Once it became a prominent genre, particular filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, George Romero and David Lynch became famous for their crafting of suspenseful plotlines and disturbing concepts.
Among these is Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro Gómez, whose dark fantasies have gained him international recognition. One of these, to which Guillermo del Toro Gómez produced, is Juan Antonio García Bayona’s 2007 Spanish ghost story, ‘The Orphanage’. However, considering narrative codes and conventions, what makes it a ghost story, rather than a by-product of the popular Hollywood horror genre?
This editorial will demonstrate, through the application of the socio-cultural approach, how ‘The Orphanage’ adapts traditional Hollywood horror genre conventions in order to bring to light the traumatic events Spanish people — both adults and children — endured under Francisco Franco Bahamonde’s regime.
Simply, the genre can be defined as the French word for “type” or “kind” (Jane Stadler and Kelly McWilliam 218) and can be characterised by various codes and conventions. In theory, a text is classified into a particular genre depending on the degree to which it conforms to that genre’s conventions. (Jane Stadler and Kelly McWilliam 219) Jason Mittell (2001) claims that genre extends to a cultural category because it “surpasses the boundaries of media texts and operates within the industry, audience, and cultural practices as well.” (5) This implies that the film is made powerful through the audience’s explicit interpretation, which means genre is one of the primary ways in which an audience chooses to organise their own, personal viewing practices. (Jane Stadler and Kelly McWilliam 225) So, what defines a horror film, apart from its label?
According to scholarship, the horror genre resonates with social and cultural meaning (Prince 2), which correlates to ‘The Orphanage’s purpose as a film. To analyse and understand a particular type of genre can be achieved through the application of key approaches, which work to draw on the strengths and weaknesses inherent in films in order to bring about a deeper understanding of the storyline. This method can be complex in itself, as the definitions of the horror genre differ, and therefore can only be defined through each of its categories and subgenres. (Viktória Prohászková 1) These categories, according to Tzvetan Todorov (1973), can be distinguished between three: the uncanny, the marvellous and the fantastic. (Viktória Prohászková 1-2) The ghost story subgenre falls under the first category, which is described to contain elements of supernatural; events that seem to be unreal, impossible or irrational; shocking, unexpected or unique. (Viktória Prohászková 1) Additionally, in terms of deconstruction and genre analysis, socio-cultural theory considers historical context to “cause” the film, (Jullier 2) which, in the case of ‘The Orphanage’, implies the story was only made possible by the historical context in which it is set.
According to Guillermo del Toro Gómez, the difference between Hollywood and Spanish ghost stories is that “[North] American genre movies seem more concerned with the destruction of the body to an almost obsessive detail […] On the other hand, it seems the concerns of the Spanish or Latin-American genre efforts are more concerned with the destruction of the soul.” (Charles Stuart Kaufman 2008)
The plot of ‘The Orphanage’ follows the story of a woman named Laura, who returns to her childhood home with her family, which used to be an orphanage for handicapped children. (Roger Ebert 2007) Before long, her son, Simón, starts to communicate with what Laura and her husband assume to be an imaginary friend when instead, it is a ghost named Tomás.
The film begins with Laura as a child in 1975, playing in the orphanage grounds, when she is adopted and removed from the establishment. This gives the impression she was “saved” from the horrific events which were to later follow for the other children, as demonstrated through Spain’s dictatorial past. While the later setting is unclear as to what year Laura and her family return to the orphanage (presumably between 1990 and 2000), it is nevertheless a fact 1975 saw the collapse of Spain’s most authoritative regime under Francisco Franco Bahamonde. His government consisted of military tribunals, political purges and economic hardships, and economic recovery was made difficult by the destruction made during the Civil War. (Rodriguez) Alongside this, a recent discovery made by historian Ricard Vinyes Ribas has shed light on additional aspects of Francisco Franco Bahamonde’s administration: the ‘Lost Children’. (Socolovsky 2009) During the time of the imposing government, thousands of children were stolen from their politically-opposed parents and put into orphanages, so that they might be indoctrinated into fascism and arch-conservative Catholicism. (Socolovsky 2009)
Due to the recent nature of the discovery, sources pertaining to its information have potential to be largely criticized, as many Spanish people, who either had children stolen or were in fact, part of the lost children, prefer not to discuss it due to the harrowing ordeals which occurred inside the orphanages. Therefore, the element of fear, which is considered imperative in the horror genre, is brought about in audiences not only by the concept of the supernatural but the truth behind the history woven ceaselessly into the storyline.
A ghost story generally exists to scare the reader, with situations that cause horror or fear. (Dellutri and Sale, n.d.) ‘The Orphanage’ nevertheless, is about “history defining the present, haunting [our] lives.” (Film 4 2007) Hans Robert Jauss’ theory of the “Horizon of Expectation” naturally comes into play alongside this fact. The “horizon” encompasses the social norms and historical situation of a given time and place. (Hans Robert Jauss 7-37)
Due to the film incorporating the use of children and an old orphanage, a Spanish audience might be more inclined to recognise the history inherent in the plotline as opposed to an North American or English audience. Evidence of ‘The Orphanage’ utilising events of Spain’s past comes most prominently through a visit from a medium character, who is called to the establishment by Laura. It is during this visit that Laura receives crucial information in understanding what is happening inside her home once Simón goes missing. The séance consists of the medium asking numerous questions such as “What have they done to you?” (‘The Orphanage’ 2007); “they”, whilst meaning the orphanage nurses in the diegesis, however, in reality, refers to the oppressive nature of the Francisco Franco Bahamonde regime.
Another expectation of a standard viewer is that a horror film ought to be inclusive of characters such as a monster — either human or inhuman — and its victims. Barry Langdon (2005) states that they [horror films] simply exploit the “monster”, and position their audiences so as to share the hatred, terror and aggression justifiably directed against the antagonist(s) of the story. (166-7) Furthermore, it is typical for the characters to conveniently forget about the impending danger or events which have happened, and it is generally at this point in the story which the antagonist attacks. (Pitcher 2013)
In regards to North American horror, this is primarily the case with Steven Allan Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975), where the victims continue to enter the ocean regardless of the danger, and 2008 thriller ‘The Happening’, when it is assumed the attacks made by nature are over, yet a scream at the conclusion of the film suggests otherwise. (Pitcher 2013) Typecasts in most horror stories — either films or novels — generally consist of a female victim, a non-believer, a hero, a hysteric, a couple and the “evil” character. (Marston 2011)
In ‘The Orphanage’, such stereotypes are limited or opposite of convention. Laura is a female character, but she is not the victim. This role falls to Simón, through his innocence and obliviousness as a child. His victimisation is also dependent on the symbolism behind ‘The Orphanage’s plotline, and its relation to the lost children, and how the children who were removed under the Francisco Franco Bahamonde regime were oblivious to the reasons why. Tomás as the primary antagonist, in reality, is a victim of Spain’s oppressive past and only Carlos, Laura’s husband, represents the stereotypical “non-believer”. Thus, it is through the symbolism of primary characters which further allows interpretation of the story’s historical context, which is evidently in relation to the events passed under Francisco Franco Bahamonde’s government. Explicitly in this way, ‘The Orphanage’ is able to recreate the subgenre of a ghost story to its own unique degree.
This can be demonstrated most effectively through the deconstruction of a film’s mise en scéne, meaning “to place on a stage”, or to “stage an action”. (Jane Stadler and Kelly McWilliam 2) Jane Stadler and Kelly McWilliam further state that particular settings enable certain storylines, and become associated with their own characters, events and genres. (11) One of the initial things the audience discovers about Simón is that he is adopted and HIV positive. Ultimately, this brings the introduction of the social worker, Benigna, who subconsciously represents the Franco regime. Tomás and the ghosts of the other children try to warn Simón that he is also an orphan — that he has no true mother or father — and that he, like them, is going to die. (‘The Orphanage’ 2007) They achieve this through a selection of games that Simón informs Laura they set up for him. These games reiterate a sense of childish innocence, although the audience’s “horizon of expectation” is that the ghosts should be hostile and that the otherwise seemingly innocent game is threatening. Naturally, Simón disappears and is “lost”, and therefore becomes one of the “lost children”. Laura is convinced her son’s “imaginary friends” are behind the disappearance, while her husband — the stereotypical non-believer — suggests the social worker, Benigna. It is discovered later that Benigna was responsible for the deaths of Laura’s old friends, which suggests her character subliminally embodies the Francisco Franco Bahamonde regime.
It is through symbolism genre analysis incorporates the aspect of iconography, defined by Jane Stadler and Kelly McWilliam (2009) as “visual conventions that function symbolically, such as costume or setting.” (219) The costumes of the ghosts are shapeless and dull in colour, essentially reflecting their nature. Particularly in the case of Tomás, his mask — which is fashioned from an old sack — adds a sense of mystery and apprehension to what lies beneath it. To fear the unknown (in this case, Tomás’ face) is a common facet of the horror genre and general human behaviour. (Moore and Williamson 3) Nonetheless, to portray a character without a face also implies a lack of identity, which predominantly was the case regarding the “lost” children, and throughout the film itself. Tomás was excluded from normality during the time both he and Laura lived at the orphanage, due to a sickness similar to leprosy which ultimately disfigured his face. He was kept beneath the house by his mother, who is revealed to be Benigna, which only adds to the anxiety his character is expected to evoke in viewers. This also serves to reinforce the idea that Tomás himself, was a victim of Benigna, who, through her murdering and mistreatment of the children, essentially represents the concept and brutality of Francisco Franco Bahamonde’s authoritative rule.
Overall, ‘The Orphanage’ encompasses and adapts traditional Hollywood conventions which govern the horror genre, in order to tell the story of the lost children and the events which transpired under Spain’s most influential dictatorship. It is evident through an analysis of the formulaic plot; characters, structure and iconography that both Juan Antonio García Bayona and Guillermo del Toro Gómez strove to give voices to the marginalised components of the Francisco Franco Bahamonde totalitarianism, whilst turning the traditional horror genre model on its head.
In light of the perspective demonstrated through the application of the socio-cultural approach, it is evident that although ‘The Orphanage’s primary role as a horror film is to evoke a visceral response from its audience; it also pays cultural homage to the children who were lost to the Francisco Franco Bahamonde regime, and the ones which are yet to be found.