In his book Dark World, Ghost Adventures’ lead investigator Zak Bagans describes the Venetian island of Poveglia as a “black hole of evil” and “as sinister a place as has ever existed on Earth”. If you take a few moments to review the island’s turbulent history you will soon understand why Bagans gave it such a grim description. Poveglia must have one of the most gruesome pasts of any island in the world.
Zak Bagans, for those not familiar with Ghost Adventures, is a well-known face amongst ghost enthusiasts. Unlike his co-investigator Nick Groff, who has been fascinated by the paranormal since childhood, Bagans came into it by chance in 2002, by virtue of an alleged haunting in his flat. They met in 2004. Both had a lot in common – not only were they film school graduates; they also shared many interests, including the paranormal. The latter inspired them to combine forces and film a documentary about ghost hunting around Nevada. Groff already knew Aaron Goodwin, a highly experienced cameraman, who they recruited to help film the documentary. The resulting 90-minute film showed them entering paranormal investigation in a baptism of fire, having the wits scared out of them by what they experienced. However, it didn’t put them off. The documentary, entitled, Ghost Adventures, won them a small mantelpiece of awards, and evolved into the current popular TV series. Carrying out investigations, or lock downs, Bagans, Groff and Goodwin seem to find themselves in a variety of situations that most of us perhaps prefer to avoid. And the time they visited Poveglia was one of those predicaments.
Situated just a short boat ride away from the historic elegance of Venice, the island was primarily used as a dumping ground for the dead and the dying. It first assumed this unpleasant purpose during Roman times, when victims of the Black Plague were brought to the island to keep them away from the rest of the population. When they died, the bodies were dumped and burned, their ashes mingling with the island’s dirt.
However, at one point in its history, Poveglia acted as a sanctuary of a more positive kind. It was referenced in 421AD when people fled there from Padua and Este to escape the barbaric invasions. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, it became quite heavily populated. The population became important to the extent it had its own form of government. Nevertheless, war reared its ugly head several times during this era as the barbarian hordes that the Poveglians’ ancestors originally fled from attempted to conquer the island on many occasions. However, the Poveglians successfully saw them off each time.
In 1379, Venice came under attack from the Genoan fleet. The Venetian authorities relocated the Poveglian islanders to another island in the Venice lagoon, Guidecca, and used Poveglia to build a permanent fortification, the Octagon. Parts of this can be seen today. For the next few centuries, Poveglia remained largely uninhabited. The Doge of Venice offered the island to Carmaldose monks in 1527, but they turned it down. In 1661, the descendents of the relocated Poveglian population were offered the island back. They too refused. Maybe the island’s dark reputation was beginning to take effect.
In the modern era, when plague struck the city of Venice three times, the island resumed its station as the final resting place for thousands of stricken unfortunates. At first only corpses were brought to Poveglia and left there but as the plague’s grip on the city intensified, any who showed signs of the disease – indeed, any disease – were brought to Poveglia in boatloads, accompanied by doctors wearing eerie bird-like masks, the beaks stuffed with mixtures of herbs to purify the air that they breathed. On the island, the plague victims were left to suffer an agonizing death and then their bodies were piled into great mounds and burned. Sometimes the victims were still alive when they were thrown onto the fire, but that didn’t seem to matter to their wardens.
So many corpses were disposed of on the island that much of its soil in the ‘plague fields’ is composed of human remains and fishermen don’t take any fish from the waters around Poveglia, for fear their nets might bring up human remains – and possibly a curse as well. Occasionally, a charred bone will wash up on the island shores. Locals also say that most of the island is composed of the ash of the dead. It has been remarked that the soil of Poveglia is rather gummy, resulting from the ash of the hundreds of thousands of bodies burnt there. If this wasn’t bad enough, the island bears other blemishes on its unfortunate history. During the Napoleonic wars in the nineteenth century members of the British army supposedly holed up on the island, ambushed and attacked French ships and then burned their crews alive.
In 1922, a mental hospital was built on Poveglia to house Venice’s lunatics. Not long after the asylum was opened, its inmates reported seeing the ghosts of the island’s plague victims, and hearing their screams at night. It is said that one of the doctors performed cruel experiments on the patients in his care, adding unbearable pain and torment to their mental anguish. He was attempting to find a cure for insanity, performing lobotomies on the patients using basic hand tools. Eventually the doctor went insane himself. Apparently, he also started seeing the plague victims’ spirits. The story goes that he butchered several patients and jumped to his death from the hospital’s bell tower. Though it is worth noting that legend recounts that he didn’t jump but was pushed, by the ghosts of the plague victims. However, the impact didn’t kill him. Even at that, he didn’t last long – a strange mist rose from the ground where he landed and strangled him. His body was buried in the bell tower and his spirit joined the others that walk Poveglia. The asylum closed during the 1960s, and the island left uninhabited, apart from the odd sporadic attempt by some to live there. These didn’t last long.
More recently, although Poveglia has been kept out of bounds by the Italian government, some attempts to rehabilitate appear have been made. A group of workers building a museum on the island uncovered a plague pit, with 1,500 bodies, sunburnt. The archaeologists were sent in to investigate. They found a vampire. One of the skulls had a large stone pushed between its teeth, a 16th century attempt to kill it, on the belief that this would starve it. Experts think what really happened was the plague pit had been reopened for new bodies. Those tasked with this unpleasant job perhaps saw that one of the older bodies had blood in its mouth, a hole in its shroud and was bloated. This was one of the common signs believed to indicate a vampire, hence the stone being placed in the corpse’s mouth. In reality, the appearance of the body was down to the normal decomposition process of a dead body.
In 2009, the Ghost Adventures crew arrived in Venice. Poveglia has achieved something of a reputation of the Promised Land among paranormal buffs. The Ghost Adventures team’s excitement seemed to be quickly tempered by the reactions of the Italian experts accompanying them on their initial daytime walk about. Their tour guide, Manuel, was a little hesitant in some parts of the island. Zak Bagans seemed decidedly pale when Manuel said to him, “You have to call me tomorrow morning – if you survive the night…”
Bagans recounts in his book the large cross that appeared in the sky as they prepared to sail to Poveglia. Similar to the tape crosses the team use to mark out the spots they want to put their static cameras, or X-cams, he felt it was an omen for what was to come during the investigation. A further sign, perhaps of the curse, to Bagans, was the problems getting the boat started that was to take them to the island.
During the investigation, in one of the larger ruined buildings, the crew began what they term ‘calling out to the spirits’, inviting whatever entities are around to ‘use their energy’. One seemingly took up the invitation. Apparently strange things started to happen – the entire team felt unwell, Aaron Goodwin especially becoming so dizzy, he couldn’t stand. The sound of footsteps came from all around. Bagans took reading with his EMF meter (used by modern paranormal investigators to check the electro-magnetic field for the presence of energies or ghosts for those unfamiliar with ghost hunting), and got a reading of 22.2. Normally a reading of two is significant.
As Goodwin took equipment from Bagans, the latter’s demeanour changed. He started screaming at Goodwin to get out, cursing and swearing at him. Goodwin backed away, both he and Nick Groff hiding behind a wall. The team say that they didn’t show the entire incident in the televised episode as Bagans apparently found it disturbing. In fact, he was initially reluctant for it to air. He states that he believes that he was suffering a demonic possession, which he can’t recall much of. Primarily Bagans recalls feeling intense rage and wishing to harm Goodwin. In his book, he recalls experiencing a battle between good and evil. Bagans says it took about an hour for him to get back to normal.
So, Poveglia Island. A dark place indeed?