Mexico, Vampires in

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Lupita Tovar (right) as Mina Murray in the 1931 Spanish-language production of Dracula, which was filmed in Mexico. Also shown is Eduardo Arozamena as Abraham Van Helsing.

Mexico, Vampires in

(pop culture)

Accounts of vampires in Mexico can be traced as far back as the ancient Maya, whose territory centered on what is now Guatemala but also reached north into the Yucatan peninsula and the southern part of present-day Mexico.

This was the territory of the vampire bats, which were incorporated into the mythology of the Maya. Camazotz, the fierce cave god of the Mayan underworld, was known from his appearance in the Popol Vol and his representations in Mayan art.

In the Popol Vol, two brothers entered the underworld to avenge the death of their father. To accomplish their task, they had to pass through a number of obstacles, one of which was the Bat House. They were first attacked by a horde of bats and then by Camazotz himself. Camazotz was pictured as a manbat with a sharp nose and large teeth and claws. At one point, one of the brothers stuck his head out of their hiding place and Camazotz quickly decapitated him. The head was then used as the ball in a game. The decapitated brother obtained a substitute head, and the brothers eventually played the game and won.

Camazotz, with his sharp nose and large teeth and claws, was a popularly feared figure among the Mayans, and numerous representations appeared in Mayan art. Camazotz served two diverse purposes. He was integral to the basic agricultural myth built around the cycle of growing maize. In his descent, he brought death to the maize grain at the time it was buried in the earth, a necessary step leading to its rebirth in the harvest. He was also a feared, bloodthirsty god of the caves. People avoided places believed to be his dwelling place.

The Aztecs: From the elaborate mythology of the Aztecs, whose territory was north of the Mayas’s lands, came several vampire deities. Among those cited as vampiric was the lord of the underworld, the region of the dead; however, he appeared to have been more a devourer of the souls of the dead than a vampiric figure. Nevertheless, a set of vampire-like figures was evident in the goddesses related to the “earth lady,” Tlalteuctli, the personification of the rock and soil upon which humans lived. Tlalteuctli was also a terror-producing figure. Never pictured as a woman, she was shown as a huge toad with blood covering her jaws. Several of the female figures that surrounded the earth lady shared a common hideousness and thirst for blood: Coatlicue, “serpent skirt”; Cihuacoatl, “snake woman”; Itzpapalotl, “obsidian knife butterfly”; and the cihuateteo. These goddesses were also known as the cihuapipiltin, or princesses.

Coatlicue was described as black, dirty, disheveled, and ugly. A statue of her survived and has been placed in the National Museum in Mexico City. It has a skirt of snakes and a necklace of hands and hearts with a skull-shaped pendant. The head is missing and in its stead is a stream of gushing blood that becomes two rattlesnake heads.

Cihuacoatl was the ancient goddess of Culhuacan, but after the fifteenth century her worship was centered in Xochimilco. Her appearance was terrifying—stringy hair, her mouth open to receive victims, and two knives gracing her forehead. However, she had the ability to change herself into a beautiful young woman who, like vampire demons in many lands, enticed young men to their doom. They had sexual relations with her, only to wither away and die afterward. Cihuacoatl survived into this century both as the Virgin of Guadalupe in Roman Catholic lore and as La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, in popular folklore. As such she could be heard at night weeping for her dead children. Cihuacoatl represented the hunger of the gods for human victims, and state prisoners were regularly sacrificed to satisfy her need for blood. Itzpapalotl, not as specifically vampiric as the other two, was a personification of the ritual sacrificial knife.

The cihuateteo were the most vampiric of all the Aztec deities. They originated from women who died in childbirth. They had once been mortal, had struggled with the child, and had succeeded in holding it until both died in the struggle. Thus, they attained the status of warrior. As demonic figures, the cihuateteo very much resembled such other vampiric figures as the lamiai of ancient Greece or the langsuyar of Malaysia. The cihuateteo wandered the night and attacked children, leaving them paralyzed or otherwise diseased. They held counsel with other cihuateteos at local crossroads. Food offerings were placed at crossroads in structures dedicated to the cihuateteos so that they would gorge themselves and not attack the children; also, if the vampiric beings remained at the crossroads until morning, they would be killed by the sunlight. In recent years the cihuateteos have been described as having white faces and chalk-covered arms and hands. They wear the costume of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of all sorcery, lust, and evil.

The Tlahuelpuchi: The Aztecan culture was largely destroyed by the European invasion and the religious conquest of the land by Roman Catholicism. The goddesses continued somewhat, however, transformed in the popular imagination into witches that survived under different names. They were called bruja (feminine) or brujo (masculine) by the Spanish and tlahuelpuchi, the blood-sucking witch, by the descendants of the Aztecs.

The tlahuelpuchi was a person (most often a woman) believed to possess the power to transform itself into one of several animals and in that form attack and suck the blood of infants or, on rare occasions, children and adults. The tlahuelpuchi drew elements from both the ancient Aztec goddesses and the witches of Spain, who had the power to transform themselves into animals and liked to suck the blood of infants. The most common animal into which the witches transformed themselves was a turkey, but animals as varied as fleas, cats, dogs, and buzzards were reported. Such witches lived incognito in their communities, and witches became objects of fear, especially among couples with infants.

The tlahuelpuchi was born a witch and had no control over her condition, which remained with her for life. Since the condition was a chance occurrence of birth, the witch could not pass her condition to another. There was no way to tell if a person was a witch until she reached puberty. The power of transformation arrived with the first menses. At that time the young witch also developed an insatiable thirst for human blood. That a person was a witch would soon become known to relatives, of course, but out of shame and fear, they would seek to conceal the fact. A witch would kill anyone who revealed her identity, but would otherwise not attack kinspeople. The tlahuelpuchi had to have blood at least once a month and some as much as four times a month.

On the last Saturday of every month, the tlahuelpuchi entered the kitchen of her dwelling and performed a magical rite. She lighted a fire made of special substances and then transformed into an animal, usually a dog.

Her lower legs and feet were left behind in the form of a cross. Upon her return from feeding, she retransformed into a human and reattached her appendages. The witch could, on occasion, be known by the limp developed from her regular transformations. Occasionally, the witch might attack children, adults, or the livestock of a person they had quarreled with.

The tlahuelpuchi also had hypnotic power over individuals and could cause them to kill themselves, primarily by having them walk to a high place and jump to their death. They might also attack livestock of people they wished to harm. Thus, particular kinds of evil that affected people were routinely attributed to the witches in their midst.

Protection from witches was most ensured by use of the ubiquitous garlic. Wrapped in a tortilla, cloves of garlic might be placed in the clothes of an infant. In the absence of garlic, an onion could be substituted.

Bright metal was also considered effective, and parents sometimes placed a machete or a box of pins under their infant’s crib. Pins or other metal objects might be fashioned into a cross. Parents also used clear water, mirrors, or holy medals. Infant deaths were attributable to parents having relaxed their vigilance in protecting their child.

On occasion, people reported seeing a witch in animal form. It was spotted and distinguished from other animals by the phosphorous illumination it emitted. There would often follow an attempt to kill it, either by stoning and clubbing (to avoid direct physical contact), but more often than not, the witch escaped by changing form. On vary rare occasions, a woman in the community was called out as a tlahuelpuchi. If the accusation was accepted by a group of people, that person would be attacked in her home and clubbed and/or stoned to death. Afterward, the sense organs, including the fingers, were removed, and the body, unburied, was disposed of in a deserted spot.

Belief in the tlahuelpuchi has continued to the present day in rural Mexico. As recently as 1954 the state of Tlaxcala passed a law requiring that infants reportedly killed by witchcraft had to be referred to medical authorities. Researchers Hugo G. Nutini and John M. Roberts, working in the same state in the 1960s, had no trouble gathering numerous tales of witchcraft.

The Cinematic Vampire: Today, Mexico’s prolific movie industry has become well known, and vampire enthusiasts have made note of the large number of vampire movies from Mexico, many of them featuring U.S. actors. The Mexican vampire image was strongly influenced by the Universal Pictures‘s Spanish-language rendition of Dracula (Spanish, 1931) starring Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar. This American-made version circulated freely in Mexico in the years prior to World War II and directly influenced the image of the vampire in the emerging urban culture.

The vampire arrived in force in 1957 when German Robles starred as the vampire Count Lavud in three vampire movies: El Vampiro (The Vampire), El Ataud del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin), and a comedy inspired by the earlier movies, El Castillo de los Monstruos (Castle of the Monsters). Count Lavud, obviously influenced by Bela Lugosi, was pictured as a suave Hungarian nobleman. In the first movie he was killed with a stake that subsequently was removed to allow him further life in the second.

Robles secured his claim as Mexico’s first vampire star in 1959 by starring in a twelve-part serial as a bearded descendant of the prophet Nostradamus who had become a vampire. Subsequently, the serial was recut into four feature-length movies: La Maldición de Nostradamus (The Curse of Nostradamus), Nostradamus y el Destructor de Monstruos (The Monster Demolisher), Nostradamus, El Genii de las Tinieblas (The Genie of Darkness), and La Sangre de Nostradamus (The Blood of Nostradamus). (To avoid certain Mexican government film regulations, films were often made as serials and then quickly recut into feature films.) These features were released in the United States by Roger Corman‘s American International Pictures. Robles also played a vampire in the Argentine film El Vampiro Aechecha (The Lurching Vampire, 1959). His final appearance was in Los Vampiros de Coyoacan (1973), in which he played the hero instead of a vampire.

Robles’s success quickly led to an exploitation of the market. Alfonso Corona Blake made his first vampire movie, El Mundo de los Vampiros (World of the Vampires) in 1960. Two years later Blake was one of the directors called upon to work on the movies of the masked wrestler-turned-actor Santo. He directed Santo’s first vampire movie, Santo Contra las Mujeres Vampiro (Samson vs. the Vampire Women). Santo emerged as one of Mexico’s favorite movie characters and over two decades fought a variety of supernatural villains. In 1967 he battled Dracula in Santo en el Tesoro de Dracula which was also made in an adult version as El Vampiro y el Sexo. The vampire women returned in 1969 in Santo en la Venganza de las Mujeres Vampiros.

Frederico Curiel, the director of Santo en la Venganza de las Mujeres Vampiros, had emerged in 1959 as the director of the Nostradamus films. In 1967 he directed El Imperio de Dracula (The Empire of Dracula) and the following year Las Vampiras, one of John Carradine‘s last films. He was joined as an important director of vampire titles by Miguel Morayta, who was responsible for El Vampiro Sangriento (The Bloody Vampire, 1961) and La Invasion de los Vampiros (The Invasion of the Vampires, 1962).

The vampire as a theme in Mexican cinema peaked in the 1960s. During the early 1970s the last of the Santo vampire movies, Santo y Blue Demon Contra Dracula y el Hombre Lobo, appeared. Rene Cardona, who had directed Santo y el Tesoro del Dracula, continued his work in Santo Contra Cazadores de Cabezas (1970), La Invasion de los Muertos (1972), and the two comedies Capulina Contra Los Vampiros (1972) and Capulina Contra Los Monstruos (1972). He was followed by Juan Lopez, who directed Mary, Mary Bloody Mary (1975) and Alucarda (Sisters of Satan, 1975). Few new vampire films appeared through the remainder of the decade. From being a center of the vampire cinema in the 1960s, Mexico seems to have largely abandoned the genre through the 1980s and into the 1990s, though a number of the Mexican masked wrestlers adopted a vampire persona. The vampire theme re-emerged briefly at the end of the 1990s when Mexican moviemakers jumped on the chupacabra bandwagon with movies such as Ataca el Chupacabras (1996) and Chupacabras (2000).

Sources:

Fentome, Steve. “Mexi-Monster Meltdown!” Monster International 2 (1992): 4–13. Nutini, Hugo G., and John M. Roberts. Bloodsucking Witchcraft: An Epistemologica Study of Anthropomorphic Supernaturalism in Rural Tlaxcala. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993. 476 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1928. 356 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1960. 356 pp.