The sceptics could very well argue that Maltese ghost stories are absolutely nothing save fantastical and traditional tales invented by the uneducated to while away the time. However, those who do believe in the occurrence of such phenomena and especially those who have had a first-hand experience of these events might have even taken matters in hand and spent money to carry out research and find out the reason behind these undertakings.
The word ħares comes from the word Lares, which means guardian. In most of the cases in Malta, this word could be referring to the house, thus meaning “guardian of the house”. According to Joseph Attard, author of one of the most popular local books written on the subject, aptly entitled The Ghosts of Malta, these apparitions could be rooted in the island’s historical past under the Arabs, Normans, Angevines, Aragonese, Castillians and the Knights of St John.
Mr Attard explains that these apparitions all have strong connections with their ambience and the beautiful and mystical Siculo-Norman styles, as well as the complex Baroque styles of architecture, have been shaped and structured upon the “cosmopolitan”, “feudal” and “religious” establishments which engulfed Malta at the time, thus emanating a cold sense of bloodshed and hardships coupled with gallantry and pomp. Among some of the haunted locations he mentions are Manoel Island, Fort St Angelo, the Grand Masters’ Palace in Valletta, St John’s Co-Cathedral and Verdala Castle, not to mention various houses in different localities.
The apparition of the Black Knight, who seemed to spring out of nowhere, occurred during the years immediately following World War I, and was spotted by both Maltese and Englishmen working near a heap of rubble as part of the restoration of the island. Fort Manoel was a man-of-war and part of the reconstruction work being carried there at the time was to give back some sense of décor to the chapel.
Dressed in full armour and regalia of the Order of St John, the knight would be seen supervising the men’s work and his apparitions became more frequent once work there became more regular. The workmen also noticed the similarity between the Black Knight and a portrait of Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena himself by Favray which still hangs in the President’s Palace in Valletta.
When a crypt beneath the chapel was opened with the permission of the Archbishop, Captain Brockman, who was leading the work, found it had been destroyed by vandals. The altar and the reliefs bearing the crucifix and the souls in purgatory were all wrecked.
When the crypt was restored and masses were said, the knight stopped appearing. However, he came back. When investigations were once again carried out it was discovered that the crypt had been abandoned, only to be vandalised again. This was in 1980.
Grand Master De Verdalle left this palace for posterity and it was to be later connected with the story of the Blue Lady.
She was a young woman, a niece of Grand Master De Rohan for whom a suitor not to her liking had been chosen. Tired of being rejected by the lady in question, he imprisoned her in her room. One day she decided to escape through the window, only to fall out of it to her death. She was then seen roaming the building wearing a blue dress, the same dress she was said to have been wearing when she died. Between 1915 and 1919, Field Marshal Lord Methuen was governor of Malta. He was housing a guest – a certain Howard Jones – in the room, which had belonged to the Blue Lady. One day he asked the governor who the lady in blue, whom he always saw reflected in the mirror when he was dressing, was.
According to Mr Attard, the secret was out and there was no need for the governor to explain as most of the staff at the castle had also seen her.
Another weird manifestation, which may or may not be connected to the Blue Lady but which also occurred at Verdala Palace during Lord Methuen’s years of government occurred when the bishop of London was visiting the island. He failed to turn up on time for a dinner held in his honour much to the annoyance of the Governor who Mr Attard tells us was a “stickler for time”.
He turned up half an hour late. He explained that the reason for his tardiness was that he had “supernatural trouble” when his door opened by itself when he was about to leave, only to shut in his face, preventing him from going out. He was kept inside the room for half an hour and it was only when he recited the prayers of exorcism that it became possible for him to leave the room.
Fort St Angelo
It was at the time of the first governor of Siculo-Norman times, who was of Sicilian-Aragonese origins and a member of the family Di Nava, that the ghost of the Grey Lady came into being. She was one of the two women of Captain di Nava. Tired of being shared, she tried to protest only to be taken away by guards, killed and her body thrown in a cell in the fort’s dungeon.
She was seen and heard by both Maltese and English men. The children called her “the nice lady” and she was said to look very beautiful yet very sad. Others, however, found her to be very aggressive and vulgar as she banged and threw the furniture about. A Maltese lady decided to help the ghost by opting for solemn exorcism. The Grey Lady was never seen again.
The Grand Masters’ Palace
Built by la Cassiere, this palace was one of the three residences of the British Governor. According to Mr Attard, an English lady who lived in the residence had been tormented by the sound of cats and dogs fighting in one of the rooms. When she went into the room to investigate, she discovered nothing. There was, however, an occasion when one of the ghosts appeared in the form of a large cat. She followed it to the window, and saw it jump outside in the yard where some men were working.
When she asked about the cat’s whereabouts, they couldn’t make out what she was referring to. They hadn’t seen any cat.
St John’s Co-Cathedral
A sexton working at the Co-Cathedral respected all the clergymen there, but there was a particular monsignor whom he respected most of all. The monsignor was very humble and carried out his duties without complaint. The sexton would serve him in his daily first Mass of the day, which he said at 5 a.m.
The sexton would open the church at 4.30 a.m., prepare the altar and go into the sacristy at 4.45 a.m., where he would meet the monsignor and they would chat while he helped him to don his vestments.
One day the monsignor arrived but there was no usual greeting. The monsignor was not talking. The sexton tried to make conversation yet the priest would not utter a word. Mass was said and when it was over they both returned to the sacristy. However, the priest remained reticent. Then as the monsignor was leaving he turned round to the sexton and told him: “See that you come here as usual tomorrow”.
As the sexton was making his way to the belfry he met the priest who celebrated the 6 a.m. Mass. He stopped him to tell him that there could not have been a 5 a.m. Mass since the monsignor had died suddenly the previous night. The sexton went cold and numb and recounted to the priest that there had indeed been a Mass yet the behaviour of the monsignor was quite suspicious and mysterious. The following day another priest met the sexton to say the 5 a.m. Mass. Suddenly the sexton heard the monsignor’s footsteps approaching. He walked in and both the clergyman and the sexton felt a barrier separating them from the monsignor. When the clergyman finally plucked up the courage and asked him why he was still with the living, the monsignor answered that he still had three Masses left unsaid when he died, and that this being the second one he would return on the morrow for the final time.
A similar event apparently happened at the Mdina Cathedral as well and even the church dedicated to the souls in Purgatory in Merchants Street, Valletta.
It was 1914 when Frank de Domenico, back then a young boy, had gone to check whether he had passed his entrance examination to the Junior Lyceum in Valletta. As soon as he walked out he was approached by a priest. Frank was immediately stunned by the face which he described as abnormal looking. It was sullen and sallow and the skin looked like it barely covered the skull. The priest asked the boy whether he had passed and when the boy replied in the affirmative, he asked him whether he could serve Mass. The boy once again replied in the positive. He then told him to follow him. Further down from the Lyceum in Merchants Street there is the small church dedicated to the souls in Purgatory. The boy followed the priest inside who told him to wait for him while he went to what the boy assumed to be the vestry to put on his robe and prepare for Mass.
The boy immediately realised that something was out of place. He seemed to have been waiting for ages so he decided to follow the footsteps of the priest, only to find that instead of a vestry there was an empty vault with no other openings, no windows and no apertures. Where had the priest gone?
Taken over by fear, Frank fled the place and couldn’t stop running until he caught the bus back home.
It was during the time of the British rule in Malta when two drunken sailors were walking along the streets of Valetta, when upon reaching City Gate, they were accosted by a beautiful woman wearing the traditional Maltese costume, the għonnella. She asked them if they could accompany her home. Even though they didn’t feel like walking much, they assented partly because they felt fascinated by the beautiful lady. They followed her and when they reached the house in St Ursola Street, she asked them if they could help her inside as she had left the key inside.
The soldiers were bewildered by such a request but nonetheless decided to help out the mysterious lady. After some time one of the naval men managed to clamber inside where he found the key. According to Mr Attard, this should have set him thinking as at the time there were no Yale keys which could lock a house from the inside. When he managed to open the door for the lady and his friend, the lady took off her għonnella to reveal beautiful black locks. When she started to light the house, the splendour and richness of the house left them gaping. Now that they were in the company of a beautiful lady and in a magnificent setting, they felt more relaxed. However, as time drew nigh, they felt more weary and left the house. One of the sailors realised he had left a very expensive silver cigarette case inside the house and they decided they would call again on the morrow to get it. The next day they were shocked to find the same house in a very dilapidated state. They were told by one of the neighbours that the house was said to be haunted and that sometimes they could see the house lit from outside.
A similar event occurred concerning two ladies and a British gentleman. This story was published in Blackwood Magazine by a certain Lord Lorne who recounted how a friend of his met two ladies walking at an unholy hour at night and asked him to accompany them to their house. He found it most strange but curiosity overtook him. Again the house was magnificent and the garden was full of ripe orange trees. However, over the arch he noticed an inscription saying Omni Somnia meaning “Everything is a dream”. The following day, when he asked about the house, he was told that it had been uninhabited for about 100 years and it was said to be haunted by two sisters.
Another house said to be haunted in Valletta is that which belonged to La Vallette’s secretary, Oliver Starkey. Guests living in the house, which is now The Russian Cultural Centre, in 1990 said they were woken up at night by the sounds of cutlery and voices talking as if a banquet were taking place right in the living room. One of these guests was Elizavetta Zolina who was the director of the Russian Cultural Centre and who was staying in the house with her husband in 1993. A neighbour told off her husband because the parties they had been holding at their house were too noisy. It was then that Dr Zolina and her husband realised that what they were hearing at night was linked to the supernatural and the story was made public in The Times of September 10, 1996.
According to Mr Attard, other haunted houses seem to be mainly located in the Cottonera area. Some of these houses may house the traditional ħares taking the form of a Turk or a leprechaun, while some houses may even have poltergeists, where things move on their own without anyone seeming to be moving them.