Pan's Labyrinth (2006, Mexico) aka El Laberinto del Fauno. Directed by Guillermo del Toro.

The Words in the Woods

Rule and obedience in Guillermo del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth'

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, God spoke to me. All the time. A continuous dialogue that was as casual and instinctive as breathing. I grew up the daughter of missionaries, former Catholics who converted to a 1970s Jesus-centric Protestant Christianity in Colombia. Turning away from the hierarchy of Catholicism, they raised me to believe that I had a direct line to God and could talk to him whenever I wanted. So I did—in the bathroom, before I went to sleep, out in the backyard playing or climbing the avocado tree.

I developed a kind of game: I would pick up the Bible and hold it closed with my hand on top, and then I would ask a question: Will I pass my test tomorrow? Does Esteban like me? Why is my mom so unhappy with me? Then I would close my eyes and flip open the Bible to a random page and read out loud the first words I saw. The verses often made no sense, but I treated them like fortune cookie wisdom. One day they would become clear in a pivotal way.


ONE NIGHT, AT ONE OF MY church’s vigilias (vigil), I knelt in front of a folding chair, my knees pushed uncomfortably onto the white tile, my head down on my arms. I was supposed to be praying, letting the Holy Spirit move me to speak in tongues, but every time I tried, the words that came out felt forced and silly. I slowly picked my head up and looked around the room, careful not to get caught. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something. Letters.

I squinted to see what they were, and the word obey appeared, large and bold, on the sliding glass door. I blinked, and they were still there. I blinked again, and nothing changed.

I looked around the room in a panic. Was I the only one seeing this? Nothing around me had changed; everyone was still engrossed in their prayers; no one was looking at me or the word in front of me.

No matter how much I rubbed my eyes, or blinked, or covered my eyes with my hands hoping that the word would go away, there it stayed. My breath quickened and I started to cry. I was either going insane or I had done something so bad that God was punishing me, just like my mother had constantly threatened.

And then just like that, the word was gone. Nothing around me changed; no one around me showed any acknowledgment of what had just happened. I can’t remember how long I sat there in a daze, kneeling in front of the sliding glass door, surrounded by the chanting of prayers and crying of the people around me. I don’t remember when or how I made it to bed that night. All I knew was that God had spoken to me, and I didn’t like what he had said. And I wasn’t going to tell anyone else about it.


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Mexico) aka El Laberinto del Fauno. Directed by Guillermo del Toro.

WHEN GUILLERMO DEL TORO was a little boy, he often stayed in his grandmother’s house in Mexico when his parents were traveling. His grandmother was Roman Catholic and very religious, and he grew up surrounded by her sometimes cruel superstitions. She would, for instance, hide bottle caps jagged side up in his shoes. “I would bleed to mortify the flesh to pay for purgatory,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in a 2017 interview. And her belief in the supernatural left a mark on him. He would see creatures in his bedroom at night, and he soon found himself drawing and writing stories about them, letting his mystical experiences fill his imagination along with the loneliness he felt. He shared this with his grandmother, who tried to have him exorcized.

As a child, del Toro created a world for himself full of fairy-tale creatures and magical lands, which he could not only see but actually explore. This world would later come to influence his movies, from his early work in The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy to, most recently, his retelling of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. But nowhere is the power of the fairy tale—and the unique power of a child’s ability to enter and see it—explored as profoundly as in Pan’s Labyrinth.

The movie takes place in 1944 Spain, a few years after the Spanish Civil War with the dictatorship of Franco ruling the country. Ofelia, a ten-year-old girl, is trying to make sense of her new life with her violent stepfather, a murderous captain in Franco’s army, and her very pregnant and very ill mother. All around her she sees injustice, violence—everything that is wrong—and she tries to tell her mother but is ignored and instead told to obey the captain, to call him father. While all this is going on, a fairy only Ofelia can see (to adults, fairies take the form of stick insects) leads her from the forest to a labyrinth behind the house, an underworld of trees and insects and ancient creatures. There Ofelia meets a faun who reveals to her that she is in fact Princess Moanna; the residents of the underworld have all been waiting for her to come back to them. But before she can be reunited with her kingdom, she must make it through several tests, each more disturbing and life-threatening than the last.

Throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, we see Ofelia go back and forth between the Spanish countryside, where the captain is hunting and killing rebels hiding in the forest, to the underworld of the labyrinth, with its hidden doors and secret tree portals and terrifying creatures. In both worlds, Ofelia can be killed at any moment, but in the underworld, she is believed and seen. She can fully be herself. In “reality,” everyone ignores Ofelia except for the housekeeper, Mercedes, who offers her tenderness and care. In a private moment of sweetness between them, Ofelia asks Mercedes if she believes in fairy tales, and Mercedes tells her that she did when she was little. Ofelia then tells Mercedes that she saw her help the rebels who live in the forest but that she won’t tell anyone, disobeying both the captain and her mother to follow her own moral code of right and wrong.

Ofelia’s morality is ultimately what both kills and saves her. As part of her last test, the faun asks her to bring her newborn baby brother to the labyrinth. She drugs the captain and steals the baby from him, running to the labyrinth, with the captain staggering after her. When Ofelia arrives, the faun asks her to hand over her baby brother so that he can take some of his blood—only through the blood of an innocent will the kingdom open again. Ofelia refuses, and while she is arguing with the faun, the captain catches up and shoots Ofelia in the stomach, killing her. But in sacrificing her own life to save her brother, she is granted entry back into the underworld as Princess Moanna.

It is remarkable to see a child act with such conviction and courage, especially when faced with the real possibility of dying a horrific death, both in Spain and in the underworld. The captain is not only a murderer, he relishes in violence and cruelty, taking advantage of both whenever possible. For Ofelia to stand up to him is not only an act of disobedience but of bravery, the kind that you often only see male action heroes enact on screen.


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Mexico) aka El Laberinto del Fauno. Directed by Guillermo del Toro.

THE POWER OF OFELIA’S disobedience, and how singular it is to see a child behave the way she does, didn’t hit me until my eighth or ninth viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth. It was then that I was reminded of my childhood memory and God’s words to “obey.”

At the time I saw those words, my disobedience was a constant source of frustration for my mother. It often took the form of exploration or imagination—I would hide to read books by myself, or run to the backyard to climb trees, or look at ants and lizards crawling on branches, to be free and away from critical adult eyes and ears. She often cited the fifth commandment, “Honrarás a tu Padre y a tu Madre—Honor thy Father and thy Mother,” and never tired of reminding me, with her words or her hands, of how angry it made God that I disobeyed her.

Thirty years later, I can’t help but see God’s message to me as a child through Ofelia’s eyes. When he chose to show me that word, I thought he was affirming the badness in me, but now I see that the opposite is in fact true. God chose that word knowing that I would need the constant reminder throughout my life to obey what is good in me, to follow the dreamer and the idealist in the face of all that is rigid and cynical, regardless of consequences.

So much of what del Toro does with Ofelia’s character—placing her fairy-tale kingdom in a forest while rebels fighting against a violent dictatorship live in that same forest, is not a coincidence—it is meant to illustrate the importance of disobedience, of listening to what you know is right and following the signs that sometimes only you can see. (The narrator says at the end, “[Princess Moanna] left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.”) Del Toro explores all of this through the guise of a fairy tale, because where else can we see so clearly what we struggle to see in plain sight in our daily lives? In the land of adults, violence and cruelty can eclipse the beauty and magic and truth that surround us—it takes a fairy tale to remind us that the only person we ever need to obey is ourself.

Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz is executive producer of WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money. She was previously head of production at Gimlet and, before that, executive producer of On Being, where she developed special series and spinoffs, including the podcast This Movie Changed Me.