Gothic Sunshine: Spanish film and the creep factor of the full light of day

Posted by Dale Townshend on March 06, 2015 in Blog tagged with ,

By Ann Davies, University of Stirling

The Gothic mode is noted for its chill factor – and is therefore unsurprisingly antithetical to sunlight. Among the many familiar characteristics of Gothic style are greyness, mist and cold: when the sun does appear it is often labelled weak or sickly, countering the usual association of the sun with warmth and health and suggesting a malaise in the environment in which the story is set. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that nowadays the Gothic is not readily associated with Spain, which suffers from its own clichés, notably being over-endowed with sun. Spain and Italy provided prime Gothic locations for the 18th-century heyday of the Gothic novel, and Spain specifically was the location for works such as Lewis’s The Monk and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. Authors were drawn to such locations not because of the sunshine but the association of the Southern Mediterranean with superstitious beliefs deriving from Catholic societies that contrasted with the supposedly rational and pragmatic ideologies of Protestant Northern Europe. Well before the rise of tourism to Spain in the 1960s, the Gothic authors of the North took their readers on virtual tours to the country. With the rise of twentieth-century tourism, though, the equation of Spain with sun has replaced the earlier Gothic portrait of supersition.

In fact Spain does experience rain, mist and greyness, particularly in the northern half of the country, and some of its recent Gothic films reflect that. Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) is ostensibly set in Jersey and thus could arguably be simply following established Anglophone traditions, although in fact the exteriors were filmed in northern Spain. However, the early Gothic work of Juanma Bajo Ulloa is firmly set in the Basque Country and makes no pretensions to represent British soil. His highly creepy La madre muerta (The Dead Mother, 1992) is set in a rain-sodden Vitoria, the city that is home to the Basque Government. Much of the action in La madre muerta takes place in a traditional Gothic house with little light, and only a few splashes of red colour punctuating the gloom (including blood, of course). Later the action switches to the dim grey of a cathedral; and now only purple tones offer any contrast. The claustrophobic work of Jaume Balagueró likewise eschews sunlight in favour of an insistence on interior spaces. His work with Paco Plaza on the [REC] films is well-known, but earlier films such as Darkness (2002, set in Spain) and Fragile (2005, set in the Isle of Wight), allow little light in, being set in the classic, claustrophobic haunted house (a motif that recurs time and again in the director’s work). Another haunted house features prominently in Los ojos de Julia (Julia’s Eyes, 2010): even in daylight the house looks grey and dismal, surrounded by mist, no ray of sun ever touching it. Mostly, however, the house is seen at night, drenched in rain.

Spanish cinema, therefore, clearly has its own share of films that adopt the classic Gothic style (to say nothing of a notable increase in the publication of Spanish Gothic novels, of which Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind) is just the best known example of a wider trend). Nonetheless there are still some films that marry the Gothic with the sunlight that should in theory cancel out any fear and horror: the end result is that the sunshine itself becomes the ultimate Gothic motif. These films tend to be less well known than some of the recent gloomy success stories, but their use of sunlight as part of a Gothic aesthetic is worth some attention.

An early example is ¿Quien puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?, 1976) by cult horror director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, well known for more traditional horror films, in particular La residencia (The Boarding School, 1969), and the highly successful 60s TV series Historias para no dormir (Stories to Keep You Awake). According to Fernando Alonso Barahona (2000, 211), Quien puede was not well received on first release, but it has since grown into a cult classic. The plot concerns a young married couple, Tom and Evelyn, who go to stay on a Spanish island only to find it totally deserted. It is in fact inhabited by the island’s children, who have taken to murdering any adults they come across, and as the couple arrive the children are in the process of finishing off the last survivors. A particularly harrowing example is the scene in which children merrily beat to death an old man while he is hanging upside down. Yet the children get away with their murders because, after all, who can kill a child? It is never explained why the children have turned so violent, but a strong hint is given at the start of the film, with footage of historical atrocities against children. Perhaps the children are seeking to avenge the violence carried out by adults.

What increases the horror is the bright sunshine in which most of the action plays out. Immediately after the opening sequence we cut to a beach filled with holidaymakers enjoying the sun and the sea – until a body is found. Even that ominous incident is brushed aside to make way for the English couple’s arrival in the Spanish seaside town and enjoyment of the local fiesta. Sunshine here initially suggests reassurance, in the way that a house in a traditional Gothic work initially suggests shelter and protection. Yet we already know from the opening scenes that the simple equation of sun with pleasure is flawed. This becomes clearer in the move to the island. The eeriness of the apparently empty streets and houses is underscored by the bright sunshine and the consequent heat. The feeble efforts to keep cool – Evelyn’s search for a hat, the thwarted attempt to get ice cream – heighten the sense of a suffocating atmosphere as potent as any dark passages. As Sarah Wright observes, the horror is further exacerbated by the tension between the couple over the baby they are expecting (Wright 2013, 103). Evelyn’s advanced pregnancy renders her particularly vulnerable to the heat, which serves to establish her as a burden on Tom that increasingly slows him down as the film proceeds.

Sun is an integral part of idyllic childhood summers, the sort of existence that Tom remembers from his own childhood and wishes to recapture with the island visit. These memories turn sour, of course, as the murder of adults becomes part of the range of holiday pleasures. The film ends as the children play and swim in the harbour, having just killed two policemen who have come to investigate. This final scene of play contrasts strongly with the footage of childhood trauma presented at the beginning, a contrast in which sun and sea are crucial. The sun is an appropriate backdrop against which the children enjoy themselves, yet even their holiday play has a last sinister effect as some of the children take a boat out, heading toward the Spanish mainland to continue their reign of terror.

Wright observes that during the dictatorship of General Franco, ‘the Spanish beaches, sold to the foreign tourists through repackaged versions of the españolada [Spanish folkloric musical], were presented to Spaniards through images of Franco himself holidaying with his grandchildren, complete with bucket, spade and blazer and cap’. She links the Francoist cult with the cult for the child and thus raises the possibility that to kill the child in Quien puede is to kill Franco (106). Spanish audiences might well have recalled the image of Franco on the beach, but the reputation of Ibáñez Serrador has been the more likely draw over the years. Ibáñez Serrador’s Gothic expertise turns holidaymaking into a nightmare scenario that, to my mind, resonates less with the Spanish past and more with the rise in package tourism of which sunshine plays a pivotal role.

The more recent Fin (Jorge Torregrossa, 2012) has an apocalyptic feel, suggested by the very title Fin (The End), the usual credit that appears when a film finishes. Old friends who meet up for a holiday weekend find that members of their party disappear at intervals until there are only two left. As they investigate the continued disappearances they realise that everybody in their vicinity has disappeared: only animals are to be found. The apocalyptic nature of events becomes clear as the friends find a sketchbook of drawings sketched by another friend who had previously suffered mental problems.

As with Quien puede, the bright sunshine is an essential part of establishing the background as a holiday scene. The conversations of the friends during their first evening reveals underlying tensions between them all, and the fact that one of their number has not turned up adds a note of suspense. But it is only the next morning that the friends realise that something is wrong, as one of them has disappeared overnight. It is as they go out to look for him that sunlight become prominent, saturating every scene until the foggy finale. As they wander through the sunny countryside, one by one they disappear in turn until the last two survivors take a boat and sail away into the mist (or do they, too, simply vanish?): the sunlight not only endures through the series of disappearances but highlights the absence of the missing people, as there is nowhere to hide in the full light of day. During their search for answers to the mystery the dwindling group of friends encounter other unexplained events such as the death in his car of the original absent friend (and this is when they also find his prophetic sketchbook), and the crash of a plane in a field. Again, the horror of these incidents is underscored by the bright sunlight that beams down on the scene. It is only relieved softness of fog at the end as the final couple sail away, resigned rather than fearful.

The equation of sunshine with a distorted idyll takes a slightly different tack with Daniel Calparoso’ s exposition of fear in the suburbs. Calparsoro started out as a maker of social realist cinema, and more recently has made slasher horror flicks, but his first attempt at horror cinema is the more subtle Ausentes (The Absent, 2005), in which a rather unstable Gothic heroine, Julia, moves to a suburban development that appears to be totally deserted. Yet objects move around, doors open and close by themselves, and her husband and older son become more hostile and more violent as the action develops. Julia also believes that she is seeing the ghost of a woman around her house. The climactic moment comes at the communal swimming pool as Julia thrashes about with a knife at the unseen beings she believes to surround her. A sudden cut reveals the pool area to be crowded with swimmers and sunbathers, some of whom rush over to disarm her. It turns out that the suburb was populated all the time, but Julia’s instability (caused by problems with her marriage, worsening relations with her sons and the loss of her job) has rendered her blind to them. Her fate is to be carted off to hospital, leaving behind her family in the care of the ‘ghostly’ woman who turns out to be a family friend and a potential usurper of her place.

Spanish critics were fairly scathing of Ausentes, seeing it as a mere imitator of Kubrick’s The Shining, yet the rather basic fact that the suburb of Ausentes is bright, sunny and warm in contrast to the snow-bound Overlook Hotel, seems to have been neglected (see my earlier discussion in Davies, 2009). Although Julia is chased by her husband in a manner highly reminiscent of The Shining, and although the setting is similarly claustrophobic, the sunlight makes a striking difference. On the one hand, it is part and parcel of the idea of this upmarket housing estate as a desirable place to live. On the other hand, the sunlight makes the absence of people more apparent in Julia’s mind, in a move similar to the ascent adults of Quien puede and the disappearing friends of Fin. The daytime scenes of Ausentes prove just as eerie as the night-time sequences, as the empty, shimmering streets and the lush gardens acquire a brooding atmosphere of suspense, heightened still further by the implied heat. The denouement at the swimming pool harks back to similar ideas in Quien puede: the inhabitants of the estate are enjoying the sunshine but are disturbed by the arrival of a crazed woman with a knife.

None of these films have made a strong box-office impression. Quien puede had an initial cinema audience of roughly 868,000, which in the Spanish context is respectable but no more than that. Fin’s audience numbered just under 225,000, while Ausentes could only garner less than 140,000 viewers (figures courtesy of Spain’s Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deportes). This does not take into account TV screenings and DVD viewings, but it seems that audiences prefer their Gothic cold. With the more traditional windswept Gothic landscapes, the haunted houses drenched in rain or surrounded in mist, the weather matches audience expectations, and the chill in temperature blends in with the shivers induced by horror. Sunshine Gothic, however, upsets our expectations: the sun is not supposed to make us shiver. To my mind, however, that is what makes Gothic sunshine that much more powerful, as it strikes at the heart of cherished ideas of pleasure and good living. We need to remember, as Nicholas Poussin had it, that horror and death exist side by side with beauty. Et in Arcadia ego.


Alonso Barahona, Fernando (2000) ‘El cine fantástico y de terror en España: a modo de historia fílmica nacional’ in Luis Alberto de Cuenca et al Las tres caras del terror: un siglo de cine fantaterrorífico español (Madrid: Imágica/Alberto Santos), 120-267.

Davies, Ann (2009), Daniel Calparsoro (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Wright, Sarah (2013), The Child in Spanish Cinema (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

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