What better way to wrap up NOFS’ Haunting on Film Street month than with a look at the master Guillermo del Toro’s ghosts. Those familiar with del Toro know his spirits, and films in general, share a particular style. One can easily distinguish a del Toro ghost by the ethereal effects and haunting visages, but also due to the nature of his hauntings. Beneath the surface of these ghosts lie nuanced metaphors.
Guillermo del Toro’s two most famous ghost stories, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Crimson Peak (2015), share a purpose for their specters. The two films don’t share much other than the fact that they are both del Toro ghost stories, but they are both tragic figures seeking to prevent more tragedy.
The Devil’s Backbone opens with a quote that is essentially del Toro’s thesis on what ghosts are:
“What is a ghost?
A tragedy condemned to repeat
itself time and again?
A moment of pain, perhaps.
Something dead which,
for a moment, appears alive.
An emotion suspended in time.
Like a blurred photograph.
Like an insect trapped in amber.”
This thesis informs how del Toro’s ghosts look and act and provides motivation for the spirits. If the specters are tragedies condemned to repeat and moments of pain, they would clearly want to prevent the same fate for others, particularly those in danger of falling into that fate.
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In the Devil’s Backbone, an orphan named Santi is accidentally killed by an older orphan-turned-caretaker named Jacinto. To cover up his crime, Jacinto wraps Santi in ropes and sinks his body in the orphanage’s cistern. Throughout the film, a new orphan, Carlos, encounters Santi’s ghost. While he is initially afraid of the spirit, Carlos quickly discerns that Santi is not evil and is actually warning the orphans of the danger Jacinto presents. Santi knows that Carlos and the other orphans are vulnerable to Jacinto and endeavors to protect them. (Spoilers Ahead!) Similarly, headmaster Casares’s ghost assists in the orphans’ escape after death, having promised never to leave them. While Casares may not have the same motivations as Santi, the intention to prevent further tragedy is clear.
Crimson Peak provides a different look at the same premise though the story is a bit more convoluted! Edith Cushing is an heiress to her wealthy father’s estate. She becomes romantically involved with an inventor, Thomas Sharpe, despite her father’s disapproval. After Edith’s father mysteriously dies, she moves into Thomas’ estate in which he lives with his sister Lucille. Quickly, Edith begins seeing ghosts in red gowns. These spirits are later revealed to be Thomas‘ former wives whom he murdered with his sister for their inheritance. Instead of the phantoms directly informing Edith of her new husband’s secrets, they are simply harbingers of her own fate. Another notable echo of The Devil’s Backbone comes at the end of Crimson Peak. (Spoilers Again!) After Thomas is killed by his sister, his spirit assists in Edith’s escape. Like Casares, he does this not to prevent someone from befalling his same fate, but instead due to a realization he had before his death.
The parallels between the films are obvious, but the messages of these films go deeper. Santi and the crimson ghosts are, to quote Edith herself, metaphors. In Santi’s case, the spirit represents a loss of innocence and the despair and hopelessness of that loss. Jacinto is irredeemable as an antagonist, but the small glimpse of humanity we get is looking at him as a child in an old photograph. In a way, it could be said that Jacinto is the opposite of Santi as he actively caused another to suffer the same loss of innocence that he experienced. The ghosts in Crimson Peak also offer a look beyond the supernatural. However, as with the plot, the metaphor is a lot more involved.
Crimson Peak is not only a comment on late 19th-century literature and the female gothic genre itself; it is also a comment on the role and treatment of women at the time. Dr. Evangelia Kindinger has written a superb examination of Crimson Peak through this lens, and to quote her piece,
“As domestic phenomena, ghosts of women that are trapped at home and in ethereal bodies mirror women’s invisibility and powerlessness. They act as women’s supernatural doubles…”
It would not be possible to sum up Dr. Kindinger’s piece in only a couple of lines, so I highly encourage you to read the full article.
The interpretation of the crimson peak ghosts as a representation of women’s suffering is apt even solely within the film’s context. Thomas and his sister Lucille see the women they have murdered as tools for their own ends, even disregarding Edith’s undeniable talent as a writer. It is only through Edith’s eyes that the ghosts become something more. A warning not unlike the one her mother’s spirit provided years before, “Beware Crimson Peak!”
Del Toro’s use of ghosts as metaphors and plot devices, as opposed to antagonists, is partly a credit to his cinematic genius. Still, this contrarian attitude extends to his non-spectral films as well. Considering Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Shape of Water (2017), and even Hellboy (2004), the “monsters” are never the grotesque creatures. The monsters are the human characters. Del Toro often tells the story of when, as a child, he encountered his uncle’s ghost, but I’ve found the most striking of that story is when he mentions that he was not afraid. While his films are not exactly kid-friendly, I’d like to think that Guillermo del Toro wants to tell the world not to be scared of these ghosts. They are simply there to keep you from making the same mistakes they made.
What are your thoughts on Guillermo del Toro’s ghosts? Do you find them terrifying? Do you have a ghost story to share with NOFS? Shoot it over to us on our Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!