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The Female Martyrs of Spanish Horror Cinema

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Over the past couple of decades, Spain’s film industry has churned out a number of high-profile horror films and chilling psycho-thrillers. Think Alejandro Amenábar’s Los otros/The Others (2001) starring Nicole Kidman, Guillermo del Toro’s twisted fairy-tale, El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and, of course, El orfanato/The Orphanage (Bayona 2007). These are films which toy with the border between life and death, the fragility of childhood, and the possessive love of motherhood. 

This relatively recent surge in horror film can be traced back to a ‘Golden Age’ of Spanish horror in the mid-1970s, a period which marked the death of dictator Francisco Franco and the country’s ensuing transition to a democracy. The revocation of the former regime’s strict censorship policies triggered seismic revolutions across Spain’s art scene. In particular, pioneering filmmakers used their newfound freedom of creative expression to pick apart every taboo imaginable with their graphic depictions of sex, violence, and madness.

Eventually, as time ran its course and the country established itself as a fully-fledged democracy, the cultural climate stabilized in Spain. As such, the horror genre went into a hibernation period. Indeed, it could be said that horror film is an accurate reflection of societal anxiety. For when the millennium came about, bringing widespread uncertainty and anticipation up to the surface of collective consciousness, scary films started to seep back into mainstream fare.

Horror productions have since proven to be highly exportable for Spain. They’ve gained significant ground in foreign markets, including the USA. The Others is a prime example. While the Spanish origins of this contemporary ghost story often go unacknowledged, Amenábar’s award-winning screenplay was originally written in Spanish, with a Spanish cast in mind. It was also filmed in locations across mainland Spain, including Madrid and the town of Las Fraguas in Cantabria.

The Others (2001)

The Others snapped up eight Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of BAFTAs), despite the fact that not one word of Spanish is spoken throughout the entire film. The success of its Gothic aesthetic and narrative structure set a precedent for other Iberian filmmakers. In particular, it reaffirmed the appeal of having a female lead. Typically, Spanish horror plots centre on a woman or girl who investigates a horrific underworld on her own. There she must face grueling trials and tribulations, make enormous sacrifices, and sustain bodily harm. Unsurprisingly, this cinematic treatment of the female sex is often interpreted by critics as an onslaught of ‘punishments’ directed against women.

Some examples of the female martyrs of Spanish horror films include the following: In Amenábar’s Tesis/Thesis (1996), Ana Torrent plays a film student whose investigation into the origin of a ‘snuff film’ (i.e. footage of an actual death) brings her face-to-face with a murderous psycho. In Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) must complete a number of perilous challenges, confronting nightmarish beasts in womb-like passages of the earth. Indeed, the magical realism of Pan’s Labyrinth takes place amidst the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, which Mexican director Del Toro does not shy away from; much of the cruelty of the time is redirected at women, including Ofelia and her mother, history’s invisible sufferers.

In The Orphanage, Laura (Belén Rueda) embarks on a fateful search for her son in a creepy manor house on the Spanish coast. The eerie setting smacks of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), while the theme of failed motherhood references The OthersIn Los ojos de Julia/Julia’s Eyes (Guillem Morales, 2010), the protagonist (also Rueda) investigates the fishy so-called suicide of her twin sister, even though she herself is suffering from a disabling eye condition. At one point, Julia’s Eyes replicates a nail-biting scene from Bigas Luna’s 1987 horror film Angustia/Anguish in which a glinting scalpel is poised inert within a hair’s breadth of Julia’s eyeball!

Jaume Balagueró takes the theme of female suffering even further (oh yes, it’s possible) in his suspense-thriller Mientras duermes/Sleep Tight (2011). Clara (Marta Etura) is the primary target of a sadistic saboteur played by Luis Tosar. He’s the janitor in Clara’s apartment building and uses the master keys to break in to her room every night… Balagueró was also behind the [REC] zombie film series (2007-2014), along with Paco Plaza. Reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) is the female lead in this found-footage saga. Her tight-fitting, white tank top remains blood-stained at least 90% of the time – need I say more? Finally, in Amenábar’s recent Spanish-American thriller, Regresión/Regression (2015), Emma Watson plays Angela, an abused 17-year-old suffering from severe post-traumatic stress.

Regression (2015)

Interestingly, in The OthersPan’s Labyrinth, and The Orphanage, the female protagonist must physically die in order to reach her final goal in the next world, i.e. to be reconciled and reunited with her family. There seems to be a blanket effort to reincorporate woman within the domestic sphere – even at the cost of her life. She is presented as a martyr, but the fact that she is fatefully tied to her familial duties belies latent sexism.

So while violence is directed at men at various moments in these Spanish horror stories, the ongoing suffering tends to be endured by a woman. This is a sustained focus of all the films I have mentioned wherein female protagonists tend to embody victim and heroine all in one. Why is it that women are always put in the firing line? Could this have something to do with Spanish culture and the leftover misogyny of Franco’s regime? It quite likely does.

This isn’t to suggest that the theme of female suffering in horror is unique to Spanish cinema, on the contrary. It is largely inspired by Hitchcock, the quintessentially British director who held that filmmakers should ‘torture the women’. And the approach has ensured transnational appeal for Spanish productions. [REC] became the first franchise of its kind to leave Spain, re-made in the US under the title Quarantine by John Erick Dowdle in 2008, and Amenábar has chosen to film in English (The Others, Regression) to reach Anglophone audiences.

It could be that women provide fertile territory for horror plots both in Spain and elsewhere because the female sex has traditionally represented insurmountable mystery in patriarchal cultures. That is, where the dominant voice is a male one, women typically represent the darker side – the spooky house, the deep forest, the uncharted cave. Unravelling the feminine universe is still an important task for film and culture in general it seems. Unfortunately, many, if not all, of the aforementioned films tend to reinstate prescriptive gender stereotypes of the past, specifically in relation to motherhood, with a somewhat obsessive focus on female suffering.

Hopefully the tables will turn when women get behind the lens. Cinema is such a male-dominated industry, especially where horror is concerned. So a true insight into female experience might be what is needed to provide less prescriptive and punitive representations of women in horror. Hopefully we won’t have to wait long to find out.

About Lucy Sabin

Lucy's academic background is in French, Spanish, and Philosophy. She's particularly drawn to Psychoanalysis and Gender Studies. Currently working in PR for a charity based in London while freelance writing on the side, Lucy still hasn't got used to referring to herself in the third person. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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