The Frozen Sea: Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

On taking an axe to yourself in a public theater.

The Frozen Sea: Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

It's the Halloween Special! As always, it's a month of free content. This year, to celebrate the forthcoming collected edition of The Neighbors, I'm collecting movies about changelings and bad fairies.

As always, subscriptions are 25% off this month ($3.75 per month instead of the usual $5) so if you've been holding off, now is a good time to smash this button:

I have never reacted to any movie the way I did to Pan’s Labyrinth. I’m glad; it was the sort of thing you don’t want to go through twice.

I saw it on opening weekend in the States. I had been trying to cure my writer’s block with some cheesy self-help exercise where you wrote a timeline of your life. I had gotten stuck somewhere around Year Three. That was a bad year, and the details are probably familiar to anyone who’s read this newsletter, but, for the sake of clarity, I’ll recite: My mother got pregnant with my younger brother. My father had a nervous breakdown and became violent. My mother had to flee our home because he was planning to kill us all.

The supposedly inspiring timeline was rapidly becoming painful, is what I am saying, and memories were surfacing that I did not want to deal with, and in the middle of all that, I decided to go see a horror movie about fairies, because I loved horror, and I loved fairies, especially bad ones, and I figured this would lift my spirits.

The lights dimmed, the movie started. A child who loved fairies was riding with her pregnant mother toward a house with a bad father in it. There was a moment when it all almost felt like a good idea. I made it through the movie, and I made it through the theater lobby, and I made it about three steps out onto the street, and then I was doubled over, sobbing so hard I thought I might throw up.

I learned later that Pan’s Labyrinth was a Spanish Civil War allegory — a not-at-all subtle one — and I learned to appreciate it on that level. In the moment, I had only one reading, and it was overwhelming: This is real. This is what really happened. This is what really happened to me.

The war movie version of Pan’s Labyrinth is pretty simple: The Bad Father is Captain Vidal, a fascist. His servants — led by Maribel, his housekeeper — are anti-fascists plotting to overthrow him. In the middle of all this, there is Carmen, Vidal’s new and very pregnant wife, and Ofelia, the 11-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, whom Vidal clearly does not like.

The fantasy version of Pan’s Labyrinth enters this picture sidelong, and we’re encouraged (though not commanded) to believe that it takes place entirely within Ofelia’s imagination: Ofelia feels lost and unwanted in this new family configuration, and she soon finds herself courted by the fairies, who tell her she really doesn’t belong in the human world. Ofelia is a changeling, a lost fairy princess, and if she can pass three magical tests, she will be taken away to the fairy world, where her real, loving family awaits.

The simplicity and purity of the fantasy plot line — who didn’t have changeling fantasies growing up? — and the gritty violence of the war plot line obviously cast shadows on each other. There’s a worse version of Pan’s Labyrinth, one about the never-tarnished innocence and magic of childhood, that could be made of these parts. In this version, the specific alchemy of Pan’s Labyrinth comes from seeing these two messy realities bleed all over each other. The fairy-tale scenes are terrifying, often even gorier and crueler than the war movie surrounding them. Captain Vidal is scary because he’s a fascist, but he is also a pure Wicked Stepfather, just as primally horrifying as any witch who ever pushed a child into an oven.

You can construct an allegorical reading of Ofelia’s three journeys to the fairy realm: The Pale Man, famously, embodies white supremacy and patriarchy, and the frog with a key in its stomach is probably capitalism, and Ofelia’s final test — in which she dies because she will not allow her fairy helper to kill her baby brother — represents the heroic sacrifices made by anti-fascists. Yet those scenes also work when taken straight, as an example of what Ofelia’s inner world looks like. Kids who grow up with violence learn to see the world as violent. They take the bloodshed with them into their imaginations. Children aren’t “innocent” about the facts of their own lives; they don’t remain untarnished when adults heap shit onto them. We just tell ourselves they do, because it makes for a good excuse.

Pan’s Labyrinth is better than any movie I know at showing exactly how terrifying adult rage and violence can be to small children. Vidal is both a monster and a God — inexplicable, all-powerful, capable of turning on Ofelia and annihilating her at any moment. The scariest moment of this movie for me, the real stomach-clenching cold-chills oh-no-oh-no moment, was not the revolutionaries being tortured, or even the Pale Man ripping the head off a pixie. It was when Ofelia got her new dress dirty after her stepfather told her to keep it clean.

You carry that fear in your body forever, I think — at least, you do if you had a certain kind of childhood. It’s the knowledge that you have been bad, that despite doing your best to follow every rule, you have fucked up, that you therefore are bad, in your essential nature, and you have laid yourself open to the punishment that a bad person deserves. So much of your life is about just not being bad, my therapist once told me, and it is. So much of my life is about not getting the new clothes dirty, not saying the wrong thing, and so much of it is about knowing that no matter how hard I try, I slip, I say something, I fall in dirt. It’s about the fear that freezes you in place, makes your whole body feel like a sack of skin wrapped around an ice block, it’s about the knowledge that you have to sit very still and stare at the floor and not make eye contact, because if you push this even one centimeter farther, everything is going to explode.

My life is about that, and Pan’s Labyrinth is about that, but Pan’s Labyrinth is beautiful, and clear; it was a mirror where I could see myself reflected at a moment in time when I wanted to hide. “We need books that affect us like a disaster,” Kafka famously wrote, “that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Books and movies, I’d argue, but I’d also argue that it hurts to take an axe to yourself, even if you need it. Some seas remain frozen for a reason. Pan’s Labyrinth is probably my favorite movie; I feel connected to it, compromised by it, as if it had been inside me and come back with a picture of what it found there. I cannot watch it more than once every decade. I am not always ready for what it finds.

Books can affect us like disasters; movies can affect us like disasters; disasters can affect us like disasters, shattering us, leaving splinters of truth embedded in the world. I have been putting myself back together for a long time, and I know that when you find a piece of yourself, you recognize it. I will not tell you that it feels better to have it home.

Pan's Labyrinth is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

At my other job: I'm going to Italy this week, and also (possibly) getting murdered. Wish me luck! Here's that button again: