The Folklore Behind 'The Curse of La Llorona'

The James Wan-produced film could signal a renewed interest in old tales as horror movies.

She’s coming to take the children. On Wednesday, Warner Bros. released the latest trailer for the upcoming horror film The Curse of La Llorona. Directed by newcomer Michael Chaves and produced by James Wan, the film has been rumored to be a part of The Conjuring Universe, at least if Tony Amendola’s Father Perez is the same Father Perez from Annabelle (2014). Regardless of any possible ties to the case files of the Warrens, The Curse of La Llorona is connected to a much larger story, one with an origin that still remains unknown. La Llorona, Spanish for the Weeping Woman, stems from popular Latin American folklore. It’s a story with cultural significance and variations comparable to the North American urban legend of “the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.” Like the story of the babysitter, the legend La Llorona has been told across multiple entries of film and television though none quite as high-profile as Chaves’ film.

According to popular versions of the tale, the Weeping Woman was once a beautiful maiden named Maria. She married a nobleman and had two sons. Her husband, a traveler, was rarely home and his feelings for Maria began to dull during his time away. But the husband still loved his sons, and gave them all of the attention he denied Maria whenever he returned. When Maria catches her husband in town with a younger woman, she takes her two sons to the Santa Fe River and drowns them. Days later Maria is found dead on the riverbank, a result of unknown circumstances. At the gates of Heaven Maria is denied entry until she finds the souls of her two sons. And thus she is cursed to wander the Earth looking to reclaim their souls. Dressed in a white gown and wailing for her children, La Llorona takes lost and abandoned children as her own and drowns them in the hopes of recovering souls that will permit her entry into the afterlife. A story used to scare children who run off by themselves and those who disregard the wishes of their parents, La Llorona has infiltrated nightmares from Mexico to the Southwest region of the United States.

The Curse of La Llorona doesn’t center around the origins of the Weeping Woman, but instead takes place in 1970s Los Angeles and focuses on a social worker and single mother, played by Linda Cardellini, who finds herself entangled with the supernatural presence of La Llorona, an evil force that seeks to claim her children. While this story will certainly add a few new wrinkles to the legend, La Llorona isn’t an entirely unexamined pop culture phenomenon. She appeared in film as early as 1961 in the Mexican film, La maldicion de la llorona (The Curse of the Crying Woman). In the decades since, she has played roles in small films, novels and amusement parks. She’s perhaps best known by modern television audiences from her appearance in the pilot episode of Supernatural, and the Halloween special of Grimm. It director Andy Muschietti’s feature film debut Mama (2013) shares a number of similarities with the legend of La Llorona, not least of all the spirit of a ghostly woman looking for surrogate replacements for the child she’d tried to drown. The Argentinian Muschietti and Mexican producer Guillermo del Toro were surely aware of the legend when creating Mama, and as a result the film feels like another perspective on this popular piece of folklore. But what makes The Curse of La Llorona different, at least from what we’ve seen so far, is how Chaves seems to take ownership of the story’s cultural significance.

Hollywood has a long history of adapting the stories of other cultures, particularly when it comes to tales of terror and folklore. From White Zombie (1932) to The Forest (2016), studios have often told the stories of others, and often without tying them back to the people whose culture those stories belong to, either in casting, directing or narrative choices. Though the film stars non-Latina actor Cardellini as a woman named Anna Garcia, a widow who was married to a Hispanic man and who is not familiar with the story of La Llorona, many of the film’s casting, directorial and creative choices suggest a commitment to grounding this film within a Latin American world.

The Curse of La Llorona could signal a renewed interest in folklore as horror movies. That shift has already begun with the popularity of podcast and streaming series Lore. More than that, Chaves’ film could also turn the focus of these films back to the people those stories belong to. As important as it is to see representation in leading roles in our horror movies, recently highlighted by the Shudder documentary Horror Noire, it’s also important that audiences get a sense of where these stories come from culturally. As Hollywood has run through the gamut of American folklore from hauntings to bigfoot sightings, The Curse of La Llorona could expand America’s view of horror beyond simply U.S. and foreign film categories. While Hollywood has never strayed from borrowing from global influences, having a high-profile horror film that uses a partly non-English title to directly tie it back to its history and people has a significance. It’s a reminder that our melting pot position, a bubbling cauldron for horror prerogative, has forever changed our nightmares and influences.