Boogeymen, weeping ghosts and the Chupacabra: Learn the Latin origins behind your favorite scary stories

·8-min read

Monsters and ghosts may be Halloween icons, but true spirit chasers know most of them are mere child’s play compared to those told in Latino folklore. That’s because tales of the supernatural have intrigued and enriched Hispanic culture throughout history — especially on holidays like Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), coming on the heels of Halloween on Nov. 1, and through the haunting legends that find their way into pop culture all year round.

Thanks to depictions in films and shows ranging from Supernatural and Disney’s Coco to episodes of South Park and The X-Files, folks might be familiar with the tales of La Llorona, a ghost mother who drowned her children out of heartbreak; El Cuco, an omnipresent punisher meant to keep kids in line; and the blood-sucking beast Chupacabra.

But where do these legends come from, and why do they resonate so deeply within Latino cultures? As it turns out, their true origins are just as mysterious and intriguing as the stories themselves.

Hit the audio symbol in the video at the top of this story to hear the spooky tales of La Llorona, El Cuco and the Chupacabra. Use the QR code above to invite the ghosts into your personal space using Yahoo's augmented-reality experience.

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La Llorona

The legend of La Llorona (aka the “Weeping Woman”) is one of the most well-known ghost stories in Mexico and throughout Latin America, where generations of parents have told the tale to their kids to keep them away from dangerous waters.

It goes like this: A beautiful Mexican woman falls in love and has three children with a Spanish conquistador who winds up leaving her for another woman in Spain, sending her into a fit of blind rage that leads her to drown her children. Consumed by guilt, the mother then drowns herself, but is unable to enter the afterlife — instead being forced to roam the earth, screaming, “Ay, Mis hijos! Mis hijos!” (“My children! My children!”), and killing innocent children playing near water because she cannot bear the reminder.

Popular culture has certainly taken the reins on how La Llorona is depicted — with long black hair, feminine features and a veil — starting with the 1935 Mexican film La Llorona and enduring all the way to 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona, the sixth installment of the Conjuring Universe. A resurgence in popularity can be credited to a spate of TV appearances, as the first villain on the CW’s long-running drama Supernatural, in an episode NBC’s Grimm, and an Eva Longoria-produced supernatural anthology drama featuring La Llorona in 2014. While her presence in the zeitgeist is secure — also thanks to Andres Henestrosa’s 1941 song “La Llorona” and a special nod in Disney’s Coco — her story has evolved greatly over many generations, according to folklore experts.

“Some people have even said she was a well-to-do lady, a colonial woman,” Jose Guillermo de los Reyes, associate professor of Latin American Culture and Literature at the University of Houston, tells Yahoo Life about the various iterations. Some scholars, he explains, have even connected her to La Malinche, a native woman who contributed to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and is often referred to as the “mother of Mexico.”

That tracks with Domino Perez, associate director for the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, who says that while it’s presumed La Llorona came from the “old world” of Europe — with correlations to characters like the Irish Banshee, and German “White Woman” — she’s discovered that La Llorona may actually have indigenous origins.

“There are unequivocal parallels, but when you look in the pantheon of the Aztecs, there are female goddesses who have some of these exact same characteristics who carry off children and who weep and wail at night,” says Perez, author of There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture.

“I think it's indigenous in origin, and European elements get grafted on to the story to emphasize ideas about punishment and retribution,” she explains. “It becomes a powerful tool for conversion for Catholicism and other forms of religion. If you look in the history going all the way back to the time right before the conquest, one of the omens or portents that was said to herald the arrival of the invaders was a woman wailing in the streets screaming ‘Ay mis hijos, mis hijos!’ or ‘Oh, my children! My children!’

The elements of punishment and retribution, de los Reyes adds, may be a key reason for the story’s longevity in Latino culture — particularly useful to make sure kids behave. The archetype of a “bad mother” tied to patriarchal expectations of women in Mexican culture and the “fascination behind pre-Hispanic and colonial history” adds to the fascination.

“On some level, she has continued to matter and to resonate,” Perez adds. “What's so interesting is that she's crying for her lost children. And yet, it's her children who are really carrying her story forward.”

El Cuco

This boogeyman-like figure targets kids who misbehave or fail to listen to their parents. The scariest part? He’s omnipresent, appearing pretty much anywhere, as long as it’s after midnight.

Seems only natural that horror writers like Stephen King have wound up under the spell of El Cuco — a variation of which turned up in his 2018 novel and subsequent HBO series, The Outsider, as its main villain. Miguel de Cervantes even referenced the creature — all the way back in the 1600s — in the last chapter of Don Quixote.

De los Reyes believes the trope of children-attacking monsters — such as King’s It and other versions of the boogeyman — borrows elements from El Cuco (also known as El Coco, Coca, Cucuy, or Cucuí, depending on the region), though the creature’s reputation of kidnap, murder and bloodspatter have been cleaned up in recent variations, such as in Nickelodeon’s animated comedy series The Casagrande. But make no mistake, if you know anything about El Cuco, he’s not kid-friendly.

“He finds children who are misbehaving, and he carries a stick that he uses as a walking stick but he also uses it to abduct children and throw them in a sack that he's got over his shoulder. And they’re never to be seen from again,” Perez explains of one common iteration (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher, anyone?).

De los Reyes adds that even though most people believe El Cuco to “only [be present] in Latino culture,” it’s telling that traces of him go back to the 1500s in the Netherlands, where, he believes, the story truly began with the bloody Spanish general the Duke of Alba. “The Spanish empire was very powerful,” he explains of their efforts to colonize, adding that the Duke of Alba became “equivalent to El Cuco for children in the Netherlands. Parents tell their children, ‘If you misbehave, the Duke of Alba will come and get you.’”

While on the surface it sounds — and is — terrifying, it’s important to note that there’s a “protective gesture,” adds Perez, as it’s “a way to extend parenting to try to keep your children safe: ‘Don't go out at night. Bad things can happen to you.’”

Chupacabra

One of the most popular creatures in contemporary folklore, mainly due to stories of “sightings”, the origin of Chupacabra is shrouded in mystery.

The urban legend became popularized in 1975, when a series of livestock killings in the small town of Moca, Puerto Rico, were attributed to what locals called the “Vampire of Moca,” given that the livestock were sucked dry of their blood through a series of small circular incisions — just like those from vampire teeth in literature. Stories of Chupacabra sightings flared again when, in 1995, eight sheep were discovered dead in Puerto Rico by a woman named Madelyne Tolentino, who reported that as many as 150 farm animals and pets were killed and sucked dry of their blood.

These so-called “sightings” became comedy gold in pop culture over the years. In 2012, South Park featured an episode called “Jewpacabra,” poking fun at the hysteria behind its word-of-mouth reputation. The creature was also the center of an episode of The X-Files, “El Mundo Gira,” and has made appearances in toys and games such as the dice game Chupacabra: Survive the Night. On April Fool’s Day 2021, Blumhouse released a fake El Chupacabras movie trailer, securing the creature’s reputation in a unique intersection — as something both funny and scary. (With dozens of fans begging in the comments for a real movie about the monster.)

Despite its rising popularity in the latter half of the 20th century, researchers suggest stories of the dog-shaped blood-sucking beast might go back hundreds of years.

“The chupacabra, in some ways, has its origins indigenously,” Perez notes, explaining that in the Aztec Pantheon there were “dogs that used to protect the entrance to the underworld,” with similar descriptions. “You can find some correlations there in terms of antecedents,” she says, adding that “it’s not a stretch” to compare the Chupacabra to European creatures like vampires and even werewolves because at the end of the day, it’s not about the creatures themselves, but how they make us feel.

“We tell folklore and we tell stories to make meaning of the world around us, and to impart knowledge, and to influence and to shape our world,” she says. “Think about what the Chupacabra does: It drains the lifeblood out of an individual, right? And morally unacceptable behaviors drain the lifeblood out of a community. So, it's a powerful storytelling tool.”

Augmented Reality Credits: Character Design by Liliana Penagos; 3D Model Design by Radek Michalik; Art Direction by Ted McGrath; AR Experience produced by Tim Chaffee, Quinn Lemmers and Kat Vasquez.

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