Blind Man with a Pistol

The Horror of Fascism

There is something terrifying about Spanish horror. Films like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), Guillermo del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) (2001) and El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) (2006) have ushered the genre into maturity. I recently saw Juan Antonio Bayona’s brilliant El orfanato (The Orphanage) (2007), a chilling, unsettling entry into the growing canon.

These films don’t rely on the shock horror shtick of hit films like The Descent (2005) but rather on the ghastly subtext of fascism to motivate the plot. Both of del Toro’s films are set during the Spanish Civil War, and The Orphange, though set in present day, invokes concentration camp imagery in the institution—grey school uniforms, austere steel-framed beds with chipped paint, and, horrifyingly, incinerated bodies reduced to ash—to communicate the traumatic history of Francisco Franco’s Spain. Robin Wood famously argues that the monster in the horror genre remains a reconstitution of the repressed—the grotesque return of the uncanny. It’s difficult to deny that the trauma of Spain’s past still haunts the present, and Bayona’s film articulates this haunting beautifully.

(SPOILER: Those who have not seen the film and wish to remain unsullied by plot synopsis should probably just skip to the end. Hell, you might want to anyway.)

Laura, with her husband Carlos and her adopted son Simón, has returned to live in the mothballed orphanage where she was raised as a child. Simón has an unhealthy number of imaginary friends, and he interacts with them quite intensely. (Oh, and incidentally, they’re probably ghosts.) In a disagreement with his mother during a masquerade party for special-needs children at the old orphanage, Simón disappears, devastating Laura and sparking a nine-month child hunt.

The “monster” in El orfanato, if he can be so-called, is a “deformed” child, Tomás, who drowned as a result of a prank played on him by his fellow orphans just after Laura left the orphanage thirty years ago. The children are not blamed for their crime by local authorities (“they were only playing”). Eventually, however, Laura reveals that Tomás’s mother Benigna, a steward at the orphanage, poisons the children and burns their bodies in the incinerator. In the context of Spanish horror, the ghost of Tomás would seem to represent the trauma of Spain’s fascist past. He hides his grotesqueness with an even more hideous mask. In the press notes to El laberinto del fauno, del Toro argues that “fascism is first and foremost a form of perversion of innocence, and thus of childhood.”

But what is achieved by representing fascism in the ghostly body of an innocent, disfigured, child? The answer comes in a cinematic slight-of-hand that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), where the film’s title, referring to Danny’s mysterious mind-reading power, distracts from the actual threat of the film, Jack Torrance’s possessed, murderous rage. The “grotesqueness” of Tomás, a double of Simón, becomes a red herring for Benigna’s much more sinister crime. Benigna, (chillingly “mild” and “benign”), the institutionalized custodian, has executed an uncanny repetition of the crimes of Franco: the “disappearing” of inconvenient or unwanted auxiliaries. Indeed, as screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez points out in this interview with, where else but in Franco’s Spain could six children go missing without anybody raising a fuss? By the end of the film Tomás has ceased to act as the object of terror, and instead, the children who murdered him haunt Laura (and the audience) in her search for her son.

It is thus the crime of the children, their “lesser” murder of Tomás, which haunts the film. The real terror the film seeks to expose is the “benign” terror of fascism, the kind that disguises barbarity and atrocity for “play” or “innocence.” In the film’s most chilling scene, a hysterical Laura, alone in the orphanage, hauls out the old beds, drapes and linens of the Franco-era institution and reproduces the historical setting right down to an elaborate meal at a long table where she sits alone. The banality of the scene is undercut by the fascist history to which Laura has returned.

The film only achieves unity once Laura realizes that she was complicit in her son’s accidental death—she inadvertently locked him in a secret room where he fell and subsequently starved to death. As a result, she commits suicide in order to “join” Simón and his ghostly friends. Tomás’s mask disappears and Laura caresses his unhidden, smiling, sun-kissed face, “deformity”and all. Yet, as in the end of El laberinto del fauno when Ofelia chooses fantasy over reality, this unity is undermined by the suicide required to recover it. This scene of unity is followed by a juxtaposition with a gravestone memorializing Laura, Simón, and the six dead orphans. The audience is not allowed to comfortably accept Laura’s choice.

Our last view of Laura occurs when her husband Carlos, moving out of the orphanage for good, finds in the foyer the St. Anthony’s medal he lent to Laura while she searched for their son. She promised to return it once they found him. If only symbolically, Laura has found what she was looking for—she has restored the innocence of children from the perversion of fascism. When Carlos picks up the medal, his impression, and that of the audience’s, is one of closure. But the meaning of the medal, a metonym for the narrative of loss, memory and recovery in the film, suggests that Carlos, the cynical doctor and father figure, must begin his own journey of discovery and redemption. Carlos, and the audience, make the wrong interpretation at their peril.

The true terror of Spanish horror, then, is not “simply” the horror of fascism. Realist representations of fascism articulate such historical atrocity quite adequately. Rather, the Spanish horror is concerned with a repressed fascist history returning as uncanny innocence. Moreover, only through imaginative reconstructions of such sinister banality are such harmful strategies exposed. “It is not ‘seeing is believing,'” a medium counsels Laura after an encounter with the ghosts, “but the other way around.” Like the beast in El laberinto del fauno that sees with its hands, the mild fascism of present-day has infiltrated our senses making innocence grotesque and evil benign. And that is certainly terrifying.

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