In the early 1950s, an astute government worker assigned to the vital records department in the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala kept noticing a strange phrase on the line marked “cause of death” on many death certificates, especially among those of infants in the more rural areas of the state. The phrase was “chupado por la bruja” or, “sucked by the witch.” This resulted in an investigation into the rural areas by the state authorities from the capital in Tlaxcala City, and eventually led to a law passed in 1954 by the state legislature requiring municipal presidents to report all causes of death marked chupado por la bruja to the medical authorities in the state capital for further investigation. This strange cause of death was ascribed to the deaths of hundreds of deaths of infants over the years exhibiting the same symptoms and conditions: severe bruising and discoloration of the upper body with time of death usually at night. The state authorities had no idea exactly what they were dealing with and after the 1954 law passed the rural town authorities stopped listing witchcraft as the cause of death on the formal certificates, perhaps to keep the meddling government out of their affairs or perhaps to cover up something larger.
Tlaxcala is a small state in central Mexico, just east of Mexico City, and was the site of a pre-Conquest kingdom called Tlaxcala which resisted incorporation into the Aztec Empire. The Kingdom of Tlaxcala was culturally Aztec; its people spoke the Nahuatl language and had shared most of the same religious beliefs with their counterparts in the mighty empire that surrounded them. There was one pre-Hispanic legend, though, that was not shared with other peoples of the region and remained localized even to the modern day, the belief in the Tlahuelpuchi, a shape-shifting female vampire which feeds on the life of young infants. The Tlahuelpuchi phenomenon is so endemic to the rural areas of this small state that many people in Mexico have never even heard of it.
So, what exactly is a Tlahuelpuchi? The idea of the vampire women of this region dates back hundreds if not thousands of years. They are human women and part of families during the day, but at night they transform themselves in a variety of ways to go about their evil deeds. A tlahuelpuchi is born and not made. Once you are born a tlahuelpuchi, you remain that way and it has been said that it is a curse that neither god nor the devil can erase. One cannot distinguish a baby destined to become a tlahuelpuchi from a normal baby at birth or even through most of its childhood. A young woman usually becomes one of these vampire-witches around puberty and the realization is sudden. After the realization, a woman’s soul is lost for 3 days after which time she becomes infused with special powers, which do not grow or diminish over time. One cannot transfer this condition or any of its powers to another person, so, unlike the traditional European vampire, there is no transformation of the vampire’s victim into another tlahuelpuchi. There is no recruitment, and there is no master-apprentice relationship. The woman just becomes a tlahuelpuchi out of simple bad luck. Family members may know of it, but they keep it quiet because there is nothing they can do about it. These vampire-women are not group oriented in the slightest and may even fight amongst themselves over territory. They act alone and are independent agents of evil, but sometimes they do the bidding of other more powerful evil entities, such as the Devil. A tlahuulpuchi may interact with humans on behalf of the devil, as an intermediary to make deals or to issue warnings, but that is not her primary function.
Much like the European vampire, the tlahuelpuchi needs human blood to survive, but specifically the blood of infants, preferably those aged between 3 and 10 months, because that is the most invigorating to them. They have been known to attack older children and adults but this is rare and usually out of desperation because if they cannot kill a baby for its blood at least once a month, the tlahuelpuchi will die. The killings usually occur during the night and are more prevalent in the colder and wetter times of the year. The tlahuelpuchi does not need to lurk around looking for prey every night but only for a few days a month.
One of the main powers of these vampire-witches is their ability to shape shift into a variety of different creatures to fit whatever situation they are in. 75% of the time they change themselves into a turkey, but other times they can turn into a wide variety of animals, all the way down to ticks and fleas. When the tlahuelpuchi transforms herself into an animal she gives off a luminescence or phosphorescence. This is one way to identify an animal which is really a tlahuelpuchi and makes it easier to track and kill it. The glowing nature of the creature is so inherent that part of the name tlahuelpuchi comes from the Aztec word tlahuia “to illuminate.”
The whole transformation process is an interesting one. On the last Saturday of the month the tlahuelpuchi, while still in human form, gathers together ingredients to build a small fire on the floor of her kitchen. The ingredients, each with its own supernatural property include: capulin wood, copal, agave roots and dry zoapotl leaves. She begins to chant and walks over the fire 3 times in north-south and east-west directions. She sits on the fire and that’s when the vampire-woman detaches her own legs so as to shed symbolically a part of her that makes her very human, that which enables her to walk upright. The legs are left in the tlaheulpuchi’s human home while she is off stalking prey or causing havoc in her animal form.
If the tlaheulpuchi needs to travel far, she will transform herself into a crow or buzzard. If she is local, she may transform herself into a dog, cat or coyote. When she approaches the home of an intended victim, she usually shape-shifts into a turkey and then flies over the house in a cross pattern, before landing. If she cannot enter the house in turkey form, the tlahuelpuchi will turn herself into an insect or rodent to get into the house through a crack or small gap. Once inside, she becomes a turkey again and then hunts her prey. Before she kills the infant, she must immobilize the other humans in the home. She does this by emitting a glowing mist that serves as a sort of knock-out gas. When the tlahuelpuchi approaches her infant victim, she transforms back into a human to go about her nefarious deed. Very few people can resist the paralyzing mist but some humans who have limited supernatural powers of their own, shamans, for example, are immune to the mist and may fight off the tlahuelpuchi. In the rare cases when the tlahuelpuchi has been thwarted, she usually returns to the house, often in daylight, to cause some other mischief as a form of revenge. For example, the tlahuelpuchi may come back in the form of a coyote to eat the person’s livestock or take the form of a donkey to mess up a newly planted field. She may also try to put a spell on a person to cause that person to do harm to himself or even kill himself. There have been reports of tlahuelpuchis causing people to walk off cliffs.
There are several ways to ward off a potential tlahuelpuchi visit to your home. In a possible blending of European and native beliefs, garlic is often cited as a good way to ward off these vampire-witches. The tlahuelpuchi is afraid of mirrors and metal. Sometimes parents of infants may put a small mirror in the baby’s crib or may attach religious medals to the baby’s clothes. One reference stated that a surefire way to ward off the tlahuelpuchi was to put an open scissors underneath the baby’s crib. A combination of a sharp instrument and the metal was a certain repellant.
The small innocent victims of these vampire-witches are afforded special treatment in death. The body of the baby is cleansed, usually by a local folk healer who is well-versed in dealing with curses and the demonic. There is no music during the wake or the funeral procession. While the coffin is open for viewing a cross made of pine ashes is laid out on the floor under the table supporting the coffin.
Can a tlahuelpuchi be killed? The answer is “yes.” It is a complicated “yes,” though and has a somewhat ritualistic component. In what may be another blending of European and native beliefs, the easiest way to kill one of these vampire-witches is to drive a wooden stake into her heart. The second “easy way” to kill a tlahuelpuchi is decapitation. Another way is to go to her human home, find her detached legs and throw them into a blazing fire. Traditionally, though, an ordinary person could kill one of these creatures after first immobilizing her. There are three ways to immobilize a tlahuelpuchi. One, you can take off your pants, turn one leg inside out and throw your pants at her. Two, you can take a white handkerchief, put a rock inside of it, tie up the corners and throw it at the creature. Third, you can take off your hat, put the hat upside down on the ground and drive a knife or machete through it. Once you have the tlahuelpuchi immobilized, you can kill it any way you want. Much like Europeans and even early American colonists have killed women accused as practicing witches, many women in Tlaxcala have been killed for being suspected tlahuelpuchis. The last known execution of a tlahuelpuchi occurred in 1973.
As with anything on Mexico Unexplained, we must examine the evidence and ask ourselves, can tlahuelpuchis be real? What explains the rash of infant deaths in rural Tlaxcala state, the supposed sightings, and the detailed descriptions of rituals and transformations? Why is this phenomenon relegated to only one part of a small state in Mexico? Is this just a community’s way of explaining away high infant mortality in their area?