Charmed, I’m sure: the Encantado

The rapidly disappearing wonderland of the Amazon holds many surprises–both ones that might help humanity (see: a concentrated host of plants with anti-cancer properties), and others that might drive it insane (see: the black caiman, green anaconda, and vampire fish). As usual, we’re going to focus on something from the latter category.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember my post on the Scottish Finfolk back in 2016. I came across the encantado then, but its legend was so similar to that of the Finfolk that I didn’t want to post about them back to back.

In both cases, we have water-based monsters who are able to pass as human. Despite living in magical, utopic kingdoms, neither are satisfied with their lot. They thus come ashore to seduce people or steal them away. Humans often blame them for unwanted pregnancies and disappearances (though some of that may be just be a cover for their own, mortal chicanery).

After that, the two myths diverge. Encantados are more friendly than the sinister Finfolk; they can get humans to like or even love them. They’re also more strange. Instead of coming from the ocean, they come from the silty freshwater of the Amazon. And instead of their natural state being vaguely humanoid, they are large, fleshy, pink dolphins.

Boto dolphin

Whether you believe in the encantados or not, these dolphins–boto, in the local lexicon–are very real. These intelligent, curious creatures can get to be over 8 feet and 400 pounds. Scars cover their backs, relics from fighting each other. They have long snouts filled with long, slender teeth, and bulbous foreheads used for echolocation.  Buried in all that flesh are eyes are so small that some assume they’re blind. But botos can see quite well. In fact, legend has it that they are so perceptive that looking into their eyes will give you nightmares for the rest of your life.

Since it can be difficult to flirt when you have a giant, tooth-filled snout, encantados disguise themselves as humans when they come ashore (which is not that often, and only at night). They are drawn especially by parties, where their skills at seduction and music can be best appreciated. Humans can be so taken with them that when an encantado goes to leave–hurrying to return to the water before the break of day–a group will chase it, begging it to stay.

Boto dolphin (encantado)
Abduction reenactment.**

That’s how the encantado likes it. But woe betide anyone who gets too close. In addition to kidnapping and/or leaving women with unwanted children, encantados turn married men into babies and implant them in their wives’ wombs. They can enchant humans into doing their bidding, make them horribly sick, drive them insane, kill them, or, most troublingly, turn them into doughy dolphins themselves. They can also control the weather. I’m sure that’s fun during the flooding season.

Once you’ve been targeted by an encantado, only a shaman can save you. Many lay people take the “ounce of prevention” philosophy and never go into the river alone, avoiding it entirely when it’s dark. Even then, no one can be sure of their safety. Stories tell of canoers driven mad by an encantado simply swimming along behind them, doing nothing more than gently bumping their boat.

Perhaps because of these legends, people native to the Amazon have historically treated the boto with great respect. Killing or eating one was on par with killing or eating a human, and might bring you even worse luck. But, as usual, industrialization has come in and messed everything up. The dolphins are under threat by overfishing, pollution, and all the other familiar forces of environmental destruction.

Regardless of supernatural status, the boto are fighting back. One researcher described how in the course of just a few decades, the dolphins went from getting tangled in fishing nets to treating them as a buffet. Maybe they’ll adapt to all the other crap we’re throwing at them, too. And if they’re as scary as the legends say they are, god help us if they do.

boto dolphin (encantado) eye
They’ll be watching.***

Want to avoid the encantados’ revenge? The Amazon Conservation Team partners with indigenous peoples to protect the rainforest. They also have great ratings on Charity Navigator. Check them out.

*Image courtesy of Oceancetaceen [CC BY-SA 2.0], from Wikimedia Commons

**Image courtesy of Christoph2007 17:20, 31. Jul. 2007 (CEST) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

***Image courtesy of Nortondefeis [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy flush: the haunting of the Hotel Galvez

I’m going to be straight with you: this post started with me Googling “bathroom ghost.” I was looking for a monster of a different sort–I enjoyed our Toys-R-Us(™) spirit a while back, and was hoping I could find something similar. Though it’s a little more posh, I came up with the Hotel Galvez.

Modern-day Galvez seating area, captured by Patrick Feller.

Close up on Galveston, Texas: I’m not on the up-and-up of big vacation hotspots and so didn’t recognize the name, but some of you might. It’s an island in the Gulf Coast, set up to provide the perfect getaway: beautiful beaches, pools, an amusement park, and, of course, luxury hotels. The Hotel Galvez is a king among these, nicknamed the “Playground of the Southwest.” It has been frequented by people like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart. It’s a beautiful, massive building replicated to look just as it did when it first opened in 1911.

At the time, it was heralded as a symbol of renewal. 11 years before, the deadliest storm in U.S. history swept through Galveston and killed somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people. Word had it that the inhabitants of an orphanage were among the dead–in one case, the remains of a nun were found still tied to those of the children she was trying to lead to safety. There were so many bodies among the wreckage that the remaining Galveston residents decided to bury them en masse at sea. That didn’t work so well: the next time the tide came in, bloated, rotting corpses came in with it. These were hastily burned, and the island resumed its struggle to rise from the sodden ashes.

The Hotel Galvez in all its glory, brought to you by

The Galvez helped rebuild Galveston, bringing in tourists and money. It also brought lovers. In the late 1950’s, a woman named Audra stayed there to wait for her fiance, a sailor due to come in from Gulf for their wedding. Naturally (as I’m reporting her story on Monster Meet), Audra’s love was doomed. Her fiance’s ship went down in another terrible storm; Audra was told no one made it out alive. She hung herself upon learning the news–either in the bathroom of her room (501 or maybe 505, depending on who you ask), or in a turret elsewhere in the hotel. Because life is cruel, Audra’s fiance showed up shortly thereafter, in perfect health and anxious to see her.

For those of you keeping track, we now have 8,000+ violently dead, including nuns, orphans, and a heartbroken bride snuffed out at her prime–three types of ghosts so common as to be almost stereotypical. The stage is set: now let’s turn off the lights and watch what happens.

Galvez dining area cerca 1911, courtesy of the DeGloyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Unless they are in the habit of Googling “is this hotel haunted” as part of their vacation planning, guests at the Galvez may at first have no idea that anything is amiss. Then they might notice a painting in the hall whose eyes seem to follow them, or pass two strange women in 19th-century outfits who vanish before you can look at them twice. The ladies bathrooms can also hold a surprise: on the most casual end of encounters, toilets flush repeatedly over the disembodied sound of children laughing.* On the more intense end, sobs fill the empty bathroom and the stalls rattle violently, making it very difficult for the living to poop in peace.

Guests’ rooms offer even more fun, especially if they’re on the 5th floor. Orbs of light float through walls, footsteps echo down the empty hall, and every once in awhile, someone will wake up to find a woman in white standing at the foot of their bed.  As you can imagine, if you’re not expecting this type of thing to happen and then it does, you might leave some nasty Yelp reviews. One woman on TripAdvisor rated the Galvez 2 stars because something repeatedly blasted her phone’s dial tone as soon as she turned off the lights (her rather sour review is titled “They didn’t tell us it was haunted”). Commenters elsewhere have reported flashing lights; invisible things climbing into their beds; and even something biting them, leaving marks that wouldn’t go away. In many cases, when guests report these mishaps to the staff, the staff just shrug. “That’s how it goes. It’s haunted here.”

With all the breaking glasses and candles that won’t say lit, bartending at the Galvez must be a pain. (Photo cred to Patrick Feller)

They’ve got good reason to be jaded. If the guests are put upon, the staff are twice so.  One woman’s dusting was interrupted by the erratically flushing toilets and invisible laughing children; she ended up having to yell “I’m in here” to get them to stop. Another came in early for her shift in reception and received a call from one of the rooms that was not only vacant, but also in the middle of being renovated and had no phone in it at all (no one spoke on the other end of the line, and when the poor woman hung up, she realized her phone wasn’t even turned on, either). There have been glasses that fly off of tables and break themselves, candles that blow out on their own, and the presence of a strange man in the corner of the laundry room.

Then there’s dealing with the ghost hunters. The Galvez attracts plenty. Some come in low-key with EMF detector apps on their phone (yeah…I don’t know about that one, either) to see what they can find. One woman said that she communicated with Audra using the app: she asked Audra about herself, and Audra’s response was “Bathroom. Ow.” Other hunters come in with more advanced equipment, with more dramatic results. The Galveston ghost hunters went to stay on the 5th floor while it was being renovated, and witnessed all of the room doors slam against their safety catches for a few minutes. They also captured the image of what appears to be a nun.

Fortunately for everyone, the ghosts of the hotel Galvez don’t appear to have any darker plans than to be mildly irritating. So far. Business at the hotel seems to be doing well, whether in spite of or because of the ghosts. Between wedding pictures and shots of a brilliant blue pool, the Galvez Facebook page showcases a photo of a cocktail named “Ghost Bride,” so they don’t seem to be afraid of cashing in on their unorthodox reputation. Whether you’re looking to tan on the sundeck or poop your pants in long, empty hall of the 5th floor, the Galvez seems like the place to be.

Have you ever heard someone flushing the toilet while laughing maniacally? Have you been that person? Share your story in the comments below.

*Proof that bathroom humor never dies.


Patrick Feller, via Flickr, via Flickr

Southern Methodist University, via Flickr

The Black Hat of Guatemala: El Sombrerón

One of the most interesting things about monster stories is what they can teach you about life.* The legend of el Sombrerón is no exception. This Guatemalan boogeyman appears in tales spanning much of the country’s history, and remains important even now. Though he used to appear more frequently, these days he comes chiefly on nights with a full moon, such as the night that I’m posting this. Look out your window, dear reader, and then shut it tight.

Though he might announce his presence with dark, baying dogs or the jingling of spurs on his black boots, el Sombrerón can also appear without warning from out of a shadow. Some say he’s preceded by a swift, cold breeze. His most distinctive features are his eponymous hat–so wide that it obscures his face–and his short stature. Like many monsters, he dresses all in black, and speaks to no one. Invisible, he upsets cups, knocks over candles, and sends horses galloping through the streets. He braids horses’ and dogs’ hair so delicately that the patterns have to be left forever or cut out. Beneath the white light of the moon, he roams from town to town, accompanied by his mules, dogs, and a cart full of coal.

Does he sound like more like an average poltergeist than a serious problem? For some families, he is. Others, however, will be unlucky enough to find his mules hitched outside of their home. These are the families with long-haired, beautiful daughters. This is where trouble really begins.

Thanks to Jorge Jaramillo over at Flickr for  this origami representation.

El Sombrerón has a thing for this type of woman, and, as night falls, will pull out his silver** guitar, walk up under her window, and begin to sing in a voice only she can hear. Woe betide she who responds to his charms. The legends vary on what exactly seals her fate–whether it’s hearing his song, looking at him, or letting him braid her hair–but once she engages with him, she’s pretty much screwed. The woman becomes completely enamoured of Sombrerón, and her torture begins.

His braids won’t come out. Bits of dirt and rock appear in her food, discouraging the already heartsick women from eating at all. She won’t sleep, and she won’t think of anything but him. As el Sombrerón visits her less, she wants him more, and any efforts to remove her from his presence will only hasten her descent into madness. Finally, the woman will die of a broken heart, and el Sombrerón will abduct her soul to stay with him forever. In some versions of the legend, he seems upset that he killed his beloved, and will visit on occasion to cry at her grave. Other times, he simply moves on to the next house.

I’ve only found one tale in which the woman escapes this devil’s lust entirely. The story is repeated often: el Sombrerón once targeted young Susana in la Recolección, a cobblestone mission in the mountains of Guatemala. Alarmed at her declining health and the strange signs in their home, Susana’s parents took her to be blessed by a priest, and cut her hair as short as it would go. El Sombrerón apparently moved on after that. No word on what Susana thought about the whole thing….it seems that normally even if the woman doesn’t die, she is cursed to live out life as a spinster (¡qué horror!), unloved and still secretly pining away.

Probably not him, but a nice and dramatic picture, anyway.

Where did this monster come from? There’s a story about a Mayan family who sought to correct their errant son’s behavior with the help of a brujo, or medicine man. The brujo told them to make as big of a hat as possible, which they did, and he infused it with magic. The parents then left the hat in their house, and awoke one night to find their son struggling under it. The son couldn’t take the hat off, and endured endless ridicule from the townspeople as a result. He grew no taller as he aged, but he did grow more frightening. Using the magic from the hat, he learned to turn invisible, to scale walls and walk across ceilings. Ultimately he caused even more mischief than he had before.

The site where I found the story doesn’t mention anything about maidens, but it’s easy to imagine the boy reaching a certain age and and deciding to use magic to get what he wanted from the opposite sex. Another blogger points out that el Sombrerón’s obsession with long hair and braids might suggest Mayan origin, as well–or at least an appreciation of Guatemala’s indigenous roots. It’s an interesting thought, one more colorful than the simple explanations that cast him as the devil or a goblin.

Regardless of his origin, the take-aways of Sombrerón horror stories are clear: follow your parents’ orders and do not engage with strange men. Many writers have pointed out how depressingly gender-specific these lessons were intended to be; stories of el Sombrerón’s are told chiefly to scare young women into doing as they’re told. He reinforces the traditional courtship model (of women withholding their affection and attention until marriage) by demonstrating a worst-case scenario of what happens when you break it.

But el Sombrerón can teach us all a little about how dangerous passion can be. If you’re so obsessed with something (or someone) that you find yourself overlooking rocks in your food, it might be time to dial things back a little.

He also teaches us that getting a new haircut can be a fabulous way to bounce back after a romantic disaster.


Have you had any experience with men wearing strange hats and playing guitar? Share your story in the comments below.

*In addition, of course, to what they teach you about what storytellers want to teach you.

**Disregarding acoustical improbability for the sake of a smoother story.