In the late 1940s, Don Julian Santana was married and living in coastal Mexico. Around 1950, the young man became disillusioned with family life and the world. So he left it all behind and moved to a small, exotic island that would come to be called “La Isla de la Munecas,” or the Island of the Dolls.
Santana spent the last 50 years of his life on the island, every so often wandering into nearby port cities for supplies and other goods. He never divorced, but rarely saw his children or invited friends out to visit. People respected the privacy of an aging man who renounced modern society.
Time passed, and mainland dwellers became unnerved by the odd acquisitions Santana made with each visit, namely, old unwanted dolls. He would gather them from local garbage dumps, trashcans or the side of the road. Sometimes he traded fresh fruit grown on his island for a frayed and forgotten artifact from some stranger’s childhood. Ironically, Santana appeared to be swapping his own memories for those discarded by others.
It seems that Santana’s island was haunted by a wicked little girl who drowned in the island’s canal. She stalked Santana and menacingly occupied every facet of his life — blaming him for her watery death. He took the dolls back to the island where he spread them out, tying them to trees, to his house and to other objects in an attempt to distract and appease the child’s spirit. In 2001, Don Julian Santana stopped coming into the town. Some time after, the locals summoned the courage to go to his island, where they discovered his body drowned in the same canal that had claimed his ghostly tormentor.
It seems fitting that Santana, a man who rejected the life that was given to him, was haunted by a manifestation that desired the life that was taken away from her.
Santana’s legacy has resulted in one of the creepiest locales in the world. The small island is creatively littered with plastic corpses representing discarded childhood memories. For reasons unknown, some dolls were left intact while others were dismembered or seemingly tortured by the Mexican recluse. Although Santana claimed he gathered the playthings to appease a menacing spirit, it is perhaps more likely that the Island of the Dolls was the physical manifestation of a deeply troubled mind. Or maybe, Santana established his own silent society to ward off those who would interrupt his idyll.
The Island of the Dolls exists today as one of the most peculiar man-made sites in our world, not for the supposed haunting, but because it offers a window into one individual’s unconventional relationship to place and memory. It is a reminder of our own desires to break free from unwritten societal rules and establish our own safe haven where we can live — and die — as we choose.