Pan’s Pale Man


In no particular order, Rant! articulates and analyses cinema’s most horrific creatures – from all genres of film.

The exquisite complexity of Pan’s Labyrinth encapsulates the equivocal nature of the oral folk tales passed down from generation to generation in a society that has long since vanished. Intrinsic to Guillermo Del Toro’s film is a sensitive and empathetic understanding of the intricate nature of fairy tales, which are traditionally imbued with enchanting beauty as well as violent horror. Fairy tales were initially used to teach lessons about social conduct to the children listening around the proverbial camp fire. Over the years, as well as an artistic reflection of society, fairy tales have become a vehicle for social commentary. And with great compassion and insight, Del Toro uses the art of cinema and the folk tale genre to explore the human condition and the dangers of ideology. The film is a dual narrative – set in the historical context of the Spanish Civil War and Ofelia’s private world – that aims to expose the ability of the individual to feel terror but also to inflict terror.

Fantasy is Ofelia’s dark refuge rather than a place of escape, and her alternate reality is home to a myriad of intimidating and fearsome creatures; child-eating ogres, a freaky fawn, vile toads and meat-eating fairies are some of the beings that populate Del Toro’s ‘other world’. But none is as unsettling as the Pale Man. Although Del Toro’s story is entirely original, his educated background in mythology informs the rules and creatures of the labyrinth. The feast from which one should not eat is lorded over by the Pale Man, and is a recurring reference in mythology. From the biblical notion of the ‘forbidden fruit’ to Persephone eating the prohibited fruit of the Underworld, a pomegranate to be exact, and C.S Lewis’s inversion of the ‘forbidden banquet’ in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, fruit and food hold great symbolism in mythological realms. Usually associated with decadence, gluttony and temptation, those who partake of the ‘forbidden banquet’ will face dire consequences. Adam and Eve were banished from The Garden of Eden and Persephone was bound by the shackles of an eternity in hell. Del Toro writes and directs for an intelligent audience that has a vested knowledge in mythological as well as historical references. When Ofelia is confronted with a gorgeous feast of delectable delights, viewers already know that if the little girl surrenders to temptation, the consequences will be dire in deed. And Ofelia is finally seduced by a luscious grape, which she plucks and eats, thus awakening the Pale Man – the ensuing tension is claustrophobically intense as the audience holds its breath, willing the little heroine to escape whilst damning her for giving in to the feast’s allure.

Whilst imagination and preconceived ideas actively make the Pale Man all the more horrific – the figure itself is deeply terrifying. Sitting motionless at the head of the table, the creature imposes its corpse-like stature with fear-inducing grandiosity. The Pale Man seems to be mummified in a cast of death, like a skinny zombie without the gore. The creature’s two eyes are embedded in each of his hands rather than his head, which means that the figure moves with its arms reached out, not only to grab, but to see as well. German and Scandinavian folk tales often portray persons or monsters representing the dead as blind or at least very near-sighted, and often also as child-eaters – a reference possibly alluded to in the characterisation of the Pale Man.

Pan’s Labyrinth employs some computer generated imagery in its effects, but mostly uses complex make-up and animatronics. So the Pale Man is acted – Doug Jones, who played the part, said that he had to look out of the Pale Man’s nostrils, and the character’s legs were attached to the front of a green leotard which Jones wore. The Pale Man’s movements are stilted and almost clumsy, as one would expect from a being that has been asleep for a long time and has limited vision, and yet the creature is aggressively menacing. In retrospect, the fact that the Pale Man is acted (rather than CGI) seems to embellish the freakish oddity of the creature’s demeanour. Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Son bears some influence on the character of the Pale Man who, like Saturn (Cronos in Greek Mythology), is also a child eater. The composition of the scene in which the Pale Man chomps the head off of Ofelia’s guiding fairies is poignantly reminiscent of Goya’s unforgivable interpretation of mythological cannibalism.

The Pale Man is the consequence of bad behaviour – of falling into temptation. He represents an unknowable, unnamed, incomprehensible fear that scratches the surface of our minds when we play the ‘what if’ game, almost like a conscience. Within the context of a film that requires the participation of the mind to propel the fear aroused by Del Toro’s bad ass hellion of horror, it is the Pale Man’s illusive nature and minimalist appearance that make the creature so disturbing a fiend.