inside the building, there was a table as long as the building, with seats on both sides and separated by a glass barrier. There, families could visit their relatives banned to Kalaupapa, but they were never allowed to touch each other. When I went to bed, I was inundated with dreams of people Iʻd never seen before. I woke up in the middle of the night, desperately needing to use the bathroom. I just didn’t want to go alone. Thankfully, my girlfriend was awake, so we waited for each other outside the bathroom. Back in bed, I was tormented by nightmares over and over again. Perhaps I just let the environment around me influence my thoughts. Perhaps many who lived and died in Kalaupapa were still wandering souls looking for a way to alleviate their suffering.

It would certainly be interesting to have such hauntings going on in the shadows of those enormous cliffs, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. This is a place both blessed with natural beauty and cursed with a dark history of pain and death, which may have even seeped into the very land itself to taint it somehow. It is a curious historical oddity at the very least, and whether one believes in ghosts and curses or not, Kaluapapa is to this day considered one of the most haunted places in the Hawaiian islands, a dark place lurking under the veneer of an island paradise.