Loved by fans for his award-winning fantasy films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro is always associated with fairy tales and horror. The director has the fascinating ability to find poetic beauty in the grotesque, often exploring his perception of monsters and other mystical creatures as symbols of great power. In addition to insectile imagery and religious themes, he celebrates imperfection, the underworld, and the paranormal.
Del Toro shows extraordinary artistry and craftsmanship in finding and demonstrating beauty in the supernatural, utilising haunting paranormal elements to communicate more profound tales of humanity and substance. One excellent example of this talent lies in The Devil’s Backbone, a hauntingly beautiful and tragic story of a 12-year-old boy growing up in the Spanish Civil War who moves to an orphanage haunted by a ghostly past. Guillermo del Toro finds harmony between terrifying and captivating audiences with complex, layered writing, an effective soundtrack and pleasing cinematography. The Devil’s Backbone is the pinnacle of the niche era of 2000s horror that saw paranormal stories as a vehicle for social and historical commentaries.
Other gothic horrors under del Toro’s belt are The Orphanage and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. The former, released in 2007, reads as a supernatural Gothic tale about motherhood. It revolves around Laura, who moves into an old orphanage with her husband and adopted son. When the son goes missing following an argument about imaginary friends, Laura becomes distressed and frantic in her search for him. The Orphanage explores the inability to forget the past and how this causes complications for the future, a very authentic and relatable message for audiences. Childhood innocence blends with unresolved trauma and is brought to life by director J.A. Bayona’s vision of the orphanage as a setting where tragedy is omnipresent. It’s just as upsetting as it is creepy.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a 2010 remake of the TV film of the same name that was released in 1973. It tells the story of a young girl who accidentally unleashes a pack of bloodthirsty monsters from the basement of her gothic mansion. Guillermo del Toro found inspiration from writer Arthur Machen in giving the monsters a fairy origin, negotiating audiences’ attitudes towards them by embedding them in a network of magic and grotesque darkness. The director shared (via Wales Online): “I love the Welsh author Arthur Machen and his idea that fairy lore comes from a dark place, that it’s derived from little, pre-human creatures who are really, really nasty vermin but are magical in a way, living as they do for hundreds of years. His books are what compelled me to do this.”
The film’s direction effortlessly constructs a chilling atmosphere. However, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark couldn’t escape the cage of cliché jump scares, compromising its overall gothic style and tone.
The filmmaker also recently produced Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, an anthology horror series for Netflix. With an imagination that knows no bounds, carried to fruition through practical effects and amber lighting, del Toro contributes to the dark fantasy and horror genres with consistent hits that stay with audiences long after initial watches. The director discussed his interest in the paranormal during a recent interview with The Talks, sharing the first unexplained experiences and sightings that started the fire. “I saw a UFO when I was a teenager! And I have heard two ghosts in my life,” del Toro cites as his first taste of the supernatural.
Despite not being a statement piece of his work, the extraterrestrial has been featured in del Toro’s filmography. In 1997, he released Mimic, the sci-fi horror film based on Donald A. Wollheim’s short story of the same name. The film follows a scientist who creates a monster to rid humankind of disease-ridden cockroaches. Mimic stifled del Toro’s creative strengths, as a huge studio was behind the feature. Thus, it feels out of place compared to his other brilliant works, lacking the originality of his personal touch.
However, this UFO sighting still brought waves to the director’s outlook on life: “It really gives you a sense of how all the natural rules can break,” he said. “Suddenly, you’re in front of something that is impossible, so your first reaction is shock”. He also acknowledges a shift in how he feels about the supernatural. It still holds great significance in his artistry, especially the stylised execution and thematic values. “The love I feel for ghosts and monsters is the same,” the director shared. “I am in love with monsters in a way that is very intimate and spiritual.”
Guillermo del Toro also references one of his favourite horror movies, Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and based on Mary Shelley’s revolutionary science-fiction gothic novel. The film explores what it truly means to be human, who the real monsters are and how harsh judgement can be. “I am still moved by the creature of Frankenstein, by all the classical monsters in a way that is very close to religion,” the filmmaker explains.
The director builds from this idea of religion, primality, and its justification of judgement and condemnation. When asked about how he views monsters and what they symbolise in stories, the director replied: “They represent everything outcast. I can be an outcast by my race, by my gender, by my sexual preference, my politics, whatever — but monsters are simply outcasts.”
He then cites another of his works as an example of this. The Shape of Water is a 2017 romantic fantasy film starring Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon, following a government lab cleaner who falls in love with a humanoid amphibian trapped in the lab. The film exemplifies del Toro’s ability to portray emotion through captivating visuals, as The Shape of Water takes a bizarre concept and exhibits humanity through it. He feels that The Shape of Water is a film “where you see a world that is dreaming of the future, but at the same time, that has racial tensions, where it is very easy to hate. This creature is sort of a complete outcast, invisible… So, monsters are the patron saints of the outsiders.”
Watch del Toro discuss his relationship with the horror genre below.