The city of Guanajuato is located in a valley in the heart of Mexico.

Residents of this valley town have been mining silver for millennia, which is why Spanish conquistadores saw the site as a valuable commodity when they began settling the area in 1540.

Just over 300 years later, residents established the Santa Paula Municipal Pantheon—above-ground crypts for burying the community’s dead. As the cemetery filled, leaders of the community enacted a law requiring residents to pay a burial tax if they wanted to keep their loved ones interred in the pantheon in perpetuity.

Some families, however, were unable or unwilling to pay the tax. In those cases, the deceased were removed from the crypts.

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Russ Bowling/Flickr

The people tasked with the removal were surprised to find, as Nina Strochlic describes it, that “the bodies had been naturally mummified by a combination of the tomb’s cement walls, heat, and low humidity.

“The preserved bodies were moved to another facility, and it wasn’t long before the workers began accepting small bribes from curious residents and tourists who wanted to see the mummified remains of Guanajuato’s past residents.

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The Daily Beast

Today, there are 111 known mummies in Guanajuato, and 59 are on display in the town’s popular Museo de las Momias, which attracts visitors from all over the world. Author Ray Bradbury visited the catacombs and wrote a short story, “The Next in Line,” about the grim experience.

“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico,” the writer said later. “I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies.”

Today, the legends of the Guanajuato mummies remain, thanks in part to the catacombs’ popularity in Mexican culture.

The mummies feature prominently in everything from children’s books to horror movies. Despite their popularity, however, the mummies haven’t been a subject of scientific study until very recently.

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Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons

Researchers from Texas State University studied 22 of the mummies and analyzed several local legends concerning the crypts.

Some of those legends proved accurate, locals told of one young man who’d died due to a blow to the head. The researchers found that an impact “displaced his face by 10 millimeters and probably caused death,” in a characteristic case of scientific understatement.

One of the most disturbing legends claimed that at least one of the mummies was buried alive.

Several of the mummies seem to be screaming, and one woman appears to be covering her head—a horrifying sight, to be sure.

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Cesar Landeros Soriano/Wikipedia

“She doesn’t have her hands together in the prayer position as a lot of the mummies do… Rather, she has her arms up over her head, sort of covering her face,” forensic anthropologist, Dr. Jerry Melbye said.

“Apparently, she was found face down as if she were trying to put pressure on the coffin lid with her back by pushing up,” he continued. “I’m not sure whether having her arms up is an indication that she was buried alive.”

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The Daily Beast

Currently, the science doesn’t fully confirm or debunk the theory of live burials at Guanajuato, but Melbye’s research seems poised to bust this myth. While science can help us dispel some myths, however, many mysteries still remain.

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