The Curse of La Llorona hits theaters this week, giving us our first major studio adaptation of the eponymous Mexican folktale also known as “the weeping woman.” Horror master Guillermo del Toro borrowed heavily from the Mexican legend for his 2013 film Mama, but this James Wan-produced scare-fest centers solely on the spirit who, it is said, tragically killed her children, committed suicide, and vowed to terrorize mothers as her eternal retribution.
The movie joins a long list of horror films based on legends (among them, one literally called Urban Legends… don’t pretend you don’t remember it). If you like your horror based on a kinda-maybe-sort-coulda-been true story – or at least the story your buddies and grandma used to scare you with – look no further than these wicked legend-based horror movies that came before La Llorona.
Origin: Pagan Mythology
Which Wicker Man should you watch? The original 1973 film starring the late Christopher Lee – that treasure trove of haunting imagery with its dagger-to-your-heart ending? Or the Nicolas Cage “not the bees!” version? Either or, depending on whether you’ve got a hunger for shivers or… for munchies. Both films relied heavily on the Druid (Celtic Pagan) practice of burning a Wicker statue in effigy – which might not have actually been a practice at all. The idea of making a sacrifice by burning a giant effigy was first documented in a single sentence by Julius Caesar circa 50 BC, but modern scholars have become increasingly skeptical. Still, the image remains scary AF.
Origin: Irish Folklore
Memorable Adaptations: The Leprechaun Franchise
The 20th-century leprechaun, as seen on a box of Lucky Charms, is a far cry from the devilish and sometimes benevolent creature you will find in Irish folklore. Tricksters and hoarders of jewels, leprechauns are the supposed offspring of demon (evil spirit) and fairy (angelic spirit) couplings. Because of their equal capacity for good and evil, Celtic mythology is littered with examples of both just and wicked deeds committed by the magical creatures. Warwick Davis originated the role in the legendary B-movie Leprechaun series and continued with it until the franchise rebooted in 2014. According to Davis, the In the Hood installments were the most successful of the direct-to-video efforts. If you’ve witnessed Davis rapping in the finale of Leprechaun in the Hood, you will understand why.
Origin: Mexican Folklore
At some point in every mythology, there’s a tale of female, particularly maternal, vengeance — think Dionysus or Medea (the Greek myth, not the Tyler Perry version). Even the original Friday the 13th can be traced back to a mother scorned. In The Curse of La Llorona, a mother drowns her children in a jealous rage to seek revenge on her cheating husband. Reckoning with what she did, she commits suicide, only to be denied entry to the afterlife, cursed to roam the earth weeping, drowning children, and tormenting mothers for all her days. It’s a true word-of-mouth legend, unable to be traced back to any known story or event, and director Michael Chaves told us, “It can be difficult to manage the nuances of it being an oral tradition. It’s hard to pin down what is the right version. So you [go] through all of it to find [the] core experience that so many people grew up on, [what was] told to them as kids. That’s what we wanted to bring on screen.”
Origin: Southern American Folklore
As the legend goes, the Bell family was visited by a spirit in early 1817, bringing reports of spooky black dogs and shadowy figures. If the strangeness stopped there, we might not have included it on our list, but after the first Bell Witch hauntings, there have been countless reported reappearances with similar details often coming from unrelated parties miles apart. What to do with such a creepy story? Make a movie, of course – and cheaply. The makers of The Blair Witch Project used the spooky lore, low-budget scares, and perhaps the savviest early internet marketing campaign to create one of the most lucrative movies ever.
Origin: American folklore
Memorable Adaptations: The Amityville Horror Franchise
Amityville lies somewhere between folklore and urban legend, but the inexplicable twists and turns surrounding the early ’70s supernatural events that inspired the Amityville movies have cemented them as the granddaddy of lore-based horror cinema. Spanning 23 films over 40 years, The Amityville Horror series chronicles the 1974 haunting first investigated by famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, though many debate the accuracy of the Warrens’ story. As the original story goes, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed six members of his family at home in Amityville, New York, and since then, strange occurrences – mostly focused around the Lutz family that hired the Warrens – have plagued the house where it all went down.
Origin: Creepy-pasta/American folklore
This one might be a stretch (forgive us), but Slender Man has morphed into modern-day folklore. The Slender Man is a work of pure fiction about a tall and, well, slender spirit that calls others to murder in his name. One of the first documented instances of digital folklore, originating in online message boards, the Slender Man was blamed for directing teenagers to commit suicide, murder, and commit assault on each other indiscriminately. The most notorious incident was the Waukesha, Wisconsin stabbing, in which a pair of 12-year-olds meticulously planned the murder of a friend by stabbing; the victim did thankfully survive, but the incident made national headlines. Of all the tales on our list, the legend of Slender Man is the only one accused in court of turning pre-teens into murderers.
The Curse of La Llorona is in theaters April 22.