El Orfanato, as well as El Laberinto del Fauno, Los Otros or El Espinazo del Diablo fits nicely into the national/horror cinema thesis that is pretty much compulsory learning for film students today. I forget names and stuff, but the general idea is that whilst Hollywood horror tends to address 'adult' concerns and sexual phobias (think vampires, wolves in the woods, and even man-made monsters, the single-parent creations that circumvent sex and maternity), Spanish and Hispanic horror lean more towards children's perspectives. Not that these are films you would dream of showing to a child, but the consciousness of that is precisely what makes them so utterly disturbing. The children in these films see far, far too much, and whilst we're offered spiritual and fantastic explanations for what's going on, we're made very aware of the childshness of these escapisms, especially when they're usually placed alongside an a plausible, rational explanation of what's going on. In The Orphanage, when Laura eventually discovers the corpse of her missing son Símon, we are shown a series of flashbacks explaining how he died after becoming trapped in 'le casa de Tomás'. No ghosts necessary.
The 'national cinema' element comes in, then, when we enquire into the origins of these phobias, and the subconscious levels on which they operate. Western society is, of course, founded quite unashamedly on sexual inequality. For centuries, we've lived in a world where women have plenty of good reasons to be afraid - hence the vampires and big bad wolves, cautionary tales for young virgins to guard against the threat of strange men. Of course, recognition of this oppression brings about a fear of rebellion and subversion, a terror of female sexuality on men's part, which leads to your mermaids, sirens and temptresses, as well as attempts to ignore the female altogether, and build new races of Frankensteinian 'men' where 'she' isn't necessary. Film in the States draws from our oldest myths and fairy tales, recreating the pre-Grimm 'children of the night' - 'children' we don't tend to think of as such any more.
Film hit Spain, however, in very different times. From the very beginnings of narrative cinema, the USA's past and its British heritage were available to delve into for source material, both countries being, at least in theory, open and democratic. The years that saw Hollywood's golden age in America, however, were lived rather differently across the water. Franco's dictatorship, and all the censorship that it entailed, lasted from the 30s right up until 1975. Film-makers then and there would have been either brave or stupid to attempt to produce anything more than propaganda for the regime. After its downfall, the gates were opened, and the buried past uncovered, just like the bodies that Laura discovers in the sacks in her shed, or the photographs that Grace Stewart finds in her attic. Where Hollywood horror had looked to Germanic fairy tales and 19th-century British writing for its inspiration, Latin American directors like del Toro made films about the myths perpetuated by Francoism, and the real-life suffering they concealed. The government's failure to fulfill its paternal responsibilities surfaces in neglectful or abusive parent-figures, and the deaths and suffering of children recalls the slaughter of hundreds of innocents during and after the Civil War. Or so the theory goes.
What is interesting is that wicked parents and step-parents are far from being an unfamiliar trope in almost any mythology. Snow White, Cinderella, and countless other stories that Disney didn't get their hands on bear a striking resemblance to noughties Hispanic horror. I've recently been reading up on my Grimm Bros, and have made some of my own discoveries about a pretty horrible past. Snow White, according to my copy of the collected tales, is just seven when her mother orders her execution. It's not long after this that she's taking care of a household on her own, and subsequently being whisked away to be married to a stranger. Read into properly, fairy tales begin to sound increasingly less far removed from things like this, which makes you wonder if, rather than the past, it's the present we really ought to be ashamed of. If we keep telling ourselves essentially the same stories, is it because we're trying to learn from them, to stop history repeating itself? Or is it simply because we never do learn, and because they're always still a too-often-ignored reflection of the world around us? Are we supposed to take hope from the fact that the past is being brought to light, and to believe that this knowledge can help us build something positive? Or should we despair that, even though so much has been revealed, the story still isn't over?
To put it another way, are the endings of films like The Orphanage and Pan's Labyrinth happy ever afters, or are they desperately tragic? The directors certainly don't seem to know where they stand on this, and I'm really not sure that any of the rest of us do, either.