The Truth About The Island Of The Dead Dolls

Okay, so we all know that dolls can be creepy, right? The glassy, dead eyes staring at you from an unmoving, off-kilter ceramic head. The body, a poor fabrication of life, propped atop your pillow like a floppy corpse posing for a portrait. Have you ever seen Annabelle from those freaky Conjuring movies? And that murder doll Chucky, and Jigsaw's tricycle-riding puppet from the Saw franchise? At this point, our popular consciousness dictates that dolls are nightmare fuel rather than quaint children's toys from a pre-digital era. And there's one place on earth where that fuel is the fueliest: Isla de las Munecas, Island of the (Dead) Dolls, in the canals of Xochimilco, south of Mexico City. And yes, you can totally hop on a colorful trajiñera (gondola) and visit the place. Just check out Trip Advisor, or Atlas Obscura. Heck, the island even has a homepage.

Note that the dolls are dead, firstly (no matter that they were never alive). We're talking an island full of them. Mutilated, decapitated, decrepit, stained with dirt, and strung up in trees and along string in a boggy marsh filled with abandoned, ramshackle shacks. It's basically a serial killer's warm and fuzzy place. Sure enough, there's a ghost story attached to it. The story, though, is as tragic as it is disturbing, and it starts about 50 years ago with a local man named Don Julian Santana, who reportedly discovered a girl's body floating along the nearby river.

Dolls by the hundreds to appease a young girl's spirit

One day, as the story goes, Santana found a young girl's body floating in the river, drowned under unknown circumstances. In her wake floated the body of a doll. Santana, who had left his wife and child to live in isolation within the canals of Teshuilo Lake, retrieved the doll from the water, and to honor the girl's spirit, hung up the doll on his property. Some say he kept hearing the spirit of the girl speaking to him, and to appease her, he simple continued collecting dolls, doll pieces, doll clothing, limbs, anything, and hung them all up on his land. Santana didn't clean, wash, or alter any of the dolls at all — they are there, dirty and decaying, in the same state in which they were hung originally.

At present, Isla de las Munecas is part of a full-blown local tourism industry, as this travelogue YouTube video attests. It costs 50 pesos (about $2.50) to enter and take pictures, and fake, dead doll islands have started cropping up nearby to snag unwary travelers. Those, however, are easily seen from trajiñeras, which have to travel about an hour to reach Santana's real, original location.

Santana's family have gone on record to say he made the whole story up. We may never know, though, because Santana himself drowned in 2001, near the spot where he reported finding the girl's body.