Generations of Mexican children have grown up afraid of La Llorona—a wailing woman whose misdeeds in life have left her spirit trapped on Earth, where she torments little children. She’s the stuff of legend—a myth and spooky bedtime story whose origins date back hundreds of years. And Friday, she will make her way to the screen once more in Warner Bros.’ The Curse of La Llorona. Although this terrifying figure has not always won over critics, the legend that first cemented her in the popular imagination remains as transfixing as ever. For horror fans and ghost-story lovers alike, La Llorona’s is a tale worth knowing.
The story varies a little depending on who tells it, but the gist is simple. Basically: long ago, a woman named Maria married a rich man, with whom she eventually had two children. Then their marriage hit a rough patch: her husband spent less and less time at home, and whenever he was home, he paid attention only to the children. Eventually, she sees him with another woman. Enraged beyond reason, some versions claim Maria drowned her two children—but she immediately regretted it, crying out, “Ay, mis hijos!” (Translation: “Oh, my children!” or “Oh, my sons!”) Maria is sometimes said to have drowned herself afterward. But when she arrived at heaven’s gates, she was denied entry, banished back to purgatory on Earth until she could find her lost children. She’s now known as La Llorona, which translates to “the weeping woman.”
Now, the legend says, she floats over and near bodies of water in her white, funereal gown, forever weeping as she searches for her lost children. Some versions of the story say she kidnaps or attacks children; others say she attacks cheating husbands. Regardless, when you hear her cries, the directive remains the same: run away.
La Llorona has directly inspired and/or influenced several movies over the years—including the 1933 Mexican film La Llorona, the 1963 Mexican film La Maldición de la Llorona (The Curse of La Llorona), 2006’s KM 31: Kilómetro 31, and 2013’s Mama, from Andy Muschietti and Guillermo del Toro. (Muschietti, who directed 2017’s It remake as well as Mama, is Argentinean; del Toro, who executive-produced, is Mexican.) The latest film to tackle the legend, The Curse of La Llorona,stars Linda Cardellini as a non-Hispanic white woman whose late husband was Latino. Much of the film’s supporting cast, however, is Hispanic—and according to The Hollywood Reporter, “many of the film’s casting, directorial, and creative choices suggest a commitment to grounding this film within a Latin American world.”
So far, The Curse of La Llorona has received mixed reviews; The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis described the film as “more efficient than ambitious,” although she added that director Michael Chaves “delivers the horror classics nicely. Every floorboard and door in Anna’s sprawling house seems to get a solo, with squeaks that become shrieks. By the time La Llorona is a regular visitor, Anna’s house has become a haunted world unto itself, each room—bathroom, attic, basement—a stage, complete with a flamboyant entrance and exit.”
And make no mistake: for a good number of the film’s cast and crew, making the film was an experience that recalled chilling childhood memories. Patricia Velásquez, who plays Patricia Alvarez in the film, told Bustle at a junket that when she was growing up in Mexico, La Llorona felt quite real. “[I]t’s really how our parents make us do what they want to,” she said. A sample threat: “[Make sure] to come in at 5—otherwise, La Llorona is gonna come and get you.” It didn’t help that, as Chaves told the Los Angeles Times, there were some “creepy supernatural occurrences” on set.
“Half the crew actually does believe the house that we shot in was haunted, and there might have been something to that,” Chaves said. Added Velásquez, “I think [La Llorona] was there just making sure we were doing right by her.”