Written by Kameron McBride
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
This opening narration, spoken by the great Federico Luppi, begins Guillermo Del Toro’s 2001 film El Espinazo Del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone), a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. The story centers around a 12-year-old boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who is sent to an orphanage after his father dies fighting for the Reds in the war. The orphanage is run by Dr. Casares (Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) who shelter children of the Republican militia. The orphanage itself is set in the middle of a vast desert, the nearest town miles away and filled with fascist supporters, meaning that the orphans are completely isolated in an island surrounded by danger.
When we as an audience break down this film understanding the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and Freud’s ideas in his essay The Uncanny, we can look at how it sets up the haunting taking place in the orphanage and why it is scary.
The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936-39 between a group of Nationalist rebels led by General Francisco Franco and the incumbent Republic government. The Nationalists were largely supported by Germany and Fascist Italy, while the Republic went largely unsupported by allied forces. Franco would eventually win the war and install a fascist government in Spain and set out to purge the country of his former enemies. Thus, the former Republicans became rebels, fighting against the fascist dictatorship using mostly guerrilla tactics. The Civil War is seen by many to be a precursor for World War II as the Axis forces began spreading farther into Europe without any allied forces acting. The film shows the orphanage as a refuge for children of the Republicans (or “Reds”), as Dr. Casares and Carmen are both Red supporters themselves.
We learn from a very early point in the film that the orphanage contains a few haunted secrets. A defused bomb sits in the middle of the grounds, jutting up from the earth like a war monument. The children swear that if you place your ear against the rusted metal one can still hear the bomb ticking. We also learn of “The One Who Sighs,” an apparent ghost of one of the children who died at the orphanage. This ghost is a very unique looking one, with a stream of blood permanently leaking from its forehead that impossibly trails off towards the ceiling, rather than dripping to the floor. Its skin looks bloated and white, like a dead fish, while a watery aura constantly seems to surround it.When it is discovered by one of the orphans during a nighttime raid of the kitchen, the ghost only offers a warning that “many will die.”
These are frightening aspects of Del Toro’s vision of haunting. The ghosts of his story aren’t threatening or aggressive but rather sad and melancholic. The ghost of the story wants to inform the current orphans of some crisis and yet tragically can’t. Rather, the ghost seems doomed to wander the watery basement of the orphanage, whispering warnings to any that will listen.
Del Toro, himself Mexican, decided to set this story during the Spanish Civil War, rather than the Mexican Revolution, because he considers the Civil War a precursor to all the fascist wars fought within Europe. The theme of haunting, then, makes all the more sense as, looking back, the Spanish Civil War seems like a warning for everything that came after it the same way that the ghost in Del Toro’s film tries to prevent future damage to orphanage, yet can’t. Here, the past tragically tries to inform the future, doomed to repeat a moment of pain over and over again.
The forms of haunting that Del Toro presents really fit in to Freud’s ideas in his essay The Uncanny. Freud presents the idea that we tend to repress things that are terrifying to us by burying them within our memory. In the film, adults consistently deny the existence of the ghost, preferring to believe it is just the imagination of the orphans. The adults, specifically Casares, constantly denying the existence of the ghost isn’t unlike outside countries denying help to the incumbent Spanish government. This is even specifically addressed in the film as Casares tries to reassure Carmen by claiming that the British will come, which she quickly shoots down. The adults don’t act on the ghost or its warnings until it is too late and they are forced to deal with the issue at hand.
Freud also presents the idea of repetition being frightening to us, due to how unnatural it appears. This is addressed from the film’s opening monologue, as we see that the ghost is clearly a “tragedy, doomed to repeat itself over and over again.” The ghost walks through the same places and is forced to repeat the same actions that took place when it died.
Later in the film, Carlos comes to Casares to ask him whether he believes in ghosts. We see Dr. Casares keeps several infants that died from spinal bifida pickled in jars with a special kind of rum. He shows Carlos the deformed spine of one of these infants and says local folklore has dubbed this “the devil’s backbone.” The rum is said to have special properties and villagers buy it in bulk to help heal themselves from sickness. The doctor replies that he is a man of science, explaining that the villagers believe in his special rum because they believe in the “the devil’s backbone,” and offers that if Carlos believes in ghosts, he should drink the rum as well. Carlos refuses and Casares shoos him away before taking a drink himself.
The theme of the Spanish Civil War lingers around the film like a ghost itself. The orphans find themselves alone in the middle of a desert, surrounded by fascism and death much like Spain during the period the film is set in. The orphanage feels haunted by this isolation so that the ghost and the bomb and everything else feel all the more ghostly in this small compound.
In Del Toro’s film these forms of haunting, where the past repeats itself until it can inform the future, create an uneasy atmosphere where both the supernatural and the real can interact. Ghosts in this world reach out, desperate to tell the present their tragic tale, and, until they are appeased, these ghosts relive their moment of greatest pain. By looking at this film with Freud’s The Uncanny in mind we can see how this film sets up its ghost story as a haunted dissection of the Spanish Civil War, where a tragedy is ignored until it’s too late.
Freud, Sigmund. “The “Uncanny”.” Trans. Array The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 929-952. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.