Exploring the Gothic in Latin America’s ‘El Fantasma del Convento’

Enrique Ajuria Ibarra

Enrique Ajuria Ibarra

Fernando de Fuentes Carrau’s 1934 Mexican horror film ‘El fantasma del convento’ (‘The phantom of the convent’) displays extraordinary cinematic technique in the visual representation of a haunted place. The film’s production design is loyal to the depiction of a solitary and ruined religious building: the consistent use of soft lighting is enhanced by the presence of candlelight on stage, and the set design highlights the colonial convent as old and forgotten.

Fernando de Fuentes Carrau’s film emphasizes darkness and mystery. Accompanied by effective sound effects of lamenting off-screen voices and howling winds, it is clear that this setting suggests terrors the protagonists may need to unveil. Nevertheless, rather than discovering gruesome secrets from the monks who inhabit the convent, Eduardo, his wife Cristina, and their friend Alfonso end up revealing their treacherous love triangle.

Transformed from innocent woman to erotic seductress, Cristina threatens her husband’s trust and almost turns Alfonso into a sinful man. What the haunting reveals are the true intentions from the main characters: their dark desires are exposed when spectral, yet mostly unseen, threats turn their overnight stay into an uncanny dream.

‘El fantasma del convento’ is evidently structured around Gothic motifs. Even the external conflict, focusing on three lost travellers who have to spend the night in the ruined convent, is determined by the appropriation of elements most commonly noticed in British Gothic fiction. Fernando de Fuentes Carrau’s film questions the sanity of its protagonists, who are trapped in a colonial, labyrinthine space where supernatural apparitions and events are far from ever being confirmed. Suggesting a terror that unveils horrifying subject desires, ‘El fantasma del convento’ is keen on adhering to an aesthetic that Fred Botting has determined to be “negative”. Fred Botting additionally defines Gothic fiction to be predominantly dark, that is, where “an absence of the light associated with sense, security and knowledge” eventually reveals “delusion, apparition, deception”. Fernando de Fuentes Carrau’s film explores this side of the human psyche, revealing Cristina as a treacherous and seductive woman, a threat to the masculine integrity and the Catholic religious institution. Double and uncanny, she is deemed evil in the holy space.

This film is Gothic then, and it is also Mexican. It is a clear example that suggests that this fictional mode moves beyond geographical, cultural and artistic borders. This local transposition proves that Gothic already reveals a certain global fascination. Speaking of contemporary Gothic, Glennis Byron claims that “Gothic has energetically participated in the cultural flows and deterritorialisations that characterize globalisation”. ‘El fantasma del convento’ anticipates the contemporary global flows that Glennis Byron speaks of: Gothic has been intrinsically characterized by its capacity to move and travel, and its ability to fascinate and terrify a wide transnational audience. This Gothic move allows de Fernando de Fuentes Carrau’s film to explore dark fantasies and uncanny subjectivities with the use of formal and aesthetic techniques that have usually been articulated with these themes. Aside from its setting, ‘El fantasma del convento’ rejects the depiction of the traditional Gothic heroine, reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Romance of the Forest’ (1791) and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance’ (1794), and favours a representation of femininity that is both seductive and treacherous, more similar to the female vampires described in Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897). Cristina, who appears at first to be innocent and dependent of her male companions, reveals her true identity inside the convent: in the realm of the masculine, a woman preys on men. This revelation hints at the cultural representation of woman in Mexico: she is simultaneously holy and condemned by her sexuality. The film’s Gothic approach also reveals this cultural anxiety in the form of terrors and supernatural hauntings projected on the screen.

The use of Gothic motifs in Latin American art, literature and film is far from impossible. On the contrary, as a receptacle of various cultural and social discourses, the region is able to accommodate elements from foreign and local beliefs and expressions. Mythicized as a land of wonders, its vast tropical and desert features may seem far removed from the dark and cold forests and cliffs that saw the birth of Gothic fiction in Northern Europe. Indeed, Latin America has been most commonly associated with magic realism, a term that encompasses a series of works of fiction characterized by the irruption of the supernatural in the everyday.

Lucie Armitt further argues that “magic realism is always, to some extent, ‘foreign’ to the real while being part of the real”, elucidating the double nature of this narrative mode as a thing of wonder that nevertheless belongs intrinsically to the world of realist fiction. Lucie Armitt has also compared both magic realism and Gothic to assert that “in magic realism ghosts are simply ‘there’, usually giving testimony to the voices of those whom society has silenced or rendered ‘disappeared’, but rarely the primary focus of the mystery of a text. In the Gothic, the phantom is that central source, manifesting a secret that disturbs, even chills”. In this sense, both magic realism and the Gothic may evidence a use of specters, but their narrative strategy discloses different ontological and epistemological purposes: while magic realism utilizes ghosts as an aid to social criticism, Lucie Armitt argues that the haunting becomes the nuclear aspect in Gothic fiction to reveal traumatic histories and character obsessions that result in a different core of narrational inquiry.

If the distinction between magic realism and Gothic depends on the strategic use and relevance of motifs in a narrative, it is possible to examine Latin American texts that posit central preference to haunting, darkness and the uncanny to explore different aspects of our social and cultural psyche. ‘El fantasma del convento’ is such a case. As I have argued above, the film recurs to haunting to unveil the characters’ deepest desires; it unleashes disturbing revelations that threaten the cultural privilege of marital over extra-marital relations. This way, the film attempts to “other” Mexico’s Roman Catholic upbringing with characters that are prompted to break the rules inside a holy (yet condemned) place. The haunting is not intended to support a social and political stance when situated within the confines of the real. The spectral mode in de Fernando de Fuentes Carrau’s film rather brings central subject anxieties to the fore and crushes the reassurance of the codes of reality and reason. As such, it seems as if magic realism were structured around the notion of wonder, while Gothic determines its aesthetic by focusing on terror and eventual horror.

Instead of condemning Gothic as a foreign fictional mode and rejecting it in favour of more local forms of fiction — such as magic realism —, it is worth examining influences, adaptations and appropriations of the Gothic in Latin America. The exercise of this negative aesthetic allows us to understand how different Latin American cultures and nations respond to and become deeply involved with the Gothic move. Rather than seeing it as alien and unrelated, a Gothic fascination may enact its influence in order to understand how even the warmest and luxurious locations can also hide disturbing monstrosities. The wonder of the tropic can also be seen as a danger and may drive humans mad, as Joseph Conrad elaborates in ‘The Heart of Darkness’ (1899). What is more valuable for critical enquiry is to examine how this tropical darkness is perceived by the very people who inhabit this domain. This way, Latin American narrative forms may reveal a consistent Gothic use that evidences intertextual fictional motifs and plots. On the other hand, it may also reveal a more localized and consistent Gothic form that may be inherent to the area. In short, it is a matter of understanding how this other land has incorporated the Gothic, whether consciously or unconsciously, to be able to identify its particular manifestations.

A viable approach would explore the potential relations that arise from this possibility. Thus, it is not a matter of looking at Gothic in Latin America, but also of exploring Gothic and Latin America. Such inquiry allows for a more flexible structural relationship, where Gothic is absorbed into the mainstream and obscure regional manifestations and Latin America can serve as a location that can be “Gothicized”. The imbrication that arises can work in both directions: feeding on the flow of the Gothic move and enriching fictions from both areas. As such, it is not just a matter of determining how Gothic is understood within the Latin American framework, but also of noticing how, as a geographical and cultural whole, Latin America may be darkly projected to different regions. Thus, Gothic works as a mobile catalyst: it moves narratively, transtextually and transculturally, as it constantly finds rich and fascinating localities that are subject to “Othering”, misrecognition and monstrification. In this sense, Glennis Byron claims that this motivates “a growing awareness that the tropes and strategies Western critics have associated with the gothic, such as the ghost, the vampire and the zombie, have their counterparts in other cultures, however differently these may be inflected by specific histories and belief systems”. This global flow of Gothic can find a niche for exploration in Latin America: ghosts, vampires, zombies and other monstrous creatures can and have been absorbed into the Latin American culture to speak of the horrors embedded in this particular land that differs historically and discursively from other regions where Gothic is more commonly associated with. An interest for Gothic and/in Latin America can further enrich our understanding of this fictional mode.

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