Warning: There are book spoilers ahead.
If you’re craving for True Detective with a supernatural twist, you’ll want to start watching HBO’s new miniseries, The Outsider. Based on Stephen King’s book of the same title (published in 2018), The Outsider is about a well-liked teacher and baseball coach, Terry Maitland (played by Jason Bateman), who is accused of killing a little boy named Frankie (Duncan E. Clark). But the truth is, there's another villain behind the crime, and you'll need to know about the El Cuco legend to full understand the twist.
Spoiler: The Outsider did it. The Outsider, a shape-shifting monster similar to IT’s Pennywise, is able to take a person’s DNA and take on their form. While Pennywise preys on children’s fears and appears as whatever they're most scared of, The Outsider feeds on sadness. The Outsider becomes whatever human it needs to be and it brutally murders children, who are the most susceptible.
Anyone who’s read King knows that the author is keen on borrowing popular mythology and folklore. King’s monsters will remind you of vampires and bogeymen and some of his villains aren’t too far off from sounding like the Devil himself. In The Outsider, King is no less influenced by existing scary stories, specifically one about the El Cuco.
What Is El Cuco?
The El Cuco (also known as Coca, Cuca, Cucuy, and Cucuí), is a monster who eats little kids, and it comes in many forms. According to Ancient Origins, the El Cuco originally was thought to be dragon, or a turtle-like creature with a dragon’s head. The El Cuco many Latin American and Spanish cultures know is more like a bogeyman. It can take anyone or anything’s shape and transform into it, including people and animals. The El Cuco from Mexico is a beast that has red eyes and “can hide anywhere, even behind the curtains.” In Brazil, El Cuco or Coco appears as a human-like, female alligator. In children’s stories by Brazilian writer José Bento Monteiro Lobato, El Cuco or Coca is essentially a witch who preys on little kids.
El Cuco, parents tell their children, is the monster that comes after you if you’ve been behaving badly — and you don't want to mess with it.
Who Started The El Cuco Legend?
Like most myths, legends, and folktales, the story of El Cuco is a really, really old one. According to Ancient Origins, El Cuco was first described in texts by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who was born in 90 BC. Siculus wrote that Iberian soldiers would take their enemies’ heads and pierce them through spears as an offering to the El Cuco (although he didn’t call him that). Some say the name “El Coco” comes from the word "coconut," but not all historians agree whether or not that’s true.
There’s definitely something to be said about horrifying heads: In Portugal, El Cuco or Coco is represented with a carved-out pumpkin with a face and lit candle inside (sound familiar?).
Is The Outsider El Cuco?
Investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo in the series) — who suspects the thing that’s out there killing children isn’t human — is the one who looks into El Cuco and learns that it also feeds on little kids. Could it be the same beast? Yup, it most definitely is.
But The Outsider’s version of El Cuco has its own King flare: Its true form is described as being a body of worms that can take a person’s DNA and transform into them — somehow this is infinitely more scary than a dragon, pumpkin head, or alligator lady.