The Abandoned Plague Asylum on Malta

It was on the way to that old lookout tower, just beyond the main ridge of the island where the hotel slipped from view behind the moribund cliffs, that we found the abandoned plague asylum.

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I recently took my girlfriend to Malta for our summer holiday.

I hadn’t seen her in three months. We lived on different continents, but she was moving to Europe to be with me at the end of the semester. The distance was long, cold, and bitter. I thought the sunshine would never come.

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Malta is a small country of just 400,000 people, made up of several islands in the Mediterranean Sea, to the south of Italy. We stayed on Comino, a sparse, barren island with no people except for the resort hotel, and the tourists who come in by boat for the day to swim at the famously picturesque Blue Lagoon.

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My girlfriend and I spent our days swimming in the crystal-blue waters and our nights gorging ourselves and getting drunk on liters of cheap house wine at the hotel’s all-you-can eat buffet. The food was good, but old-fashioned; like everything else on the island, from the janky bungalows to the cracked, peeling deck chairs, it hadn’t changed in probably thirty or forty years. It was like a dream being on that beautiful, secluded island with the woman I loved. We kissed and held each other close as much as possible to make up for all the time we spent apart. We took evening walks along the dusk-lit cliffs, where she would rest her head on my shoulder and say how happy she was to be there with me.

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We went for an evening run our last night on Comino, out to an old watchtower on the far side of the island. Malta was invaded by every naval power in the Mediterranean throughout its history, so a few hundred years ago, a perimeter of defensive towers was built to repel attacks from enemy ships. Comino’s watchtower was a thirty minute run from our hotel, up a winding dirt road lined with scrub brush and breathtaking views of endless sandstone cliffs falling away to the turqoise-tinged sea.

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It was on the way to that old lookout tower, just beyond the main ridge of the island where the hotel slipped from view behind the moribund cliffs, that we found the abandoned plague asylum.

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A commemorative plaque said the asylum had been used by the French Army to isolate victims of plague during the 18th century. At some point later on it turned into a boarding school for boys, then a soldiers’ barracks, and was eventually decommissioned after World War II.

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The immediacy of the facility’s abandonment was clear around every corner. We wandered the grounds and ruined halls, marveling at this peeled-back corner of forgotten time. The walls were caked with grime and old smoke, still wearing the wallpaper they had been seventy years ago. The shutters on the windows still hung open, paint flaking and the hinges frozen with rust. Ancient cars with no engines lined the outer walls. A stilted boat in the courtyard named the Graziella waited for repairs that would never come. Weeds and creeper vines seized every opportunistic crack in the old stones, their patient branches slowly erasing what man had so quickly left behind.

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We were passing the last room of the last wing of the asylum on our way back to the trail, when I heard music softly playing through one of the open windows. I froze, squeezing my girlfriend’s hand as my blood turned to icy sludge. It was old-time 1940s jazz playing on a radio.

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The window was on the second floor, too high for us to see inside. I noticed a fluttering movement just beyond the horizon of my sight. I squinted hard, shielding the dying sunlight from my eyes. It was clothes drying on a clothesline. Someone still lived there.

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My girlfriend and I both exchanged nervous glances, then slowly, silently, turned and walked away, back up the trail to our hotel. I felt eyes boring holes in me the entire way, but every time I looked back over my shoulder, the window was empty.

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After dinner, we returned to our bungalow and went to bed. My girlfriend fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, but I stayed awake for a long time, feeling the soft weight of her head rising and falling against my chest. I watched the still, black shape of the Mediterranean through the gap in the curtains, which weren’t quite long enough to close. Maybe I was just being stupid, or my masculine instinct to protect the girl I loved was shot into overdrive from the feeling that someone had been watching us explore that abandoned old asylum, making me imagine things that weren’t really there.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere outside, in that infinite darkness, someone was still watching.

A City of Ghosts

Prague is a city of ghosts.

11402592_10101844140978558_421260025907632887_o Prague is a city of ghosts. Old stones whisper under your heels as you stroll through the spider-web of narrow, medieval streets, craning your neck to look at the dichotomy of garishly painted and smoke-blackened building fronts.

They say: The King threw us out of the windows for our dissent. It happened so often, they gave it a word still used to this day: defenestration.

Defenestration-prague-1618 They say: The Nazis hung swastikas from our towers and murdered anyone who didn’t possess documents proving they weren’t a Roma or a Jew. We tore down their signs in Wenceslas Square, and they shot us for our dissent. 

Czech-2013-Terezin-Theresienstadt-Arbeit_macht_frei They say: The Communists made us disappear, erased us from the earth. American celebrities like Philip Roth tried to help our academics escape, until the secret police stopped him, and told him if he returned he would disappear, too, for his dissent.

philip-roth_custom-4dda9907a6cd146b73bfc39995317d935c8c7756-s6-c30 Now cameras flash, promoters hound their party packages and strip club fliers to hesitant passersby, stag parties swill and shamble drunkenly from one pub to the other, excusing their monkey behavior with two magic little words, “Czech Beer”, with little regard for History’s less photogenic artifacts.

11539014_10101844116288038_2370410741508385354_o “Dark Tourists” may visit a church made of bones two hours away by train, leaving awestruck if not a little disappointed when they find the dead chose to be buried into that church’s walls as an act of religious devotion.

xfeat3-Sedlec-Ossuary1 Yet Prague’s ghosts are still there, in every nook, crenelation, and graduated spire; in every eat-pray-loving American girl’s new Tinder profile picture and every Russian or Chinese tourist’s stick-assisted selfie as they lag behind the tour group to get that perfectly uncrowded shot, Prague’s ghosts linger, hidden, but not forgotten. And that is their ultimate dissent.

1425460_10101844121642308_2350490820979016704_o They say: Be wary of beauty, because sometimes the most beautiful facades conceal the worst things imaginable.

11406246_10101844123289008_873263056877609752_o They say: Be wary of those who overlook ugly truths in favor of pretty lies, because they are the ones who empower evil.

11233569_10101844125679218_2836654687149515031_o They say: Be wary of the past, because if you are not, you are doomed to repeat it.

What Makes a Scary Story?

My favorite horror movies have always been the ones where evil wins.

My favorite stories have always been the ones where evil wins.

Consider my favorite movie of all time, The Shining. Danny and Wendy are forced to flee the Overlook Hotel without destroying the evil force lurking in its halls. Anyone possessing the power to Shine who visits the hotel in the future will relive their tragedy, and conceivably, attempt to murder his or her family, like Jack Torrance and Delbert Grady did.

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The Stanley Hotel, Stephen King’s inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining”

The Shining isn’t a story where everyone dies, but it is a story where the monster indisputably wins. The world isn’t made a better place by Wendy and Danny escaping. They only survive at all because the regular season groundskeeper, Dick Halloran sacrifices himself to save them, and the implication given as they drive away through the piling drifts on Dick’s snowmobile is that the tragedy will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

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Gary Oldman as Dracula.

Contrast this with my least favorite horror story of all time, Dracula. Dracula is a great story in its own right, and its villain, Count Dracula is one of the most tragic characters ever created, as was the Romanian prince of legendary cruelty who inspired him, Vlad the Impaler, who executed an estimated 50,000 Turks, traitors, petty thieves, and other enemies of the state by skewering them ass-first on sharpened wooden poles, a kill count much higher than his fictional counterpart, whose–as far as we know–remains in the low single-digits. The fictional Dracula has been given as many motivations for his evil as there are iterations of him, but the real Dracula’s were much simpler: his father and brother were murdered by traitors disloyal to Romania, so he became a monster himself in order to destroy them, and in the end, was betrayed in kind for being a butcher.

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Bad Vlad.

But despite being a great yarn, Dracula isn’t scary. Never, for one second, do we believe Jonathon Harker is going to die, or that the story will conclude in any way other than a wooden stake being driven through the vampire’s heart. The story’s own rules prevent us from believing otherwise. The Count is a villain who must be defeated, because he requires redemption; his hostility to us is not innate, it is a condition given by wounds from his past. Dracula is destined to lose the struggle of good and evil from the very moment he appears onstage to greet Jonathon Harker at the front doors of his castle.

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The real Dracula’s castle, Cetatea Poienari in Wallachia, Romania. Yes, it is beautiful, and yes, I almost died taking this picture.

And that is what makes a scary story: the feeling, built slowly and steadily, not of being alone in the dark, but of being alone in the dark with insurmountable hostility–an evil that can’t be defeated, because it does not need to be redeemed.

Evil only truly scares us when it becomes likely that we can’t win.

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Graves at the Prince’s Court, where Vlad the Impaler briefly ruled in the 14th Century. Bucharest, Romania.