Guillermo del Toro on art, religion, and the primal power of darkness

With the recent round of interviews he’s given in support of the newly released horror film (August 26) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which he co-wrote and produced, Guillermo del Toro has reinforced my already-established impression that of all the “major” horror and fantasy filmmakers working today, he’s easily the most reflective and vocally philosophical. I just can’t think of him as anything but a true magus of the genre.

Two cases in point:

First, del Toro answers 10 questions for Time magazine in a just-published interview, and although the full text is protected behind an Internet paywall, my friend John Morehead has sneak-peeked it by offering an excerpt at his website Theofantastique (which, as always, I highly recommend). Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt, wherein del Toro shares his thoughts on the validity of the fantastic and the experience of art and storytelling as a form of religion:

How do you deal with people who think of the fantastic as infantile?

I try to avoid long conver­sations with them. You cannot convince a Buddhist to become a Protestant any more than you can convince a person who embraces real­ism as the highest form of art that fantasy is an equally important manifestation. It’s impossible.

You speak as if your art is your religion.

It is. To me, art and story­telling serve primal, spiritual functions in my daily life. Whether I’m telling a bedtime story to my kids or trying to mount a movie or write a short story or a novel, I take it very seriously.

Second, in an August 21 interview for the Boston Globe del Toro talks about his personal calling to the horror genre, his disdain for those who debase art to make a quick buck, and his thoughts on the primal power of darkness as a horror motif:

In director Guillermo del Toro’s estimation, most horror movies are cheap products to cash in, a quick and dirty way for studios to make a buck. Originality and artistry are discouraged. “Few filmmakers,’’ del Toro said, “approach horror with the desire to create something either of substance or something beautiful or powerful. Most of the people just try to get a [big opening] weekend and DVD sales.’’

…“I really think I was born to exist in the genre,’’ the quick-witted, outspoken Mexican filmmaker said in a telephone interview from New York City. “I adore it. I embrace it. I enshrine it. I don’t look upon it or frown upon it in a way that a lot of directors do. For me, it’s not a stepping stone, it’s a cathedral.’’

…“I decided to turn it into a sort of very dark fairy tale,’’ del Toro said [of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark], “that taps into universal fears, the invasion of the most intimate spaces, the home, the bedroom, the bed. Little by little we show that these creatures can be anywhere at any time watching from the dark…I think that no matter what culture you come from, the darkness and what lurks in it is an absolutely common fear. I think that ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ taps into the most primal, almost universal, childhood fears.”

(We might note in passing that this focus on the centrality of darkness in horror storytelling echoes Thomas Ligotti’s words in “The Dark Beauty of Unheard-of Horrors,” his own contribution to The Thomas Ligotti Reader, where he describes darkness as “that most basic source of all mystery … the one most resistant to the taming of the mind and most resonant with emotions and meanings of a highly complex and subtle type … Very difficult to domesticate this phenomenon, to collar it and give a name to the fear it inspires.” One is led to indulge in the obviously vain but nonetheless pleasurable wish for a del Toro-directed cinematic adaptation of Ligotti’s work.)

The longer excerpt from del Toro’s Time interview is available at Theofantastique. The full interview itself is available by subscription at Time. The Boston Globe‘s story about del Toro is available at Boston.com.

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About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on August 25, 2011, in Arts & Entertainment and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Matt,

    To me the bigger problem with the naturalistic view, let´s call it that, – the view that argues that we are but robots in a mechanical world and there´s nothing more, and won´t ever be, and so on and such, gives us the other problem, that is, there is something out there, even when I´m only a bio-robot, there´s still something out there, something that I´m a part of, let´s say that, that is all around. What do you think of that?

    • I think you’re onto something, Rafael. To commit to the naturalistic viewpoint in a dogmatic kind of way is to commit a patent logical and philosophical fallacy, because it implies that you’re able to have an objective viewpoint on the cosmos as a whole, and from that vantage point know for certain that there’s nothing outside, beyond, or other than the natural world. Such a thing is of course impossible, and the pressing first-person reality of it is seen, as you point out, in the fact that in immediate, subjective experience we’re always immersed in a realm — the realm of subjectivity itself — from which point of view we’re universally presented with realities that impinge upon us “from outside.” Any or all of these might well portend something beyond what we conceive as mere “nature.” (Of course, the fact of this very conception, of the idea of “nature” itself, involves all sorts of subtleties and complexities that makes it a true can of worms anyway.)

      As for del Toro’s specific focus on the bias some people hold against fantasy and toward naturalism/realism in art, all I can say is that his response seems reasonable to me: no amount of arguing is ever going to do any good. Better simply to plunge into the fiery center of one’s creativity and fling out art for those who will naturally respond. This will probably end up being the only way that skeptics about the power and value of the fantastic will ever be convinced anyway.

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