You thought your town was dead and boring in the summertime, but you haven't been to Comala, Mexico. The setting of Juan Rulfo's 1955 novel, Pedro Páramo, is, quite literally, a ghost town.
The narrator, who goes to the dusty old town of Comala in search of his father, Pedro Páramo, finds himself both sorting through the skeletons in his father's closet and conversing with the ghosts of the townspeople. We'll leave it up to you to figure out which one of those statements in figurative, because one of them is more serious than a fright-induced heart attack.
What prompted Juan Rulfo to write this American Horror Story-worthy plotline? Was he an Ouija board fanatic, or really into séances? Nope. He was just interested in current affairs. In the 1950s, Mexico was becoming more and more urban. People were abandoning the countryside to move to greater opportunities in the city. So the idea of dead town would have resonated with many Mexicans in the middle of the 20th century—it might remind them of their hometown.
The book is the only novel Juan Rulfo ever published, and he was in his late thirties by the time it came out. However, the novel, along with his collection of short stories The Burning Plain, was enough to make him one of the most important Mexican writers of the 20th century.
The novel's spooky switching between narrators, and the fact that most of them are, well, dead, makes it a predecessor for the Magical Realism movement popularized by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Juan Rulfo is the magical yet realistic godfather of a whole slew of crazy-famous Latin American writers. Not bad for a dude who wrote two slim volumes in his thirties and then never picked up a pen again.
But you should read Pedro Páramo, not because it started a trend, but because it's "the most perfect novel you've never heard of" and Juan Rulfo is still considered "one of the greatest Latin American writers." Also, this is one of the creepiest, spooktastic novels out there and is sure to make your spine tingle even as it makes your synapses fire overtime.
Especially when the air starts turning crisp and the leaves start turning brilliant colors, there's a feeling of being haunted. And no, we're not talking about being haunted by Pumkin Spice Lattes. We're talking about ghosts.
We hear you groan in anguish, Shmoopers. We hear you say "Ugh. There's nothing spooky about dressing up in a bedsheet with eyeholes." Yeah, but we're not talking about easy-to-spot boo-moaning ghosts. We're talking about ghosts that are indistinguishable from the living, ghosts who seem so tangible that you start to wonder whether you are, in fact, still alive. Ghosts whose bored chatter seeps into your mind when you're trying to fall asleep late at night. Ghosts whose presence alerts you to your own passing existence and the unknowable eternity of being dead.
Yeah, we told you it was spooky. Juan Rulfo ain't playing around. His Pedro Páramo is one of the creepiest books ever written because its plot makes both its protagonist and readers deeply, deeply uneasy.
There are a lot of questions that come up thanks to the ghosts in Pedro Páramo: What's wrong with the town of Comala? Why does the narration keep switching from character to character like a relay baton? Who is even alive in this novel?
But the lingering, get-under-you-skin-and-keep-you-awake-at-night question is: What is reality anyway? Yikes.
Reading Pedro Páramo is a terrifying experience because it casts doubt on everything we know. Memories and perceptions in this novel are all sorts of warped, leading the reader to ask questions way beyond the standard "Is the red you see the same red I see?" You start wondering whether your memories are legit at all, or if your perception of the world holds any sort of water. Cue The Twilight Zone theme song.
The chorus of ghosties in Pedro Páramo helps keep this sense of unsettled dread rolling around in your mind not only during your reading of this novel, but, if you're anything like us, for a long time afterward as well. And if that isn't the definition of being haunted, we don't know what is.
A Man of Few Words (But Man, are They Good Ones)
Read more about other works by Juan Rulfo—although there really aren't many.
The Official Story
Read a biography of the author here.
Watch your favorite Mexican ghosts come to life on the silver screen in this production of the novel.
Read the New York Times' obituary of Juan Rulfo here.
Check out this illustrated edition of the English-version of the book here.
Watch the end of the 1967 film version of Pedro Páramo. (Spoiler alert: somebody dies.)
Juan Rulfo got a Google Doodle for his 95th birthday.
Listen to Juan Rulfo himself read fragments of the novel, in the original Spanish.
Scary Background Music
Check out this Pedro Páramo-inspired playlist of scary songs from Latin America.
Lookin' Sharp, Juan
A photo of the author.
Go Ahead and Judge
The cover of an early edition of Pedro Páramo.