Island of the Dolls

📅 Published on May 1, 2022

“Island of the Dolls”

Written by Dale Thompson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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No matter where I go, there is always fright.  Like an alcohol burn in my throat, like an acid that burns like hell.  No matter where I run, I race into the cold iron bars of a closed prison gate.  I am then isolated, segregated, cocooned in a flesh-squeezing stickiness in anguish, which judges not, yet, carries out some sort of retribution woven in my own decomposition.  The principles of my intellectual proportion slumbered in my intelligence.  The angel of equilibrium sterilized the symptoms of my tyranny, petrified by fanatical devotion, disgraced in the presence of passionate ambivalence.  Depredations woven into the fibers of my neglected being made me realize, as I stood at the point of death, I may be lying in my grave soon.  These were my thoughts, and life’s conclusions, once I realized that the island wanted my soul.

On this adventure, the deeper, unknown, unnamed, forbidden sacred ground would be trampled in such blasphemous, unintended ways that a priest would toss his collar into the brazen altar of holy fire and be done with it.  Those that refuse to be openhearted and honest and hold their pride and dignity  in check, would never see past the murky depths into the beauty of what was, is and is to come.  These were my thoughts and conclusions once I escaped the island.

Suicide is an ugly word.  There are many ugly words that people use on a daily basis: for example, the F-Bomb and some that are hardly used, like impermissible and prohibited words such as rape, ghetto, hate, the N-word and all associated slang  words.  But for me the word ‘suicide’ is the word that contains the most tarnish and contention above them all.  Suicide is when a person gives up, surrenders to their inner demons and is devoured by something that, in all likelihood, if they had waited and maybe had a sleep, when they awoke the morning after those perilous thoughts, they might just have reconsidered.  When an intelligent mind becomes ambiguous, it opens itself to equivocal scrutiny and problematic afterthoughts.  This causes questionable thinking, irrational behavior and impulsively drives that person to an enigmatic state of consciousness, melding in a disingenuous malady of ever-changing controversy.  Stirring emphatic empathy with a slow poison of nonsensical sterile conclusions.

My good friend Atticus was a man addicted to travel.  He was a man caught up in wanderlust.  He was part hobo, part vagabond, part gypsy, not a bum or a tramp.  He worked and could work hard. I had seen him outwork many a man.  Atticus never stayed in one place very long.  You never saw him languor or not pull his own weight.  If anything, all that he did while in this world was to prove he had the stuff.  The stuff?  Not sure what the stuff is exactly, but if anybody had it, Atticus did, superlatively, and his life was paramount.  What happened to Atticus was why we, a group of his friends, decided to investigate his supposed suicide ourselves.  Something just didn’t add up, and we could not let it rest until we got some answers.

Atticus loved life.  He loved everything about it.  I have never seen a man so passionate about living with genuine joy every time he took a breath as Atticus.  So, when I received the news that he supposedly took his own life by hanging, my world stopped, the bottom dropped out, and I spiraled down into the bottom of a bottle for a good three days.  Maybe more than one bottle.  When I came out of my drunken stupor, and the effects of inebriation had melted from my brain, and my bloodstream was no longer intoxicated, I made many inquiries and rang many phones in an attempt to find out why his death was being called a suicide.  Needless to say, when the evidence was shared, the revelation was simply unbelievable and absurd.

He had reportedly been found by hunters in a very dark and dank place, hanging from a rope that had been looped and knotted around a tree limb.  For locals, it evidently looked like an open and shut case, with the exception that this was not in his character to do.  Even if there was an impending apocalypse on the horizon, Atticus was full of fight and integrity and would not have caved.  He was the type of guy that could find a rainbow in the most menacing thundercloud.  His morality would oppose such thinking.  His personality never altered in all the years that I have known him, and his nature was invariably consistent.  I had known the man for 20 years.  For as long as I had known him and gotten to be one of his dearest friends, I never knew him to do anything radical other than his treks into the uncharted.  But as far as his character goes, he was emotionally stable, well-balanced, logical, reasonable – never irrational, thoughtful, giving, and not capable of such a heinous act, neither self-harm nor harm to others.  Atticus was a man of peace, at peace with God, himself and those around him.  To be around Atticus was to enter a realm of calm. He seemed to exude such a radiance.  His life was adaptable and he harmonized with whatever surrounding he was in.  He was never argumentative or combative.  His catch phrase in any dispute was “you may be right.”

My name is Morten, and my friends included Ramsy, who was actually in love with Atticus at the time of his disappearance, Percival, who had been a childhood friend of both Atticus and me, and Linus, who had joined our little circle about two years prior to Atticus’s untimely death.

An oddity that troubled me from the day I received that dreadful phone call informing me that my childhood friend was dead was that Atticus’s body was not returned to his family.  I have for these past two weeks been highly suspicious and therefore motivated, set in my resolve, to get the heart of the matter.

What failed to add up for me is that Atticus was identified by his driver’s license alone and quickly buried there, in the channels of Xochimilco, south of the center of Mexico City.

The four of us made our way to Mexico City by car.  This drive took 17 hours.  To make good time, we took turns, stopping very little.  We booked ourselves into a Radisson hotel, got a few hours of sleep, then our trip continued on the light rail train called 39 – Tren Ligero-39 – until we reached Xochimilco, rightly called the Venice of Mexico.  The only accessible way to get to the Island of the Dolls was by boat.

We arrived at the embarcaderos, or the docks, to the celebrated sounds of Mariachi music.  We were in one of the boroughs now south of Mexico City and made our way to the Embarcadero Cuemanco entrance, which we were advised to do prior to our trip.  Colorful boats lined the pier like preparing for a festive parade.  There we met with our prearranged boat guide, who spoke English, Jose Sanchez.

We did not have to negotiate a price with the local boat-keeper like the tourists were doing.  We did our homework before making this trip and actually had permission from the Mexican government to visit the island, and to visit the site where Atticus was presumed to have taken his own life.  We had told the Mexican authorities that we were there to pay our respects and said nothing of our suspicions.

Jose’s colorful gondola-style boat, called a tajineras, was very comfortable and seated about 20 people.  Subsequently, our group was the only one taking it, and we were happy to stretch out and relax.

On the still dank shallow waters, we floated along through the canal, viewing many chinampas, which were man-made islands named floating gardens, held together by the roots of trees.  Navigating ever so slowly through the minefield of reeds, we moved along under the perennial willow trees, also known as ahuejote, which looked like beaten guardians of this foreboding place.  Flowering water lilies seemed to have sprung up everywhere.  The lilies shared the wetlands with the thorny ornamental vines, the bougainvilleas, the dicotyledonous dahlias and a rare sight was a Japanese bonsai tree.  These islands reminded me of the floating markets of Thailand where I had spent some weeks.  There were many floating restaurants and bars along the way, and we did indulge in the conveniences of drink and food at a certain point.  When we saw a wall of bamboo and doll heads peaking over and through the bamboo, we knew we had arrived.  The boat ride from embarcadero to Isla de las Muñecas seemed much shorter than we initially thought it would be.

We all enjoyed the ride, feeling guilty though, because we were here to investigate the death of our dear friend, not to holiday.

The boat ride was so pleasant that the shock of the island mortified us from the start.  When we arrived, there was no one to meet us.  The main entrance was blocked, and a sign read, ’‘Closed.’  I volunteered to go ashore, and, once on dry land, I banged on the bamboo gate.  I waited, but there was no response.  Then I shook it violently.  I had not traveled this far to be turned away.  I shouted a couple of times, “Is anyone here?” I looked back at my friends who sat in the boat watching with Jose.

They shrugged their shoulders in disappointment.  I rattled the gate one more time, then turned to walk away when I heard a voice.


I turned to see the gate open.  The man’s voice said in broken English, “I was expecting you.”  I assumed the Mexican authorities had called ahead and that we were on the schedule as guests.  I signaled to the others to come ashore and to follow me.  I heard Jose say something, but I dismissed it.

My anticipation drew me in through the bamboo gate.  Whatever Jose wanted could wait.  I had paid him handsomely to wait for us until we returned from our investigation.

Once through the gates, I did not see whoever allowed us to enter.  There was no one within my field of vision.  I figured they had gone ahead and were waiting for us further in.  Finally, I put the voice that invited us into this minatory place to a face.  A little Mexican man appeared, all smiles and a prominent mustache.  He introduced himself as Don.  I assumed since the island was closed that he was waiting for us as a VIP party, and that was why we were allowed to enter the island.

We had walked a short piece taking in the sites and the creepiness when Don informed us that he was the caretaker, and his full name was Don Julian Santana Barrera.  I thought that was certainly an impressive name.  I assumed he was the man who invited us through the gate.  At the time, the name meant nothing to me.  He spoke broken English and said he was most happy to guide us to the place where the authorities claimed they had found Atticus.

I took a good look around as my friends joined me.  The trees were littered with sun-faded dolls. These malformed pieces of rubber and plastic, some with gouged out eyes and severed limbs, others busted up and fragmented, were strung along our path as far as the eye could see.  It gave us the creeps.  Most were hanging from their necks, dangling from limbs and branches swaying in the gentle breeze.  Some looked tortured, faces pained, weatherworn and grim; many whose glaring eyes looked as though they were staring at us, while others stared in one direction into the void.  Bulbous-headed dolls with their thin protruding arms were grotesque, like deformed, hopeless circus freaks.  Dismembered suspension of the resemblance of death was everywhere.  The decrepit dolls were zombified, hoisted up in eerie display.  The site was quite disturbing and forlorn.  Forsaken, sullen faces, lost to spectacle on the morose lonesome land.  I have never been witness to inanimate objects so downcast, rocking tunelessly out of rhythm with one another.  Naked female dolls were held in the air like aerial performers by matted hair.

Our volunteer guide, Don, led us to an ominous, cobweb-laced shanty of a hut, and inside we found more disturbing unmanaged dolls.  There were frightening clown dolls with their fire-red and orange wispy hair, which seemed to be jutting off their scalps.  These vulgar, dour dolls were strapped to the walls as if being punished or kept prisoner.  Maybe these restraints were necessary?  Now my mind was playing tricks on me.  The dolls had been collected from trash that Don had rummaged through, and he said he had found many floating like bloated corpses in the river.  I was feeling very uneasy, and so were my friends.  There was a vibe like a transgression of unforgivable proportions had been committed here, and no one would hear the confession and give penance.  They were tattered and torn remnants of children’s playthings, and they were everywhere.  It was so easy to be dissuaded, but we remained unremitting, persistent in our investigation.  We meant to probe and prod, turn over every stone – or in this case, look into the face of every doll fettered here until we arrived at the truth.

These were the outcast, the forgotten dolls, once a plaything to bring a smile to a child’s face, now wriggling, perched and fastened like convicted criminals on public display.  Looking up at the ceiling, there were dozens of dreary dolls peering down upon us, their wretchedness almost mournful.  I got the sensation of life and death all knotted together and had a difficult time untangling the meaning.  After all, these were only dolls.  Over against the far wall, a special shrine had been erected for one exceptional doll.  There was nothing much different about the doll except its size was quite a bit larger than the hanging dolls.  This doll was seated on a makeshift shrine.  A curved wooden banner had been constructed over its head with the letters in paint: X.O.C.H.I.M.I.L.C.O.  Near it was a bowl full of coins, candy and flowers, in which one could pay tribute and give offerings to this one doll on the island if they chose to do so.

Ramsy articulated, “I am already spooked.”

I agreed.  I was somewhat taken aback at the sheer volume of the unusual and fantastical.  I found everything begrimed, filthy, sordid.  I dared not touch a single thing for my own safety.  There was a strong sense of impurity, whorishness, and inappropriate exhibition, as if something ill was attached, clinging like a malignant, deplorable, unseen curse upon every affixed figurine.

I have never seen so many different types of dolls in all my life.  This was a plangonologist’s dream. There were the rubbery thin-skinned dolls called Magic Skin dolls that darkened over time.  Broken porcelain dolls, hard plastic dolls, articulated body dolls, bonnet-headed dolls, rag dolls which the Mexicans called Marias and many other kinds.

Our guide, Don, adumbrated and pointed to the doll seated in the makeshift shrine.  Through his thick mustache he informed us that her name was “Augustinita.”  She was the only doll on the island that had been given a name.  She was found on the 28th day of August, the Day of Saint Augustin.  She was left as the ‘lucky doll’ or ‘miracle doll,’ but Don said, “she is anything but that.”

“Bad luck,” he exclaimed oddly.  He muttered under his breath, “El Mal de Ojo!” (meaning ‘Evil Eye’) and ‘El Ojo de Venado’ (meaning Deer’s Eye’).  Unexpectedly, he reached into his pocket and withdrew four red-stringed bracelets with light brown colored beans sewn into them.

“You wear these.  Protection: Deer’s eye.  She is no good spirit.  I have taken her off the island, but she returns.”

”“Are you saying that doll is alive?” Ramsy asked.

“Not alive; possessed, paranormal,” Don answered, moving toward the exit as if he had said too much.

A heavy dark presence followed us from the hut; we all acknowledged it.  The decay that we first tasted when we came ashore seemed to have grown in an ever-present ambiance.  This was severely unnerving.  The ghoulish playground of mutilated dolls was, for me, a cemetery on an ancient Aztec waterway.

We did not argue; we all slipped the bracelets on our wrists, and we pressed on.  Don then shared that he had never had children of his own.  “These are my children.”

We exited the hut and returned to the boardwalk, which led around to the back of the building. There were no surprises there, much of the same; demented doll heads with smeared paint across their lifeless eyes on spearheads, a line of barb wire was strung from one tree to the next, and maniacal dolls were tethered to the wire.  Every macabre sort of debauchery and derisory expression of vile desecration was on display.  We had to duck our heads at one point because the galling dolls were strung low on the footpath.  Ramsy stayed close to me, I suppose because I was more athletic than either Linus or Percival, though Linus could pull some crazy faces when angered.

“Has anyone else felt that creepy chill in the air?” Ramsy asked.

“It sorta gets into your bones,” I answered.

“I feel some sort of tormenting spirit here.  I am not superstitious, nor do I believe in all that hocus pocus nonsense, but I can tell you my hair is standing on end,” Percival expounded.

“Yeah, one of those dolls in the hut was watching me, I swear,” Linus blurted out.

I shushed him because I did not want to offend Don, who had been a gracious host so far.  “Keep it down; let’s just get to the tree where they said Atticus died,” I reminded our group.  I did have an uneasy feeling that maybe – and I know this sounds odd – but maybe these dolls were captive? Every stuffed and hollow plaything looked as if no child had ever held them, played with them or called them their favorites.  Maybe these were the throwaways, the mistreated?  Or maybe I was reading way too much into something that wasn’t real?  I swear there was a ghostly presence that had joined itself to us, an unseen mystical entity that could be malicious, but we did not know at this point.  If these dolls were, in fact, slaves, then there had to be an unmanifested slave master. This hypothesis gave me goosebumps and an alien chill.

Through more ghastly scenes of contortion and disquieting absurdities, we followed Don to a tree, where he abruptly stopped.  “This is the tree that you are looking for,” he informed us.

The trunk of the tree and its base were covered with a large pile of scattered Cempasasuchil flowers.  These marigolds were typically placed on Mexican graves.  A sense of extreme reverence washed over me, and I could see the faces of my friends becoming ever more somber.

“Do you remember our friend?  Did you see him?” I asked in hopes that Don would have some memory of Atticus’ visit.

Don looked up with his teary eyes and expressed, “Yes, I remember your friend.” I almost didn’t expect his answer.  I immediately asked, “Can you tell us what happened?  Who found his body?”

Baneful and enervated, Don smiled.  “His body was never found.”  His answer floored us.  My knees weakened, and my torpor head, dizzy, almost could not process what I heard come out of his mouth.  A sickness swelled in my throat, and I swallowed hard to force the malady back into my gut.

“What do you mean they never found his body?  We were informed that he died by suicide,” Percival inquired emotionally.  “The island took him; he was lost in the otherness,” Don answered, then stared down at the ground.

The four of us made uncomfortable but confirming eye contact.

“What is the otherness?” Percival mumbled.

With an impotent chagrin, Don’s voice sounded ossified and suddenly as ancient as this site, “Anyone that stays too long here, the island takes, and they become what we all are.”

“How does the island take people?  You mean Atticus is here?” I felt my voice strain.

“Yes, he is here.  He is everywhere.”  Don leered back up at me.  His eyes had seemed to blacken, and I saw no life left in them.  Concerned that all of my suspicions were ringing true, I positioned myself between Don and my friends.

“But you live here.  Why hasn’t the island taken you?” Ramsy wanted straight answers, as we all did.  None of this was making sense.

Don paused and stunned us with two words.

“It has.”

My senses reeled, impending doom filled each of us, and the cold hand of the grave brushed us just enough to say that it was among us.

“We want answers!  You must tell us what happened to our friend!” Ramsy felt heartsick and spoke with righteous conviction.

Don was not looking well.  Something inexplicable and anomalous was happening, so outlandish that there is no way to properly describe what we saw.

His appearance began to metamorphize.  Dark mossy clusters formed on his arms and face, and his face began to draw up as if he was having a stroke.  His hair was changing into some sort of organic matter.  We four began to back away.

Don spoke with a hellish tone; his voice was otherworldly – practically demoniacal with vehemence.  “The Island desires dolls.  It must be appeased.”  It was at that split second, that frozen instant in time when out of the corner of my eye, I swore I saw a doll pinned to the tree that was the exact caricature of what Atticus would look like if his image had been transformed into a doll.  How I wish now that we had time to truly take a closer look, but we concurred that it was no longer safe for us to remain there.  I experienced a panic like a murderous, damnable taunt.

Don lifted his hands into the air as the scornful mouthpiece of something grey and dejected.  He voiced in an odd accent and a deeper tone, “Stay too long, and it takes us all in the end.  I am a collector.  I collect dolls,” Don said as he continued through his bizarre physical change.  The wind picked up tremendously, and every malevolent doll began to shake, shuffle and rattle.  They were swaying violently, struggling against their restraints.

I vapidly prayed in expiation, not knowing if my life was moments away from being vanquished. Upset and disconcerted, we darted for the courtyard of ancient things.  We were not sticking around to see what mysteries the transmuted Don was going to share next.  We wanted to be estranged from this place, as far away and as quickly as humanly possible.  The freakish weather was tropical with strong winds and now the spitting of rain.  We ran as if our life depended upon it. Suddenly the sky opened up on us and pelted us with hail as if to say, ‘get off my island.’ In sheer terror, we ran and we never looked back.  Sad to say, but we momentarily dismissed why we were here, as our priority became how to save ourselves from the unknown.  A nameless monster must have been pursuing us.

Clumsily our legs pumped out of sync, fueled by adrenaline and the release of the endorphins that threw us into flight.  I had always thought of myself as one that would fight, but in this case, I turned my back and skedaddled.  Sprinting in retreat Olympic-style, I think we all made record time.  I could not be sure if we were being pursued because I never looked back once I started the escape.  Instinctually, we made our way back to the dock, somewhat relieved and thankful for the preservation.  We prayed that the boat had stayed and that we could make our exodus from this hideous place.  We were brimming with excitement at the site of the boat.  Jose Sanchez was waving his arms frantically for us to run to him.  In my peripheral vision, I would have sworn that the cacodemonic dolls were moving on their own, blinking their eyes and moving what limbs were still attached.  The four of us hit the boat in full stride, and Jose shoved off with a long pole that he used for navigation.  We were not making a speedy getaway for sure; we only wanted to distance ourselves from the freaky madness we had just experienced.

Jose asked, “Did you see?  Did you see?”

“See what?” I asked, completely out of breath.

“Did you see the ghost of Don Julian Santana Barrera?”

“Ghost!  Ghost?!  You knew this place had ghosts?!” Linus asked, highly agitated.

“I have never seen,” Jose confessed, still pushing the boat away from the island.

I had not put two and two together.  When we first met Don Julian Santana Barrera, I knew his name sounded familiar, but I thought it may have been just a common Mexican name in general and paid it no mind.  He had introduced himself as Don but was actually known as Santana.  We were calling him Don, and he never corrected us.  This was 2022, and Jose informed us that Don Julian Santana Barrera had died on the island in 2001, in the same spot where he had tried to rescue a little girl that died on the island 50 years previously.  We never ever found out what exactly happened to our dear friend Atticus.  We were doleful, not knowing how he spent his final days and hours.  One thing we were certain of is that he did not take his own life.  And in some phantasmagorical weirdness, he was now, and would remain, a fixture; forever part of the Island of the Dolls.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Dale Thompson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Dale Thompson

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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