It’s a common theme in horror movies – creepy, dead-eyed dolls dangling from a cord hung from a tree. If the scenario gets your chest a thumping, you may want to visit Mexico’s Isla de las Munecas, or Island of the Dolls, where the entire island looks like it came straight from a horror movie film set. And the story of how the strange and scary island came to be is even creepier than the hundreds of eerie mutilated dolls dangling from the island’s trees.
A lonely hermit experiences tragedy
Located just south of Mexico City, Isla de las Muñecas is a tiny island situated in the popular canals of Xochimilco (“place of flowers”), a system of canals and artificial floating islands (known as chinampas) built upon what used to be a lake. Roughly 50 years ago, Isla de las Muñecas had but a single inhabitant, Don Julian Santana Barrera, a vagrant and likely mentally-disturbed denizen who lived isolated on the island surviving on homegrown crops and scraps he snagged from the murky waters. Not long after settling on the isle, the body of a young girl washed upon the shore. Haunted by the gruesome find and hoping to ward off evil spirits, Don Julian hung a doll from a tree near the place where he found the poor little girl’s lifeless body.
Soon thereafter, while scavenging for scraps and supplies on the islands shores, Barrera found another doll buried under a mound of debris. Continuing his dedication to the lost soul of the little girl, he crudely lashed the doll to a tree branch next to the first. Soon hundreds of unclaimed dolls began washing up on the island’s shores, each one of which, Barrera fished out of the waters and took and hung from trees, plants, sticks, and the ceiling of his one-room shack.
The rot sets in while tragedy heaps upon itself
Before long, Barrera was surrounded by a multitude of dolls in varying conditions – some were whole (albeit covered with bubbles, blotches, and blisters) but most were reclaimed headless torsos, body-less heads, or consisted of nothing more than severed doll limbs. Many of the dolls were mutilated, missing arms or legs, or had been given the limb of another doll creating a disturbing, grotesque image of a tiny, mistreated child. Weathering contributed to the decay of the abandoned toys and today, their severed limbs, decapitated heads, and forlorn faces of what look like lost and forgotten children adorn gnarled branches of trees, dilapidated fences, hollowed tree holes, and nearly every available surface across the island.
According to Web Urbanist:
“Many stories have been associated with the island over the years. A popular tale was that Don Julian had gone mad and believed the dolls to be real children who he pulled from the canal and tried to revive. But the truth, as told by his family members who now run the island as a tourist attraction, is that Don Julian simply believed the island was haunted by the spirit of the little girl. For reasons only known to Don Julian himself, he believed that he could make the dead girl happy and keep evil at bay by hanging discarded dolls in all of the island’s trees.”
The tragic story took one more horrifying turn in 2001 when Don Julian himself drowned on the island. Whether or not the dolls conspired to murder the old man as legend tells, what is known for fact is that Don Julian’s lifeless body was found in the exact spot that the body of the poor little girl was found decades earlier. How it came to rest there is not known.
Modern-day tourist attraction
Island guide, Anastasio, said the Isla de las Muñecas is a popular tourist attraction.
“Some days we have up to 50 visitors. Other days no one will come, but the average number is 20. Mexican television has filmed here many times. The Discovery Channel visited us a few years ago, and I’ve definitely noticed a rise in the number of foreign visitors. I guess this is because the island is now listed in many guide books.”
Isla de las Muñecas is located in the Xochimilco borough – around 17 miles south of the center of Mexico City. The only way to get around Xochimilco’s canals is to hire a trajinera, a wooden, colorfully painted boat that’s propelled using a long stick, much like a Venetian gondola. Be prepared for a long trip – it takes at least two hours to get to the island and two hours to get back. Guides may charge for the privilege of taking photos.
Check out some of the creepy sights on Isla de las Muñecas in the photo montage below.