Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale at its core that takes its protagonist Ofelia down a rabbit hole much deeper than any seen before and it makes viewers wonder what makes this adventure so un-merry. One could say it is the monsters with whom Ofelia interacts. Most notably is a creature who at face value is a minor character but embodies the terrors of war. The character is known simply as the Pale Man who is used to represent war in the way that war makes people fear for the loss of their children.
There are not many specifics given about the actual war in which they are fighting, but the time and place can lead to some assumptions that they are caught up in the later stages of World War II and they are on the fascist side of the conflict.
The scene is less than seven minutes long and the monster is not even a key antagonist to the plot, he merely serves as an obstacle between Ofelia and her goal. In terms of story and overall plot, he is nothing more than a troll under a bridge. However, this troll serves as much more when examining his characteristics and questioning the motives the director had when creating the monster.
Ofelia is a young dreamer loves to read fantasy books to escape the realities of her surroundings. The film takes place in Spain in 1944 and Ofelia’s mother has just married Captain Vidal, a cruel warlord who is obsessed with his own authority and maintaining strict control and order. When Ofelia and her mother go to live with Vidal at his platoon’s holdout, she begins exploring the grounds where she finds a maze (labyrinth) where she meets a faun (pan) who tells her she is a princess from a mythical land and if she completes his tasks she will be reunited with her true parents in her fantasy land. One could argue that the whole film is made up of two worlds Ofelia travels between her reality with her mother, the Captain, and the war, and her fantasy world in which the faun is leading her, supposedly to happiness, possibly to death. This could also all be happening in this girl’s head as a result of trauma from losing her father to war and being too young to understand how to grieve.
Ofelia faces the Pale Man when she is tasked with retrieving a dagger from the realm in which he resides. She is given a book and warned that the “thing in there is not human.” In the book the Pale Man is depicted with his arms spread wide and curled down framing instructional drawings meant for Ofelia. She must draw a door with chalk and it will open a pathway to the Pale Man’s lair. She draws the door and flips an hourglass, as instructed. She is also specifically instructed not to eat or drink anything and come back before the last grain of sand falls.
As she passes through the magical door, the camera pulls back revealing a massive hallway with elaborate architecture. She passes through the hallway where the first shot of the monster is shown. He sits at the head of an elaborately set table, complete with a smorgasbord of fresh food.
The Pale Man has both hands laid on the table in front of him. His placement at the table mirrors a dining room scene earlier in which her vicious stepfather is also at the head of their table. The monster in this paranormal world mirrors the monster that haunts Ofelia in her real life. Vidal is a representation of fascist military dictators in the time of the Second World War. If Vidal represents Spain at war, then the Pale Man represents Spain eating its children, or sending young men to die in war.
Films that center on a war often make a commentary about that war. They depict the military leaders of the opposing side as monsters who need to be stopped. This is especially true with the way Hollywood romanticizes World War II, many often arguing it is because there was a clear divide, a clear “good team” versus “bad team,” if you will.
According to Cohen’s Seven Theses on Monster Culture, this would mean the Pale Man is reflective of Spanish culture and the way Del Toro may feel about the war. Regardless of sides, war results in the death of someone’s children. So the Pale Man’s body is a cultural body because it is a symbol of something the culture is afraid of, as stated in Cohen’s first thesis. The Pale Man is used to represent war in the way that war makes people fear for the loss of their children.
There is a plate in front of the man with a set of eyeballs. The creature has slits in his face where his eyes should be. Ofelia approaches the dormant monster and oggles the feast while passing. She is startled when she notices him sitting there. She examines the Pale Man’s eyes by lifting the small plate they are sitting on, she makes a disgusted face and replaces it.
The Pale Man’s loose skin and lack of clothing make him repulsive to look at and the art Del Toro and the costume designers used as influence for the monster carry similar meaning. Japanese myth tells tale of a creature called Tenome, which means eyes on hands, who was known to suck out the blood and guts from children and leaving behind their loose, sagging skin.
This leads to Cohen’s third thesis which declares that a monster may be a disturbing hybrid of some sort that evokes a response. When Ofelia first sees the monster she is startled, but then she gets curious. She examines him, and even picks up his eyes to get a closer look even though it disgusted her. After retrieving the knife, Ofelia again looks at the monster before becoming enamored by the food. This is an attraction to the repulsive. Cohen states that the monster can warrant a mixed response because while the character does fear the monster, she is tempted by it and what it offers her.
Ofelia looks again at the food and then to the ceiling. From right to left the three paintings show the Pale Man feasting on three children. The style of the paintings, which may have been done by the monster himself, reflect actual medieval European painting styles. If he did not paint them himself, this could mean that the monster has at least been in existence long enough for someone from that era to have painted them.
As Ofelia sees this she begins to breathe heavy and she turns to notice a large pile of children’s shoes that the Pale Man has kept, possibly as trophies from his victims. When Ofelia sees the pile of shoes, she learns that this is a real danger and not just a painting on the wall. She also learns that the children are eaten whole because there are no bones, just shoes and clothes remaining. She retrieves the dagger as instructed.
The story of women goes that God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but due to temptation she did and they were punished. This is known as the original sin. Ofelia is also a victim of temptation and her sin was also presented in the form of a fruit. Before Ofelia exits the Pale Man’s dining room, she decides to sample some of his treats. The monster polices this border of temptation because once the girl eats the fruit, he awakens. Cohen’s fifth thesis is at work because now that Ofelia has violated the rules, she has to face her monster.
Upon viewing this scene Ofelia can quickly be written off as a foolish child who broke the one simple rule she had to follow, which was not to eat anything. However, Ofelia was a child living in a military environment during a war when food and supplies were rationed. This is even shown earlier in the film when Vidal sets new stricter restrictions on food rations, lowering them to one per family. Ofelia probably has never seen a meal such as this in her young life so with that in mind it is not too far a stretch that she would be tempted by free fruits. She does not dine with the Captain and the other adults, so she does not benefit from his status in that manner.
Ofelia’s border is the war torn life she is living. She is a victim of a war she does not understand or have anything to do with and as a result she lost her father and her mother married a terrible man with the hopes of a better life. Her ray of sunshine came in the form of fruits on a table that she innocently decided she could sample. The war came in the form of the Pale Man to police her, to remind her she was wrong. She has not completed her tasks yet, so she can not eat the good food yet; another biblical allusion. The Pale Man polices the borders of the impossible for Ofelia because she is a child in the middle of a war.
Del Toro leaves much of his symbolism up for interpretation and that is likely why he places it all so intricately throughout his films. Ofelia’s fascination with fantasy worlds and monsters reflect the director’s, who takes pride in interviews when speaking of his creations.
I theorize that Ofelia is having delusions to deal with the stress of her life. She created this fantasy world to escape the fact that she is terrified of the war and of her stepfather.
A monster can stand at the threshold of becoming. Meaning a monster can be the embodiment of one’s fears. If the faun and his tasks are delusions of Ofelia’s then she could not eat the fruit because perhaps it truly belonged to Captain Vidal, who had fallen asleep at his spot on the table. When he caught her eating his food he became angry and chased her back into her room and perhaps the Pale Man was Ofelia’s vision of her stepfather. She views her stepfather as a monster, so she created one to represent him in her mind.
Unknown. The Holy Bible : Old and New Testaments, King James Version. The Floating Press, 2008. EBSCOhost, chaffey.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=313560&site=ehost-live.
Guellermo Del Toro. El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth). Warner Bros., 2007. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0457430/
Unknown. Yokai, Japanese Urban Legends. 2018. http://yokai.com/tenome/
Jeffery Jerome Cohen. Monster Culture: Seven Theses. Excerpt from Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1996 http://www.englishwithtuttle.com/uploads/3/0/2/6/30266519/cohen_monster_culture__seven_theses__3-20.pdf