If the mystery at the center core of HBO’s The Outsider is keeping you up at night, there’s a good reason. It may be a part of our collective subconscious.
The series is based on the book The Outsider by Stephen King. The scripts are written by Richard Price, who wrote HBO’s The Night Of and The Deuce, as well as novels like The Wanderers, Clockers, and Ladies Man. King is the long-reigning master of the macabre, while Price keeps things real and captures the mundane details which make the distant mystery personal. The two literary legends combined create what could be a perfect, leisurely paced, episode of The X-Files. That cult classic series featured such monsters-of-the-week as Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, el Chupacabra, Baba Yaga, and soul eaters. Meanwhile, the investigators flushing shadows and pulling up hoodies on The Outsider appear to be chasing a “Tear Drinker” with a particular taste for the cries of, and for, children.
“All the old cultures had the bad habit of turning truth into fairy tales,” a prison visitor tells private investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) during the episode “Que Viene el Coco.” And no, it’s not the truth about impending coconuts that’s out there. “When we tell our children about El Coco, we say, ‘If you misbehave, it’ll take you away and eat you.’” But Gibney is investigating a baffling and brutal child murder in Cherokee City, GA. She is not looking for childhood folklore. “This day and age we find it so difficult to believe in anything that we can’t explain,” the curious sleuth is warned.
Maria Coneles, an inmate Gibney visits on the show, was convicted of killing a little boy even though she was videotaped at another place at the time of the murder. It is the same story behind the case Gibney is tracking. Terry Maitland was named a child killer, arrested, tried, and ultimately executed on the street by the young brother of the victim, but only after a video shot in an entirely different state proved he could not have committed the horrific murder. The cases are similar, evidence incontrovertible, right down to blood and fingerprints. Coneles’ crime happened before Maitland’s, and the scenario goes back even further in the series. But the truth is the suspect they are chasing can be traced to incidents preceding the series or the book.
“El Cuco? Yes. It’s a boogie man for children,” I was told when looking for experts for the piece. This is what most of the children who grew up hearing about el coco remember. Essentially, Cuco is used by tired parents to scare their kids to sleep.
“My earliest memory of hearing of it must have been when I was about five or six years old,” Krystal Martinez, a spiritual practitioner who runs Magia De Luna Shoppe, told Den of Geek. “My grandmother watched many children. I can remember wanting to go upstairs and her telling me I can’t because he was up there and would get me. I can remember standing at the base of the stairs trying to see if I could see him.”
Martinez doesn’t think her grandmother, who is a very spiritual woman, “believed el Cuco was real, rather she wanted to keep us in line. El Cuco can be put in the same line as Santa Claus. I’m from Puerto Rico but I’ve met people from Latin America, Portugal, and other countries who are familiar with it. So it really seems like it’s something that has just been passed down as people have traveled. At the end of the day, it’s a traditional folk tale used to spook kids.”
Every culture has these kinds of monsters. They’re called mano pelosa in Sicily. The series itself mentions Pugot Mamu, Black Annis, and tells us “in Western culture, we know it as the Bogeyman.”
In Portuguese, the word “côco” means coconut, which could also mean “head” or “skull” in conversational Spanish. The monstrous head of Coco belongs to what is commonly referred to as a hairy beast with razor-sharp teeth and claws. The creature hides in closets, under beds, on roofs, and fireplaces and can change shape. He, or she, has been described as a ghost with an empty pumpkin for a head, but is also depicted as a vicious fanged creature.
Brazilian folklore portrays Cuca as a female humanoid alligator. Other regions picture it as a dragon, owl, dark shadow, or a local person who has died. Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s 1799 drawing “Aquí viene el cuco (Here comes the bogey-man)” shows a mother protecting her screaming children from a terrifying hooded creature. The painting is shown in The Outsider, along with Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Son.”
In Monção, Portugal, Coca is celebrated as the dragon who fights with Saint George during the Corpus Christi celebration on Holy Thursdays. If the horse Saint George is riding at the “Festa da Coca” is scared by a wooden figure of the creature on wheels, this means it will be a bad year for the crops. If the horse doesn’t react, Saint George cuts off Coco’s tongue and an ear, ensuring the crops will be good. Let that be a lesson to you, Punxsutawney Phil.
Interestingly, the first reference to a creature called Coca is from the 1274 book Livro 3 by Doações de D. Afonso III. The name didn’t stick until 15th-century creatures were called Coca. But might Coco’s origin have come even earlier than that?
According to Ancient Origins, Coco may have been the beast ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described in his chronicle of the Battle of Selinus, which took place in 469 BC. He wrote Iberian warriors hung the heads of their enemies on their spears and offered them to the beast. This supposedly became a custom across many ancient battles in the Iberian Peninsula.
Coco, the boogeyman most know it as today, can either devour a child, leaving no trace, or take them to a place of no return, and soak up the residual sorrow. But the monster wasn’t always malevolent. It began as kind of guardian angel. It didn’t become truly fearsome until 16th-century conquistadors from Spain brought the idea to Mexico, where Aztec and Mayan mythology depicted dragons as more monstrous than heroic. El Cucuy of Mexico had red eyes and could hide anywhere.
Wikipedia calls El Coco a mythical “bugbear,” which is a type of hobgoblin. The carnival troupe terrorizing Greendale on the newest season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, for example, includes hobgoblins like Pan and the gorgon.
Regardless of its specific form, Coco is reputed to be extremely horrible to look at, but apparently can be stopped with lullabies. The oldest known rhyme about El Coco is in Juan Caxés’s 17th-century work Auto de los desposorios de la Virgen, which warns children to go to sleep before Coco comes and eats them. At the turn of the 20th century, Brazilian children’s story writer Monteiro Lobato used Coco to educate children about geography, astronomy, and Greek mythology.
King’s literary contribution to the mythology of El Coco breaks it down to worms that transform into a person through their DNA. It shape-shifts like Pennywise the Clown in IT and feeds on sadness. They are also similar to the boggart in the Harry Potter series, which are ageless shape-shifters who assume the form of whatever bogeyman would scare the victim most.
In “Alex Gives Up,” the second episode of the fourth season of Disney’s The Wizards of Waverly Place, the Latin American-descended Cucuy family get their name from the mythological creature. While they age and usually look human, their faces change to the dark-gray skull shape with large red eyes of the nightmarish creature. The old and wealthy family live a lush life on Earth rather than in the Wizarding World.
In the series Grimm, authorities blame murders that are committed by El Cucuy on feral dogs. The cops and district attorneys on The Outsider only wish they could blame the crimes on wild animals.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.