In 2011 my informant published a the book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. The book’s 260 photographs were gathered by Dr. Koudounaris over the course of five years, during which he traveled to 70 different locations around the world, studying, visiting, and photographing charnel houses.
Dr. Koudounaris’ travels took him to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini (the Catacombs of the Capuchin monastery) in Palermo, Italy. Part of his process of learning about the catacombs included talking to the various fruit and flower vendors who sold their goods across from the monastery. Because the fruit and flower vendors are directly across from the monastery, they know everything that went on there and were able to tell him a variety of ghost stories about the monastery.
“The fruit and flower vendors are an incredible source of information. It’s hard to understand if you live in our type of society. Ya know, a street vendor, in societies like this is a source of incredible information. The fruit and flower vendors are across from the monastery and they know everything that goes on in the monastery. And everyone goes—it’s not like they go to super markets, they go to these vendors—so they are an incredible source of information if you really want to know what goes on in societies like that.”
The story is as follows:
“She’s a mummy in the catacombs in Palermo. She tends to develop romantic interests in young male tourists who come to visit. Especially Germans. She’s got this thing—it’s always Germans. Like not Austrians, just Germans. There are over a dozen cases of the ghost of this mummy visiting, and often in the end in very detrimental ways, tourists who have visited the catacombs. If they linger too long in front of her she gets this fixation on them apparently. She’ll appear in their dreams and profess love for them, or appear in their hotel room in this kind of ghostly skeletal form which they of course reject, and then when the reject her she gets vindictive. Especially if they have a girlfriend and she did not know cause then apparently she feels cheated on. If there’s the fräulein involved she doesn’t like it. And so anyways the most notorious of these involved this man from Hamburg in the 1970’s who had visited Palermo with his fiancé and he had stopped to take a photo of her and the skeleton actually fell over onto him so ya know it was very—and I’ve been in these places and I’ve photographed all of these things. I don’t even know how she could fall over because well at least now she seems well held down, but anyways she fell over onto him and he was shaken and left. She appeared that night in a dream and asked him to return and he did not, cause this is the ghost of the skeleton who had just fallen on him. Then the apparition appeared in the shower with him and so he was very upset. She appeared several more times and then when she realized he was there with his fiancé, um, she kind of provoked this catfight with his fiancé. She appeared in the middle of the night—the ghost did—and grabbed the woman by the hair and threw her down the stairs and broke several of her bones and she wound up in traction and so ya know logically you’d say they should just leave Sicily but they couldn’t because the finance was in traction in the hospital. So they brought a priest to exorcise the hotel room and the hotel room burst into flames and so um, they moved them to Messina and they were safe after that, they just got them out of Palermo and moved them to Messina and she stopped bothering them. But for some time there were signs in the Palermo catacombs advising people not to stop in front of this mummy because she might haunt them but they took the signs down because it was not really helping them in terms of tourist dollars because it was really scaring people and costing them money.”
Of all of the ghost stories my informant told me, this one had occurred the most recently. One may expect for ghost stories to be received with more gravity further back in time, but not so long ago, as my informant said, there were signs in the catacombs warning visitors against the ghost of this particular mummy. The concept of ghosts is something many citizens of Palermo take very seriously, which is most likely a result of Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Catacombs of the Cappuccini) being a town landmark. The catacombs of the Cappuccini monastery are popular enough that they are considered a tourist attraction. Thus, when the sign warning visitors that this mummy might haunt them scared tourists away, it was essential to take it down.
Originally entombment in the catacombs was intended for only deceased friars but it became a status symbol over the centuries for residents to be entombed there. Thus one may theorize that current residents of the town have a stronger connection with the catacombs than they may have had it been limited strictly to the friars.
The Catacombs of the Cappuccini appear on the American paranormal documentary reality series Scariest Places on Earth.