Spanish horror films and literature mirror centuries of conflict

poster A poster outside Nohemy Solórzano-Thompson’s Olin Hall office advertises films students created for one of her classes.

In spring 2010, I taught a new upper-level seminar focusing on Spanish horror literature and film. The first day of class many students expressed hesitancy toward studying the material, because they were not horror fans. By the end of the semester, however, most had gained an understanding of why horror is important in telling us about contemporary Spain and its history.

We began studying texts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in order to contextualize how horror has traditionally been portrayed in Spanish literature and culture. The students found these texts fascinating as they provided a rich commentary on Spain’s long history of ethnic and religious conflict. To call these texts simply anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim would be to simplify more than 1,000 years of Spanish history into two labels that miss the multifaceted realities of the Iberian Peninsula. But, by reading these texts as foundational and in direct conversation with contemporary horror literature and film, we were able to trace a complex and often contradictory legacy about Spain and its peoples.

The Spanish Inquisition was one of the most horrific events in the history of Europe, so terrible that it ranks second only, in my opinion, to 20th century horrors such as the Holocaust and the ethnic-cleansing wars in Eastern Europe. To understand the Inquisition, our class studied how Spain became a modern nation through a Catholic-led Counter-Reformation that sought to either convert or expel all Spanish Jews and Muslims from the Peninsula. Those who did not leave or those who stayed and converted but were suspected of secretly keeping their traditions were subjected to the tortures of the Inquisition. To carry out their religious-cleansing project, Inquisition officials used horror literature and iconography to portray the "infidels" as monsters, witches or devils. Popular engravings of the time literarily demonized Spanish Jews and Muslims, to encourage people to denounce their neighbors. A culture of paranoia and fear emerged as people both feared the "demonic other" and equally feared being labeled as such by their neighbors. Although the Inquisition was shut down when Napoleon’s forces invaded Spain in 1808, its legacy remains a part of everyday life in Spain.

As those who ignore history are bound to repeat it, the lessons we learned from the Inquisition readings were to prepare the students for the film component of our class. We watched a set of contemporary films that, at first glance, might appear to be horror-fests about vampires, ghosts, zombies and slashers. Yet, as we closely analyzed each film and its depiction of Spain, we began to see a social commentary about history and culture.

We watched a set of contemporary films that, at first glance, might appear to be horror-fests about vampires, ghosts, zombies and slashers. Yet, as we closely analyzed each film and its depiction of Spain, we began to see a social commentary about history and culture.

One of our first films, Milos Forman’s "Goya’s Ghosts" (2006) was set during the Inquisition and portrayed the wrongful persecution and incarceration of Natalie Portman’s character. The character was suspected of "Judaizing" — that is, reverting to Judaism as one of her ancestors had been forcefully converted — after being denounced for not eating pork; she was tortured until she confessed. Forman’s film not only is a criticism of the Inquisition but also, as the class discovered, is a sharp criticism of the Holocaust and today’s war on terror. Forman’s mother was killed in Auschwitz by the Nazis, and this horror is echoed throughout the film. But more importantly, it is no accident that the Medieval tortures featured in the film also take place at Abu Ghraib and other facilities currently holding suspected terrorists. Forman very powerfully reminds us that Spain’s ghosts are still among us today.

Our next film was Agustí Villarronga’s "In a Glass Cage" (1987), one of the most disturbing and controversial films ever made. As the opening scene informs the audience, our main character is a Nazi war criminal — he was a medical doctor who cruelly experimented on Jewish and Gypsy children in the camps — and is a pedophile; as the action begins he is hiding out from the authorities in southern Spain. As the film unfolds, its tale of past sins and consequences is understood. Villaronga’s film is about exposing Spain’s wrongdoings, its ties to Nazi Germany, its hiding of war criminals during the Franco dictatorship, and also about Spain’s own legacy of torture, anti-Semitism and state-sponsored violence. Just as the doctor is able to escape persecution from the authorities, the human rights violations of the dictatorship were never persecuted or even brought to light. Villaronga’s film is relevant today, as Spain once again tries to reconcile its past as inquiries into mass graves from the Civil War resurface. This includes the search for the body of one of Spain’s most important authors, Federico García Lorca, assumed to be buried somewhere in the south of Spain after being executed by the fascist Guardia Civil for being gay.

The class then studied Guillermo del Toro’s 2001 film, "The Devil’s Backbone," about a group of boys in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. As with del Toro’s award-winning "Pan’s Labyrinth" (2006), the earlier film portrays the Civil War through two interconnected narratives, one real and one fantastic. In the film, the boys are convinced a ghost haunts their orphanage; while the adults are trying to flee the advancing Fascist army and hide some of the Republic’s gold reserves. The film opens with a Nazi air raid that drops a bomb in the orphanage’s courtyard. Fortunately, the bomb does not go off, but its presence looms throughout the film to remind us that Hitler supported Franco’s coup, and Nazi planes practiced air raids in Spain to prepare for World War II. As the supernatural story unfolds, the boys are haunted by religious imagery that recalls Medieval engravings about devils and monsters. They are especially frightened by the dusty and bloody Catholic statues that the atheist orphanage directors put away in the cellar and back rooms.

We ended the class with Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s zombie flick "REC" (2007), set in a Barcelona apartment building and shot in the shaky camera style of the "Blair Witch Project" (1999) and other mockumentaries. The film recently was remade in the United States as "Quarantine" (2008), but the American version is not as rich as the Spanish one. "REC" is not only about flesh-eating zombies, but also about Spain’s coming to terms with its changing demographics, and the society’s response to immigration as characterized by the multicultural residents of the building and their distrust of each other based on their cultural differences. At the film’s conclusion, religion once again makes an overt entrance. The zombies are the product of a virus unleashed during a failed exorcism. The exorcism was carried out clandestinely, and it echoed Inquisition-style torture. Through this torture, the virus spread, and its natural consequence was the annihilation of all the residents.

What can horror film teach us about Spain? It can teach us that ghosts — be they fantastic or metaphorical — tend to resurface and wreak havoc. We must come to terms with history and its legacy in order to escape the horror of denial and silence. As Spain struggles to unbury its past — especially the crimes of the Civil War and its subsequent dictatorship — it begins to air out some of those ghosts and skeletons in the closet.

About the author: Nohemy Solórzano-Thompson is an associate professor of Spanish. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, a master’s degree at Stanford University and a doctorate at Cornell. She joined the Whitman faculty in 2003. She is the past chair of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies.