Healing Through Expression: Guillermo del Toro and Trauma

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Dark fairy tale cinema can help heal in times of distress.

In the landscape of film criticism and analysis, between hot takes regarding classic space operas and fandom in-fighting about which caped crusader is better, we can sometimes forget a key element of cinema that’s at the core of what makes the art form so vital: its ability to heal.

Be it a light comedy after a hard day at the office, a fright flick that scares away national anxiety, or perhaps simply a film that makes you connect with a deeper part of your own emotional well being, the way cinema allows us to engage with complex emotions and past traumas is, for many, the unspoken reason why movies are so impactful.

Storytellers‘ video essay “How Guillermo del Toro Deals With Trauma” presents us with a question that is the seed of this and much of Guillermo del Toro’s creative visions:

“What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and again?”

The essay explores the lingering presence of specters in del Toros work as analogies for a life lived coping with past trauma, like a faint scar to remind you of past dangers you’ve thankfully survived. The above quote is from the 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone, which, along with del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, creates the first two chapters of an unfinished trilogy that attempts to wrestle with the complex emotions that surround Spanish identity in relation to the Spanish Civil War.

“The civil war, which was never completely healed in Spain, is a ghost; anything pending is a ghost.”

What del Toro means by this statement is that through the limited global scope of the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1939 with the regime of Francisco Franco taking control of Spain’s government, would soon be overshadowed by the cross-national conflict of World War II. Because of this, coupled with the savage brutality the Civil War wreaked on the country, Spain has a “conscious repression” of this atrocity that as a national identity its people have never fully reckoned with.

By setting these two films, The Devils Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, during and after the Civil War del Toro is able to touch upon the societal anxieties around the war in his own unique way: through the symbolic dark fantasy of fairy tale and ghost story. This is eloquently stated by Jungian psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched:

“When human resources are unavailable, archetypal resources will present themselves”

This is to say that when we are dealing with a trauma so severe and unfamiliar like war or, for instance, the terrorist attacks of New York that occurred right before the release of The Devil’s Backbone, we replace these hard to reckon with memories with those of fantasy. These archetypal fairy tales and ghost stories make the trauma easier to digest and understand. Del Toro himself has stated that Pan’s Labyrinth was made in response to the devastating attacks of September 11th.

Even beyond the scope of del Toro’s films, we can see this correlation between trauma and fantasy in the meteoric rise of the superhero film, notably Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, in the wake of 9/11. While not as nuanced or earthy as del Toro’s fantasies, they tend to capitalize upon similar emotions but with a traditionally American ideal. The notion of national exceptionalism, that we have great powers within ourselves to vanquish evil, and that through hope and heart we can come to unite in our common pursuit of good.

Further, the essay takes care to look at the symbolic imagery in del Toro’s work as guides to how he allows his characters to come to terms with personal and societal traumas. The threat of war in The Devil’s Backbone is the ever-present undetonated bomb at the center of the orphanage. A constant reminder of the dangers right beyond the walls of del Toro’s notion of Ofelia’s true journey back to her mother’s womb, specified by the fallopian imagery found everywhere in Pan’s Labyrinth.

But like the orphanage in The Devil’s Backbone is a microcosm of Spain’s sorrow during the War, we too can use our own lives as a microcosm for this relationship between healing and art. Who hasn’t seen a film that transported them, when they needed it the most, to another world?

Growing up in a rural farming community, I used the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling to transport myself from the dusty cornfields of Texas to the lofty mountainsides of Middle-earth and Hogwarts.

I’d say anyone who has seen a del Toro film, especially those that have gigantic fantastical worlds like Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, can attest to his work allowing us to relax into our imaginations, escape into worlds where mystery and adventure are alive. 

Perhaps imagination is the one true hint at there being something greater out there in the universe, that thankfully we’ve been given a way to cope with the emotionally fraught nature of life through allegorical escapism. Guillermo del Toro’s films are the perfect illustrations of art that have the power to heal not only the past but also the present.

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Actor. Writer. Available to host your next public access show. Bylines at: Ghastly Grinning, Rue Morgue, Diabolique Magazine.