A new horror movie that shares some connections with The Conjuring films is about to hit theaters, but it's based on a story that has existed for centuries. The Curse of La Llorona is based on the La Llorona legend, a story from Mexican folklore about a woman who lost her children and now reappears as a ghost. While that's the very basic premise, there are several variations of the story related to La Llorona's origin, how her children died, and what she wants when she haunts people.
First, it should be noted that the new movie is not focused so much on La Llorona's origin story as it is on the spirit haunting a family. Set in the 1970s, The Curse of La Llorona is about a social worker named Anna (Linda Cardellini), who is raising two children as a single mom. Anna doesn't believe in the legend at first, but La Llorona begins appearing to her children, and the family has to find a way to fight back.
The tagline for the movie, "She wants your children," is very straightforward and gets at one of the main themes of the legend. While there are different versions of the story, one popular one is that La Llorona is a woman who drowned her children in a river, regretted it, and now roams around in a white gown, crying in anguish. This explains her name: "La Llorona" means the Weeping Woman. According to LegendsofAmerica.com, children fear La Llorona because she could drown them, too. One of the ideas is that La Llorona is hurting other children — or attempting to take them for her own — because of her own loss, which is what the movie seems to be getting at.
The film's cast and director speak to this idea during a Curse of La Llorona press junket in Los Angeles. "I'm Venezuelan, but I grew up in Mexico," Patricia Velasquez, who plays Patricia Alvarez, tells Bustle, "and La Llorona is very real for us. We grew up with her, and it's really how our parents make us do what they want to." She adds an example: "Make sure you have to come in at 5, otherwise La Llorona is gonna come and get you."
Velasquez also says that she felt La Llorona needed to be treated with respect in the film, because she is so real in Mexican culture. "I almost felt like that she had chosen me to make sure we were respecting her and the movie would be done with respect," she says.
A History Today article explains that, aside from the haunting children aspect, another common theme in retellings of the La Llorona story is that she is a woman who has been wronged by her husband. "Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband who leaves her to marry a woman of higher status," the article explains. "After realizing what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is often described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever." (The site takes a very deep dive into the history of La Llorona, spanning back to Spanish colonization of the the Americas.)
There are also some other, more historical stories that have been linked to La Llorona. For example, Mexico.mx explains that in one telling she is the Aztec goddess Chihuacóatl, who was warning native people about the incoming Spanish invasion. There's also one where La Llorona is the same as La Malinche, Hernán Cortés interpreter and mother of his child, who was seen as a traitor to indigenous Mexican people.
Director Michael Chaves touches on the fact that there are so many different variations at the set visit. He set out to "make the definitive La Llorona story," but explains, "The more that you research it, the more people you talk to, the more variations you carry, you realize there's not just one and so that becomes even more daunting like, 'Which one is the definitive version?'"
Chaves adds, "Classically, she's told as a warning to kids, 'you better stay in line', but then there were some variations of the story where it was like, 'Oh, she doesn't go after kids, she goes after unfaithful husbands' ... I was like, 'That sounds awesome', but that's not fitting into our movie. So, the biggest thing was just trying to come up with a take on it and I hope that this does her proud."
Chaves stuck with the version that centers a vengeful mother. And because the living mother in his film — the one with the kids being hunted by La Llorona — is played by Cardellini, there has already been some backlash. As you now know, La Llorona is a legend very closely tied to Mexico and Mexican history, so some people were upset that a white actor was cast in the main role. According to Velasquez, this choice makes sense for Cardellini's character, because she is supposed to be someone who doesn't believe the legend. "In terms of the story, it makes absolute sense that Linda's character doesn't know about her, because if it would have been a Hispanic character, she would have believed that it existed," she says.
Like her character, Cardellini herself did not know about the legend until she read the film. "After I read [the script] I asked around and people were like, 'Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that's an old story my grandmother used to tell me,' and then I started to learn," she explains. "But it was good for me because my character doesn't know, and that's what gets her in so much trouble. She has no idea what she's stepping foot in to."
The Curse of La Llorona premieres April 19, so it remains to be seen if the initial backlash has an effect on how well the film is received and whether viewers who heard the story growing up will find the movie just as scary as the way their families told it.
Additional reporting by Mallory Carra.