This grotesque playground of mutilated dolls looks like the stuff of nightmares. But the tragic story behind this unlikely tourist attraction is perhaps more disturbing.

It looks like the stuff of nightmares: a grotesque playground of mutilated dolls, many hanging limp from nooses, others with heads attached to spikes, all with soulless eyes staring blankly ahead.

Mexico's La Isla de las Munecas, or "Island of the Dolls", has become an unlikely tourist attraction just south of Mexico City, drawing thousands of tourists and photographers morbidly fascinated by the strange spectacle.

The island is home to about 1500 dolls. Photo / Flickr, Alejandro De La Cruz
The island is home to about 1500 dolls. Photo / Flickr, Alejandro De La Cruz

But it's the tragic story behind the island that is perhaps more disturbing, and according to legend, it begins with the tragic death of an anonymous young girl more than 50 years ago.

A photo of Don Julian Santana inside his small hut on the island. Photo / Wikimedia Commons/Px-lga
A photo of Don Julian Santana inside his small hut on the island. Photo / Wikimedia Commons/Px-lga

According to reports, a man named Don Julian Santana left his wife and child one day and moved to an island on Teshuilo Lake in the famous Xochimilco canals to live out his years as a recluse.

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Upon arriving at the island, reportedly some time in the 1950s, Santana discovered the body of a young girl who had drowned in a canal. He later found her toy doll floating nearby.

Moved by the discovery of the girl's body, and perhaps to appease her spirit, Santana set about transforming the whole island into a shrine dedicated to the lost soul.

For decades he collected dolls by their hundreds, including baby dolls and even some Barbies, and decorated the island with their lifeless bodies. Santana salvaged the dolls from the canals and garbage.

Santana collected the dolls over 50 years. Photo / Flickr, Alejandro De La Cruz
Santana collected the dolls over 50 years. Photo / Flickr, Alejandro De La Cruz

He lived in a small cabin, where his photo and a few possessions are still on display, surrounded by trees and some 1500 of his decaying dolls.

As word of the island spread Santana began accepting a small fee to show visitors around his peculiar home.

The dolls are in various states of disrepair. Photo / Flickr, Alejandro De La Cruz
The dolls are in various states of disrepair. Photo / Flickr, Alejandro De La Cruz

Ghost stories are a part of local lore in the region, which gave way to spooky tales of the dolls coming alive at night, apparently consumed by the dead girl's spirit.

But in a dark twist, in 2001, Santana's nephew found him dead in a canal - in the same spot where Santana had decades earlier discovered the corpse of the girl that inspired his life's work.

Most were collected from garbage or the canals. Photo / Flickr, Kevin
Most were collected from garbage or the canals. Photo / Flickr, Kevin

As popular interest in the island and its dark legend grew, relatives of Santana questioned whether the dead girl really existed and suggested it was a figment of Santana's imagination.

But the strangeness of the legend behind Santana's bizarre island has continued to fascinate the public.

An eerie sight. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
An eerie sight. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

Isla de las Munecas is about 28km south of the centre of Mexico City. Visitors can catch a ferry there from the Embarcedero Cuemanco or Embarcadero Fernando Celada, and it's about a four-hour round trip - but not all tour boats stop at Isla De las Munecas, so ask ahead.

Photographers have become fascinated by the island's lifeless inhabitants. Photo / Flickr, Kevin
Photographers have become fascinated by the island's lifeless inhabitants. Photo / Flickr, Kevin