Mexico City’s Island of Dead Dolls is the stuff of nightmares. But you may want to visit anyway.

Tucked into a pocket of the Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco in Mexico City is a little spit of land known as the Island of the Dead Dolls. It’s not really an island, however. It’s a bulbous peninsula that juts out into the Lago Huetzalin, near where many of Mexico City’s canals converge. But the dolls part? That’s dead-on.

What Is the Island of the Dead Dolls?

Also known simply as the Island of the Dolls (as if that’s less menacing), it’s one of the most unsettling places you’re likely to visit. It’s a nightmarish, overgrown landscape where countless dolls, in various states of decay, are variously pinned, tied and nailed to trees, and to the few buildings the dot the area. They stare, lifeless and haunting. And, if the rumors are to be believed, haunted.

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Now, of course we know that ghosts and spirits aren’t real. Today, the island is a tourist attraction, not a spot to find true paranormal activity. But after browsing images of the Island of the Dead Dolls, ask yourself if you’d want to be there alone. After dark. The answer is likely an emphatic no, even if you don’t believe in ghosts for a second.

To save you a fact-finding mission to Mexico City’s Island of the Dolls (or, for some, to inspire a trip), let’s look at just why all of those dolls are there in the first place.

Don Julian Santana Barrera, the Island’s Ill-Fated Owner

The origin of the Mexico City’s Island of the Dolls (or Island of Dead Dolls, or Isla de las Muñecas, take your pick) goes something like this. Don Julian Santana Barrera, who owned the property, spotted a young girl in the water, and pulled her out of the canal, only to realize she was dead. He then found a doll floating near the drowned girl.

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Presuming the toy belonged to the child, Barrera affixed the doll to a nearby tree, intending it to serve as a memorial. Instead, the story goes, it served as an invitation for haunting. Soon, Barrera began to hear footsteps and whispers in the night. Fearing he was stalked by the girl’s spirit, Barrera began to place more dolls hanging around the island, hoping to calm the restless spirit, and end the haunting.

Apparently, it never ended. Barrera died of a heart attack, his body found not far from where he pulled the dead girl from the canal. This isn’t ancient folklore, either. Don Julian Santana Barrera lived on the island for decades, beginning in the 1950s. He passed away relatively recently, in 2001.

What Do the Dolls Represent?

The first doll hung by Don Julian Santana Barrera was meant as a sign of respect for the drowned girl. And, as noted, he reportedly began hanging other dolls to appease what he believed was a restless spirit. But soon, Barrera was reportedly hanging dolls in reverence for other young women who died tragically.

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The island was, in his eyes, a place of reverence for many girls who had passed away before their time. In the eyes of others, however, Barrera had lost touch with reality, and was engaging in worrisome behaviors.

To be fair, though, according to Discovery, Barrera hadn’t been of entirely sound mind even before he found the dead girl. His decision to move to the over-grown island is questionable. Many were dubious of his story over the years. Barrera claimed, at times, that at least some the dolls appeared on their own, and he had not part in hanging them. There is also some question about whether there ever was a drowned girl who inspired the hanging doll.

The Recent History of the Island of the Dolls

The assertion that dolls materialized, as if by magic, is clearly outlandish. So, too, are claims of dolls whispering and moving around in the night. However, it’s known that Don Julian Santana Barrera placed dozens (if not hundreds) of dolls around the island during his lifetime.

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In the years following his death, many others have sneaked onto the Island of the Dolls to leave their own contributions. The property’s caretakers have reported seeing movement on the island at night, but haunted dolls aren’t to blame.

In fact, the activity has spilled over into nearby locations, where doll have been on hung on trees in imitation of the original Island of the Dolls. But nothing can match the original in the sheer number of dolls — or in the haunting feeling they inspire.

How to visit the Island of the Dolls

If you plan to visit this spooky, and potentially haunted, tourist attraction, you’ll need to do so by boat. You can pay for a ride on one of the many trajineras – gondola-style boats – that ply the waters of Mexico City’s canals.

Just be aware that some of the men who operate these boats refuse to visit the Island of the Dolls. So, make your destination known before you board.

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