Centuries before the bride of Frankenstein first screamed and hissed on the big screen in 1935, the legend of the wailing woman who drowned her children was already terrifying kids throughout Latin America.
But only now, with Latinos constituting the largest minority group in the nation, has the tale of La Llorona started to creep into the nation’s Halloween festivities.
And she’s not the only Latino myth infiltrating the autumn celebration of all things scary and gory.
The trend in Southern California and other heavily Latino regions seems fueled by a growing Latino middle class that visits theme parks in greater numbers and the rising popularity of Halloween, now the second-biggest holiday for spending in the country, behind only Christmas. Officials say studies have suggested Latinos may visit theme parks twice as often as other groups.
Vendors of Halloween fun are targeting a Latino population that has increased by nearly 28% in California to 14 million in the last 10 years.
Meanwhile, Americans are spending more this year to celebrate Halloween despite the country’s continuing economic woes. Americans plan to spend an average of $72.31 on costumes, decorations and candy this year, up from $66.28 last year, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group for the nation’s retailers.
Over the last few years, La Llorona (pronounced “LAH yoh ROH nah) has joined the urban legend of the blood-sucking dog-like creature, the chupacabra, and the guitar-plucking skeletons of the Day of the Dead celebration in the nation’s traditional lineup of frightening characters at Halloween events.
The Latino myths and legends have come to life at theme parks in Southern California and Florida, ghost tours in San Antonio and in mask retail outlets across the country.
“The demographics have changed in Los Angeles, and we are trying to respond to that,” said John Murdy, creative director of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, a 19-day event featuring six mazes crammed with costumed actors, scary lighting and bloody props. One of those mazes, introduced this year, is inspired by the legend of La Llorona.
In addition to Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia have Latino characters in this year’s Halloween events. Ticket prices range from $39 to $62 per person.
Of all the Latino characters that theme parks are taking mainstream in the U.S., La Llorona seems to be drawing the most fascination.
In the last decade, she has been the subject of more than a dozen books published in the U.S. and a handful of independent and straight-to-DVD movies.
It is a scary tale with many versions. The most basic account of the story revolves around a beautiful woman named Maria who drowns her children after she is rejected by the rich, powerful man she loves and is doomed to wander the Earth, searching for her children. But some historians say the story dates to the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs.
Edwin Hernandez, a high school student from Los Angeles, said his grandparents from Mexico told him the story as an admonition to be good. And when he recently ventured through the La Llorona maze at Universal Studios Hollywood, he said the attraction’s stringy-haired character was just has he imagined.
“The way they set it up in there brings it all to life,” the teenager said.
To help design the La Llorona maze, the park even recruited the Mexican-born actor Diego Luna, who starred in the 2001 Spanish-language drama “Y Tu Mama Tambien” among other films.
Luna grew up on a street in Mexico City called Callejon de La Llorona, or Alley of the Weeping Woman. As a child, he saw teenagers routinely visit the street in hopes of spotting the legendary ghost.
The La Llorona myth will resonate in the U.S., he said, because of she shatters the traditional concept of a loving, caring mother. “Every time you are scared you run to your mother,” Luna said. “Imagine that the figure you are scared of is a mother. There is nothing you can do.”
The popularity of the La Llorona character even prompted Mexico-based Ghoulish Productions this year to ship to U.S. retailers a rubber La Llorona mask, with a gaping mouth and blood-oozing eyes, that sells for $40 to $65.
“The reason why we decided to introduce the La Llorona mask in the U.S. is because the Day of the Dead and different Mexican traditions are becoming bigger, known and important in different places,” said Rosalba Dorado Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the mask manufacturer.
Other Latino characters also have begun to haunt Halloween celebrations in Southern California and elsewhere.
At Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, the park this year created a Halloween maze that includes actors portraying the goat-slaying chupacabra terrorizing a Day of the Dead celebration.
Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park has since 2009 operated a Halloween maze that combines skeletons from the Day of the Dead celebration, La Llorona and the chupacabra in a menudo of Latino characters.
“The response has been really good,” said David Ortiz, a designer at the park.
But the burgeoning trend does not sit well with some Latino activists, who worry that the cultural significance of Latino myths and celebrations will be lost in the money-making endeavors.
Malena Gonzalez-Cid, executive director of the nonprofit Centro Cultural Aztlan culture center in San Antonio, said she objects to U.S. businesses “misappropriating” Latin legends to make profits.
“Without the context, the cultural component will be lost and people will think that it came from Hollywood,” she said.
But the businesses that have introduced the Latino characters say they are sensitive to the history of the myths.
Murdy, of Universal Studios Hollywood, said he researched the 500-year history of La Llorona before developing the theme park’s maze. But he said he was also talked to many horror fans and found that the myth has already permeated American culture.
“The awareness of La Llorona was just off the charts,” Murdy said. “This transcends Mexico. This story has been told to millions and millions of people.”