I decided to do something different this year.
Rather than knock on doors to get candy, or run around town throwing eggs and evading capture, I thought I’d spend the night in jail.
But not just any jail would do. It had to have a reputation for dark deeds, and at least a few hauntings.
What better place than the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu?
In a string of innovative tours — which recently included a cruise around the Grand Harbour with an expert on the Great Siege of 1565 — Heritage Malta was offering a private October 31st evening at the Palace, complete with ghost stories.
The night began with a tour of the new upper-floor exhibit. The curator walked us through the history of the Inquisition in Malta, and told several tales of torture and shady deeds by local witches and errant Knights.
One memorable tale involved a merchant who tried to cure himself of headache by wearing a paper hat with Muslim incantations written on the inside, which he had purchased from a local dabbler in the arcane arts. The merchant was ratted out by a nosey servant, who saw that hat and went running to the Inquisitor with his tattler’s tale. And remarkably, the hat has survived, allowing us moderns to mock the merchant for his gullibility, while roundly condemning the servant for being a rotten brown nosing snitch.
We also learned a little bit about those who had held the chair of the much-feared Inquisitor.
Malta was a reasonably useful place to be posted for priests on the move. Two former Inquisitor’s from the island later went on to become pope: Pope Alexander VII (1655-67) and Pope Innocent XII (1691-1700).
After the tour, our small group filed into one of the upper halls for a private catered dinner.
The foods were all traditional, themed around All Soul’s Day (the other Halloween holiday). And dessert was the seasonal bone-shaped sweets.
When the plates had been scraped clean and the last drops of wine squeezed from the bottle, we were led back downstairs and assigned to our prisoner’s quarters.
Many guests chose to leave at that point. But several of us had brought sleeping bags and opted to sleep over in some of the cells.
I lucked out and got a tiny cell right across the corridor from the torture chamber. When I switched off my torch, the last thing I saw was the scratchings on the wall from previous occupants. Another day…. Another day.
And what of the Palace’s resident spirits?
I did my best to smoke out the ghosts of those intolerant religious control-freaks, blaspheming on arrival, drinking wine in the prison courtyard, and committing apostasy — punishable by death in this very palace — by switching from Catholicism to Zoroastrianism to the Nestorian Heresy and back to atheism, all within a span of 10 minutes. And please don’t ask me about self-abuse — such questions are better left to the imagination.
Unfortunately, there were no hauntings and no ectoplasmic appearances. The only disturbing noises that night were the sounds of snoring coming from the next cell.
The creepiest part of the evening was actually the way the curators downplayed the Inquisition. I had noticed this in the printed displays on my first visit to the palace two years ago, so I wasn’t all that surprised to hear them repeating it.
“The Roman Inquisition wasn’t as bad as the Spanish one…” they said. And, “A doctor was always present when they used torture, and they could only do it for 30 minutes.” I see. Perhaps George Bush should have published that justification for water boarding prisoners? After all, they’re only feeling like they’re drowning for 30 minutes. Who could object to that?
And perhaps the best line of all: “It was for their own good. The Inquisitor was sincerely trying to save their souls.” No one could possibly think of questioning that one. Is it just me, or does it remind you of getting a spanking as a kid? “This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you… Rodrigo, fetch the ankle crusher…”
But religious justifications aside, the evening was fascinating, and Heritage Malta did a wonderful job of bringing the history of the island to life in a unique interactive way. I’m a regular at these events, and I’m looking forward to the next private outing.
Know what else?
That cell was actually warmer — much warmer — than my 2 year old penthouse apartment. I’m thinking of asking them if I can move in for the winter.
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2014