One of the ways in which stories have great power over their audience is through the emotions that they invoke within us. Of the many powerful emotions that can be tapped into by a story, there is perhaps none that is greater than fear. A fearful circumstance, event, or character can have a lasting effect on the viewer, listener, or reader of any sort of story, and they will be much more inclined to remember the story because of the powerful emotion that was evoked. To get this fearful emotion properly generated, many stories create characters that are the embodiment of the viewer’s deepest fears, which they depict in the form of a monster. For as long as fictional stories have been told, monsters have been a part of the storytelling process. They allow the audience to physically manifest some of their own deepest, darkest fears and through their actions serve as a symbol to associate those fears with. In the film, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Pale Male monster serves a distinct purpose in both the film’s plot and that of the symbolism behind the character. What the monster serves to do is to create a symbolic representation of the events that are occurring within Ofelia’s life and that of the events occurring in the world at the time while, in a disturbing manner, presenting an image of the classic monster: one that dangerous and truly evil.
The Pale Man is the general name that is given to one of the most disturbing creatures within Pan’s Labyrinth. It is described as a skeletal creature that appears to be roughly humanoid in appearance but with some defining characteristics. The Pale Man appears to have no real facial features such as a nose or eyes and is simply given a head with a mouth of small, sharp, and pointed teeth. Its skin is much too loose for its body, which gives it the appearance of wasting away over time and the general notion of being very advanced in age. However, it is the hands that are the most unique and shocking feature of the Pale Man.
The most distinguishing feature of this monster is its hands. The fingers end in long pointed ends that are blackened by some event that is not shown or explained, but more disturbing still is the fact that each palm has a missing section for the creature to place its eyes within. The monster literally sees with its hands and periodically holds its opened hands to roughly where an individual’s eyes would be to create a truly disfigured, haunting image of a face (del Toro). Having its eyes in the palm of its hands, the Pale Man is able to accomplish two goals at one time. It is able to pursue someone while at the same time seeing as it reaches forward. The Pale Man literally reaches out for its victim with the same appendage that holds its eye. This allows for the monster to move in a strange manner where its grotesque hand serves as the most repulsive feature of the monster and yet, at the same time, is the first part of the monster that will make contact with its next victim. The image is complete with the monster biting and tearing apart Ofelia’s fairy guides with its teeth given its mouth a blood-stained appearance as it pursues the fleeing little girl.
As with most story’s monsters, the Pale Man has some distinguishing features beyond its physical body that act in such a way that makes it easily examinable and identifiable. First, the monster itself has a very distinct parallel to a certain cultural moment. The Pale Man clearly represents the general feelings of those that were expressed after the Spanish Civil War (as W.H. Auden discussed), meaning that it encompasses the feelings of control, authoritarianism, and fascism. The film takes place in a time period that saw the rise of totalitarian governments all over the western world. In the case of this particular film, the audience is introduced to a character that is basically the embodiment of fascism in Captain Vidal. That acts of atrocity that Captain Vidal carries out in the film can be coupled with that of the monsters of the film such as the giant toad and the Pale Man in order to, “make the invisible reality of fascism present” (Harris). These symbols serve, as powerful images to show just how oppressive and dangerous that the form of the ruling can be when those that gain power misuse it. The Pale Man has a deeper meaning than just a symbolic representation of fascism, however.
One can also see within the Pale Man the notion of policing the borders of the possible within the film. As with many monsters, the Pale Man stands at the limits of knowing and is a sort of warning against exploration beyond the border that it stands upon. Ofelia enters the dungeon in which the Pale Man is placed in order to carry out a specific task, the completion of which, will help her in discovering and unlocking the mysteries of her own life and the saving of her infant sibling. She does not understand entirely what it is that she is doing; rather, she is merely following the instructions from the faun. However, by ignoring the orders that are explicitly given to her, Ofelia unknowingly awakens the Pale Man, which results in the death of her fairy guides and almost her. What this shows is a clear message of the dangers of action when the consequences are unknown or not revealed to the individual. One could easily drawn connections from this concept of the power that a fascist government has over its citizens and that the Pale Man rising from Ofelia eating the fruit at the table is a representation of the actions of the people of the time resulting in such an oppressive, authoritative government, and the result would not be entirely untrue. However, this scene appears to have a deeper meaning than only that of the ties to the fascist regimes of the world and appears to make implications to religious undertones that are related to the Pale Man.
It is of particular note to take notice of the setting in which the Pale Man appears. There is, “religious imagery that prevails in the room and the abundance of food available” (Swier). What one can interpret from the décor and layout of the banquet hall is a parallel that is drawn from the setting and that of postwar Fascist Spain. Specifically, there are major undertones to the “crusade-like dimensions following the outbreak of the Civil War” (Swier). The amount of power that the church was given during this time period in Spain enabled the church to remain both wealthy and in a time of plenty although the majority of the population was in a state of starvation and struggle. Further, one can see these connections made in the way in which the monster itself is stirred from its apparent slumber. As soon as Ofelia took the grapes from the table, the Pale Man arose and began his pursuit after her. This symbolic action is represented in the way in which the church and those of religious power would act in the era of Spanish history. The church, like the Pale Man, would wait and not openly punish or pursue individuals that did not take or harm their interests, however as soon as a person would perform such actions, regardless of how trivial such as with Ofelia taking some grape from the feast of food, there would be direct, immediate response.
When asked about the way that the Pale Man is related to the Fascist government and that of the Catholic Church, director Guillermo del Toro made the following quote:
…that particular character somehow came to represent the church and the devouring of children…The words that the priest speaks at the table in Pan’s Labyrinth are taken verbatim from a speech a priest used to give to the Republican prisoners in a fascist concentration camp. He would come to give them communion and he would say before he left, ‘remember, my sons, you should confess what you know because God doesn’t care what happens to your bodies; he already saved your souls.’…The Pale Man represents…fascism and the Church eating the children when they have a perversely abundant banquet in from of them. There is almost a hunger to eat innocence…” (Spector).
What this shows is that the director of the film had a decisive message that he wanted to give when presenting the audience with this character. The Pale man serves as a representation between these two prevailing powers that ruled the Spanish lands for so long and caused so many such great suffering during the time. The Pale Man is nothing more than all of the worst traits of both the Fascist regime in power and the Catholic Church. It is an embodiment of pure evil, with no capacity for joy, compassion, or good. Its ever-lasting hunger cannot be quenched and many who have encountered it have met a grizzly demise, as evidence to the artwork of the chamber and the assortment of remains. However, the connections to the Pale Man are not simply limited to that of the Catholic Church when speaking of religious undertones.
Though there appear to be clear representations to the Pale Man and that of the Catholic Church, there also exist distinct similarities to the monster and that of earlier religious ideology. Of course, the similarities that are mentioned are of the Pale Man compared to Cronus. In Greek mythology, Cronus is identified as the Titan that ruled as the chief deity before the Olympians came into power. Fearful that his children would one day seize the power that he possessed, Cronus devoured his offspring to prevent them from taking what was his. However, his child Zeus escaped from this fate and was able to defeat his father and usher in the era of the Olympians according to Greek mythology. The similarities between Cronus and the Pale Man come in the form of devouring individuals.
The Pale Man’s lair is littered with small references to that of child sacrifice and consumption similar to that of Cronus. There pile of children’s shoes and the pictures within the lair serve as a direct representation of this and is furthered by the depiction of the actions that the Pale Man carries out (Spector). The placement of the dungeon also draws similarities to Cronus as well. In Greek mythology, after Zeus escaped from his father and took power, he banished Cronus to the darkness of the worst place in the underworld, Tartarus. It is of no surprise then that the lair of the Pale Man is reached by entering an underground location very similar to that of the Greek underworld (Spector). Obviously, however, the greatest comparison is in the way in which the Pale Man catches and eats Ofelia’s fair guides. If she had not been able to escape the dungeon and pursuit of the Pale Man, he clearly would have had no second thought to consume her as well.
The Pale Man’s dining hall is not only limited to representations on the national and global scale but can be seen as the more personalized reference to the events that are occurring within Ofelia’s life. Upon examination of the Pale Man’s dining hall, the passing resemblance of that of Captain Vidal’s dining table. This whole set up mirrors that of the Captain’s dinner party from the hall itself down to even the shape and structure of the table that the banquet is served upon (Thormann). In the real world, the captain hosts a dinner gathering in which he constantly attempts to control those around him in a showing of both his power and prestige. When a story is presented to the guests that Captain Vidal does not appreciate or want to be told, he simply dismisses it such as the two stories that are told during the scene. Both times, he adamantly expresses that they are nonsense and claims notions such as, “Please forgive my wife. She hasn’t been exposed to the world” (del Toro). This air of dismissal serves a means by which the captain takes down and destroys the stories he sees as unreal and not useful.
This can be seen as a metaphorical similarity that Captain Vidal shares with the Pale Man. The Pale Man, after arising from his slumbering state prompted from Ofelia eating the grapes, simply disregards the fairies that are trying to alert Ofelia and casually brushes them away. The Pale Man then, as the captain did with the dinner stories, takes the situation one step further and begins to grab each fairy and eat it. This can be seen as very similar to, “killing them just as Vidal did the ‘nonsense’ that he overheard at the dinner table” (Walsh). Another similarity between the two, Vidal and the Pale Man, that is hinted at is the way in which both serve as a guard to their respective tables. The Pale Man never actually says anything but through its actions, it becomes apparent that it is guarding the banquet table and the items on it. This is similar to that of Vidal, though he claims that his presence is on the notion, “I am here because I chose to be,” (del Toro), when the audience clearly recognizes that his reason for being at the table is no more than to “destroy any hint of imagination of freedom of will” (Walsh). What these similarities show is that the Pale Man, in some way, can be seen as a metaphor to the way that Ofelia views Captain Vidal, like that of a monster who is single-minded and dedicated to its goal.
The relationship between Ofelia and Captain Vidal is consistently strained, as evident through their interactions due in large to the fact that the captain is, in his own rights, a monster. Ofelia’s actions throughout the movie are a means to undermine his authority and plans, especially in regards to his potential actions towards her newly born sibling. It is fitting that the Pale Man’s appearance would coincide with the manner in which her relationship had taken with Captain Vidal at the current moment. As her mother’s health is fading, Ofelia’s distrust and disdain for the captain grows up to the point that she sees him as nothing more than a monstrous individual that destroys all traces of happiness and freedom. It would seem that it could have been a representation of Captain Vidal that Ofelia encounters within the demonic world where she must retrieve the golden dagger, and like in the real world, the monster, both the Pale Man and Vidal, prevent her from completing her task and threaten her safety and well being. However, unlike Vidal, the audience never knows what becomes of the Pale Man.
What makes the Pale Man such a frightening and disturbing element of the film are not necessarily bound to the actions and representations that come with the character while it is on the screen; rather the lasting effect that the Pale Man has on the viewer can be seen as quite profound. The audience is given such little time to fully take in what the Pale Man is that much of his demonic world is left to the viewer’s imagination. We see that the monster clearly escapes from being harmed in any way and must assume that it lived on even after the events of the film concluded, meaning that in someplace it is still out there waiting for its next victim. Since so little is given about what the Pale Man is, the audience is left to their own thoughts on how it could ever have come to its lair and where that location really is. The fear that this creates is almost more so than that of the actions of the Pale Man in the film because it allows for the audience to give the monster characteristics that are unique on a personalized basis and can result in the monster being tailored by the individuals’ largest fears.
The Pale Man serves as one of the most memorable characters within Pan’s Labyrinth. The monster serves the distinct purpose of representing several important themes from the film. It serves as a representation of the atrocious acts that are carried out by those of the Fascist party. It serves as a comparison to that of the Catholic Church and the protection of their wealth and abundance and inheritance of the Vatican II council in a time of need for the citizens of their nation. It serves as a comparison to the Greek Titan Cronus and the way in which he devoured his competition in order to remain in power. And, it serves as a metaphorical relationship of the relationship between Ofelia and the way that she views Captain Vidal. What the audience sees in the film is one of the strangest and most unappealing looking monsters that have been introduced within a film in recent years and are left with a sense of discomfort and general fear to the way that it acts while on screen. However, it is after being exposed to this monster that one is able to step back and really see what the monster serves as a purpose within the film. The Pale Man’s role extends far beyond that of the typical monster that is seen, as it serves as a major representation of the conflicts of several of the film’s major themes. All of these are combined to make one of the most memorable and alarming characters that have been used as a film’s monster in recent years.
del Toro, Guillermo, dir. Pan's Labyrinth . Picturehouse, 2006.
Harris, Wilson. "The Antifascist Aesthetics of Pan’s Labyrinth." Journal of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy, 2011, http://sdonline.org/47/the-antifascist-aesthetics-of-pan’s-labyrinth/>.
Spector, Barry. "Sacrifice of the Children in Pan's Labyrinth ." Film Review, 2008, http://www.barryandmayaspector.com/Barryandmaya/Myth_files/Sacrifice of the Children in Pan’s Labyrinth.pdf>.
Swier, Patricia Lapolla. "New Age Fairy Tales: The Abject Female Hero in El laberinto del fauno and La rebelión de los conejos mágicos." Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 2011, http://www.umassd.edu/jfs/pastissues/issue1fall2011/swier/>.
Thormann, Janet. "Other Pasts: Family Romances of Pan's Labyrinth." Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 2008, http://www.palgrave-journals.com/pcs/journal/v13/n2/full/pcs20089a.html>.
Walsh, Colin. "Fairytales, Fascism, and understanding symbolism in Pan's Labyrinth.." Moving Cinema, 2011, http://www.moving-cinema.com/2011/08/fairytales-fascism-and-understanding.html>.