Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone – A Humanist Ghost Story
“Never fear the dead. Fear the living. They are the real danger.” ~Guillermo del Toro
The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo Del Diablo) is the third feature film for Mexican auteur director, Guillermo del Toro. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone is both a chilling ghost story and a tale of the triumph of good and innocence over the evils of the darkest human behaviours. The Devil’s Backbone also gives us an unsettling insight into the nature of ghosts. This article delves into this nature in the attempt to understand why ghosts are such a prevailing supernatural force in our otherwise rational culture.
The Devil’s Backbone – Plot summary
It is 1939. The Spanish Civil War is tearing the country apart. Poverty, hunger, and disease are rife and trust is hard come by. When his father is killed in the war, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is taken to live in a boy’s orphanage, set in the middle of sweeping Fordian landscapes, isolated from any sense of civilisation and home to a raggedy bunch of boys of varying ages. The orphanage is run by Republican sympathisers, the kindly and wise Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), and the brusque headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former orphan is now the caretaker.
On his first day in the orphanage, Carlos encounters a ghost, nicknamed by the other boys “the one who sighs”. The ghost is the spirit of Santi, a young orphan who mysteriously disappeared from the orphanage the previous year. On the same night that Santi disappeared, a bomb fell into the courtyard and did not explode. Now diffused, the bomb sits ominously in the centre of their lives, a unnerving allusion to the war that threatens their home, and for one orphan, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) a haunting reminder of what really happened the night Santi supposedly disappeared. With the help of Carlos and the other orphans, Santi is determined that his killer should face his justice, but he also must warn the boys of their own impending doom.
The Devil’s Backbone – Some Background Information
While The Devil’s Backbone is Guillermo del Toro’s third feature film, it is the first film he wrote, penning the screenplay for his university thesis 16 years before the film’s release. Following his dissatisfaction with Mimic in 1997, del Toro was eager to return to independent filmmaking in a Spanish language project. Filmed in Madrid, The Devil’s Backbone was the first time the director had shot in Europe and the first film he worked with a set historical period.
The Devil’s Backbone is rooted in the legacy of Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Also set during the Spanish Civil war The Spirit of the Beehive tells the story of a small girl who, after watching Frankenstein (1931) is determined to track down the monster. Del Toro labels Ernice’s film as the greatest influence on his own work, with many similarities between The Devil’s Backbone and also his celebrated Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Pan’s Labyrinth, set during the same war is described by del Toro as the sister film to the brother The Devil’s Backbone with both films exploring the effects of the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of children adrift in their own terrifying experiences with the supernatural.
“What is a Ghost?” – Horror and the Nature of Ghosts
The Devil’s Backbone is a stunning example of del Toro’s very particular style of horror. Like Cronos, and Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone does not use overly blatant, aggressive or visceral visual representations of horror or the grotesque.
While it is true that the ghost of Santi is visually horrifying, with blood streaming from his fatal would in his permanent shroud of water, this is a subtle visual horror, never fixated on, never sensationalised. Instead the horror in The Devil’s Backbone is built slowly, through tantalising and disquieting mystery as the true nature of the haunting is explored.
The film opens with a voice over narration, played over the images of the falling bomb and the death of Santi.
‘What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and time 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.’
We then see the haunting image of the deformed baby in the jar, hanging lifelessly and itself suspended in time like a ghost. Later in the film, Casares explains the deformation as “The Devil’s Backbone”, what we know today as spina bifida. It is believed, Casares explains, that children who are born with the condition should never have been born in the first place, they are “nobody’s children.” The preserving fluid is called “limbo liquid”, a very old spiced rum that he sells to people who believe it will cure them of various ailments, including impotence. He tells Carlos that if he is going to believe in ghosts, he might as well take a drink of “limbo liquid” to cure his wound. After Carlos leaves, denying his belief in the ghost of Santi, the impotent Casares drinks the liquid himself drawing the conclusion that he also believes in the ghost of Santi. By the end of the film, Casares is himself a ghost and the bookend narration tells us that the opening speculations on the nature of ghosts are made by Casares after his own death.
In Casares’ death, The Devil’s Backbone returns Luppi to the thin and often blurring line between living and dying that was explored in Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos: The Life and Death Antidote to Contemporary Vampire Culture. Fitting with his own musing on the nature of ghosts, Casares is something dead which still seems to be alive; his ghost is trapped in the orphanage, held by the remnants of the tragedies that brought him to death. Like Santi, Casares remains after death to help set right the wrongs of the living.
The courtyard bomb is just as much a ghost as Santi, a looming spectre of the threat of war, and for Jaime a constant reminder of Santi’s brutal death. The bomb is supposedly diffused, but it creaks and groans like “One Who Sighs” and Jaime claims he can still hear it ticking. Like any other ghost, the bomb still seems alive after death. The bomb is connected with Santi, as is Carlos so straight away Carlos feels the otherworldly resonance of the bomb. He asks it to lead him to Santi and the bomb obliges, releasing a ribbon on the wind which Carlos follows. He is lead to Santi who warns him that they will all die. In a comparable manner, the bomb also warns of impending death coming to them all not only from the escalating war, but from the treacherous actions of the avaricious Jacinto.
Humanist Ghosts and Monstrous Humans
Ghosts have haunted the human psyche more than any other supernatural creature. In this argument, I’m not referring to gluts of pop culture trends such as the current fascinations with vampires, werewolves or zombies. Thousands of otherwise rational individuals claim to have experienced some kind of haunting. Haunted houses, ghost tours, ghost stories, spirit photography – more than likely, it will prove find far easier to find a person who believes in ghosts than to find a person who legitimately believes in the existence of vampires. A widespread belief in ghosts survived the secularisation of western culture unlike any other supernatural creature. We’ve slayed the demons, sent the angels flying, but the ghosts are still around. Ghosts are a very real part of our human cultural legacy.
In ghost movies like The Devil’s Backbone, the ghost is an earthbound spirit who is prevented from moving into the true sense of death. It is a common theme in ghost narratives for the transition to true death to occur only when the conditions of the ghost’s torment and unrest are satisfied, allowing the dead to finally rest in peace.
This kind of ghost has been referred to as a humanist ghost [1. Chun, Kimberly. “What is a Ghost: An Interview With Guillermo del Toro.” Cineaste. Spring 2002. 27,2. pg 28-32]. The humanist ghost is a ghost that is still bound in the human psyche, with human issues and human concerns. The Others (2001), The Sixth Sense (1999), Ghost (1990), are other examples of humanist ghost narratives.
In her study of ghostly cinema, Aviva Briefel [3. Breifel, Aviva. “What Some Ghosts Don’t Know: Spectral Spectral Incognizance and the Horror Film”. Narrative. 17.1. January 2009. pg 95-110.] labels films like The Others and The Sixth Sense as “spectral incognizance”, a sub-genre of ghost films where the ghost needs to realise they are dead in order to pass onto the netherworlds. These ghosts need the help of humans and the earthy realm to realise their own deaths and aid their spectral transition. While The Devil’s Backbone does not belong to the spectral incognizance sub-genre, Santi does require the connection and interaction with the human world to allow him to rest in peace.
As Santi leads Carlos to the truth of his death, the darkest elements of the human condition are brought to light. Jacinto’s greed and treacherous violence, Carmen’s shame at her own lust for him, Jaime’s fear and subsequent guilt at knowing the truth of Santi’s death. Del Toro states that The Devil’s Backbone is a lesson “that you shouldn’t be afraid of a ghost – you should be afraid of the living.” [2. Wood, Jason. (2006) The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema. pg 111]As Carlos helps Santi reveal the truth of his death, Santi helps the living world confront their own haunted lives and selves.
This is a truth common to a great many ghost stories. In Poltergeist (1982), the spirits were restless and angry because the thoughtless greed of the property developers had disturbed their graves. In Ghost, Sam remains after death in order to warn and save Molly from the people who killed him. Though not specifically a ghost, Eric Draven in The Crow (1994) returns from death to avenge his and his fiancée’s murder. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him the truth of his death and implores his son reveal Claudius’ guilt.
In this sub-genre of humanist ghost narratives, the fear and threat is not from the ghost themselves but rather the human treachery that made them that way in the first place.
While the courageous Carlos in The Devil’s Backbone is frightened of Santi, he is more terrified of Jacinto. Even in a film like Poltergeist, where the spirits are a violent and malevolent force, that monstrosity can be forgiven. As the ghosts struggle with their lingering connection to the corporeal world, we are able to identify with their very human distresses. The tragedy of these violated and severely wronged ghosts evoke our sympathies. It is for this reason, I argue that ghosts have remained such an unwavering supernatural presence in our earth and logic bound Western nature. In this subgenre of humanist ghost narratives, we not only identify with the spectres, but we rely on their otherworldly knowledge to guide us and even save us from our earthly dangers. The threats in the living world, like Jacinto, are the true monsters while the ghosts are, after all, only human.