Folklore Thursday: The Island of No Return

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism.

We’re continuing with the unknowable and the macabre this week with an examination the urban legends of the haunted island of Poveglia, and the face of a figure whose very presence inspires fear and revulsion to this day: the mysterious, ominous plague doctor.

But first, an introduction to urban legends.

Urban Legends

According to the textbook definition, urban legends are, “humorous or horrific stories or pieces of information circulated as though true, especially one purporting to involve someone vaguely related or known to the teller.”

Urban legends spread a lot like folk traditions. Almost no one you talk to can pinpoint an exact source. They may tell you they heard it from a friend, but it’s not very specific, or that it happened to someone they know. However, some are sparked by a rash of crimes (like the clowns in the woods in the Carolinas last year). There may be more than one version of the story, but here is one that is a local favorite in my home town, San Antonio.

A school bus stalled on a set of train tracks south of Mission San Juan in San Antonio, and was struck by a train. Every so often, rumors would surface in my home town that so-and-so parked their car on the tracks (as the area is a popular artist haunt, and San Antonio is a tourist town, heralded as the most haunted city in Texas). They would leave their car in neutral on the tracks in the dead of night and wait. People would report that they could hear voices of the children, or that their car would mysteriously roll forward, off the tracks, and the next day, you could see small hand prints on the dust on their car. As the story goes, the children’s ghosts would try to push the car off the train tracks.

A front page section of a newspaper from The San Antonio Express News in 1938. The headline mentions that the death toll of the school bus accident continues to rise.
It seems in 1938 there really was an accident involving a bus and a train.

It doesn’t help that it appears to have actually happened. However, whether or not the ghosts of the children killed in the crash actually push your car off the tracks is unknowable.

Lydia the Phantom Hitchhiker from North Carolina is another popular one. On a family trip to St. James Island for Cousins Week, my ex’s mother’s cousin told us she had actually seen the ghost of Lydia on her way home one night. The story goes that Lydia died in a car accident on Highway 70 South in North Carolina. In a book called The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Professor Jan Harold Brunvand documents over eleven different variations on the story circulating in North Carolina. However, the story seems to be as old as time itself. According to the book, hitchhiker disappearances were a real problem in the US, and almost every state in the Union has a story about a ghost girl who died in a car crash and who is trying to get back home.

Most urban legends today are being fueled by the speed with which we can now access and spread information. In the 1970s, the girl’s name was not Lydia. One usually heard “Mary” or another common name. It is only in recent years that not only has the ghost girl been given a name, but people have actually nailed down a destination called “Lydia’s Bridge” on Highway 70 south between Raleigh and Greensboro. Never mind that, according to research, it’s not even a bridge, but a culvert.

As Lidia says with a shrug, “Details.”

Other urban legends have sprung from pop culture. It is easy to confuse urban legends with pop culture, as sometimes one doesn’t know where the urban legend ends and the source begins. For example, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was popular in the 1990s, and documented several urban legends into print, including “The Hook” in which a couple decides to make out at Lookout Point. A radio announcer warns people that a serial killer with a hook for a hand is on the loose, just across the wood from where the couple is parked. Though the boyfriend blows it off, the girl becomes nervous and begs to be driven home, which the angry boyfriend does. When they arrive at her house, they discover a hook dangling from the car door. The story may have first appeared in a “Dear Abby” column, and news stories of teenagers going into the woods for some necking and getting slaughtered would have set whole neighborhoods on edge.

Though printed officially, and now out of the realm of the urban legend, it seems the legend is as old as the 1950s, and serves as a cautionary tale about teenage sex. In the story, the boyfriend guns the engine in anger and tears off into the woods, explaining how a bloody hook has come to be stuck to the car door handle. The couple narrowly escapes dying in the woods. In the instance of this story, the girl’s refusal to have sex saves them both from being murdered.

A more recent example of pop culture’s influence over our urban legends is a site called Creepypasta. It’s a user-generated content site designed to share frightening art and stories from around the world, a form of social media for the artistic and chronically bored. It is from a similar wellspring of daytime distraction called Something Awful that the Slender Man was born.

A black and white photo of an abnormally tall, faceless creature holding the hand of a young girl in a forrest. Slender Man
This is the Slender Man, originally a Photoshop contest entry that took on a life of its own.

The Slender Man was supposedly a tall figure in a pinstripe suit with no face. A few photographs of him holding the hand of a young girl were entered as part of a Photoshop contest on Something Awful. A video game in which you had to solve his riddles cropped up, followed by a slew of reaction videos on YouTube. In May of 2014, two twelve-year-old girls lured their friend out into the woods of Wisconsin and stabbed her nineteen times. She was able to crawl to a nearby roadside, where a biker rendered aid. She was able to recover, but it was the Nation who would spend the next several years reeling in shock. The girls claimed that they stabbed the other girl to please the Slender Man.

Though not originally an urban legend, the Slender Man took on a life of his own on the Internet in a frenzy of hysteria that led to actual crime, and ever since, children all over the country warn against traveling too deep into the woods, lest they fall victim to the Slender Man.

Urban legends can often be mistaken for folklore, but because they are not tied to any one particular group and often take their source from pop culture or the media, they are not classified as folklore. Television shows on networks like Scyfy and The Travel Channel perpetuate unsubstantiated claims and scripted descriptions of haunted places, mixing urban legend with fact, weaving a dizzying narrative to excite and frighten. There is no place on Earth that could possibly exude the kind of harrowing, nightmare aura and downright evil spirit, steeped in the blood of thousands talked about on The Travel Channel. There is no place on Earth quite like the small Venetian island of Poveglia.

Influences on the Legend of Poveglia

In the Venetian Lagoon there sits a small island. It is uninhabited, and has been so since 1968, after a sanitarium and long-term care facility had officially been abandoned. Several attempts were made by the Italian government to sell or lease it, hoping to revive the island.

A lagoon vista at sunset, with pastel light. The island of Poveglia's bell tower is plainly visible.
The small Venetian island of Poveglia, seen from a distance. The bell tower is plainly visible.

But, as urban legend would have it, apparently the island of Poveglia is accursed indeed.

What dark secrets lurk behind the crumbling walls and packed earth of Poveglia? Why has ScyFy’s Scariest Places on Earth dubbed Poveglia, “the Island of No Return”?

The Rich Occult History Of Venice

According to The Scariest Places on Earth, pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Venice was awash in blood. At the epicenter of the cultural revival, rebirth, upheaval, and wealth, Venice, according to myth and popular imagination, was fueled on the life blood of dark energy.

Much of this might be boiled down to urban legend and myth–and let’s all remember that television shows like Scariest Places in the World rely heavily on dramatic representation. There is even a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that warns that some reproductions are purely for dramatic effect. Translations can be made to say anything that suits the show’s purpose. Despite the unreliability of most made-for-tv documentaries, a resurgence in ceremonial magic during Renaissance Humanism may point to a prevalence of a sort of cognitive dissonance that allowed for both the belief in the ritual of the transmutation during the Eucharist and pagan ceremonial magic. Side-by-side, they don’t seem terribly different. By definition, ceremonial magic involves a complex ritual to produce a magical effect. What could possibly be more magical than a piece of bread and some wine turning into the body of Christ as it enters you? Among the wealthy and bored, even magical practices banned under canon law held much Romance and allure, such as chiromancy, or palm reading, which became popular during the Renaissance with the influx of Romani into Europe.

There are other aspects of Venetian life in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Italy that point to the hint of licentious activities, and that was the cultural norm of mask-wearing. The “bauta” was the most common. It covered the whole face, and had a protruding bottom half that tapered, allowing the wearer to eat, drink and talk. Mask-wearing was generally accepted only by the elite.

A person of unknown identity stands in a black tricorn hat and black robe wearinga white bauta mask during Carnival.
An example of the full “bauta” costume and mask, popular now during the Venetian Carnival.

However, if a pauper or low-class person donned the mask, it was incredibly objectionable to force them to identify themselves. Mask-wearing was culturally inviolate. There was too great of a risk that one might offend a peer. Often this was how lower classes mingled with the wealthy. More specifically, the bauta also refers to the style of costume worn along with the mask, involving a tricorn hat and red cape. It is only too easy to wonder what darkness lay at the heart of a culture that reveled in assuming alternate identities.

The bauta may be best recognized by it’s use in, arguably, the greatest metal band in the world right now, Ghost, who brought back the bauta for their first and second incarnations. Ghost’s major selling point is that no one really knows who each of the band members actually is. Revealing their true identities, even among fans, is likely to get you ostracized and banned from groups on Facebook (I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen it before–Ghost fans are protective). It is a gimmick that is as highly favored among Ghost fans. Even Papa Emeritus (the Pope one) is actually wearing a mask.

Papa Emeritus wears a papal Mitre and black and green robes. His mask is painted to resemble a skull face. The Nameless Ghouls are dressed in black robes with cowels and bauta masks.
The band, Ghost, at Coachella in full regalia. Papa Emeritus is in the center, surrounded by the Nameless Ghouls. Notice the masks.

But of all the ways in which Italy may be steeped in a horrifying history, none is more horrifying than the toll taken upon the land during The Black Death.

The Black Death

According to History.com, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death (or what we refer to these days as “The Plague” or “The Black Plague”) arrived in Europe by sea in 1347, though by the time the Plague reached Messina in Sicily, rumors were already spreading of a pestilence carving a swatch through the East and Middle East.

The Black Death was the single most devastating epidemic to ever strike humanity. According to the CDC, the Ebola virus outbreak killed 22,620 people in West Africa in 2014, and still pales in comparison to the 20 million deaths across Europe attributed to the Black Death. Death by Plague was horrific. According to the History channel, one could lay down to sleep a healthy person, and be dead by morning. Poet and writer Boccaccio wrote, “the mere touching of the clothes appeared itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The Black Death was indiscriminate and efficient. The streets were lined with corpses of the fallen, family members fled the homes of plague victims, and mass graves were dug to accommodate the piles of corpses.

And out of the rising smoke of pyres and treading lightly over the fallen stepped a creature with the face of a bird beneath a wide-brimmed black hat and cloak that came to gloved hands and trailed the feet.

The Plague Doctors

Though long-since debunked, The Plague Doctors were not considered harbingers of doom during the Black Plague. They were revered, respected, and admired for their courage. For many they were a symbol of hope. It is through science that we discover that they were perhaps more harmful than helpful.

Standing in a camp site, Jeremy cuts an impressive figure in his black leather hat, cloak, and bird face mask. He is not holding his cane in this picture.
Jeremy Shoemaker dressed as a plague doctor for The Texas Renaissance Festival in Magnolia, Texas. How many people can say they have a fairly recent picture of a plague doctor?

In medieval times, it was believed that disease was transmitted in the air, a school of thought called miasma theory, which states that air smelling foul due to decay also carried disease, and that by purifying the air and making it smell good, one could dispel the diseased air. This lead to the bird-like beak of the plague mask, which was far from the nose of the wearer and stuffed with perfumes and herbs to purify the air the plague doctor breathed. Unfortunately, that was useless. We now know that illness and disease are spread by germs. Their black oilcloth cloaks that were worn under the mask, hat, and gloves were perhaps far more useful. However, it has been surmised that the disease was spread even if one touched the clothes of the infected. The plague doctors moved among plague victims freely, though they often prodded them with a stick to avoid contact. They truly were doctors–well some of them. Others were hack doctors hoping to make a little coin. Many were looking for a cure, but with every victim they came into contact with, they carried the contagion with them on their clothes. And as there was no treatment that worked, they often simply helped their victims into the grave. A common joke at the Renaissance Festival my friend attended was to ask for a picture, then flee the scene, afraid to catch the plague. Others took pictures from a distance. They did not want to bother him, but we joked that they were afraid he was bringing the plague with him. From a historical standpoint, that’s not even remotely funny.

Two plague doctors stand over a fire of burning bodies.
Did someone call a doctor?… No?

Folk Traditions of Poveglia

There are two very persistent tales of Poveglia.

The first is the Plague quarantine. Poveglia is situated right in the Venetian lagoon. It had formerly been an abbey or convent, and so it was equipped with a church and outbuildings to serve as a quarantine. Plague doctors would take shiploads of plague victims out to the island to keep them away from the populace. Unfortunately, the Plague killed so quickly that victims who were supposedly shipped out never returned. If the urban legend is to be believed, there were over 160,000 people buried or burned in plague pits (mass graves) on Povegelia.

The second tale is that of the doctor at the sanitarium. In real life, Poveglia’s structures were converted into an asylum. There, it is said, that the dark energy and spirits of the damned drove the doctor who worked there mad. He began lobotomizing and torturing the patients that came into his care, adding to the blood spilled on the island.

Let that fire your imagination for a bit.

Deep in the ruins of Poveglia appears to be some round apperature leading into a chamber. Rumor has it this is the crematoria of the mad doctor.
Part of the ruins of Poveglia island’s asylum and outbuildings.

It is rumored around the world that no sane Italian will set foot on Poveglia, and that ghost hunters have brought back poundage of definitive proof of supernatural activity on the island. Rumor also has it that those brave souls who dare enter the island at night never return.

But how true is any of this?

For Italian-born film director Emanuele Mengotti, the island of Poveglia proved to be a constant source of wonder. Growing up on the island closest to Poveglia, Emanuele was always full of curiosity regarding its dark legends.

“I have to say that to me, more than haunted, I felt attracted to that island since I was a kid with my parents,” he said in an interview, “I used to go there and my dad, telling me ghost stories about it, and it was very exciting for me!”

Contrary to the rumor that no Italians will visit the island, Emanuele has made many trips to the island.

“I loved to spend my time there and explore the island, sometimes even by myself! I was always getting lost and having to find my way back.”

A hallway in what is ostensibly one of the hospital buildings on the island, now fallen to ruins. Vines and shrubbery covers the left wall, and parts of the celing and windows have caved in.
Nature seems to be reclaiming Poveglia, wiping the stain of man from its face.

Drawing on this inspiration, Emanuele set out to create a stunning piece of cinema that at once inspired thrilling terror while exploring the old legends of Poveglia and the plague doctors who have gained the reputation of heralds of doom rather than benevolent rescuers. Emanuele is reinventing a vision of Italy and Poveglia through the lens of one who has walked where others dare not tread, though he does keep the pragmatic mindset of a local expert.

A man dressed in tall hat and white plague doctor mask stands in the waves on the coast, a strange vision indeed.
A still image from the concept preview of Emanuele Mengotti’s film The Plague Doctor.

“Unfortunately the info that you can find on the web are wrong. The interesting thing is that we are witnessing the origin of a Legend…twenty years ago the island was so different. You were still able to find old books–now its just ruins!”

According to historical accounts, that Emanuele was kind enough to confirm for me, Poveglia once served as a small quarantine base for ships bearing confirmed cases of the Black Plague. In the early twentieth century, some of the small buildings were re-purposed into a mental health facility, and it was again used sometimes as a quarantine for plague victims. There was a section meant for the mentally ill, but no mad doctor.

Still, the dark atmosphere and pervading sense of dread persists regarding Poveglia. It is this dark energy that Emanuele hopes to capitalize on as he brings his film to life. Emanuele says that many people still do believe the island to be haunted with the ghosts of plague victims. He says the atmosphere of the island is “creepy” and that it is, in fact, abandoned. Like many of us who are enamored of their own homeland, Emanuele is comfortable both with the historical facts of Poveglia and with the dark legends that fuel his imagination.

Conclusion

Urban legends may not be the modern equivalent of folktales, but they spread roughly in the same way and may sometimes take their sources from historical fact or popular culture. In the case of the Italian island of Poveglia, the remnants of the Black Death frighten and wrap the unwary tourist in a web of Romanticism and gruesome flights of fancy. Like the Alamo here in Texas, there are two sides to the same story. One just happens to be significantly more interesting than the other. Frankly I’d rather dance a jig with the ghosts of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett at the Alamo than walk among the restless spirits of 160,000 plague victims, but it seems history would have us recognize that Travis and Bowie probably don’t haunt the Alamo anymore than the rampant poltergeist of a mad doctor haunts Poveglia. Legend has it that all 113 men died at the Alamo. History says prisoners were taken, including Crockett, since he was a congressman, and therefore a political time bomb. Why listen to history books when the tales of death and destruction during the Black Plague are far more entertaining?

It is the legend and myth of a place that will stay with you long after you get home and take off your bauta mask or coonskin cap. Myth, legend, and folktale. Don’t care how many times Emanuele Mengotti may say the place is only creepy, you won’t catch me out on that island anywhere near dark.