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When it comes to urban legends that can scare people out of their wits, it is hard to find one better than the legend of El Cucuy, the Mexican version of the enduring “Boogeyman” legend.

While some might dismiss it as yet another device that parents in Spanish-speaking countries would use to keep their children in line, the story of El Cucuy and its meaning, purely by virtue of its enduring nature and its consistent resurfacing in popular culture, seems to be much more than that.

Read on to learn about the story and meaning of El Cucuy, the legend behind the story, and the way it has stood the test of time.

What Does El Cucuy Mean?

The name El Cucuy originates from European Spanish-speaking countries, where the word “coco” means coconut. However, in certain uses, it can also mean the human head or skull. A lot of other similar-sounding words also mean “skull” or “head”. This, of course, is in reference to the physical appearance of this mythical boogeyman, who is described often to have skin that is brown like the shell of a coconut and ample hair.

Que Viene El Coco

Que Viene el Coco (1799) by Goya

The Legend Behind El Cucuy

According to legend, El Cucuy is the boogeyman monster found in Mexico. He is described as a frightening creature – small, misshapen, and hairy all over. Among the other distinctive physical characteristics, El Cucuy is said to have large bat-like ears, red eyes that glow in the dark, and a set of large, razor-sharp teeth that can remind you of the barracuda fish.

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The urban legend states that El Cucuy attacks and abducts children who do not display exemplary behavior. He can, reportedly, hide under the beds or inside the closets of children for long periods of time, emerge suddenly when they are asleep in the dead of night, and take them away. Parents in Mexico would often chastise and discipline their children with the threat of El Cucuy if they do not behave. For many years, this is how the legend has passed from one generation to the next and stayed alive.

The legend also says that El Cucuy has the power to shape-shift and take on the appearance of a faceless shadow, dark and dangerous. It is this guise that he would use to enter the rooms of children undetected. He would then proceed to watch them in silence for a long time, waiting for the opportune moment. When that moment would arrive, he would strike, carrying the child off with him to his lair, situated deep in the mountains. There, he would proceed to slowly eat the child.

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Other versions of the story, versions that have sometimes been corroborated by personal experience, often have the legend in the terms of a cold and harrowing warning from a parent to a child, especially after a particularly egregious episode of bad behavior. In such an event, the parent would sternly rebuke the child, telling them that they would be “scratched” by El Cucuy during the night as a direct consequence of their behavior. Many have reported having difficulty falling asleep after this threat, and some, mysteriously, have woken up with sore feet and long, red scratches or gashes on their legs.

The Origin Behind the Stories

While the El Cucuy story originated in Europe, it can be safely assumed that it came to Latin America during the period of European colonization. Once the story reached its new home, it mingled with the local culture and became a different version of the original legend. And the El Cucuy meaning and stories took different forms. Apart from Mexico, versions of this urban legend are also rife in other countries like Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Honduras, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.

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While the essence of the legend is in lore and word-of-mouth generational travel, it has also been represented and celebrated in popular culture in more ways than one. The legend is mentioned in the works of de Cervantes and also seems to be the inspiration behind Goya’s terrifying Que Viene el Coco. His habit of capturing and devouring children also creates an interesting parallel with Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King’s It. King also uses a version of the El Cucuy story as inspiration for his novel The Outsider.

Apart from this, the El Cucuy character, in different versions and reimaginings, has been featured in several TV shows, movies. Here is Cucuy: The Boogeyman from 2018.

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And El Cucuy has even found himself in horror-themed events, the most well-known of which is the Halloween Horror Nights event hosted by Universal Studios in 2013, where legendary actor Danny Trejo gave voice to this monster. UFC veteran Tony Ferguson fights with the in-ring nickname El Cucuy – an apt choice thanks to his unpredictable, sneaky, and unorthodox fighting style.

El Cucuy Halloween Horror

While a lot of time has passed since its inception, the El Cucuy story, like any good urban legend worth its salt, is still going strong, thanks to parents and families in Spanish-speaking countries all over the world.

Additional Reading

El Coco (Bogeyman) in Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices of Mexican Americans

El Cucuy, the Mexican Bogeyman

Last Updated on April 1, 2022.

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  1. […] to other legends such as the Krampus of Christmas lore (an evil version of Santa Claus), as well as El Cucuy or Coco of Mexican lore. But there is a lot more to the […]

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