Bonnie Trash on Turning Their Family's Ghost Stories into Music: "Am I Scared? Absolutely"

The Guelph duo share their Nonna's tales of supernatural terror and preserve her Trevisàn dialect

Photo: Alex Carre

BY Stephan BoissonneaultPublished Oct 27, 2022

Whenever Bonnie Trash — the darkened shoegaze/post-punk drone project from Guelph, ON, led by twin sisters Emmalia and Sarafina Bortolon-Vettor — perform in front of a live audience, they play a crackling recording of their late 93-year-old Nonna Maria speaking in her Trevisàn dialect, recounting the supernatural terrors that plagued her family life. And, from time to time, an audience member will come up to the sisters after the show and reveal that they've heard similar stories from their own Italian grandparents.

"It's kind of like a way of shooting the Bat-Signal in the sky and saying, 'Hey, does anyone else know these ghost stories or the history behind them?'" says guitarist Emmalia. 

The Bortolon-Vettor sisters grew up listening to Maria's menacing ghost stories, and as they spent more time with her, they became more and more fascinated with the folklore and superstitions surrounding their Nonna's hometown of San Zenone degli Ezzelini, Italy, and the supernatural horrors she lived with. The sisters eventually used these ghost stories to create the concept full-length album, Malocchio (out October 28 through Hand Drawn Dracula).

Malocchio, which means "evil eye," follows Maria and her dealings with the supernatural during her childhood in Italy and as an adult in '60s Ontario. San Zenone is a picturesque village situated between Venice and the Alps, once ruled by the wicked Ezzelino III da Romano, a 13th century cannibalistic tyrant said to have terrorized the village's peasants by eating them along with his enemies.

"It kind of looks like The Sound of Music with the rolling hills as the backdrop, but there's this red church and tower that overlooks the village, and that's where Ezzelino hung out," Emmalia says. 

San Zenone degli Ezzelini, 1982 (photo courtesy of Bonnie Trash)

Bonnie Trash first touched on the tyrant's bloody folklore on their Ezzelini's Dead EP, but Malocchio brings things closer to home, more focused on Maria and her family curse. 

The album's narrative goes like this: after emigrating to Canada in the late 1950s to start a family, Maria is forced to move back to Italy after the death of her father-in-law. Maria believes her family is cursed, haunted by the early deaths of family members who (purportedly) received the evil eye long ago. Maria experiences life-threatening omens and supernatural occurrences, signifying a need to return to Canada before the curse takes her family.

As the sisters began working on Malocchio, they soon realized that Maria's unique Trevisàn dialect was dying out and was only spoken in a few communities in the world. Suddenly, writing Malocchio was not only about honouring their Nonna's bewitching legacy, but also preserving and archiving an ancient language. 

"When we went back to visit San Zenone a few years ago, we saw that not a lot of people speak in that dialect anymore, and it was strange because that's the Italian we grew up with," vocalist-drummer Sarafina says. "I think Trevisàn is really only reserved to the grandparents' generation now, so once they leave this world, the language will kind of die." 

Trevisàn is also spoken in Guelph's Italian communities — once again, mostly by the grandparents. Every now and then, Sarafina and Emmalia will also see Maria's friends and chat with them in Trevisan. 

"There's even an old lady across the street who speaks it. It's kind of like a strange comfort and a connective lifeline between our generations," Emmalia says. "Our Nonna's friends have their own versions of the ghost stories, too, and their own definitions of the supernatural. And it's interesting to see that Trevisàn followed everyone who left Italy. These stories are definitely meant to be passed on."

Malocchio's opening track "Maria" starts with a voice recording of Nonna talking about the consuming power of the malocchio and how it attached itself to her family. A thick curtain of noise and atmospheric drone plays underneath. The recording is hard to fully understand, but you get the sense that something malevolent has greatly affected Maria.

"She talks about her sister [Gina] receiving the evil eye," Sarafina says. A kind of a sinister witch, Strega, knocks on the family door one night in Italy and her sister answers, which kind of invites this evil entity inside, and she becomes possessed."

One song on Malocchio, "Silence Is a Killer," is about that possession, and its accompanying music video follows a visual representation of how to get rid of an evil eye. 

"They had to take all of the feathers out of her sister's pillow, burn them, boil them, and throw them into the river," Sarafina says. 

Sarafina and Emmalia also remember hearing about small exorcisms that would be carried out by the Madonna di Caravaggio, a travelling church in Italy, to ward off these possessions.

"It was very superstitious, but then when we interviewed her, our Nonna, she spoke about this in a very serious but kind of terrified tone," Emmalia adds. 

There's also a story from Maria's childhood that stayed with the sisters: when Maria was a little girl, she shared a room with her grandmother and woke up in the middle of the night to something grabbing her feet, attempting to pull her down, away into the darkness.

"It really freaked her out but she had to just fall back asleep," Sarafina says.

Another story that still gives the sisters chills to this day is when their Nonno, Germano, was attacked at the family farm by an unknown entity.

"He was closing up the farm for the night and he gets clocked over the head by something and he's knocked out cold. There were no materials around and nobody was at the farm with him, so it had to be some sort of spirit that came back," Emmalia says. "They moved back to Canada after that."

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the malocchio is its ambiguity. Was the curse a random act of malice? Can it be passed on through family generations? Is it still around to this day, following other family members like Sarafina and Emmalia?

"Somebody putting energy into hate, that just doesn't go away; that's intention with energy. It just feels different, and you can't destroy energy. You learn to live with it," Emmalia says.

Sarafina adds, "We always wanted to know what happens if it [the malocchio] follows and can be passed on through family members. I very much believe in the stories my Nonna told, and if we keep these stories close, then we have power over them. Am I scared? Absolutely. But we can harness that energy, respectfully, and make it positive in some way."

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