In new horror film The Curse of La Llorona, a veiled apparition in a white robe haunts a single mom and her two children. It’s the latest scary flick in the ever-expanding Conjuring universe, and its supernatural antagonist has a name: La Llorona.
Past Conjuring films, like The Nun and Annabelle, are all inspired by true events and stories. The real-life doll from Annabelle can be found in a locked vault at a museum in Monroe, Connecticut, and the evil phantom from The Nun is loosely based on a spectral nun that haunts southern England.
So how much of La Llorona is actually true? Here’s what you need to know about the tale.
What is the story of La Llorona?
The character comes from the famous legend of the Wailing Woman. There are many variations of the story, but the most popular is about a woman named Maria, who drowned her children in a fit of rage. Inconsolable and consumed with grief, Maria ends up killing herself. After her funeral, a woman in the same white robe she was buried in is seen walking up and down a riverbank, crying.
La Llorona has made other recent appearances in pop culture, including as the “monster of the week” in the television show Grimm and as an antagonist in Supernatural.
The story is over 500 years old.
The story is one of the most commonly known folktales among Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and some Central Americans, Carmen Tafolla, president of the Texas Institute of Letters and the state’s 2015 Poet Laureate, tells ELLE.com.
“Stories of a weeping lady going down the streets of Mexica-Tenochtitlan (current day Mexico City) were being reported more than a decade before Spaniards arrived in the Valley of Mexico [in 1519],” she says. “They were part of the ‘omens’ reported by theological advisors to Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin that set him on edge, worried that bad news was coming. This is documented in the histories of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire.”
Tafolla believes the resentment of the Aztec empire by conquered nations caused a cultural undertow which had been brewing even before the Spaniards came. “This folkloric myth of a woman lamenting the loss of her children was and is a powerful message rooted in the values and cultures of the people. A myth,” Tafolla says, “that transmits a valuing of children above all else, of regret and a search for redemption. Her haunting nature and ever-present wails serve as warning sings of danger and the imminent loss of future generations.”
The message of La Llorona was so powerful, Tafolla adds, that it continued to be treasured, transmitted, and repeated over 500 years. Her tale was also turned into one of the oldest and most popular mariachi love songs, “Llorona,” which was originally sung in the Nahuatl language.
Some viewers have expressed concern over the film’s portrayal of La Llorona.
“The curse of La Llorona is something we grow up with [in Venezuela],” Patricia Velazquez, who stars in the movie as Patricia, told Moviefone. However, Latinx writer Yolanda Machado wrote in a review for The Wrap that The Curse of La Llorona writers Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry “don’t dare dive deeper into who La Llorona was, the deep patriarchal roots that created her and the history surrounding her.”
Unlike the film’s depiction, folklore’s La Llorona “does not enter people’s homes or cars, does not hang out in the bathtub, does not act like a mindless zombie, but is very much a human being in pain,” Tafolla says. “There’s definitely a mystery, a depth, and a humanness to the people’s La Llorona. She is not zombie-like or emptied of feeling. She is saturated with feeling. She is a personification of our grief, our pain, and the tragedies of our history.”
The movie, Tafolla echoes, is not a faithful representation of the figure. “La Llorona is not even recognizable, but feels alien and disconnected from the community. It does a 180 from our image of her as a desperate victim,” she says. “It rubs a raw wound of a stereotype of us as superstitious and violent.”