The 111 mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico are terrifying to behold — and have a tragic backstory that makes their anguished expressions even more haunting.
The Guanajuato mummies have fascinated and terrified visitors for generations. The 111 Mexican mummies — whose faces are frozen in eternal screams — are certainly a bone-chilling sight to behold.
Indeed, when science fiction author Ray Bradbury first visited the sleepy town of Guanajuato, Mexico in 1947, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico,” he said of the trip. “I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies.”
Bradbury then went home and immediately wrote The Next In Line, a bone-chilling short story about malevolent supernatural forces.
Look through the gallery above to see the Guanajuato mummies that so disturbed Bradbury, and discover their tragic story in the post below.
The Origins Of The Guanajuato Mummies
In the 1830s, the world was gripped by a cholera epidemic, causing death rates to spike across the globe. At the time, health officials were still unsure how the disease spread, and millions became sick as a result.
In Mexico City alone, at least 5 percent of the population died from the 1830s cholera outbreak according to the National Library of Medicine.
Guanajuato, several hours north of Mexico City, even began to run out of room in their underground cemeteries for all of the bodies. Instead, they stared interring them in newly made above-ground crypts.
In this warm, arid environment, the partially embalmed corpses began to mummify.
Then, in 1865, the local government instituted a "burial tax," forcing families to pay a certain sum of money to keep their loved ones buried. When families were unable to pay the tax, their loved ones' bodies were wrenched out of their resting place and moved to a storage facility.
Here, the owners of the crypt first saw these bodies after their burial and gasped at what they saw: mummified bodies with their faces frozen into what looked like screams of terror. The mummies hadn't really died screaming in agony — according to National Geographic, their jaw muscles naturally relaxed after death — but the result is still shocking.
Once word of the Guanajuato mummies spread around town, curious townsfolk began paying workers at the cemetery a few pesos to catch a peek. And as the workers pulled more and more bodies out of the crypt, they found even an even greater amount of gruesome mummies.
By the early 20th century, the mummies had become a full-blown tourist attraction.
Who Are The Guanajuato Mummies?
Those who excavated the mummies could not identify every corpse, and tourists made things worse by stealing their name tags once the mummies were put on display, robbing the mummies of their identities.
But records for a handful of the Guanajuato mummies still exist.
One body they pulled out, belonging to an Ignacia Aguilar, had bit into her arm. Excavators believed that her relatives buried her alive when the symptoms of her cholera made her heart appear to stop. When she awoke to find herself in her grave, she bit down hard on her arm, filling her mouth with blood.
Another of the Guanajuato mummies was a woman who died in childbirth and her 24-week-old fetus, possibly the youngest mummy in existence. Another body belonged to a doctor named Remigio Leroy.
Once the mummies were on display, stories about their identities spread like wildfire across the city. Some were more true than others.
"To make people interested in seeing the mummies, cemetery workers started telling stories about hangings, desperados, and witches," Gerald Conlogue, a diagnostic imaging professor at Quinnipiac University who studied the mummies, told National Geographic.
By the early 20th century, cemetery workers had put 111 mummies on display for tourists. In 1968, a museum called El Museo de las Momias opened to display the Guanajuato mummies.
When the museum opened its doors, it continued to play on the drama of the mummies' unknown identities. Tour guides and visitors alike nicknamed one female mummy with severe scoliosis La Bruja, or The Witch. Another corpse earned the name El Ahogado, or The Drowned Man.
Even today, despite plaques in the museum which offer some background information on the mummies, visitors continue to make up stories about who these individuals once were and what kind of lives they led.
The Current State Of The Mummies
Today, for 85 pesos, visitors can walk the mummy-lined halls of the museum and explore a macabre piece of Mexican history.
However, the museum isn't without controversy. For one, a 2023 study found that the mummies may be contaminating the living with dangerous fungal spores. Though the mummies are held in glass cases, the cases themselves may not be airtight, which could allow the spores to escape.
"[A]t least one of the corpses on display, which the [National Institute of Anthropology and History] inspected in November 2021, shows signs of a proliferation of possible fungus colonies," said the institute, as reported by the Associated Press. "It is even more worrisome that they are still being exhibited without the safeguards for the public against biohazards."
Secondly, many people have issued complaints regarding the treatment of the mummies.
The mummies have toured across Mexico, eliciting critiques about the careless handling of some of the corpses. National Geographic reports that they have been displayed at conventions and, to the anger of many, even in Guanajuato's underground tunnels during a car rally.
In an attempt to provide the mummies with greater dignity, the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico created teams to research 19th and 20th-century death certificates, church documents, and newspapers to identify more of the mummies.
Even DNA testing is on the table; the INAH hopes that identifying the mummies might connect them to living relatives.
"They should be treated like human bodies," Mexican anthropologist Juan Manuel Argüelles San Millán said to National Geographic. This means that if a descendant of the mummies wishes to have his or her relative buried, it should be done "immediately and without any problem."
"These are just regular people who are repositories of information about the period they lived in," Conlogue agreed. "They walked these streets, they went to the old market. They shouldn't be a freak show."
After learning the true story behind the infamous Guanajuato mummies, learn about the fiendish plot behind the burial of Egypt's "screaming mummy". Then, check out the Paris catacombs, the world's largest crypt.