Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone is, all things considered, the best ghost story to hit the big screen.
Though it never gained the widespread acclaim that Pan’s Labyrinth would just a few years later, The Devil’s Backbone is an underrated gem that deserves an immediate watch if you haven’t seen it yet.
The Opening Narration: Explained
The entire film, and why it’s so great, is explained in the introduction. A narration starts us off:
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
That’s it. That’s the film. The rest of its runtime is devoted to fleshing out this definition of a “ghost.”
The Devil’s Backbone: An Allegory for the Spanish Civil War
Its supernatural elements act as an ingenious allegory for the Spanish Civil War, which is the historical backdrop of the film. It centers specifically around an orphan named Carlos who is first seen being taken to a new (and as he’ll soon find out, haunted) orphanage with a deadly past. Literally in the courtyard of the orphanage is a bomb that fell from the sky but didn’t detonate. On top of that, a boy named Santi died on the grounds, under mysterious circumstances. Much like the bomb’s presence, Santi’s is still very much a part of the old orphanage.
But before I get into what I love so much about the film itself, I need to talk about that opening quote first.
As I mentioned, The Devil’s Backbone is an allegory for the Spanish Civil War. It’s a war that del Toro described as “the precursor of all the fascist conflicts in Europe.” To avoid spoilers, I’m not going to go too in-depth about the war or the film’s plot beyond the first act of the film. But you can see a clear connection between the orphans and the Spanish in the war. It’s not just the historical backdrop. The film is subtly commenting on the war itself through the use of metaphor and allegory.
And that’s what makes the introductory quote so great. It works on multiple levels. Yes, it’s talking about Santi, the literal ghost in the orphanage. But it’s really speaking to history.
The Definition of a “Ghost”
As an avid thrill seeker and ghost hunter myself, I have developed my own definition of a “ghost.” Before even seeing The Devil’s Backbone, I wrote that “remembering forgotten history, and making an effort to engage with it and understand why it’s so necessary to talk about is why (ghost hunting) is so important.”
And that’s why ghost stories in general are important. To teach and remind us about our history, because it is “condemned to repeat itself time and again.” A ghost, real or not, is at its core just a manifestation of the past. The Devil’s Backbone uses this notion to help further its allegorical commentary on the Spanish Civil War. If you look at Santi’s ghost and the literal bomb as one and the same, the metaphor begins to make more sense.
Santi may be scary, but what he represents is something even scarier. And it’s something that’s grounded in reality.
Side note: Yes, there were many frightening images of Santi, but that was due mostly to the amazing makeup and the overall frightening atmosphere of the film. I love that this film wasn’t “flashy.” It didn’t resort to cheap tricks or Paranormal Activity-esque ghost tomfoolery.
Oh, and on the topic of cliches: I know I mentioned before that orphanages are an example of an overused horror location. But no other location could have worked for The Devil’s Backbone. In avoiding all the typical tropes of an orphanage horror film, it feels fresh. And most importantly: it allows for the children’s emotions to be the driving force of the film.
We really get to care about the characters, which makes the horrifying situations they get themselves into even scarier. Honestly, though, all the film really needs to do is cut to the undetonated bomb in the center of the orphanage for the audience to feel for these children. It truly gives off the feeling of impending doom, and is arguably just as scary as the ghosts.
It’s this combination of breathtaking acting (from the entire cast, but especially the children) and the script’s use of allegory make The Devil’s Backbone an emotion-driven horror film. Tonally, it’s rich in atmosphere and feeling.
So… What Is a Ghost?
In an effort to keep this review spoiler-free (it truly was an effort), you’ll just have to watch The Devil’s Backbone on your own to find out. And when you do, get ready for a powerful experience and the best ghost story you’ll ever see.