Guillermo Del Toro: Finding Humanity in Monsters & Reality in Fantasy

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by Shannon Jay

Guillermo Del Toro’s love of all things spooky started at an early age as an assessment of authority. He decorated his strict Catholic household with spooky trinkets to spite his parents and doodled monsters that drove his grandmother to douse him with holy water. As a child, he was reading medical books and getting distracted by gargoyles at church, delving into darker interests than his peers. “I think that whenever you're born with sensibility and intelligence you're going to have an unhappy childhood,” Del Toro told Charlie Rose.

He often found refuge from his family’s conservative overhand in the depths of his imagination, bringing his ideas to life in film at a mere 8 years old. Strapped with his father’s Super 8 camera, Del Toro made films with Planet of the Apes action figures and found objects.

One of his earliest original films, Del Toro said in his Reddit AMA, was about a “serial killer potato that dreamt of conquering the world, that murdered [his] mother and [his] brothers, and then stepped outside and was crushed by a car.” After directing the award-winning Cronos in 1993, Del Toro made his American debut in 1997 with Mimic.

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To find the weird inspiration he needs, he must separate himself from reality and step into his own fantasy to seek inspiration. His getaway is in the form of a 11,000 square foot home in the suburbs of Los Angeles called “Bleak House.” Filled to the brim with concept art from films, gothic and grim etchings, biological specimens such as skulls and insects, and lifesize statues of monsters, this house surrounds Del Toro with all the inspiration he needs to create his dark, fantastical worlds. The house has 13 libraries, each dedicated to a specific subject area, including several original editions of classic novels.

He even has a “Rain Room,” complete with a false window that projects a fictional storm, coupled with a continuous thunder soundtrack and a life-size Edgar Allen Poe to accompany him. “As a kid, I dreamed of having a house with secret passages and a room where it rained 24 hours a day,” Del Toro told Time Magazine, “the point of being over 40 is to fulfill the desires you've been harboring since you were 7.”

This focus on truth, imperfection, and the fight for flaws are the fuel behind Del Toro’s love for monsters. He sees the ghouls and spooks who fill his films as the “patron saint of imperfection,” paralleling them with humankind’s inability to accept the monstrosities in ourselves by blurring the lines between good and evil. Frankenstein is Del Toro’s favorite monster -- he defines Boris Karloff’s performance as empathetic, giving humility to the terrifying monster that made “the creature at once horrifying and vulnerable.”

“Even as a kid, I knew that monsters were far more gentle and far more desirable than the monsters living inside nice people”

- Del Toro told the Scotsman

Del Toro’s use of monsters and whmisical environments juxtapose raw stories revealing real emotions, allowing viewers to strip the imaginary layers and contemplate who the less fantastic monsters of our reality are. These overly fictitious worlds are a veil of fantasy that hide acts of rebellion and social commentary. Fairytale worlds distance viewers from reality while commentating on obliviousness of these issues in everyday life.

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While these films are filled with strange creatures, the real monsters are people. In both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, human antagonists Captain Vidal and Jacinto both suffer from a lack of past, giving them few memories to learn and better themselves from, disadvantaging them to face the present with a moral compass improved by experience.

Del Toro not only criticizes humanity in his films, but also delivers subtle but potent political messages. He used Gothic vampires in Cronos to illustrate the demolition of Latin America by North American capitalism. Released the year Pablo Escobar was killed, this greed could extend to cocaine’s successful exports to Miami and New York City, which wreaked havoc on Columbia.

Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth represents the patriarchal tyranny that brought violence upon innocent children in the face of war. Throughout the film, fantasy and reality blend together without disruption, showing how tragically intertwined they are, and how an imaginary escape doesn’t get children too far away from the violence.

“I'm not a filmmaker who can speak directly about politics without addressing it through fable or parable,” Del Toro told Time Magazine.

Del Toro's latest film, Shape of the Water, hits theaters today. He tackles these themes and brings back the shapeshifting Doug Jones to play another humanized, misunderstood monster.