The Texas cryptids we’ve tracked the past few weeks all have back stories of some sort. A woman scorned, a man whose life was taken unjustly, or a creature with an appetite for goat blood.
But there’s one with no rhyme or reason – which may make it all the more frightening.
It’s that instinct you get to pull your exposed dangling foot back under the covers. That light anxiety you feel when your hand drapes over the side of your bed, waiting for something to grab it.
It’s name is El Cucuy and he’s waiting for you when you don’t go to sleep. At least that’s what parents and grandparents have told generations of children to keep them in their beds.
“As a deterrent or a way to police behavior,” says Domino Perez, a professor of English at the Center for Mexican-American studies at the University of Texas Austin. “All you need is a scary man who’s going to get you if you do something that you’re not supposed to do.
Maybe he lives under the bed. Maybe he lives in the closet. Everything is about keeping that child inside the house where it’s safe.”
El Cucuy is basically the Latin American or Hispanic version of the Boogeyman. And if you grew up hearing this story, you had many sleepless nights.
“I was very frightened of the Cucuy,” Perez says. “I developed an elaborate set of rituals when I was a child. You know, it was okay to have one arm out of the blanket, but you couldn’t have more than that. You had to be covered up all the way to your head.”
It’s something many, including myself, still do – whether it be instinct or habit.
“There are ways in our lives that we recognize that there are these external threats and that we, you know, how we protect ourselves. Where we park, you know, how we walk. Those kinds of things get ingrained right through storytelling,” Perez said.
Xavier Garza is the author of “Creepy Creatures and Other Cucuys” and for him, the Cucuy is more of a general name to describe the infinite amount of scary things that go bump in the night.
“Cucuy encompassed all of them,” Garza said. “It encompassed La Lechuza, the witch owl. All the Cucuys, they all carry that whole basically ‘pórtate bien’ – ‘you better behave or the Cucuy’s going to come and teach you a lesson.’ You know, and they’re all like morality stories.”
What the Cucuy looks like depends on who you talk to. Garza describes the Cucuy as a shapeshifter.
“It takes the form of whatever it is that you fear the most,” he said.
Author David Bowles describes something similar in the book “Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas.” He describes the Cucuy as “a shape, emerging from the darkness, formless, faceless and ever so cruel. Hungry to gobble up little ones still awake in the still of the night.”
Garza says it makes sense why El Cucuy is targeted toward youngsters.
“The older people get, the more his power diminishes,” he said. “Which is why he preys on children, the young, teenagers. Because, you know, when people get older, they realize there is real monsters out there.”
But for some folks, especially around San Antonio and Central Texas, El Cucuy’s story has transformed into a different cautionary tale.
Stephanie Bergara grew up in East Austin, she’s the singer in the Selena cover band Bidi Bidi Banda.
“There used to be a club between Austin and Lockhart – Del Valle and Lockhart – called the Rocking M,” she says. “And it was like where people would do quinceañeras and bodas and parties and things like that.”
One night, she says, there was a dance and a very handsome stranger walked into the club and asked this woman to dance. They danced all night and she was having a great time. Towards the end of the night as they were dancing she looked down at his feet. Instead of human feet the man had a chicken foot and a pig’s foot. She screamed and as the rest of the men in the club chased him out, he vanished.
“That’s ‘Dancing With The Devil,’” says Perez. “What you see in that instance is a conflation of the two, of El Cucuy and the devil.”
The Texas folklore legend almost always takes place at a specific existing or previously existing dance club. There are usually even newspaper clippings around the sightings. Garza is very familiar with this story.
“Go to El Valle, you mention the devil of the dance and they’ll say, ‘The Boccaccio – that nightclub in the Valley that burned down, I believe – oh, yeah, it happened in Boccaccio,’” Garza said.
Some will claim they were there or a friend of a friend was there, and he swears that it’s true, Garza says. Or if you go to San Antonio they’ll mention El Camaroncito Bar or a bar once called “La Gloria,” even though the building’s been torn down. But the fact that it’s no longer there adds to the power of the story.