The labyrinthine canals of Mexico’s ancient Xochimilco district surround a scene that is both alarming and extraordinary. Within these peaceful wetlands, 18 miles from the capital, lies a small island on Teshuilo Lake where, amid the indigenous vegetation, thousands of sinister dolls hang from the branches, all in varying states of decay.
Their lifeless limbs sway silently in the gentle wind until night falls upon the land and, the local residents claim, the dolls become empowered by the spirits of the dead and call out to unwary passersby, beckoning them to a watery grave.
In the late 1950s, Don Julian Santana Barrera came to inhabit the nameless island on Teshuilo Lake, which were then a lonely, overgrown spot and seemingly perfect for his hermit-like requirements.
But, unbeknownst to Julian, the quiet island has a dark history. Local legend maintains that in the 1920s three young girls were playing on the island, only for one of them to drown, falling into the canal’s murky waters close to a small jetty. The nearby residents claimed that the dead girl’s spirit refused to pass on and remained tethered to the island. The area soon gained a degree of infamy and few dared to venture near the supposedly haunted land, especially at night.
Now, with Julian’s arrival, the girl’s spirit once again had someone to talk to. She told him of the manner of her death and asked him to find dolls for her to play with; adding that they would also help to ward off the ancient and evil spirits that still wandered the prehistoric wetlands. Evidently, Julian listened to the girl’s appeal, and began to search the area, scouring the rubbish dumps and plucking any discarded dolls that floated on the gently lapping waters of the cloudy canals.
For many years Teshuilo Lake was forgotten by the outside world and Julian settled down, making the place his home, tilling the earth and collecting dolls. Until, in 1990 the area of Xochimilco was declared a site of national heritage. A multi-million pound program was established to clean up the canals, and soon water traffic once again passed by the island.
|The hut-shrine that Julian built for the little girl.|
On April 21st 2001, Julian and his nephew, Anastasio were fishing on the island. Julian told his nephew that strange voices had been calling out to him from the waters of the canals, beckoning him to enter the water and join them. He explained that he had often heard weird voices, but had always been able to resist their calls. The two men carried on fishing together until Anastasio left to undertake some errands. When he returned he discovered his uncle floating face down in the canal near the small pier – at the same place that the girl had lost her life in the 1920s. Had the eighty-year-old finally submitted to the otherworldly voices and given himself up to the deathly grip of the ancient waters, never to emerge?
Despite Julian’s death the dolls remain to glare at the visitor with sinister, soulless eyes. That is if they have any eyes at all as many of them are headless or limbless and burnt and all have been discolored by the elements, in many cases creating even more unnatural and disturbing visions: curious paradoxes of neglect and loving care that gaze silently, forebodingly from their arboreal perches. Everywhere, mottled and blistered faces stare back. Even the flora and fauna have embraced the island’s plastic denizens with doll’s cavities becoming home to plant life and exotic spiders, their silken webs spun inside gaping mouths and empty eye sockets.
In spite of their obvious decay, the dolls are said to become animated at night and their voices are said to carry on the breeze. Anastasio himself claims that he has observed the dolls moving of their own accord, twisting their heads and bending their limbs unnaturally. Whatever the truth is, La Isla de las Muñecas remains an striking sight and the four hour round-trip to the island is becoming ever more popular with sight-seers, and, since Julian’s demise, La Isla de las Muñecas is set to be one of Mexico's strangest tourist attractions.