Shhh! Don't Wake the Creepy Dollies on La Isla de las Muñecas

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

Island of Dolls
Dolls are nailed to trees, fences and even huts on La Isla de las Muñecas in Xochimilco, Mexico, which is only accessible by boat. Sebastian Perez Lira/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Forget the "Island of Misfit Toys." Have you ever heard of Mexico's Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls)? For anyone with an interest in the macabre, this is a somewhat creepy, must-see destination, located about 26 miles (42 kilometers) from central Mexico City, Mexico, in Xochimilco, a region known for its flower markets and network of man-made canals.

Small islands — which are nothing more than floating gardens — dot the watery landscape, and while most are densely covered with vegetation, the Island of the Dolls is home to thousands of mutilated or grotesquely decorated baby dolls, either hanging from, or nailed to, trees or other structures.

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The dolls first appeared on the scene more than 50 years ago, the result of the tragic death of a young child. According to locals, a girl drowned in the water just off the small island under mysterious circumstances. Some locals believe that the girl's spirit possesses the dolls and causes them to move their arms, open their eyes and move their heads. Other witnesses swear that they've heard the dolls speaking to one another. Still others have said they were lured onto the island, much like the Sirens from Homer's "Odyssey" tempted sailors onto the rocks.

Island of Dolls
La Isla de las Muñecas was inhabited by Don Julián Santana Barrera for more than 25 years and has become a worldwide attraction representing folklore, terror and Mexican traditions.
NurPhoto/Getty Images

The truth is something arguably much sadder and simpler. A man named Julián Santana Barrera (the island's caretaker and the young girl's uncle) found his niece's body after she had drowned. Anguished by the loss of his niece and his inability to save her, Barrera began collecting dolls, hanging them up all over the island in an attempt to appease her spirit and assuage his grief.

But Barrera was clearly a troubled man, and he soon began to disfigure the dolls. Some dolls are decapitated, others have crushed or painted faces or no limbs. Their eyes stare blankly. Over time, the dolls became stained, cobwebbed and battered. In 2001, 50 years after his niece's death, Barrera himself drowned in the same place where his niece died, according to Barrera's nephew (now the island's administrator). He may have been drunk at the time, or simply had a heart attack. Either way, the tragic story only adds to the Isla de las Muñecas legend. The island has had tourists visit from all over the world, many bringing dolls to leave behind.

Island of Dolls
Some say they've heard the whispers of the dolls that swing from the trees on Mexico's Isla de las Muñecas.
NurPhoto/Getty Images

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