As diverse and heterogenous as Latin American culture can be, there are a few touchstones that connect nearly all of us, regardless of our nationalities: quinceañeras with drunk uncles, abuelas who take Walter Mercados horoscopes like the word of God, the belief that Celia Cruz should probably be beatified, and – last, but not least – the terrifying mythological monsters and horror legends our families used to scare the shit out of us year round and get us to act right.
With Halloween right around the corner, we figured it was a good time to revisit some of these spooky stories and figures. You probably don’t have kids yet, but these stories should be enough to scare your pesky little primos into giving you the remote at the upcoming holidays.
Country of origin: Spain
Similar to: Jasy Jatere (Guarani)
Like the Boogeyman, El Cuco – also known as El Viejo del Saco and El Sacomán, on some occasions – targets children. Unlike the Boogeyman, Latino parents use El Cuco to drive the fear of God into their children. El Cuco looks for misbehaving children or baby pataperros to kidnap via his bag.
Spanish legend has it that El Cuco is Francisco Ortega, aka El Moruno. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Ortega was so desperate to find a cure for his tuberculosis that he visited a Curandera. He was told to drink the blood of children, so he kidnapped a 7-year-old boy named Bernardo.
Jasy Jatere similarly preys on children, but Jasy takes them back to a cave and feeds them wild fruits and berries until they become feral. –Yara Simón
Country of origin: Guatemala
El Sombrerón may be Khaleesi-level good at braiding hair, since he likes to braid the manes and tails of horses (or dogs when there aren’t horses available), as well as young women with big eyes and long hair. And he may look hella cool – he wears a big hat, dresses in mostly black, and is well-accessorized with his ornamental boots and belts – but he is actually a creep and very short.
If El Sombrerón, who also goes by Tzipitio, Tzizimite, or the goblin, likes a woman, he will essentially mark his territory by tying a pack of mules outside her house. Then, he begins to serenade her, but it’s nothing like John Cusack in Say Anything. He will play his silver guitar to get her to come home with him. Once the woman has followed him, he will feed her dirt so that they can’t fall asleep.
According to legend, when a woman named Susana from La Recolección was being serenaded by El Sombrerón, her parents grew worried. They tried to keep him away, but he just kept up showing up to her place to play his guitar. It wasn’t until they cut her hair and had it blessed that he finally moved on. –Yara Simón
Country of Origin: Bolivia
Similar to: Madremonte (Colombia)
As far as legends and monsters go, the Acalica don’t seem too bad. They are said to be fair-tempered creatures that control the weather and are sometimes called weather-fairies. They live in underground caves, and they make sure to stay out of people’s way. The rare times they do appear, they look like small, wizened men.
Colombia’s Madremonte legend can also control the weather. She protects nature, and those who dare mess with it will get punished. –Yara Simón
Country of Origin: Mexico
Similar to: La Novia de Tola (Nicaragua), La Sayona (Venezuela)
Scorned women is a trope familiar all over the world, which is probably why there are so many of them in Latino horror culture. Though there are variations in La Llorona’s origins, there are a few things that remain the same: a beautiful woman named Maria drowns her two children once her husband loses interest in her.
In one version, the man leaves her for another woman. After killing her children and herself, she is unable to go to the afterlife until she finds her kids, which is when she starts going after wandering children. Her yells can be heard in the late evenings.
In another, Maria is the most beautiful woman in town. She meets a ranchero that she wants to be with, but only marries him after he spends a lot of time and money courting her. They eventually have two children, and he goes back to his ranchero ways, leaving their family for periods of time and only returning to see his children. One day, Maria finds him with a new woman and becomes so enraged that she kills her children to spite him. By the time she realizes what she’s done, it’s too late. The next day, she is found dead by the river, and after that, her ghost can be found crying, as she roams the river in search of her children.
In Nicaragua, the story centers on Hilaria Ruiz, a young woman who fell for Salvador Cruz, a playboy. Before his wedding, he stopped by his lover Juana Gazo’s house. Juana knew it would be over between the two of them, so she got him drunk enough to miss his wedding. Hilaria, inconsolable, and became La Novia de Tola, a scorned ghost who waits for her beloved forever.
La Sayona is a woman who haunts men in relationships who cheat. She is seen wearing a white dress, and is even called La Llorona sometimes because she is seen crying while holding a baby in her arms. –Yara Simón
Country of Origin: Argentina and Uruguay
Similar to: La Luz del Dinero (Peru, Mexico)
Luz Mala is a folkloric myth from the gaucho era. It’s not an actual character but, literally, a fluorescent beam that shines a few feet above the ground during the night. Supuestamente, the peasants who saw the light at the horizon of dry hills were scared of it because they thought those were “lost souls” who hadn’t received a christian baptism. They say that those who dare to look under the light can find metal objects or indigenous artifacts, but of course, looking at the light comes with lethal consequences. Supposedly a deadly gas emanates from the found objects, killing whomever discovers it.
In this way, it’s similar to myths that circulate in the Andes of Peru (and reportedly some regions of Mexico), which believe that a greenish light indicates the sites where conquistadores buried the treasure of Atahualpa.
Here’s a short “documentary” about Luz Mala to put you to sleep well tonight. – Julia Taveras
Country of Origin: Spain
Duendes are well-known all over Latin America, and each country has its own interpretation of the small, gnome or elf-like creatures. Even our primos in the Philippines have a version (“dwendes”), which makes sense considering that the myth originates with our mutual colonizer, Spain (where duendes became a fundamental component of classic literature and culture). In the 16th century, there was even a law in Spain that said that anyone who moved into a home and later realized it was infested with duendes was free to abandon it.
Beliefs about duendes vary from region to region – some believe they are the souls of infants who died before they could be baptized, others simply portray them as malevolent, naughty spirits that hide in a person’s home and wreak havoc. But most duende variants seem to have a special relationship to children, probably because parents began using them as a tactic to scare their kids into doing their bidding. Hence the stories your parents terrorized you with about how duendes were coming to kidnap and eat you if you didn’t clean your room, clip your toenails, stayed out too late, etc. – Andrea Gompf
Country of Origin: Puerto Rico
Like a Latin American Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster, El Chupacabra(s) – literally “goat sucker” for the Spanish-ly challenged – is a beast whose alleged existence has plagued farmers and the collective Latin consciousness for some time now. Not quite as old as Sasquatch, the Yeti or even the Jersey Devil, the legend of El Chupacabra dates back to just 1995.
The first report of a Chupacabra attack was in March of that year – though some say reports go all the way back to the 60s – in Puerto Rico; eight sheep were killed and completely drained of blood, with three puncture wounds in each of their chests. Authorities attributed the killings to more conventional predators, but many locals suspected a Satanic cult. By August, 150 similar livestock killings had taken place, and by the end of the year the mysterious beast had been blamed for over 1000. Descriptions of the creature varied wildly; in the town of Canóvanas the creature was described as winged, swooping down on its prey. In Caguas, it was said to have hairy arms and red eyes. By the end of 1995, the most prevalent description was gray, alien-like creature about 3 to 4 feet tall that walks upright on its muscular hind legs.
By 1996, reports of Chupacabra attacks were being reported on the mainland as well, beginning in Miami and later in the Southwest and in Mexico. Either the creature had migrated, or the stories had become so popular that reports of sightings and copycat attacks were being carried out here, too. This time, the creature was described as doglike but reptilian. Whether Chupacabra exists or not, reports of bloodless murdered livestock persist. And to date, no satisfactory predator has ever been caught. – Matt Barbot
El Culebrón or Viborón
Country of Origin: Chile
El Culebrón is basically an Anaconda on super steroids; an enormous, hairy snake with a gigantic, calf-like head. The creature belongs to the rural countryside of Chile, where it is said to come out at night from dark caves or remote forests and eat basically anything in its path. El Culebrón also has a tesoro-radar, and is said to arrive at the sites of buried treasure 40 days after it’s been buried. Anyone wishing to recover the treasure has to douse the ground with aguardiente, in the hopes that the snake will get turnt off the liquor and let its guard down.
In the same way that El Culebrón is attracted to riches, legend also has it that the snake can draw wealth to anyone who is able to “domesticate” it. But trapping a Culebrón is no easy feat: you have to find one in the wild, pluck three of its longest hairs without getting eaten, then put the hairs in a bowl of milk. From that bowl, three baby culebrones will spring to life, and the strongest will eat the other two and become a full-fledged culebrón. From that point forward owners have to maintain the snakes with sacrifices of animals or close relatives (wtf), and leave the blood in a secret location that only the snake knows of. Otherwise, no money for you and you’ll probably get eaten.
Idk, sounds like a lot of work to me. Guessing this is probably how Trump made his money. – Andrea Gompf
Country of Origin: Chile
The Peuchen comes from the indigenous lore of Southern Chile’s Mapuche people. It is a shape-shifting, vampire-esque creature, most frequently described as a flying snake (occasionally descriptions add that it is covered in either feathers or hair – making it similar to the Culebrón. Or really, just a big ass bat).
Much like vampires, peuchens can paralyze their victims by gazing into their eyes, in order to drain the bodies of blood.
The only people who can defeat the peuchen are Machi, Mapuche medicine women. – Andrea Gompf
Country of Origin: Peru, Bolivia
A pale-skinned vampire/bogeyman who roams the Andes and kills peasants in order to drain them of their body fat, the legend of the Pishtaco was basically plucked directly from the real-life horrors experienced by the indigenous communities of Peru and Bolivia during colonization in the 15th century.
The first written account of the creature comes from priest Cristóbal de Molina, a 16th century scholar of Incan culture, who chronicled a spreading native fear in Cuzco that Spaniards were going to kill them and drain them of their fat.
Since then, descriptions of the creature have varied slightly from generation to generation, but as a rule they tend to be versions of white men “invaders,” alternately depicted as priests, doctors, aid workers, tourists, anthropologists, etc. They stand in for five centuries of foreign exploitation, which tbqh is more terrifying than any myth on this list.
Fans of the show Supernatural may remember that pishtacos made an appearance as humans with a proboscis hidden in their mouths (used to suck the fat out of victims, naturally). Except on the show, the pishtacos are Latino characters, which kind of undercuts their whole white devil foreigner deal, smh. – Andrea Gompf
Country of origin: Guyana
The massacooramaan (also spelled masacurraman) is a massive, hairy monster that lurks in Guayana’s rivers and seas, preying on passengers in small boats and eating them. The massacorramaan is a kind of jumbee, a mythological spirit or demon native to Caribbean folklore. Aside from being creepy AF (and one of many water-residing beasts in Latin American folklore), it’s also the namesake of Fade to Mind producer Massacooramaan, aka Dan Quam, whose fragmented and percussive club music pretty much resembles the monster himself. –Isabelia Herrera
Country of origin: Dominican Republic
Similar to: La Cegua (Costa Rica/Nicaragua), La Patasola (Colombia), La Tunda (Colombia/Ecuador)
According to Dominican folklore, La Ciguapa is a hypnotic mythological creature that takes the form of a woman with backwards-facing feet. Ciguapas lurk in the highland mountains and deep forests of the island, waiting for the perfect moment to lure men into the woods and make them disappear. Their long, thick manes, tan skin, and feet make them pretty elusive and prone to outwitting followers. You probably remember Chichi Peralta’s “La Ciguapa” from a million of your primos’ weddings. But if you’re like me, your favorite memory of La Ciguapa was Julia Alvarez’s less misogynistic reimagining for kids, The Secret Footprints, which depicted the magical beings as more timid, curious, and less predatory creatures.
The first recorded mention of ciguapas appeared in Francisco Javier Angulo Guridi’s short story La Ciguapa in 1866, which didn’t mention the creatures’ backwards feet. While many think ciguapas are an Arawak legend, scholars have found little evidence to prove the connection, which suggests the legend’s origins are far more likely to have emerged from African religious beliefs brought over to the island during the colonial period.
The ciguapa has a similar one-legged version from Colombia called La Patasola, as well as La Cegua, who eventually shapeshifts into a skull horse head. La Tunda also bears similarities to the quisqueyano legend, although that version of the tale alleges that the creature has the ability to appear in the form a loved one or suck your blood and devour you à la Dementor’s Kiss. *shudders* – Isabelia Herrera
Country of origin: Peru, Ecuador, Argentina (reportedly)
The mighty Amazon is home to the legendary yacumama, a horned, snake-like sea monster believed to be the mother of all sea creatures. The yacumama is part of multiple indigenous groups’ mythology, primarily tribes hailing from the Western Amazon in the lowlands of Peru and Ecuador. According to various European colonizers’ accounts from the 19th century, the yacumama is rumored to be as long as 160 feet. Before entering unfamiliar bodies of water, indigenous tribes would blow a horn to warn the gigantic reptile of human presence, and probably so they wouldn’t get attacked, either.
In Argentina, the yacumama is also a goddess of the water, but it takes the form of an elderly human woman that approaches kids who enter the river to collect water in their canteens.
In sum: the yacumama is basically an anaconda with horns. Now I’m just imagining Samuel L. Jackson fighting off yacumamas on a plane. Also, can we get an indigenous rework of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” called “Yacumama?” –Isabelia Herrera