“The thing that slumbers there, it is not human. You will see a sumptuous feast, but don’t eat or drink anything. Absolutely nothing. Your life depends on it.”
—The Faun, Pan’s Labyrinth
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth, I’m about to spoil the creepiest part of the whole movie. So, if you enjoy amazing movies that mix hauntingly beautiful fantasy with the most brutal moments of history—which you should—then scoot off this blog and, y’know, watch it. Yes, it’s in Spanish, and yes, it has subtitles. Suck it up. Or just learn Spanish.
Okay, we good? Good.
Pan’s Labyrinth is an excellent movie. It centers on a young girl, Ofélia, who tries to flee the fascist regime in 1940s Spain and escape into a fantasy world with the help of an enigmatic faun. It is a brilliant political allegory that juxtaposes dangerous fantasy against a brutal reality. It is a visual feast, a Where’s Waldo of womb imagery set against a young girl’s deliverance from childhood and her mother’s challenging pregnancy. It is smart, terrifying, unflinching, and one of my all-time favorite examples of the intersection between the real and the fantastical.
I’m not going to talk about any of that.
What I am going to talk about is the image that was burned onto the back of my eyelids after watching Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time nine years ago.
Yeah, that creepy motherfucker up there. The Pale Man.
If you have not seen Pan’s Labyrinth, you might be wondering what the big deal is. Yeah, you might think, that’s not where his eyes are supposed to go, and kind of creepy in general. So what?
Keep reading. Or, preferably, watch the movie, because I can’t do justice to Guillermo del Toro’s monstrosity in words. But I will try.
In the film, the faun tells Ofélia she must complete three tests to escape to her fantasy world. Her second test is simple: she must enter a magical world, pick up a critical Plot Device, and return home. Easy peasy.
Oh, except for the inhuman horror that guards the treasure.
A hollow shell of a body sits between Ofélia and her goal. Pallid skin droops off of his bones. He has no eyes, not even any eye sockets for them to fit into. The murals around the room show this monster skewering and eating children.
Understandably, Ofélia looks pretty creeped out. It’s okay, though. He’s sleeping. Looking pretty comatose, and the feast laid out in front of him is entirely devoid of children. The only thing out of place is the plate in front of him: empty except for two eyeballs. All Ofélia has to do, the faun warns her, is refrain from eating or drinking anything.
If you’ve ever heard a fairy tale in your goddamn life, you know what happens next.
Ofélia retrieves the Plot Device with little trouble and makes her way back towards the exit. She’s done here. All she has to do is keep walking. She passes the Pale Man with no resistance, not even a twitch, and she’s almost past the table when the camera follows her gaze to a plate of grapes.
She plucks one off the stem.
DON’T EAT THE GRAPE, you scream at the screen, even as you know damn well that she’s going to eat the grape. DON’T EAT THE FUCKING GRAPE.
She eats the grape.
The Pale Man comes to life and puts the eyes into his sockets—which are on the palms of his hands, not his face. Ofélia has several fairies guiding her through this magical world, and they try to protect her. The monster catches one in each hand and, one by one, bites their heads off. Only then does Ofélia run, and the Pale Man lurches after her with blood dribbling down his chin. Although he moves slowly, Ofélia barely manages her escape. She slams the portal shut behind her.
This sequence is one of the scariest in the whole film. Why?
The Pale Man is creepy viscerally—he has the sharp claws, the blood-stained maw, and eyes in places they shouldn’t be (which are always creepy). His movement unnerves us: I’d say it falls into a kind of motor-function uncanny valley. Though his body is humanoid and he walks mostly like a normal biped, his steps are unpredictable. The unpredictable unsettles us. It makes it harder to map the trajectory from him to us. We want to know how he’s trying to get to us so we can get away from him, thank you very much. It’s the same principle that makes a zombie’s lurching movement creepy.
But more than that, the Pale Man—and Pan’s Labyrinth in general—draws a lot of influence from classic fairy tales. How many stories have you heard about a monster that punishes children for misbehaving? Even, specifically, a monster that eats children? That story is as old as the hills, because apparently parents have always been a little sadistic.
The Pale Man is scary because he is familiar. Without ever knowing what the Pale Man is specifically, we’ve been taught since childhood to fear him and what he represents. He represents the fear of punishment, whether that’s for Ofélia’s gluttony or her disobedience, and hey, isn’t that interesting in a movie that takes place against the backdrop of a fascist regime?
We are afraid of the Pale Man the way a child is afraid when their parent says, “You’d better not do that or else.”
The Pale Man is “or else.”
Prompt: Evil writers and GMs will like this prompt, I think. Come up with an obstacle based around the idea of punishment. It could be punishment for a specific transgression, like gluttony, or just punishment in general. Then let an unsuspecting character (or adventuring party) spring the trap. Whether or not they survive the consequences is up to you.
Thoughts on the Pale Man? Want to share your story or adventure? Leave a comment!