In 1833, death came to the rugged region of the silver-mining town of Guanajuato, Mexico in the form of an epidemic of cholera that swept through poor and rural areas to kill indiscriminately. Cemeteries began to fill up with bodies at an amazing rate, with more cemeteries being created to deal with the influx of death. Considering that cholera was deadly and poorly understood, many of the bodies were buried immediately, with it estimated that in their rush to get them in the ground many victims were accidentally buried alive. The cemeteries would continue to overflow with the dead, the bodies often buried in mass graves, until the epidemic ended in 1851, and for a time these victims of the disease could rest in peace, but this was to change. This would be the beginning of the story of the mysterious mummies of Guanajuato, who would end up at a museum and remain haunted to this day.
In the 1870s, the government began charging a tax to be paid for a “perpetual burial,” an amount of money many of the poor people of the region were unable to pay. If the tax was not paid or a living family member could not be found, the corpse was simply disinterred and stored above ground in a warehouse, and in one particular cemetery, the Santa Paula cemetery, as the bodies came up some proved to be in a shocking state of preservation. It seems the hot, arid climate of the area, combined with the high-altitude and unique soil composition of the cemetery, had caused many of the bodies to naturally mummify, and the extent of their preservation was remarkable, sometimes with clothing intact, full heads of hair, beards, and faces clearly recognizable and often twisted into grimaces of pain, terror, or both. It is unexplained why some of the bodies were not preserved in this manner, but many of them were, and before long, curiosity seekers were coming around the cemetery in the hopes of seeing the macabre sight of one of these natural mummies. In response to this popularity, some grave keepers and other cemetery workers began charging a fee to see them, turning it into a morbid attraction to make some extra money. It was all pretty disrespectful to those who had died, with visitors sometimes breaking off pieces of the mummies as souvenirs, and at the time there was nothing really keeping people from getting as close as they wanted to them.
These mummies came in all ages, including babies and children, and in those days the mummies were just sort of propped up against the walls or held up with ropes, lurking there in the gloom like ghouls, the whole place more like a haunted house than anything else. With their twisted visages staring out into nothing, sometimes seeming to be screaming or grimacing, the faces contorted in agony and anguish, it was all a pretty gruesome sight, and it was not uncommon for people to leave in a panic or even faint while wandering through. The famous author Ray Bradbury came to see the mummies and ranked it as one of the most horrifying places he had ever seen, turning the experience into a story called The Next in Line. Bradbury would say of his visit:
The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.
As the number of morbid curiosity seekers rapidly increased, the government moved in to control the spectacle somewhat, to try and maintain some respect for the dead, turning the place into a museum in which the mummies would be protected by temperature-controlled glass showcases, and in 1969 it officially became El Museo de las Momias, “The Museum of the Mummies.” Its halls are populated by around 111 mummies, some of them on display and others held in storage, and there is occasionally a travelling exhibit called “The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato.” There are even portraits created by a forensic artist depicting how the individuals probably looked when they were alive. One of the most popular and horrific exhibitions in the collection is the mummy of a young woman named Ignacia Aguilar, who is believed to have been accidentally buried alive. She was found face down in her grave biting into her arm, her face twisted into a visage of terror, which it eternally keeps as it gazes out at visitors. Another is the mummy of a 24-week-old fetus that was found in its mother’s womb, believed to be the youngest mummy in the world. It is now a very popular tourist destination, complete with a gift shop that sells various mummy-themed merchandise and little skeletons dressed in clothes, called catrinas.
Considering the macabre nature of the museum, the death it represents, and the general disrespectful treatment of the bodies, it is perhaps no surprise that it is also said to be haunted. There have been all sorts of reports of paranormal activity from El Museo de las Momias, including disembodied footsteps, the sound of sobbing, moaning, or screaming, whispered voices when no one is there, and shadow figures lurking about. There are also stories of the mummies being found in slightly different positions or poses and even moving while being watched, and this place has regularly attracted teams of paranormal investigators. One can probably understand why this place should be haunted, the corpses exhibited and treated like objects for foreign visitors to gawk and point at, taking selfies with these long-dead people whose names they don’t even know. Writer Marlene Melissa Davila has lamented this situation in an article on the site The Collective of Radical Death Studies, beautifully saying of it:
Looking at the mummies one can’t help but feel terrified by their expressions of suffering (many were mistakenly buried alive) and the way that they have been sold as inanimate objects. These were people, but even the museum has taken their names away from them: we don’t know who they really were except for a few, such as the museum’s first mummy, Remigio Leroy who we only know because of his foreign, upper-class status. As macabre as the museum may seem, many tourists, mostly Americans, enjoy taking selfies and pictures with the mummies to show them off on their social media, thinking it’s one of those “creepy” things one can see only in Mexico.
It is known that Mexico’s perception of death is different from many western cultures; there is a great amount of humor involved, for example, in the famous calaveritas (satirical poems on Day of the Dead). where one writes a silly poem about the death of someone who is still alive. Not to mention as well all of the beautiful celebrations that take place on Day of the Dead: cempasúschil flowers (Mexican native flower known as Tagetes erecta), papel picado (colorful papers hung in ceilings depicting images of Day of the Dead), altares (altars) and other symbolic gestures to remember the dead. Nevertheless, it is important not to confuse cultural heritage and a country’s perception of death with the morbid exploitation of the dead themselves. Dignity and consent should always come first. With dark tourism on the rise, the suggestion for curious visitors is that instead of looking at this museum and other similar ones (such as the Capuchin Catacombs in Rome) as haunted exhibitions, we should consider them as memorials, where the dead should be remembered as humans and therefore, be respected as such.
The museum continues to pull in tourists, curiosity seekers, and ghost hunters alike, and represents a dark and mysterious little corner of Mexican history. What were these people’s names, what were their stories, and are their spirits tethered here for reasons we will perhaps never understand? It might be worth it to book a trip and experience this morbid piece of history for yourself.