Within the city limits of one of the world’s biggest metropolises, Mexico City, lies one of the last remnants of the Aztecs.
Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a vast network of canals and tiny artificial islands called chinampas, where locals live and grow crops.
One such chinampa, deep in the heart of Xochimilco, houses a few small huts, outnumbered by thousands of mutilated, decaying dolls.
The aptly named Island of the Dolls, or La Isla de las Muñecas, is home to the world’s largest collection of haunted dolls.
Although, perhaps the only thing truly haunted in this story is the man who lived there, a hermit named Don Julian Santana Barrera, who was allegedly haunted by the spirit of a drowned girl.
"It’s of course impossible to prove if the dolls themselves are haunted. We’re not saying ghosts are necessarily real and that they’re possessing these plastic bodies, but as claimed haunted dolls, this certainly is the largest collection we’ve ever seen." – Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief
It wasn’t known as the Island of the Dolls before Don Julian moved there in the 1950s, although it earned its name soon after, when dolls mysteriously started to appear.
Legend has it that, years before his arrival, a young girl became entangled in the canal’s water lilies and tragically drowned there.
Don Julian claimed to have heard the girl screaming from beyond the grave, "I want my doll." Sure enough, near where her body was supposedly found, he found a doll, which he then hung up on a tree as if to make an offering to the young girl’s spirit.
Don Julian became both obsessed and haunted by her.
Afterwards, he claimed to discover new dolls strung up from trees every time he went outside. They weren’t all completely intact either; some were decapitated and others dismembered.
When Don Julian’s crops failed, he placed more dolls around the island in an effort to appease the young girl’s restless spirit.
This macabre shrine became his obsession. Don Julian spent every single day scouring rubbish dumps and fishing in the canals for old, discarded dolls. He even used to trade his vegetables for them.
Don Julian hung the dolls up in the various states of disrepair he found them in, which, along with their exposure to the elements, created the terrifying scene we see today.
Over the next 50 or so years, he continued to build up this forest of dolls. Although we’ve labelled them 'haunted', Don Julian perhaps considered them to be protective.
Don Julian passed away in 2001, close to the spot where the young girl had died. Some suggest he met the same fate as her and drowned, whilst others say he had a heart attack. Regardless, many believe his death was caused by the girl’s spirit, which is said to still haunt the island to this day.
The fear of dolls is called pediophobia and is considered to be caused by the blank, yet lifelike stares on dolls’ faces. However, it’s certainly not just pediophobes who are creeped out by the Island of the Dolls.
Equally, it is a source of fascination for others and is now a popular tourist attraction.
Locals claim that the dolls come to life at night, animated by the spirits of the dead. They say the dolls whisper, whistle, move their limbs and turn their heads of their own accord, hoping to lure the unwary to a watery death in the island’s canals.
Others say it’s just the wind.
Either way, they say it is wise to offer the dolls a gift as soon as you set foot on the island. Who knows - if you don't, you could meet the same fate as Don Julian Santana Barrera...