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"Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?" : Pan’s Labyrinth & the Struggle Against Reality

Life carries some kind of heavy weight for us all. It can just be the little things, like breaking your favorite mug or forgetting your earphones when heading out for the day. It can be breaking up with a friend, a romantic partner, or losing a beloved pet. These are all unfortunate things that could happen to any of us. However, the world has been founded on much more tragedy than those things. When the world feels like endless disappointments and much worse, there’s something that people often retreat to for comfort: art. To be even more specific, storytelling. Why do we do this? They take us to another reality and make us someone new. A view into a story of someone else’s making. It is a temporary mental slip into a land where dragons roam free; a land of anthropomorphic foxes, badgers, and other woodland creatures; a land of burning chaos where the Earth is barren, hot, and running out of gasoline is a death sentence. One of my favorite films that uses this idea of visual escapism as a central concept is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

The film’s backdrop is Spain and the year 1944. Blood is still being spilled over the fight against Nazi Germany and the blood barely dried from the Spanish Civil War years prior. Unfortunately for our 11-year-old protagonist, Ofelia, still indulging in fairy tale books, her mother has a new husband. The man in question? A violent, ruthless fascist by the name of Captain Vidal. He is committed to killing and torturing any rebels who oppose him and Francisco Franco’s current fascist rule. This is the kind of man she and her mother now have to live with isolated in the woods. What ensues is Ofelia’s immersion into a fantastical world that hardly seems much safer than the human one. One night, she meets a tall, intimidating talking faun named Pan who gives her missions to complete. One task involves her having to enter a tree, encountering a giant toad; Another is when she goes into the stone walls of her home where a monstrous child-eating entity waits to be awakened for a snack. Both of these worlds present a threat to the young Ofelia. One is grounded in reality and the other is a world that fairy tales are made of, sitting in plain sight.

As a film that was released over a decade ago and analyzed by many people, I can only add what little I see. And what I see is a desperation to be somewhere other than here. What is here? Sadness, disappointment, violence, inequity, poverty. All too often these things become too overwhelming; we need to run away to somewhere untouched by our filthy world. Funnily enough, traces of our troubles can be found in our favorite stories. This is what our dear Ofelia discovers when completing Pan’s tasks. She experiences the magic, but that magic is not free from the darkness she sees around her.

This rings true for our near and distant past, as well as our modern day. You could travel to the 1960s and see the free love and optimism in the face of constant hardship turn to the cynical, violent, and sexually explicit 1970s; (this came with the help of Charles Manson’s Family soaking Hollywood in blood for roughly two summer nights of terror and the Rolling Stones similarly live-ending Altamont Speedway concert in December of 1969). The 1970s then had films like Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, and Apocalypse Now being released; bands like Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols would shock with their aggressively anti-establishment punk music, sticking a middle finger to Thatcherism and the U.S. government. Then the 1980s would roll around and the false hope of Reaganism would spread across the U.S. Wholesome films like The Goonies and Back to the Future would grace the silver screens. All the while, conservative parents would be clutching their pearls. They feared that bands like Metallica and Slayer were an evil, satanic plague that would reach their white-picket-fenced homes and their impressionable teenagers. The common beliefs and those in opposition to those beliefs will always make themselves known, frequently through art. All the turmoil, the positivity, and the frustration of an era will make their way to the music and films.

Unsurprisingly, music, films, miniseries, and long-form shows remain a source of comfort and social commentary. We feel connected to these stories and characters that speak to us or give us a sense of kinship. These stories may make us laugh, cry, scream, or scared, but they all let us know that we are human; they resonate for a reason. Whether it is blatant or not, there is an unavoidable humanness in most, if not all of them. This is why we tell them. We yearn to be understood and sometimes the only way there is through fiction. Not only this, but we run to them to forget about reality, about the troubles that life brings. In films like Pan’s Labyrinth, for us viewers and for young Ofelia, the horrors of the real are reflected in our own fictions. We escape reality to a fictionalized world that holds a mirror up directly to the real thing. In T.S. Miller’s analysis, “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths: Escaping Escapism in Henson’s Labyrinth and Del Toro’s Laberinto”, he eloquently ends with: “ for Ofelia, the trope of the Labyrinth, of the fantastic literalized, is at once problem and solution, a source of terror and the key to overcoming it, the winding passageway and the thread that guides one through it” (42). Like the all-too famous quotes “Life imitates art” and “Art imitates life”, we see the cycle of fleeing our world and escaping to one that is not real to feel those feelings all over again rebirthed into something new.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the trick is that Ofelia places her hope that Pan’s world can offer her something better, despite the sinister lurking there too. The chance to belong to a fairy tale as opposed to Captain Vidal’s tyrannical violence seems like the obvious choice. As we sit here in our homes, looking at the news, then retreating to our dearest songs and films, it seems as though many of us have chosen the same. Let’s hope that we continue to let art help us through difficult times and serve as an outlet to express all that we feel and see, as we always have done.

Edited by: Jhana Jenkins


Miller, T.S. “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths: Escaping Escapism in Henson’s Labyrinth

and Del Toro’s Laberinto” Extrapolation, vol. 52, no. 1, 2011,'s_Labyrinth_and_Del_Toro's_Laberinto/links/60e46e2392851ca944b038db/The-Two-Kings-and-the-Two-Labyrinths-Escaping-Escapism-in-Hensons-Labyrinth-and-Del-Toros-Laberinto.pdf

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