When people think of Penny Dreadful, the supernatural beings that come to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, or witches in general. Things are different with the spiritual successor to Penny Dreadful, titled City of Angels with a setting of 1930s Los Angeles. This provides a new direction for the previously Victorian-era series and a focus on Mexican-American folklore. In Mexican-American folklore, almost no figure is better known than Santa Muerte. In this installment of Penny Dreadful Annotated, we’ll explore Santa Muerte and how the series can tackle its interpretation.
Santa Muerte Overview
Originally depicted as a male figure, with similar functions as the angel of death, the common depiction is now that of a skeletal female figure. The name is Spanish translates to “Sacred Death” or “Holy Death,” although various names with different translations have been used. Historians believe that the foundations in Mexican culture for Santa Muerte began from Mesoamerican religious beliefs mixing with colonizing Spanish practices. In Mesoamerica, the people personified death and held reverence towards deities of death and the afterlife. The Spanish would use skeletons to represent mortality and remind Catholics to confess sins before death. This would be a “holy death” although the Spanish would attempt to suppress the direct worship of death.
In the 1700s, one of the first recorded accounts featured Mexicans praying to a skeletal figure identified as Santa Muerte. By the 1900s, there was a recognized following of people that celebrated Santa Muerte as an established folklore or religious figure. A unique blend of the European Grim Reaper and Latin American death saints produced the contemporary depiction of Santa Muerte. This has generated mixed reception by Catholics, especially those that belief Santa Muerte is one of God’s servants. The Catholic Church has gone as far as claiming certain worshipers of Santa Muerte are borderline Satanic.
Popular beliefs hold that Santa Muerte can grant blessings and perform miracles for believers, although she’ll punish believers that place her image near other saints or deities. Considered a personification of death like the Grim Reaper, Santa Muerte represents healing, protection, and a safe transition to life after death. There is also a dedicated cult within both Catholic and independent groups that worship Santa Muerte, with over 10 million followers across the Americas.
Penny Dreadful Interpretation
In Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Santa Muerte is introduced as the caretaker for the dead and guide for souls transitioning to the afterlife. Her “sister” in spiritual terms is the demon Magda, who doesn’t believe humanity is worth mercy. In Penny Dreadful, the character of Santa Muerte is apathetic towards living humans, caring only for them as they die. It’s teased that this is due to centuries of experiencing death and collecting souls, which over time has caused her to stop caring for living humans.
She can be summoned by worshipers but displays irritation at the act. She’s usually addressed by believers as the Angel of Holy Death, escorting souls to Heaven, and has supernatural abilities associated with death. She has been shown to control who can physically see her, manipulate the weather, use telekinesis, teleport, and place a mark on individuals with unknown effects.