Exploring the Trauma of the Spanish Civil War at the Intersection of Fantasy and Reality

This is a slightly revised version of a paper I wrote for Dr. Michael DeAngelis‘ Cinema of Peace class, which was taught at DePaul University during the winter 2013 quarter. I am currently in the process of sending this paper out for publication. Also, be aware that this paper contains spoilers for both films. Also, because this paper is currently unpublished, I would ask that if you want to quote it or cite it in any way, please contact me for permission first. Thank you.


The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is a trauma that is specific to the nation of Spain, but one that had far reaching consequences that touched several other nations far beyond Spain’s borders. Indeed, the conflict drew soldiers from France, Germany, the Soviet Union and even China, and is often seen as a precursor to World War II (Raychaudhuri, 2001). It eventually took on a significance that went far beyond a Spanish cultural context, with people around the world viewing it as a battleground between fascism and Communisim, and an ideological conflict between oppression and freedom (Preston, 1996, p. 6). The Spanish Civil War left its mark on countries such as Wales, which is home to numerous Spanish Civil War memorials. However, while the Spanish Civil War would have an impact on Spain (and the rest of the world) for decades to come, those within Spain’s borders were not interested in memorializing the conflict, but rather were content to forget that it ever happened. There was a collective effort to forget the trauma caused by the war and the nearly three decades of fascist oppression that followed (Brinks, 2004). Unfortunately, even when an entire nation chooses to forget, the trauma nevertheless remains, and in this case it cast a shadow over not only Spain’s national history, but over the history of the entire world as well.

One way of remembering tragedy is through art; in particular, through popular art, such as film (Narine, 2010). Countless directors have turned their attention to the traumatic history of their nations as a way of exploring how that trauma has affected both the citizens and the national identity. Occasionally, though, directors from outside a particular nation will opt to explore a traumatic event that affected that nation, and sometimes this can provide a different perspective on the events of a conflict such as a war or genocide. Such is the case with Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican director who specializes in horror and fantasy. Del Toro chose to explore the consequences of the Spanish Civil War with The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a pair of films that use a combination of horror, fantasy, magical realism, and children’s fairy tales to illuminate and reinforce the traumas of fascism and war, rather than obfuscate or gloss over them.

Similar to the artistic refugees who fled Spain during Franco’s rule, del Toro is familiar with navigating trauma (Kermode, 2006). Hailing from Mexico, an unstable nation that has grown increasingly violent due to the influence of the drug trade, del Toro left his homeland shortly after his father was kidnapped in 1997. After this event, del Toro refused to live or work in Mexico any longer (Hanley, 2007). Thus, del Toro is familiar with the idea of exile, an idea which informs both of these films, particularly Pan’s Labyrinth, which is all about escaping the horrors of war by retreating into a fantasy realm. In fact, del Toro uses fantasy as a way of exploring the traumatic events of the civil war, as well as a way to emphasize the need to remember even in the face of trauma. In The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro uses literal ghosts to stand in for the memories that haunt individuals after a trauma, just as he uses the existence of a fantasy realm to represent the past in Pan’s Labyrinth (Fig. 1). In both instances, he is using fantasy as a way of rejecting the desire to forget trauma, and reinforcing the notion that no matter how much a nation might want to sweep memories of a conflict or war under the rug, the memories will still remain, and have an impact upon the lives of the citizenry long after the events occurred.

Fauns and Phantasms
Fig. 1: Both The Devil’s Backbone (left) and Pan’s Labyrinth (right) use fantastic elements to reinforce the need to remember national traumas.

Del Toro’s position as an outsider allows him to stand back from the trauma of the civil war and examine it critically, even when those within the nation would prefer to forget that it happened. It is his decision to examine it through the lens of fantasy, however, that provides more insight into why it is important to engage in the act of remembrance, even when an entire nation would rather retreat into the realm of willful forgetting. Indeed, there was a prevailing attitude of “out of sight, out of mind” in Spain during the postwar years (Hartney, 2009, p. 191). Ellen Brinks (2004) explains this desire to forget in detail, writing:

“…this era, which represents Spain’s first attempt at democracy, continues to stand as a disavowed core of national identity, whose pathological dissociation is less about survival than a simple will-to-forget a violence that turned a nation’s political factions, and consequently its citizens, against themselves.” (p. 294)

Nevertheless, the specter of the Spanish Civil War has continued to linger over the entire nation, and as a result it has entered the realm of national myth (Raychaudhuri, 2001). When an event occurs that is as wide ranging and profoundly traumatic as a civil war that grips an entire nation and sends out ripples that affect other nations, it is only natural that it eventually take on a mythic quality, especially in the face of memorials erected in other nations to honor the dead and valorize the heroic figures that emerged during the conflict (Hartney, 2006; Raychaudhuri, 2011). Thus, the Spanish Civil War has taken on an air of the fantastic, and therefore it is no surprise that filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro should examine the trauma of the war through the lens of fantasy.


Set in 1939, on the eve of General Francisco Franco’s victory of over the left-wing Republican forces, The Devil’s Backbone tells the story of 10 year-old Carlos, who is dropped off at a boy’s orphanage after his father, a Republican war hero, is killed during the war (History Learning Site, n.d.). Once there, Carlos meets the kindly caretakers, Carmen and Dr. Casares, and quickly runs afoul of both Jaime, the schoolyard bully, and Jacinto, the brutish handyman who came of age in the orphanage.  More importantly, Carlos soon discovers that there is a huge, unexploded bomb sitting right in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard, and that the orphanage is haunted by the restless spirit of a boy who disappeared under mysterious circumstances right around the time that the bomb fell from the sky (Fig. 2).

Devil's Backbone bomb
Fig. 2: The huge, unexploded bomb that dominates the courtyard of the orphanage is tied to Santi’s restless spirit, and thus it serves as a reminder of the horrors of war.

According to scholars such as Roger Clark and Keith McDonald (2010), “Intertextual strategies which meld images of fascism with fairy-tale tropes deconstruct the fact/fiction dichotomy and suggest that fantasy is an important tool for reading historic trauma” (pp. 54-55).  Furthermore, there is a long cinematic tradition of examining the Spanish Civil War via the fantastic, from Heart of the Forest (1978, dir. Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón), and extending to The Last Circus (2010, dir. Álex de la Iglesia).  This tendency to deal with a traumatic reality through the act of creating a fantasy is evident in The Devil’s Backbone when Dr. Casares tells Carlos about the stories the villagers invent to deal with children who are born with bizarre spinal deformities, which they refer to as the titular “devil’s backbone.” The villagers deal with the trauma of the birth of a malformed child by inventing a fantasy that allows them to make sense of the awful thing that has occurred. By examining the horrors of war through the lens of fantasy, del Toro is engaging in a similar act. With The Devil’s Backbone, he is attempting “to write a history, such as the villagers do through religion, that could confer meaning upon what look like horribly random, meaningless events” (Brinks, 2004, p. 300).

The most potent and obvious metaphor in The Devil’s Backbone is that of the ghosts as memories of the war. The boys at the orphanage represent the nation of Spain as a whole, but due to their distance from the war — which is taking place all around them but only exists in the background of their everyday lives — they could also be seen as representing modern Spanish audiences who also would have been far removed from the traumatic events of the civil war at the time of the film’s release. Similar to the way that the film serves as a reminder of that event, the ghosts of Santi and later Dr. Casares serve to remind the boys that they are not as far removed from the trauma as they might like to think. Santi, in particular, is a stark reminder of the horrors of war, because his death is so closely linked to the unexploded bomb that sits in the courtyard of the orphanage. Bombs are an indelible symbol of war, particularly in regards to the history of the Spanish Civil War, which was the first time bombs were used against a civilian population on such a large scale (Brinks, 2004). This link between the bomb and the war is further reinforced by the fact that it was dropped by a German plane, and the Germans were the allies of the Falangist forces during the war (Hartney, 2009). Therefore, the bomb becomes emblematic of how war intrudes upon the lives of ordinary citizens, and it also links Santi’s death to the war. In this way, his ghost is made to serve as a reminder of the war, and he comes to serve as an illustration of the ways in which a trauma can affect a nation long after it has occurred.

However, Santi is not the only spirit who serves as a reminder of the trauma of war. There is a conflict in the orphanage between the intellectual Dr. Casares and the emotional, hypermasculine Jacinto, and it is one that mirrors the events of the war that is taking place outside the walls of the remote orphanage (Fig. 3). During the climax of the film, Dr. Casares, who represents both the Republican loyalists and the Spanish intellectual class, is wounded in an explosion, and he eventually dies trying to protect the children of the orphanage from Jacinto, a stand-in for General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. As it was Jacinto who caused the explosion in an effort to steal the Republican gold stored in a safe in the orphanage’s kitchen, injuring or killing the children and allies of the Republican loyalists, the conflict that plays out inside the orphanage becomes a microcosm of the larger war that is gripping the nation (Chun, 2002; Lázaro-Reboll, 2007).

Fig. 3: The conflict between Jacinto (pictured above) and Dr. Casares is emblematic of the conflict that rages outside the walls of the orphanage.

Eventually, Dr. Casares returns as a ghost who is dedicated to protecting the boys from Jacinto and his accomplices, and thus, another connection to the war is formed. Within the context of the film, the boys eventually come to stand in for the young soldiers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a fact which is emphasized by the final shot of the film, which sees the boys — who themselves have been wounded in the explosion that killed Dr. Casares — hobbling on crutches and limping away from the site of their own personal trauma. It is an image that is repeated time and time again in the real world, whenever young men are sent into combat, and return home, wounded and broken. As the boys leave the orphanage, Dr. Casares’s ghost steps from the shadows and watches them go (Fig. 4). The brief scene serves to illustrate that even though the Republican loyalists wanted to protect the citizens of Spain from the creeping fascism of Franco and his Falangist forces, they were nevertheless unable to actually prevent the trauma that would haunt the nation for decades.

Fig. 4:
Fig. 4: The ghost of Dr. Casares serves to highlight the fact that even though Republican loyalists tried to prevent the spread of fascism, they were nevertheless unable to protect Spanish citizens from the trauma of the civil war.

This link between ghosts and the act of remembrance is established during the film’s pre-credit sequence, in a bit of voiceover narration provided by Dr. Casares, who intones:

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.

Immediately, then, the ghosts are positioned as dead things that only appear to be alive, a description that could also apply to the concept of the past, which no longer exists in the present moment, but can be brought back into existence via the act of memory. Additionally, the ghosts are positioned alongside both tragedy and pain, which are often caused by traumatic events such as war. Furthermore, they are linked to emotions and photographs, both of which provide a link to the past (Fig. 5). In this case, it is the negative emotions caused by the trauma that must be navigated by those who are trying to come to terms the events of the Spanish Civil War. Similarly, there is an abundance of photographic evidence which exists to document the horrors caused by the war, and thus they serve as a reminder of the trauma. By positioning the ghosts of Santi and Dr. Casares in relation to these stark reminders of Spain’s national trauma, they become explicitly linked to memories of the war, and therefore serve as stand-ins for the act of remembering a “war that due to the victory of the nationalists and to collective amnesia and avoidance, does not get remembered or told” (Brinks, 2004, p. 301).

Phantasms and photographs
Fig. 5: In The Devil’s Backbone, ghosts like Santi (left) are positioned as lingering memories of traumatic events. Thus, they are similar to photographs of the Spanish Civil War (right), in that they are representations of a national trauma that occurred in the past.

However, while the ghosts are the most evocative metaphor for the act of remembrance in the film, del Toro does not rely solely on fantasy as a way of exploring the traumas of the Spanish Civil War. He is also drawing parallels between the conflict and life inside the remote orphanage, a tactic that is made profoundly more effective thanks to del Toro’s choice to focus on children as both the observers and victims of the trauma in both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. In the case of the former, the boys at the orphanage come to represent the youth of Spain, who were the primary combatants in the conflict (Fig. 6). More importantly, though, they represent youth as a concept; as it is primarily young people that are sent to fight in wars around the world, then Carlos, Jaime, Gálvez, and the rest of the boys act as stand-ins for young soldiers around the world throughout time. This connection is underscored by the fact that they are living in an orphanage that is dominated by a massive, unexploded bomb that sits in the courtyard and casts a shadow of destruction over the boys’ tiny corner of the world. With this single image, the film is implying that young people the world over exist in the shadow of war, both those that occurred in the past, and those that have yet to occur. That the bomb is linked so closely to the death of Santi, yet another young person cut down at an early age, it also comes to serve as another reminder of how war leaves nothing but death and destruction in its wake. In time, though, the bomb becomes just another part of the landscape, and the boys eventually learn to ignore it.

Devil's Backbone boys
Fig. 6: Carlos and the other boys represent the young men who were sent to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

It is important to note that both Dr. Casares and Carmen, the other caretaker at the orphanage, seem almost entirely oblivious to the existence of the bomb in their courtyard. It as though they have had more time to come to terms with the trauma caused by the bomb because they are older and more removed from it, and thus they have at last made their peace with it. However, the fact that the bomb is so central to the landscape of the orphanage, and so closely linked to Santi’s death, indicates that it serves as yet another indicator that as much people would like to forget, the specter of war is always looming and could explode at any moment. This is another indication of why it is important to engage in the act of remembrance, as facing the fact of a trauma in the past might lead to the avoidance of another similar trauma in the future.

Another way that del Toro explores the need to remember the traumatic events of the Spanish Civil War is by exploring the characters’ need to forget, even for a moment, that their nation is being ravaged by the horrors of war. One way he does this is by employing a tactic that has been used by other films that examine national traumas, and that is through the motif of the radio. Similar to films such as The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and A City of Sadness (1989, dir. Hsiao-hsien Hou), del Toro allows the events of the war to touch the lives of the central characters through their use the radio. In the case of The Devil’s Backbone, he makes use of this trope at the beginning of the film. Carlos, the young boy who serves as the film’s central protagonist, is being driven to the orphanage by his guardians, both of whom are Republican loyalists. As the car trundles along, a news report is blaring over the radio, and while the words are not translated on the DVD, it is safe to assume that it is a story about the conflict. Carlos, however, appears to be blissfully unaware of the horrors that are gripping his nation as he sits in the back seat and reads his comics. Indeed, Carlos is not even aware that his father has died in the war, and the boy seems to have completely forgotten about him, as he does not mention his father once throughout the film. This is yet another way that the characters retreat into the act of forgetfulness when faced with trauma, but it is also another way that del Toro emphasizes the need for remembrance. Carlos may have forgotten his father, but by transforming the orphanage into a microcosm of the Spanish Civil War itself, del Toro reinforces the notion that individuals who try to forget traumatic events are doomed to suffer similar fates (Chun, 2002). This is an idea that is explored further in Pan’s Labyrinth, but one that begins to emerge here in The Devil’s Backbone.

The motif of the radio is continued throughout the film, though it is used differently than in films like The Official Story (1985, dir. Luis Puenzo), in which the events of the conflict or trauma gripping the nation are related via the radio. Instead, the characters in The Devil’s Backbone use the radio as a way of escaping the trauma, and to forget for a time that it is occurring just outside their walls. Jacinto is seen trying to fix an old radio, and when he finally gets it to work (by hitting it; thus, he is using an act of violence to engage in the act of forgetting, implying that humanity is doomed to continue the cycle of violence unless people are willing to face their memories) he tunes it to a station playing jaunty music, rather than one that is relaying news of the civil war (Fig. 7). In this way, Jacinto and the residents at the orphanage are engaging in an act of willful forgetting, and simply trying to live their lives independent of the trauma of war.

Fig. 7: In The Devil’s Backbone, the radio is used as a way for the characters to (temporarily) forget the trauma caused by the Spanish Civil War.

This need to forget is echoed later in the film, when Dr. Casares learns that Nationalist forces are moving in the direction of the orphanage, and he implores Carmen to gather up as many of the boys as they can fit in the truck so that they can escape before their lives are further affected by the war. Carmen is reluctant to leave, reminding him about the gold that is so important to the cause, and in reply Dr. Casares screams, “Fuck the cause!” This is another indicator that oftentimes, people simply want to escape from the trauma that is affecting their nation, and that they are more concerned with just living. However, the twin specters of the bomb in the courtyard and Santi’s ghost serve as reminders that no matter how badly people want to forget about war and conflict, they are always there, casting a shadow over everything people do and say.

Finally, the film’s temporal structure is another way that del Toro stresses the need for remembrance. Near the middle of the film, Jaime tells Carlos about what happened the night Santi died. The story plays out in a flashback in which Jacinto accidentally kills Santi and then hides his body in the stagnant pool in the basement of the orphanage. Because Jacinto represents the Nationalists forces and Santi represents the Republican soldiers, the act takes on a wider importance and further symbolizes the conflict that is taking place outside of the orphanage. Furthermore, Jaime witnesses the whole thing but is unable to stop it from happening, and later simply tries to forget about it. As a result, Jaime comes to symbolize the Spanish people who spent decades trying to forget the trauma of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing fascist regime. Thus del Toro is using the flashback as a way of both critiquing the collective desire to forget what happened, while simultaneously stressing the importance of remembrance. This is then reinforced by the appearance of the unexploded bomb, which lands in the courtyard not far from Jaime shortly after he witnessed Santi’s murder. This implies that no matter how much people want to forget about trauma, it is impossible to completely repress these memories because there will always be some sort of reminder, whether it be the aftermath of a previous trauma or the specter of one yet to occur. Furthermore, by using the appearance of Santi’s ghost as the inciting incident for the flashback, del Toro is implying that people who have experienced a trauma, either on an individual or national level, are haunted by the memories of it, and it is another way in which he uses fantasy to explore the need for memory.


Del Toro continues to explore the trauma of the Spanish Civil War through the lens of fantasy in Pan’s Labyrinth, which is set in 1944, roughly five years after the civil war and well into the rise of General Francisco Franco’s fascist government (Zipes, 2008). Whereas The Devil’s Backbone is structured like a gothic ghost story, Pan’s Labyrinth appropriates the narrative structure of a fairy tale, which is then contrasted with the more realistic horrors of war. As Jane Hanley writes, “the audience’s engagement with the film draws heavily on childhood fear and fantasy and brings the narrative structures associated with those experiences to bear on the emotions articulated in an adult text” (2007, p. 35). Furthermore, both the protagonist and antagonist in the film are living in the shadow of their fathers, both of whom died during a war. This death impacted both characters greatly, and serves as yet another reminder of how people are affected by trauma long after the event actually occurred, even if they are trying to forget it by retreating into a fantasy world. Most importantly, though, the film concludes by mixing triumph and tragedy, pointing out that even though people touched by trauma may succeed in retreating into a fantasy world, the trauma nevertheless continues in the real world. In this way, the film continues to explore the need to remember trauma through fantasy, implying that even though people might want to retreat into a fantasy as a way of dealing with trauma, they are not necessarily escaping it so much as they are simply trying to deny it. Thus, it is important to remember the trauma, even while indulging in flights of fancy.

As the film opens, the protagonist, Ofelia, is dying in reverse. She is lying on the ground and breathing heavily as a trickle of blood makes its way back up into her nose. The film then cuts to the fantasy realm, and a narrator relates the story of an immortal princess who fled from her kingdom to become a human. The film then cuts to a time before the first shot of Ofelia dying in reverse, and a line of text informs the viewer that the story is taking place in Spain 1944. Ofelia is sitting next to her very pregnant mother in the backseat of an expensive looking car, and she is reading from a book of fairy tales. Ofelia’s mother looks over and sighs, and doesn’t hesitate to inform Ofelia that she is too old to be filling her head with such nonsense. This is followed by Ofelia finding a strange stone which she inserts into a rather menacing statue by the side of the road that runs through the woods surrounding the mill where the primary action of the film takes place. As soon as she places the stone into the slot on the statue, a large stick bug pops out, and flies to the labyrinth of the film’s title. In essence, Ofelia has unlocked the door to the fantasy realm that will parallel her journey during the conflict, and allow her to deal with the horrors unleashed by her wicked stepfather, the cruel and vicious Captain Vidal. Thus, del Toro is immediately illustrating the conflict between reality and fantasy, and emphasizing the role that fantasy plays in dealing with trauma. Additionally, by structuring the film in the form of an extended flashback, opening with Ofelia’s death and then taking the audience back to the beginning of the story, del Toro is also pointing out the need to remember, and reinforcing the notion that even though fantasy can help an individual deal with a trauma, it cannot allow them to actually forget what caused the trauma in the first place.

Del Toro uses the idea of an underworld, a world that exists beneath and apart from the real world, to explore the notion of using fantasy to deal with trauma. While there is a strong implication at the end of the film that Ofelia’s fantasy world actually exists, it nevertheless serves as a metaphor with how people use fantasy to navigate the traumas that affect them (Fig. 8). Indeed, there is a long tradition in children’s literature of exploring the intersection of childhood and war, as well as the connection between fantasy and trauma (McDonald, 2010; Hanley, 2007). This intersection is explored within the very geography of the film: the labyrinth is located in the woods behind the mill Captain Vidal has confiscated to use as both a home and a base for his troops. Thus, the film is illustrating that fantasy and reality often exist side by side, and that even when we try to retreat into fantasy, reality is often waiting for us right next door.

Pan's Labyrinth Tree
Fig. 8: In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia retreats from the trauma of the Spanish Civil War by entering a fantasy realm.

Ofelia descends into labyrinth and meets the faun. At first, the faun appears as a looming, menacing, and diseased figure. The faun is there to remind Ofelia of her past life as the immortal princess who fled her kingdom, but also to help her return to the loving arms of her real mother and father. Therefore, the faun represents the act of remembrance, and he serves to emphasize the need to hang on to memories of the past, even in the face of trauma. Furthermore, it is important that the faun lives in the fantasy realm to which Ofelia retreats, and that he occasionally enters her world, in the same way that the real world occasionally treads upon the fantasy realm, as when Captain Vidal enters the Labyrinth late in the film, or when he discovers the magic chalk Ofelia uses to escape the confines of her room in the attic. This is another way del Toro is reinforcing the idea that even when individuals use fantasy to cope with trauma, the trauma still exists, and that is why it is important to engage in the act of remembrance.

However, the very notion of the underworld creates another connection between Ofelia’s fantasy world and the conflict that is occurring beyond its borders. The labyrinth, the cave of the giant toad, the hall of the Pale Man, and even the kingdom from which Ofelia fled all exist underground, and thus they evoke the bunkers people would have retreated to during the war, or the caves where the rebels hide out from Captain Vidal and his forces (Hartney, 2001). It also seems to imply the idea of descending or retreating from the horrors of war. The conflict between the fascists and the rebels takes place aboveground, often far above it in the case of Franco’s aerial bombing campaign. This represents the real world. Ofelia descends into her fantasy realm, as a way of escaping the monstrous Captain Vidal, only to find herself confronting still more monsters (though none as terrible as Captain Vidal, who proves that even the most terrifying nightmares pale in comparison to real life wickedness). Furthermore, it is only Ofelia’s death that allows her to return to the underground kingdom of her birth, implying that death is the only thing that will allow an individual to ultimately escape from the specter of trauma. This is another way that fantasy parallels reality within the film, and another reminder that even when an individual tries to forget a trauma by retreating into fantasy, its effects still remain.

The parallels between the real world and the fantasy realm are continued during Ofelia’s journey into the dining hall of the Pale Man, a horrifying monster who at once symbolizes Franco and his desire to devour the freedom of Spain, and the Catholic Church, which stood by and allowed this to happen (Kermode, 2006). The creature sits at the head of a long table overflowing with food, yet he appears emaciated and starved, his sickly skin hanging flaccidly off his bones (Fig. 9). It is a tableau that mirrors the dinner scene that took place earlier in the film, with Captain Vidal hosting members of the church and the upper class, and laying out his vision for the future of Spain (Smith, 2007). Thus, the parallel between the monster and the fascist forces is made explicit. However, the creature is also being used as a way of implicating the church in the rise of the fascists. Aside from a downturned mouth that makes the creature appear as though he is constantly frowning, as if he is in a perpetual state of disapproval, the Pale Man has no face. Instead, a pair of eyes sits on a plate before him. When the creature awakes, it is revealed that he has stigmata on his hands, and that it places the eyes in these holes in order to see. The combination of the eyeless face with the stigmata on the hands seems to imply that the creature is meant to stand in for the church, who became complicit in the rise of the fascists when they turned a blind eye to the conflict and sided with Franco and his forces. This becomes another way in which the fantasy realm comments upon the real world, and another way in which del Toro explores the trauma of the conflict through the lens of the fantastic.

Fig. 9: The Pale Man represents Francisco Franco.
Fig. 9: The Pale Man represents both General Francisco Franco and the Catholic Church.

Ofelia soon learns that it is not food the Pale Man desires to eat, but children. In this way, the creature comes to represent the leaders on both sides of the war, old men who sent countless young men and women, boys and girls to their deaths (Fig. 10). Similarly, the paintings on the wall of the Pale Man’s hall bring to mind the nightmarish images of the Nazi death camps during World War II, a motif which is emphasized by a pile of discarded children’s shoes in the corner (Clark and McDonald, 2010). Thus, del Toro is invoking the specter of yet another war, and illustrating how fantasy may allow individuals a temporary escape from the memory of trauma, but it cannot protect them from it entirely. In addition to this, the faun describes the Pale Man as inhuman, and this draws a link to the inhumanity of war in general. More specifically, however, del Toro is using the Pale Man as a way of implicating General Francisco Franco as a murderer of children and young men, and this is another way that he is using fantasy to explore the traumatic events of war. However, Franco is not the only power-hungry man who has sent children and young people off to war, and therefore it could be argued that del Toro is using the film as a way of condemning all war, while simultaneously emphasizing the need to remember malicious dictators like Franco in order to prevent another one from taking his place.

Fig. 10:  Countless young men, women, boys and girls lost their lives during the Spanish Civil War, a fact which is reflected in both Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, both of which feature children as their protagonists.
Fig. 10: Countless young men, women, boys and girls lost their lives during the Spanish Civil War, a fact which is reflected in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, both of which feature children as their protagonists.

It is important to note here that both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth feature children as their protagonists, as this is central to the theme of exploring trauma through fantasy in both films. According to Guillermo del Toro, “Fascism is above all a perversion of innocence, and as such a perversion of childhood” (Fox, 2006, quoted in Hanley, 2007, p. 38). Thus, by exploring the horrors of war and fascism through the lens of children, del Toro is also exploring the loss of Spain’s own national innocence. Like Ofelia, who finds herself under the thumb of Captain Vidal, Spain found itself under the thumb of Captain Vidal. Thus, just as Ofelia lost her sense of autonomy under the rule of her wicked stepfather, Spain also suffered a loss of autonomy during the rule of the fascists (Clark and McDonald, 2010). Del Toro goes on to explain that during the 1960s, Spain found the courage to resist the fascist dictatorship, and this newly found sense of rebellion and self-expression was not unlike that of the United States in the 1960s (Kermode, 2006). This would indicate that Spain reached an age of independence, not unlike a teenager who reaches a certain age and suddenly desires independence from his or her parents. Thus, the link between childhood and nationhood becomes another way for del Toro to explore the trauma of the civil war and its aftermath.

Furthermore, by exploring this trauma through the lens of childhood, del Toro is also placing emphasis on the act of examining trauma through fantasy. Often, adults will tell children stories as a way of protecting them from the horrors of the real world. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia is retreating into the fantasy of the fairy tales she loves so much as a way of escaping the horrors of the conflict that is gripping Spain. However, Ofelia is unable to escape from the trauma no matter how much she wishes she could, and this in turn is commentary on the need to shield children from trauma as a way of protecting them. Indeed, this theme is repeated throughout both Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, as del Toro does not shy away from showing the affects of war on children. In fact, the appearance of two of the child actors from The Devil’s Backbone as doomed rebel soldiers in Pan’s Labyrinth creates an intertextual connection between the two films, and implies that even though the boys from the orphanage escaped the war in the former film, they still cannot outrun the trauma of the event, which continued to hang over Spain for decades to come (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11
Fig. 11: The actors who portrayed Carlos and Jaime in The Devil’s Backbone appear as doomed rebel soldiers in Pan’s Labyrinth. This creates an intertextual link between the films, and implies that the boys are unable to truly escape from the trauma of war.

This idea returns at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, which mixes triumph and tragedy as a way of illustrating how even though individuals may try to forget about a trauma that has affected them, they cannot escape the reality of the situation. Ofelia liberates her newborn baby brother from the clutches of Captain Vidal, an act which symbolizes the need for Spain to experience a rebirth through the act of liberation. Captain Vidal chases Ofelia into the labyrinth, where he shoots her and leaves her to die as the film returns to the shot from the beginning of the film, only this time it is running forward. As Captain Vidal emerges from the labyrinth carrying the baby, he is confronted by the rebels, who take the baby and then kill the cruel captain (Fig. 12). This would seem to imply that the rebels were victorious, and that everyone would live happily ever after in true Hollywood fashion. However, the historical reality of the situation is that the fascists remained in power until Franco’s death in 1975, and thus the happy ending is not nearly as cut and dried as it at first appears. This is echoed by the fate of Ofelia, who returns to her father’s kingdom in the fantasy realm, but in reality is left to die at the edge of the labyrinth. Despite the evidence that the fantasy realm is real, there is still the fear that it simply existed in Ofelia’s mind. If this is the case, then her fate is similar to that of the rebels and of Spain itself; she may have escaped the tyranny of Captain Vidal, but they have not escaped the rule of the fascists. This is yet another way that del Toro addresses the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, and the oppression of the three decades that followed it.

Fig. 11
Fig. 12: The evil Captain Vidal is killed by the rebels at the end of the film. This would indicate that the rebels are triumphant, however historical reality indicates that this was only a temporary victory.

Most importantly, though, Ofelia represents the future. She represents the generation who grew up under the tyranny of the fascist regime, but also the generation who would someday rise up and throw off the yoke of oppression. While Ofelia dies in the real world, she nevertheless returns to the underground kingdom of her mother and father, and resumes her role as a princess. It is a triumphant scene, with the citizens of the underground kingdom applauding and cheering for her, as the benevolent king and queen, her father and mother, gaze down at her with love and affection. So while her story ends tragically in the real world, with her lying dead and the fascists continuing their rise to power, it nevertheless concludes with a happy ending in the fantasy realm. In one sense, this could be del Toro acknowledging the fact that the rebels ultimately lost their struggle, and that Spain would fall under the oppression of the fascists for the next 30 years. At the same time, though, the fascist regime would eventually fall, and Spain would regain its identity as a free nation (Hartney, 2006).

There is an idea of death and rebirth in both the fantasy realm and the real world. Ofelia must die in order to be reborn as the immortal princess of the fantasy realm. Similarly, Spain died and then was reborn as a fascist dictatorship, which in turn died and gave birth to another Spain, one the was free of the oppression of Fanco and the fascists (Clark & McDonald, 2010). In both cases, the idea of memory looms large. Ofelia forgot that she was once an immortal princess from an underground realm, just as Spain tried to forget the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the trauma that led to the nation falling under the tyranny of fascism. In each case, it led to an eventual rebirth, but it was only through the painful act of remembrance that both Ofelia and Spain were able to achieve this rebirth. Thus, the film is once again illustrating the need to remember in the face of trauma, even when retreating to a fantasy realm seems preferable.


It is painful to remember, especially in the face of events that had such a far-reaching and long-lasting impact as did the Spanish Civil War. However, as Guillermo del Toro illustrates, it is important to remember, because even when an individual tries to forget, the event still occurred and the memories continue to linger. Just as Jaime tried to forget about Santi’s death, or Ofelia forgot that she was an immortal princess from an underground kingdom, Spain tried to forget the horrific events of its own past, even as the consequences of those events lingered for decades after they occurred. Thus, by using fantastic elements such as ghosts and fairy tale kingdoms to serve as literal stand-ins for the memories of trauma, del Toro reinforces the idea that people cannot escape the past, no matter how hard they try. He also illustrates the need to keep these memories fresh as a way of preventing similar traumas. Just as Ofelia forgot her mortal life when she reentered the kingdom of her father, she nevertheless died in the real world, and the rebels found themselves under the oppressive rule of General Francisco Franco and the forces of fascism. Thus, although they tried to forget the traumatic events of the civil war that happened only five years prior, the people of Spain still found themselves living under oppression for the next 30 years. Perhaps, had they remembered what was at stake, they might not have suffered such a fate. This is why it is important to remember, no matter how painful those memories might be. Films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth help viewers do just that.

Works Cited

Brinks, E. (2004). “Nobody’s children”: Gothic representation and traumatic history in “The Devil’s Backbone”. Jac, 24(2), 291-312.

Chun, K. (2002). What is a ghost?: An interview with Guillermo del Toro. Cineaste, 27(2), 28-31.

Clark, R., & McDonald, K. (2010). “A constant transit of finding”: Fantasy as realisation in Pan’s Labyrinth. Children, 41, 52-63.

Hanley, J. (2007). The walls fall down: Fantasy and power in El laberinto del fauno.”. Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 4(1), 34-45.

Hartney, C. (2006). With Spain in our hearts: The political fantastic of Guillermo del Toro’s Laberinto del fauno (2006) and El espinazo del diablo (2001). Literature & Aesthetic, 19(2), 187-201.

History Learning Site. (n.d.) Timeline of the Spanish civil war. Retrieved from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/timeline_spanish_civil_wa.htm

Kermode, M. (2006, December). Girl interrupted. Sight & Sound, 16(12), 20-24.

Lázaro-Reboll, A. (2007). The transnational reception of El espinazo del diablo (Guillermo del Toro 2001). Hispanic Research Journal, 8(1), 39-51.

Narine, N. (2010). Global trauma and narrative cinema. Theory Culture Society, 27(4), 119-145.

Payne, S. G. (1994). Regional historiography of the Spanish Civil War. European History Quarterly, 24, 403-410.

Raychaudhuri, A. (2011). The Spanish Civil War and its (Welsh) afterlives: Memorialisation as a political act. Word & Text: A Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics, 1(1), 151-163.

Smith, P. J. (2007). Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno). Film Quarterly, 60(4), 4-9.

Zipes, J. (2008). Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno). Journal of American Folklore, 121(480), 263-240.


Aragón, M. G. 1978. Heart of the Forest.

de la Iglesia, Á. 2010. The Last Circus.

Del Toro, G. 2001. The Devil’s Backbone.

Del Toro, G. 2006. Pan’s Labyrinth.

Fassbinder, R. W. 1979. The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Hou, H. 1989. A City of Sadness.

Puenzo, L. 1985. The Official Story.

15 thoughts on “Exploring the Trauma of the Spanish Civil War at the Intersection of Fantasy and Reality”

  1. Hello,

    I am writing an essay on Spanish cinema and was wondering if I could possibly reference and cite parts of your post in my essay. If not I understand.

    Many Thanks

  2. Hi, I’m writing an essay on the treatment of individual and social trauma in The Devil’s Backbone, would I be able to reference this post?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s