These islands are shady—but not in a good way. From creepy billionaire sex compounds to one-man prisons and secret disease research facilities, we scoured the globe for isles of fright
What exactly makes an island sketchy? Remoteness? Not necessarily. The owner? Maybe. Piles and piles of corpses? Yes. To the casual observer, some islands look like little slices of heaven, white sand playgrounds for rich, tan people—but when you dig a little deeper, you discover they’re actually full of Nazis or super-intense magicians. One man’s tropical paradise is another’s Dr. Moreau nightmare. Sometimes they’re ghost islands, full of sinister abandoned buildings people just got up and left one day because they had to get off the island for some reason. Other islands are less obviously sketchy, but they give us a gut feeling—we just don’t like them. Too sensual. Too absurd. Too Bransony. Below, we laid out our findings. God save you if you ever get marooned on one of the following clumps of earth:
WHY IT’S SHADY: Largest mass grave in the United States.
HISTORY: Hart Island has served a lot of purposes over the years—everything from a women’s insane asylum to a Cold War missile base—but its true claim to shadiness rests in the nearly 1 million bodies interred there in unmarked graves. A potter’s field for New York City’s unclaimed dead, it has been closed to the public for the last 35 years, so, ahem, most people are dying to get in there. The city pays prisoners from Rikers Island (another shady one, not on this list) to dig graves big enough for 150 adults and 1,000 infants. According to The New York Times, whose reporter was the first allowed near the burial site in years, ”The trenches are 10 feet deep and as long as a football field. They fill up steadily with the dead—the homeless, poor, stillborn and other unclaimed bodies.”
FUN FACT: Turns out New York has a lot of spooky islands. If you think Hart is a pants-pooper, get into nearby Northern Border Island. Off-limits to the public, its abandoned small-pox hospital buildings sit in ruins, with only the ghost of Typhoid Mary, who was quarantined there for 20 years, to keep them company (along with 1,000 victims of the 1904 General Slocum shipwreck).
WHY IT’S SHADY: May, in fact, be magic.
HISTORY: According to Forbes, David Copperfield, the world’s finest magician, found the island by connecting intersecting lines between Easter Island, Stonehenge, the Pyramid of the Sun in the Yucatan and the Pyramid of Giza—places he believed possessed magical powers. Copperfield has stopped at nothing to make Musha Cay a place of wonder, including making sure that fireworks are on call 24/7 and adding what he calls “enhanced reality.”
The report: ”There are plans afoot to import a flock of green wing parrots that will return to their cage at dusk at the sound of a bell, and a troupe of monkeys (specific duties not public as yet) who will inhabit ‘the secret village.’ Already in place on the site is a corpulent statue of a monkey that rises from the ground on a pneumatic column to reveal the secret village entrance, a spiral staircase down to an underground passage…. The biggest obstacle the staff encounters, according to the island director, is nudity.”
But not every visit to Musha Cay is magical. In 2009 Copperfield was accused of luring a 22-year-old fashion model and former Miss Washington to the island, then imprisoning and raping her. After a two-year investigation the charges were eventually dropped, which may be Copperfield’s greatest escape to date.
FUN FACT: It costs a minimum of $148,000 to visit Musha Cay (for up to 12 people for four nights).
WHY IT’S SHADY: Island inhabited by natives solely owned by two white guys.
HISTORY: In 1864 Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair purchased the island from King Kamehameha V. Her reason: At the time it was a common belief that that destiny of white people was to follow the sun westward and spread their goodness. The family, who has owned it ever since, has been very hesitant to allow visitors, though they have kept a close relationship with the U.S. Navy, which operates a missile facility atop its 1,300-foot cliffs, and U.S. Special Forces, which may or may not train there.
Today it’s known as the Forbidden Island, under the protection of Bruce and Keith Robinson, the sixth generation of Niihau’s caretakers. Keith, known for his signature green hard hat, takes this responsibility very seriously, going so far as to ban the use of televisions, radios and mobile phones. He even turned down a $1 billion offer from the U.S. government to buy the island and once (politely) told Mick Jagger to fuck off when Jagger asked to visit. Perhaps he’s just looking out for his kids: He married a native woman with whom he has seven children.
FUN FACT: Proposed by FDR as a possible location for the U.N. headquarters.
WHY IT’S SHADY: Puts regular ghost towns to shame. Completely gutted and abandoned except for sole inhabitant, weird Japanese rock band.
HISTORY: What started out as a typical Japanese coal-mining town, built of fortified concrete to withstand the awesome power of a typhoon, got ghostified after Mitsubishi, the mine’s owner, decided it was time to get into the oil game (that’s Hashima at the top of the page). All the workers moved out in 1974, and the island has remained spookily abandoned ever since. The interiors of the buildings have disintegrated, but oddly enough, most of the structures remain intact. There are some great photos, and you can take a tour of the island here.
FUN FACT: Though the inspiration for Javier Bardem’s secret villain lair in Skyfall, the scenes were actually shot on a soundstage.
WHY IT’S SHADY: Sounds like the name a James Bond villain would give his doomsday laser and/or secret lair (see above).
HISTORY: Skorpios used to belong to Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who bagged former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy just five years after JFK’s assassination. When Onassis bought the island that sits in the Ionian Sea it was mostly barren, so he imported more than 200 varieties of trees to populate a forest and a shitload of sand from a neighboring island so he could have a nice beach. Aristotle and his two children are buried in a tomb near a small church on the island—a 30-acre area that can never be sold, according to the will. So more dead people.
In April 2013, Skorpios was sold to Ekaterina Rybolovleva for about $154 million. She’s the daughter of Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire who, among other things, was imprisoned for murdering an uncooperative business partner in the mid-’90s. Besides being a world-class equestrian, Ekaterina has a history of lavish property purchases. In 2011, a trust acting in her name laid out a cool $88 million, the record at the time, for an apartment in N.Y.C. so she didn’t have to slum it in the dorms while taking classes at an undisclosed U.S. university, which turned out was just online classes at Harvard (our guess was Hofstra).
FUN FACT: Jackie O loved the place, and there are nude pics to prove it.
WHY IT’S SHADY: Unsettlingly cushy country-club prison for Norwegian criminals that makes us want to fly to Norway and commit a crime.
HISTORY: Bastøy started out as a home for wayward boys but that came mostly to an end when the boys revolted with farming tools and burned down the barn with cigars. The owners couldn’t stop them, so they brought in the military. After that fiasco, the Norwegian government decided to take over the school and eventually shut it down. In 1982 the island was reopened as a big-boy prison, where inmates are free to enjoy the sauna, play tennis or go horseback riding. At 3 p.m. all but five of the guards go home for the day.
FUN FACT: Among the most violent inmates was Arnfinn Nesset, who was convicted of murdering 22 people. They let him out after serving 14 years of his 21-year sentence for good behavior. Norway!
WHY IT’S SHADY: Maximum-security prison for one, where you will be tortured.
HISTORY: “It sounds like a prison out of the movies—and it is,” wrote our Turkey bureau chief, Elcin Poyrazlar. ”Beyond Istanbul, in the dark waters of the Sea of Marmara, lies an island prison called Imrali. Billy Hayes spent four years behind bars in this Turkish Alcatraz, before his legendary escape, immortalized in the film Midnight Express.” Unlike Bastøy, doing hard time at Imrali would suck terribly. There’s no two ways about it.
The most infamous of Imrali’s guests is Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an organization that has been actively fighting the Turkish government to establish a sovereign state for Kurds. For 10 years, Öcalan was held in solitary confinement and was, from 1999 to 2009, the prison’s sole inhabitant, with hundreds of guards standing watch.
FUN FACT: Pineapple Express may secretly be a sequel to Midnight Express.
WHY IT’S SHADY: “Most mighty” abandoned Nazi resort.
HISTORY: Being a Nazi was pretty intense, so Hitler and his pal Robert Ley from the German Labor Front (sort of like the HR department for the Nazi party) decided to create a rewards program called Strength through Joy. One of this program’s more ambitious projects was to erect a holiday resort for the everyday Nazi who needed a little R&R. Ley got to work making a beach camp in the Baltic that was classy and understated, but also, as Hitler insisted, the “most mighty and large one to ever have existed.” Construction began in 1936 with about 9,000 workers but was unfortunately halted in 1939, when WWII got a little too hot to handle.
FUN FACT: Though the first documentation of the breed is credited to the United Kingdom, this area is believed to be the origin place of the Pomeranian.
WHY IT’S SHADY: Not-so-secret government chemical weapons facility that produces genetic aberrations and/or monsters.
HISTORY: The Plum Island Animals Disease Center was originally opened in 1954 with the mission of studying the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle. Since then it has been the subject of a lot of mystery and speculation, including allegations that the facility had employed a former Nazi virologist to develop chemical weapons for the U.S. government. It was also the island with a tern’s nest in Silence of the Lambs that Agent Starling offers as bait to get Hannibal Lecter to cooperate. (“You may swim in the ocean, for up to one hour, under SWAT team surveillance, of course.”)
But it’s the crazy shit that washes up on shore nearby that really earns Plum Island its sketch-a-fides. First, in 2008, the horrifying “Montauk Monster” appeared, then in 2010 a (dead) man with “very long fingers” and “visible brain surgery scars” washed up on the beach. You do the math.
FUN FACT: Donald Trump wants to buy it.
WHY IT’S SHADY: Branson! You sick bastard.
HISTORY: Harry Stiles and Taylor Swift broke up after visiting Necker, so enough said. According to our analysts, those are two famous people whose romantic entanglements matter. Richard Branson bought the island when he was 28, which is pretty ridiculous to begin with, and sketchy stuff has been going down there ever since.
Necker is known throughout the world as a place where celebrities can go for a quick chill-sesh without having to worry about the paparazzi. Although, if you can afford to go, you will likely stumble upon Branson standing in the shadows, possibly hiding in a bush, just staring at you with that creepy half-smile, wearing a naked European teenager as a scarf. If you can deal with that, then it’s probably worth it. According to ABC, “Models frolic with pink flamingos and giant tortoises in the nude.” Robert De Niro, of Shark Tale fame, enjoyed his stay so much that he had a giant wooden statue of Buddha shipped there as a token of his appreciation. Unfortunately, the Great House, along with De Niro’s gift, was destroyed by fire after lightening smoted the island in 2010. Luckily, Kate Winslet was there to make sure everyone got out OK.
FUN FACT: The island was featured on the season finale of Branson’s television series The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best. In the episode it becomes quite clear that Branson is not impressed with the para-surfing abilities of either finalist.
WHY IT’S SHADY: Birthplace of Julian Assange and Rupert Murdoch, genocide, that whole Ned Kelly thing, The Wiggles, poisonous snakes.
HISTORY: Look, we’re not going to pretend that we can give you a full report of all of the shady goings on in Australian history. We could fill a New York Times Sunday Edition and not even scratch the surface, so lets not even try to go down that road.
Shady shit has been going down in the Land Down Under since day one. In 1770, about 70,000 years after the original settlement by Aboriginals, James Cook “discovered Australia,” which resulted in 700,000 dead Aboriginals. Here’s a simplified history:
Captain Cook: “Yo, King George, remember how we spent all that time fighting the French over Canada? I just found you some shit that’s going to knock your goddamned socks off—and the people we’ll have to murder and/or infect with disease don’t have guns or anything.”
King George: “Word. Go for it buddy.”
Only 16 short years later, Australia became the world’s largest penal colony.
Fun Fact: The Ute is considered a desirable car by many in Australia.