Halloween is not celebrated in Italy as it is in the United States. The holiday is marked in the country and around Europe as Tutti I Santi, or All Saints Day, a Christian celebration that honors those who entered heaven as saints. However, the idea of Halloween is popular in the country, with supermarkets selling pumpkins and spooky decorations and bars and nightclubs hosting Halloween nights to mimic the ambiance found in the United States. Some markets and museums will also hold events for children to allow them to partake in dolcetto o scherzetto (trick or treating.)
Italians as a people are inherently superstitious, so it should come as no surprise that the country is home to a number of spooky folk tales. The country’s ghost stories can be an alternative way to partake in the classic American holiday. Below, America Domani has compiled a short list of some of Italy’s most sinister horror stories to prepare you for an Italian American Halloween. Read on at your own risk!
The Doctor of Poveglia Island
Many consider Venice to be one of the most haunted places in Italy. Poveglia Island, located in the Venetian lagoon, has a dark mythology surrounding it. When the plague hit Venice in the mid-14th century, the infected were sent to the island to isolate in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. Roughly 160,000 Venetians were sent to die on Poveglia and legend has it that the island’s soil is made up of the ashes of burned plague victims. In the early 20th century, a mental hospital opened on Poveglia. Many of its patients claimed to be haunted by the tortured souls of plague victims. The hospital’s doctor, who allegedly tortured his patients and performed particularly cruel lobotomies on them, is said to have eventually gone mad himself. He threw himself from the island’s bell tower in the 1960s and died soon thereafter. The hospital was shut down after his death and few Italians have set foot on the island since. Poveglia Island is accessible only by boat and those who have been swearing that the doctor’s ghost still haunts the grounds.
Azzurrina of Montebello
On June 21, 1375, Guendalina, the five-year-old daughter of Lord Ugolinuccio da Montebello, disappeared while playing inside the family’s castle in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Guendalina was an albino, with piercing blue eyes and light blue hair, features that earned her the nickname “Azzurrina,” Little Blue One. She was constantly under guard due to the era’s superstition that albinism was considered to be the work of the devil. Legend has it that the little girl was chasing after her ball inside the castle, away from the guards’ supervision, when she mysteriously disappeared, never to be found again. Over the centuries, the castle was turned into a museum and visitors swear that her ghost still roams the hallways, crying out every five years on the night of the summer solstice.
The Butcher of Santa Croce
In the 15th century, a number of children went missing in the Santa Croce neighborhood of Venice. A butcher named Biasio owned a popular tavern where he cooked sausages and other meats. One day, a customer eating at the tavern discovered what he thought to be a small, human bone in his meal. He quickly averted the police who raided Biasio’s tavern and discovered that he had been murdering children and adding their body parts to his tavern's meals in order to hide their corpses. Biasio was arrested and beheaded in St. Mark’s Square and his tavern was razed to the ground. However, his name lingers in modern-day Venice in the “Riva de Biasio” Vaporetto stop.
The Witches of Triora
Triora, located in the Ligurian Alps, was home to Italy’s last witch trials and is known as the “Salem of Europe.” In the 16th century, a string of bad weather and terrible crops had the starving residents of Triora convinced that their misfortune was the work of witches. Roughly 200 women were arrested, interrogated, and accused of witchcraft, often forced, under torture, to give up the names of other “Satanic” women. Records show that a few of these women were also burned at the stake. Today, this morbid history is preserved in the Ethnographic and Witchcraft Museum, which contains artifacts from the trials and features reconstructions of the tortures and interrogations.
Built in the 15th century, Ca’Dario is a beautiful Gothic palazzo located at the edge of Venice’s Canal Grande. It is often referred to as “the house of no return” – the people who have owned the building or stayed there for longer than 20 days have either died, committed murder or suicide, or become bankrupt. The building’s original owner and designer was a man by the name of Giovanni Dario, whose son was murdered and whose daughter committed suicide. It is also said that the palazzo is still haunted by the spirits of its previous owners.
Asia London Palomba
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy, currently pursuing her master's in journalism at New York University (NYU). In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, and The Christian Science Monitor. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.