You arrive by canal from Mexico City, and you can’t help but stare at the island in disbelief. For here, on the outskirts of the city, something distinctly sinister is lurking among the trees. You wonder, just how did this macabre attraction come to be?
The place is Teshuilo Lake, and it is part of the Xochimilco canal system that winds through the far south of Mexico’s capital city. Its name means “place where flowers grow.” For generations, it’s been providing locals and tourists alike with a place to escape the madness of the city.
But amid the pleasure cruises and the floating gardens is something far more frightening. Indeed, a strange memorial has sprung up on an island around two hours from the city center. And with it, an even stranger legend has been born.
They call it La Isla de la Munecas, or Island of the Dolls. The story goes that sometime in the middle of the 20th century a man named Don Julian Santana Barrera decided to make the island his home.
Stories differ as to what inspired Barrera to give up on civilization and embrace life as a hermit on the remote island. Some say, for example, that he left his wife and child to retreat to the canals, while others have it that he fled there after his lover left him.
Whatever the reason, Barrera built a hut on the island and began growing flowers and vegetables to sell to locals in the nearby town. Then, one day, his peaceful existence was, according to local lore, forever changed.
Indeed, legend has it that Barrera discovered the body of a young girl floating in the canal. He subsequently blamed himself for not arriving in time to save the girl from drowning, and the man was apparently consumed by guilt.
Then, if the island’s official website is to be believed, Barrera found a doll floating in the water. So, in a gesture intended to show respect to the dead, he hung the doll on a nearby tree.
However, it is said that the young girl’s spirit was not so easily put to rest. Indeed, the story goes that Barrera was haunted by her ghost and tormented by whispers, the sound of footsteps and screams in the middle of the night.
So, in an apparent attempt to appease the girl’s restless spirit, Barrera began hanging more and more dolls around the island. Firstly, he fished them from the canal. Then he began retrieving them from trash heaps near his home and exchanging his home-grown vegetables for more dolls.
Naturally, most of the dolls Barrera acquired were in a rather sorry state. Many of them were, in fact, missing body parts and covered in dirt, looking more like something out of a horror movie than a child’s toy. But instead of repairing the dolls, he hung them up in the trees as he found them, where they became weatherworn and developed an even more frightening appearance.
“For decades, many dolls were exposed to the elements,” photographer Cindy Vasko told the Daily Mail. She continued, “Many dolls are sheathed in thick spider webs, some are missing limbs, and some do not even possess bodies, with only doll-heads hanging from rusty wires in the tree.”
Today, hundreds of slowly decaying dolls inhabit the island, dangling from trees and propped up among the grass. And the truth behind the legend is as murky as the canal waters.
For instance, many believe that Barrera simply invented the story of the drowned girl as a way to cope with a life of loneliness on the island; they say that she never existed. His family, however, believe that some unknown force possessed him and drove him to dedicate his life to the dolls.
Regardless, the story took a truly chilling turn in 2001 when Barrera was seemingly discovered drowned in the same place that he claimed to have recovered the body of the young girl. Afterward, his family stepped in to take over his elaborate, spooky shrine, and they have been running the island as a tourist attraction ever since.
Now, the area attracts plenty of visitors keen to experience the bizarre sight of an island covered in dismembered, decaying dolls. Indeed, photographers, tourists and even ghost-hunting crews drawn by tales of sinister goings-on make the long trek down the canal to land on its spooky shores.
What’s more, while the twisted and deformed shapes of the dolls certainly create a creepy atmosphere, some people claim that something even more sinister is at work. Indeed, some visitors say that they have spotted the dolls opening their eyes and moving their limbs. Meanwhile, others have reported hearing sinister whisperings coming from the trees.
Moreover, in October 2015, the Travel Channel aired an episode of paranormal television show Ghost Adventures filmed on the island. Presenter Zak Bagans, who confessed to having a fear of dolls, claimed to have received mysterious injuries to his arm during their investigation.
Additionally, the team reported having heard noises attributed to the dolls laughing, as well as seeing unexplained apparitions stalking the island. And although the program is renowned for its hoaxes and somewhat misleading editorial practices, many visitors have testified to the island’s unsettling atmosphere.
For some of the locals, however, the island is considered “charmed” rather than haunted, and many of them willingly take tourists on boat rides to see the dolls for themselves. Whatever you believe about the true nature of Barrera’s legacy, though, there’s a good chance that these terrifying images will haunt your dreams. You’re welcome.