The Horror of Children in Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

The Horror of Children in

Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Warning!  This review contains spoilers!!

        Horror movie fans usually watch such films for the purpose of being scared.  If a horror movie doesn’t frighten us, we feel that it has somehow failed to achieve its goal.  But to be an excellent horror film, it must do more than make us jump or turn our heads in disgust.  Very often, horror movies degenerate into nothing more than depicting gruesome ways in which people may die, piling on the amounts of blood and gore, or inventing new forms of grotesque monsters or cheap tricks to make the audience flinch.   To truly work, a horror film must have a subtext, a subplot that reaches us at the everyday level of our lives.  To make us uneasy and cause us to squirm in our seats, the horror film must show us something about the horror of the ordinary.  In his essay, “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud tries to explain where those feelings come from that we classify as “uncanny,” those unsettling, eerie emotions that we often experience when something frightens us.   Freud writes,

…this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old—established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.  This reference to repression enables us, furthermore, to understand Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light.   (3691)

In other words, though we may refuse to acknowledge it, what is truly horrible to us is what is familiar.  In well-made horror movies, those repressed feelings come to the surface, and that’s when we start feeling the terror of the everyday, that uncanny feeling that we find difficult to explain.  In Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, we are asked to face two familiar horrors:   the horrors experienced by children and the horrors that children bring into our lives.

        Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of a 1973 made-for-TV movie of the same title starring Kim Darby.   Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) has long been fascinated by the 1973 version and wanted to give it a modern touch.  In an interview del Toro said that he believed that the 1973 Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was one of the scariest TV movies ever made and that he had been seeking the rights to it since the 1990s ( Nemiroff).  Though he did not direct this remake, handing that job to first-time director Troy Nixey, a comic-book artist, del Toro was producer and co-writer for this film.  The movie definitely has his stamp all over it, including his fascination with dark fairies and labyrinths.    

            In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Sally, played by Bailee Madison, nine years old at the time of filming, is a child who experiences the horror of feeling that she is not loved.    Like many children who are genuinely cared for, she interprets inattentiveness and distrust as signs of being unloved.   She is the product of a broken home.  Though she has been living with her mother, her mother decides to send her to her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), at a critical point in his life.  He and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), are restoring the old, gothic, Blackwood mansion to save his flagging career as an architect.  (The name “Blackwood” is del Toro’s nod to Algernon Blackwood, one of the most famous of all ghost story writers).  Kim, an interior designer not ready for parenthood, has difficulty with this new responsibility of taking care of a child.  Alex loves his daughter, but he is so obsessed with getting his career back on track that he doesn’t have the time necessary to devote to her.   

        In an effort to break the ice with Sally, Kim gives her a teddy bear that says, “I love you, I love you, I love you…”  Throughout the film, the mechanical sounding “I love you,” comes from the bear, a constant reminder that there is no substitute for the human love that Sally needs.   At one point in the movie when Sally is frightened, Kim promises her that she will not leave her alone in the dark.  Once Sally falls asleep, Kim slips out of the room, but not before tucking the bear beside Sally.  When Sally awakens in the middle of the night, surrounded by horrible creatures, she looks for Kim, but only finds the teddy bear, one of the many substitutes for a loving parent that the film will introduce.    Later, when Sally calls her mother and begs to come home, we hear the voice of the mother coming through the phone, sounding so sweet, kind, and caring, but we know that her concern is a farce.  She is busy with other things and can’t have the burden of a child in her life at that time, not even at the moment of talking on the phone, for she quickly ends the conversation with her heartbroken child because she has so much to do.    At this vulnerable point in Sally’s life, the Blackwood mansion happens to be the gateway for evil creatures that are eager to fill that void she is experiencing. 

            Unknown to Sally, Alex, and Kim, the Blackwood mansion has a terrifying history.  Emerson Blackwood, the original owner, was a famous wildlife artist, but beneath his mansion was a subterranean passage that led to a world of prehistoric, Lovecraftian creatures.    Some critics have referred to them as goblins, but I think del Toro would refer to them as “dark fairies.”  These creatures look to be a combination of rat, gremlin, and gargoyle. In a recent interview, del Toro said that part of the inspiration for the design of the creatures was one of H. P. Lovecraft’s tales, “Dreams of the Witch House,” in which the creature has the body of a rat and the face of a man (Nemiroff).  For del Toro, these creatures may be the original for an evil race of beings that eventually became known as fairies.    Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, like Pan’s Labyrinth, reveals del Toro’s fascination with fairy legends and fairy tales.  Kim even remarks at one point in the film that she feels like the evil stepmother.  But del Toro’s fairies are not the Disney variety.   More than mischievous, his fairies are evil.   Early in the film, Sally steps into a circle of mushrooms, often referred to in folklore as a “fairy ring.”  But the fairy ring doesn’t lead Sally into a world of delightful enchantment.  In one interview, del Toro says that he was working more with the mythology that depicts fairies as having been neutral in the war between God and Satan, and, as punishment,  were cast down to live under the earth (Roberts).  In many forms of fairy stories,  fairies are, as del Toro puts it,  “morally elusive” beings who may perform kind and beneficial acts for human beings,  but they may also do evil things such as kidnap children (Nemiroff).   It can be a frightening thing to be involved in the world of the little people.   

        In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, we learn that the fairy creatures that live beneath the Blackwood mansion are the original inspiration behind the tooth fairy legend.   Occasionally, they come from their subterranean home and take children into the underworld unless an offering of teeth is left for them.  According to the film, a pope Sylvester, probably Sylvester II who was rumored to be in league with the devil,  made a deal with these creatures that they would take no children if a child will leave a tooth under its pillow as a form of ransom.   If the ransom is not paid, then someone must be dragged down to the subterranean world and join their ranks, evidently being transformed into one of them.

            The fear of losing one’s teeth is one of the central aspects of this film.  Such anxieties often reveal themselves in our dreams and nightmares.  The movie opens with an extremely gruesome “tooth extraction.” The dark creatures in the Blackwood mansion excitedly survey Sally and exclaim, “Child’s teeth!”  Psychologists have many theories about our dread of losing our teeth, one of the most popular being that it reveals a fear of powerlessness.  Since teeth are used to bite and eat, the loss of teeth would indicate a kind of helplessness.   Childhood is that period in our lives that we feel most at the most of mercy of others, just as Sally has no control over where or with whom she will live.  She has moved into a new environment where it seems that she has no ability to manage the forces in her life that are causing her such unhappiness.   Though she is living in a huge mansion, this house is definitely not a home.  She has a father who is too busy for her, a mother who has sent her away, and the father’s girlfriend says that she has just gotten over the trauma of her own childhood and doesn’t know if she can cope with a child going through a terrible time in her own life.     These feelings of rejection, loneliness, and powerlessness make her vulnerable to the temptations and suggestions of the dark creatures.  In psychological terms, these creatures, who want her teeth, are a projection of her fears of rejection and powerlessness.

            Increasing her sense of alienation is the fact that no one believes her explanation of the strange events that happen in the Blackwood mansion.  When the creatures tear Kim’s dresses to pieces, Sally gets the blame.  Of course, when she insists that she had nothing to do with it, no one believes her.   In an odd twist, the person who finally begins to believe and help her is not a mother or father, but Kim, the girlfriend.    Subverting the fairy tale again, it is the prospective “wicked stepmother” who is the most caring adult for the child.  Del Toro said that in this film, Kim and Sally do not finally come together as mother and daughter, but simply as two women who must fight these creatures since Alex is so inattentive and ineffective as father and protector (Nemiroff).

        Don’t Be Afraid of the Darkexplores the horrors that children often feel, not of mythic creatures, but of adults who make them feel so alone and vulnerable, and who will not take the responsibility of being parents.  When Alex and Kim invite the psychiatrist to analyze Sally, she demonstrates by her attitude and answers that she is very familiar with the questions and the routine.  She has obviously been through the same process so many times before, that she is bored with the whole affair.  The doctor prescribes more drugs, possibly another commentary that when modern parents have difficulty with their children, the solution is not love and more time with the parents, but counseling and medication. 

            When Sally and her family first move into the house, she begins to hear the voices of these creatures calling her name.  Rather than being frightened by these voices, Sally begins an investigation to find their source.  In the basement, there is a grate that is covering up the hole that leads to the underground lair of the dark creatures.  Again, Sally shows no fear but actually begins to unscrew the bolts that will open the grate and unleash the evil.    At first, Sally shows no fear of these creatures, even doing something unaccountable in a child—looking for them under her bed.  The only way that we can explain Sally’s fearlessness is that she is desperate for companionship.  The creatures keep whispering that they want to play.  Then, as it becomes obvious that no one has time for her, the creatures whisper, “They don’t want you, but we do.”    The creatures become a metaphor for those real horrors that threaten children—sexual predators and those who physically and emotionally abuse them, while pretending that they only want to be their friend.   Strengthening the allusion to those who prey on children, the film makes it plain that adult teeth will not satisfy the appetite of these creatures.  Only child’s teeth will suffice.   The familiar horrors here are parents and those who abuse children, real horrors that some children are forced to confront from their position of powerlessness.

            But if the movie uncovers the familiar horrors experienced by children, it also reveals the horrors that children bring into the lives of parents.   Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark exposes the all too familiar horror,  one that parents repress and refuse to admit, that they have brought children into this world and are now unable or unwilling to give the love and time that these “little people” demand.  Though parents often talk about how much they want to have children, when the little people actually arrive, parents, though they would never admit it to themselves, begin to regret their presence.  Children often interfere with and spoil the plans that the adults have made for themselves.  It is obvious that Sally’s mother does not want the interference of a child in her life, especially a child who has a gluten intolerance and has already been put on Adderall, a medication for ADHD.    The last thing Alex needs at this time, when he is trying to restore a house with his career on the line, is a hyperactive child.  When Kim’s dresses are shredded, Alex feels that his hyperactive child is to blame.  Later, when Alex has arranged a dinner party to show off his renovation of the house, Sally has a battle with the creatures which demolishes the gorgeously restored library, bringing an abrupt end to the dinner party that was so essential to Alex’s future success.  Though the creatures are the actual culprits, it is Sally who unleashes all these horrors.  She is the one who hears the voices, the one who yields to the temptations they offer, and the one who opens the gate for the evil beings to come into the world once again. 

            For Sally, these frightening creatures come from far below the surface of the earth, but for the adults, the little creature who wreaks havoc is the child.  In an absolutely brilliant scene, Sally is seated with the adults at the dinner party that Alex has designed to impress his architectural clientele.  The creatures are trying to get a photograph away from Sally, and she goes under the table to chase them and retrieve the picture that proves their existence.   As she crawls under the table among the legs of the visitors, her movements are incredibly similar to those of the creatures.  She is the dark fairy among the adults.  In their eyes, Sally is the little gremlin responsible for all the chaos and disorder. 

            The title of the film is Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a piece of advice that parents often give their children, especially when they are trying to get them to sleep in a room by themselves.   At first, Sally doesn’t seem to fear the darkness.  Ironically, it is the inattention of the adults that drives Sally to seek those things that are in the dark.   It is only when Sally encounters the horror of what is in the darkness that she can see the evil that hides there.    The evil little creatures that lurk in the shadows are the ones who most want to rid Sally of her fear of the darkness, for they cannot perform their cruel acts in the light.   

            Though Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark will be classified in the horror genre, it would be better categorized as a dark fantasy, much like Pan’s Labyrinth.   Those who expect a horror movie to be filled with blood and gore may be disappointed.  The Blackwood mansion is creepy enough to give us a signal that this horror movie will use more atmospheric techniques to frighten us.  Personally, I thought the film introduced a full sight of the creatures too early in the movie to maintain the suspense and terror for the remainder of the film, but this is not the typical 21st century horror movie.  The movie does an excellent job of showing us that the true horrors in our lives are not unfamiliar fairy creatures, but the too familiar horrors that reside in the real world of parents and children.  By our lack of love and attention, we often drive children into the darkness and then blame them for the horrors that they drag out of the shadows.  What comes out of the darkness is what we fear most–the feelings about one another that  we have tried to hide from ourselves.  

Works Cited

Freud.  Sigmund.  “The ‘Uncanny.’”  The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud.   London:  Ivan Smith, 2000.  3673-3700.

Nemiroff, Perri.  “Video Interview:  Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’s Guillermo Del Torro

            And Katie Holmes.”  Cinema Blend.Com.  30 August 2011.

            <http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Video-Interview-Don-t-Be-Afraid-Of-The-

            Dark-s-Guillermo-Del-Toro-And-Katie-Holme-26387.html>

Roberts, Sheila.  Collider.Com.  “Guillermo del Toro and Katie Holmes Interview DON’T

            BE AFRAID OF THE DARK.”  12 August 2011.  30 August 2011.

            <http://collider.com/guillermo-del-toro-dont-be-afraid-of-the-dark-katie-holmes/109266/&gt;

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