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(Credit: Far Out / Angel Santos / Wikimedia Creative Commons / Raúl AB)


Exploring the haunted landscapes of Guillermo del Toro's Spain


‘Hauntology’ – A concept referring to the return or persistence of elements from the past, as in the manner of a ghost.

What is it to be haunted? I imagine, for most, the very mention of the word conjures up images of pale ghosts walking through walls, or of hollow-eyed ghouls startling the life out of an unsuspecting bed-dweller. We’re all familiar with the idea of people being haunted. It’s a dynamic that has formed the bedrock of horror cinema since its inception – but what about the place? Can a town, city, or county be haunted? Well, if the films of Guillermo del Toro are anything to go by, then the answer is yes.

The Mexican director has been exploring the way in which a country’s past can haunt its present throughout his career, but nowhere is that theme more pronounced than in the 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). These movies are set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, a brutal and bloody conflict that, in both stories, takes on an intensely spectral power.

In del Toro’s twin horror films, Spain’s history bleeds as if from a clumsily stitched wound. The country’s civil war was fought between 1936 and 1939 but was subsequently overshadowed by the all-consuming devastation of the second world war. Indeed, the brutal fighting – that saw Anarchists, Communists and Republicans loyal to the left-leaning Popular Front government fight against the Nationalist military group led by General Francisco Franco – is very rarely the focus of mainstream cinema. But, in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the events that took place in those three years in the 1930s take on immense subtextual weight.

In these films, the traumas of the Civil War continue to haunt the Spanish people – often quite literally. The ghost in The Devil’s backbone, for example, is – in a way – a personification of memory, an embodiment of a cultural trauma that refuses to be forgotten. By placing such hauntings in historically significant locations, del Toro gives them shape and life – allowing the audience to see them for what they are: events that may have happened very long ago, but which are still very much undead. So, if you will, I’d like you to walk with me as move through the haunted landscapes of Guillermo del Toro’s Spain.

Exploring Guillermo del Toro’s Spain:

Belchite, Zaragosa

Pan’s Labyrinth opens with a shot of the ruined city of Belchite. As the camera pans across the crumbling walls and arches, the narrator describes how the princess in Ofelia’s story has forgotten “who she was and where she came from”.

The conflict in Spain inspired a generation of artists, including Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, both of whom fought in and wrote about the complexities of the Civil War. It should be noted that countless women went to fight as well, risking their lives in the pursuit of another nation’s liberty. Picasso also painted many of his works in response to the conflict, the most famous of which is Guernica. However, whilst the war continues to be an important part of Spanish history, elsewhere in Europe, it is rarely discussed. By using Belchite as one of the film’s opening locations, del Toro brings Spain’s history right to the surface, asking his audience to remember that devastating period. Indeed, the ruined spires speak of the sheer levels of destruction – both human and architectural – that swept the country throughout the late 1930s.

Located 40 miles south of Zaragoza in Aragon, northeast Spain, The town of Belchite was once home to 4,500 people. It stands in one of the country’s most arid provinces and, at one time, boasted a blend of Baroque and Gothic architecture. However, in 1937, during the Battle of Belchite, it was destroyed and has never been rebuilt. Belchite sat directly on the front line of the conflict. It was initially controlled by Nationalist forces, but the Republican army managed to take control of the town after a lengthy siege that lasted from August 24th until September 7th, 1937.

Ernest Hemingway and two other journalists, Martha Gellhorn and Herbert Matthews, were said to have visited the site shortly after the battle ended. There, they found it “so totally ruined that often one could not tell where the streets had been. People were digging under piles of mortar, bricks, and beams pulling out corpses,” according to Cecil D. Eby. “Mule carcasses, cooking pots, framed lithographs, sewing machines—all covered with flies—made a surreal collage. Belchite was less a town than a nasty smell.”

Today, Belchite looks much the same. The shattered clock tower looks as though it ceased ticking just moments ago – marking an eternal minute in time. Above the rubble-strewn streets, the once-grand cathedral – built from the same rust-coloured stone as the landscape itself – is pockmarked with bullet holes and mortar shells, and, sitting on the air itself, there seems a thick, melancholy silence. Franco left the site of Belchite to serve as a monument to his absolute authority. It did just that for over three decades until, as it is said, “the dictator died in bed”.

Now, Belchite stands as a ghostly reminder of both the carnage of war and the brutal reality of fascism.

Sunset in Belchite, Zaragosa. (Credit: Fernando Jimenez)

Sierra De Guadarrama, Iberia

One of the most important and reoccurring locations in Pan’s Labyrinth are the pine forests of Guadarrama, from which the resistance fighters undertake guerilla attacks against the fascist regime.

In del Toro’s film – set five years after the events of the Spanish Civil War – the forest acts as both the backdrop for Ofelia’s most elaborate fantasy’s and many of the film’s most brutal battle scenes. The expansive pine forests in the mountainous region of Guadarrama acted as a strategic outpost for the anti-Franco guerrilla forces during the Civil War and throughout WW2. The mountainous landscape contains hundreds of hidden pathways and trails, formed over hundreds of years by travellers, farmers, and vagrants. High on the mountain’s vertical inclines, the remains of shepherds cabins can be seen teetering, suspended in time alongside sheep-shearing stations and the brick chimneys of old sawmills. Well into the 20th century, this land was travelled by migrating flocks of cattle, the pathways of which, Spain’s resistance fighters relied upon to navigate the landscape.

By 1944, the anti-fascist guerilla forces had managed to push the German troops into retreat, at which point they once again turned their attention inward and continued to fight Franco’s brutal dictatorship, one that, by that time had already created all manner of ghosts. Those forests are haunted not only by the memory of the Battle of Guadarrama – which saw innumerable casualties on both sides – but also by the mass shootings of anti-fascists, communists, and other “enemies of the state” that took place there. Indeed, the whole of Guadarrama seems to hum with the presence of these unnamed victims, not least because it is home to The Valley Of The Fallen – a grand Basilica that was commissioned by Franco the year after the Civil War ended. It was built by over 20,000 Republican prisoners, many of whom died or were seriously injured during its construction.

Franco’s ambition was that The Valley Of The Fallen would “defy time and forgetfulness” and, in a way, his wish came true. The monument remains an unavoidable and controversial part of the landscape. In essence, it is a monument to Fascism and the authority of the regime, one that many Spanish people have tried to forget. Just as the French did following the second world war, following Franco’s death in 1977, Spain made a ‘pact of forgetting’, which has meant that over 100,000 of Franco’s victims have been denied the remembrance that the dictator himself is still granted today.

The vast space of Sierra De Guadarrama, Iberia. (Credit: Alejandro Piñero Amerio)

Talamanca del Jarama, Madrid,

Set during the conclusion of the Civil War, The Devils Backbone is often referred to as the sister picture of Pan’s Labyrinth, with both films featuring children coming to terms with the devastation of the conflict.

The story takes place largely in the Santa Lucia orphanage, where Dr. Casares and Carmen are sheltering children of the Republican militia. The crux of the action takes place in the shadow of an unexploded bomb, the presence of which is almost as ghostly as the spirit of Santi, a deceased orphan who is rumoured to walk the corridors as ‘the One Who Sighs’. Indeed, children – either dead or undead – play an important role in The Devil’s Backbone. The heightened way in which they see the world around them allowed del Toro to personify some of the more abstract ghosts of the Civil War. The unexploded bomb, for example – a symbol of history’s habit of repeating itself – has such a powerful sense of character that, as one orphan says, if you “put your ear against her, you can hear her ticking”.

One of the most surprising things about The Devil’s Backbone is that the film’s ghosts are not malevolent spirits. They are not there to simply frighten us. Instead, they are mournful entities attempting to communicate something essential, something that must be known before they can be at peace. In other words, they act as a medium between past and present in much the same way as the landscape does. Most of The Devil’s Backbone was shot in Talamanca Del Jarama, just one of the many towns that make up the Autonomous Community of Madrid. It lies to the north of the Spanish capital, on the border of Castilla-la Mancha, at the very heart of the Iberian Peninsula. It is a town with a rich historical, cultural and artistic heritage, and is filled with the remains of medieval and Romanesque architecture. The fortified wall that surrounds Talamanca de Jarama also hints towards the many conflicts that have taken place on its foundations, stretching back to the medieval period, when it provided the battleground for warring Christian and Moorish factions.

However, Del Toro likely chose the location for its proximity to the site of the Battle of Jarama which took place in 1937 and saw some of the most bitter fighting of the entire Spanish Civil War, earning one area of Jarama the name ‘suicide hill’. The Battle saw over 20,000 soldiers either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner on both sides and left many of the towns along the river in ruins, with unexploded bombs and mines strewn throughout the landscape. Just as the spirit of Santi sighs in the corridors of the orphanage, the Jarama countryside pulses with the remnants of conflict, the ticking of bombs, the physical injuries obtained in the heat of battle, and the offspring of fallen Republican soldiers.

Madrid, Spain. (Credit: Àlex Folguera)