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Guillermo Del Toro: The Faun From The Armoire (The Early Years: 1964-1993)

Morgaan Sinclair shares an excerpt of her PhD dissertation; on the early years of Guillermo del Toro, what formed and inspired the filmmaker.

Guillermo Del Toro: The Faun From The Armoire (The Early Years: 1964-1993)

An Excerpt from The Dark Fantastic of Guillermo del Toro by Morgaan Sinclair[1]

I.  Guadalajara

Guadalajara, the “City of Roses,” the “Pearl of the West” among Mexico’s fabled towns, rises from the warm, dry altiplano—the 5,100-foot “high plane”—between the Sierra Madre Occidental and Oriental mountain ranges in the western state of Jalisco[2]. The Lago De Chapala, a deep, sapphire-blue mountain lake, flanks the sprawling town, and the snow-peaked Nevado de Colima, Mexico’s seventh tallest mountain, gleams in the distance.

The city was founded in 1542, after water shortages and Indian wars—arising from the enslavement and branding of the native population by conquistador Nuño de Guzmán—forced the relocation of earlier settlements four times. From the tiny mountain villages that preceded it, Guadalajara became Mexico’s second largest municipality, with a current population of six million[3]. Contemporary Guadalajara is known for its deep Catholic roots and for its spectacular architecture, notably its Renaissance-façade cathedral, raised in 1591.[4] In this spectacular place, Guillermo del Toro was born on October 9, 1964.

II. Creatures of the Night and Other Terrors

“I was a very strange kid,” Guillermo Del Toro writes in his Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions. In an ocean of kids with “dark hair and a tan, I was Aryan blond … and constantly ostracized because I had super-bright blue eyes and Roy Batty-white hair and was very thin, incredibly thin. I was constantly berated as a wimp, and I identified with those shortcomings; I felt like a freak.”

When Guillermo was four years old, his father, a successful automotive entrepreneur, won a lottery prize in Mexico, a windfall that precipitated the family’s move to a larger home and the purchase of a substantial library that included the classics and a ten-volume encyclopedia of art that ranged “from cave paintings all the way to what was then modern art.” There was also a compendium called The Family Health Medicine Encyclopedia, with its vivid descriptions of dread diseases.

“I became a very young hypochondriac … constantly thinking about tumors, and liver disease, and parasites in my brain.” The books conferred other blessings. “There was a moment when the family medical encyclopedia and the art books were great because they had naked ladies.” He was also attracted to comics in general, and horror comics in particular, finding the “illegal reprints and ripoffs of EC comics in Mexico” to be “violent, brutal, and very, very sexy.”

Guillermo Del Toro: The Faun From The Armoire (The Early Years: 1964-1993)

Pans Labyrinth (2006) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

As a child, Del Toro read incessantly and voraciously. He bought his first book at age seven and read a book “every two days, every day if possible” until he was twenty. He began drawing at age eight, obsessively sketching monsters—particularly Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon—almost always in Prismacolor pencils (crayons having a poor texture for drawing, though they were delicious to eat). He illustrated the horror stories he was writing and sold the drawings to his “captive audience”—his mother, father, and grandmother. He also sculpted passionately. He and his brother would craft “full human figures with clay and Plasticine—liver, intestines, the heart—fill them with ketchup and throw them from the roof. … I was an artistic but very morbid kid.”[5]

Adding to his own studies, he took art classes at school. Those did not always go well:

“I was always drawing the wrong things, so I never got good grades, because they always found the subjects objectionable. For example, they would say, “Choose a moment in the life of this president and make it in clay.” And I would do the president when he was shot in the head, with blood on the table. When some people saw my drawings and my paintings, they told my mother, “You’ve got to take this kid to a psychologist.” And she took me to a psychologist, and the guy gave me some clay and he said, “Do whatever you want.” And I did a skeleton. And then I asked the psychologist, “What does ‘bastard’ mean?” That didn’t help my case.”[6]

If art teachers took issue with Del Toro’s fascination with blood and gore, his grandmother, Josefina Camberos, deplored young Guillermo’s fascination with monsters. For Camberos, it was a moral issue, an insufferable affront to her brutal interpretation of Catholic doctrine. The deeply religious matriarch had the monster-attracted Guillermo exorcised twice and physically tormented him in the name of the Lord. Of his grandmother Del Toro remarks:

“[She was an] amped-up version of Carrie’s mom. Piper Laurie had nothing on my grandmother. That’s the Piper Laurie character in the [Brian de] Palma movie.[7] My grandmother sort of tortured me religiously for my own good, quote unquote. She would put bottle caps in my shoes and send me to school and say, “Offer your suffering to Christ.” She explained [to] me the torments of hell … when I was six, seven years old.”[8]

Camberos’ species of Catholicism left a lasting brand-mark on Guillermo Del Toro. As he commented to Richard Crouse of Metronews, “I jokingly say I spent 40 years trying to recuperate from the first eight, but to a degree it is true. I really suffered intensely in the first 10 years of my life. I would cry at the concept of burning in hell, or the concept of purgatory and original sin.”[9] As John Kenneth Muir writes, this was, in no small part, the result of Camberos’ brutality.[10] Del Toro found homegrown Catholicism terrifying in and of itself, however, characterizing Mexican Catholicism as “very, very brutal and very, very gory.”[11]

The staunch Catholic matriarch of the Del Toro family, who thought young Guillermo possessed by the devil—and art teachers, who thought him mentally unbalanced—were not the child’s only nemeses. Guillermo del Toro was having terrifying psychic experiences and supernatural nonhuman encounters in the night. He gave three examples to writer and critic Mark Kermode in his 2006 interview for The Guardian. Of the first he said:

“I’ve had a relationship with monsters in my bedroom since I was a kid. I really used to see them behind the chair. I used to have a shaggy carpet in my bedroom—my parents bought one of those Austin Powers carpets—and it was bright green. At night I would try to climb out of my crib and I would look down on that sea of shaggy carpet and I would see a sea of green fingers, waving, waiting for me to put my foot on it so they could pull me down. So I wet my bed, and my mother spanked me. One day, I got tired of the spanking and got up in my crib and climbed down and said to the monsters, “If you allow me to go pee, I’ll be your friend forever.” They disappeared and I have peed happily since.”[12]

Guillermo Del Toro: The Faun From The Armoire (The Early Years: 1964-1993)

Santi, Del Toro’s filmy ghost from The Devil’s Backbone, an echo of the sighing ghost of Del Toro’s uncle. source; October Films

The second was a ghost encounter generated by a pact with his uncle—the uncle who introduced Del Toro to H. P. Lovecraft and who left the boy his house when he died. The pact was: whichever of us dies first will contact the other. Guillermo Del Toro describes an experience, which occurred when he was twelve, that led to his crafting of Santi, the whispering ghost in The Devil’s Backbone:

“So I was in my room, doing homework and watching TV, nothing auspicious for a gothic moment right? And all of a sudden I hear this incredibly sad sighing next to me. I turned off the TV, and it was a very slow process to get scared. I thought maybe I was breathing through my ears or maybe I was coming down with a cold, so I stopped breathing. It sighed with a lot of sadness. So I thought maybe it’s a draught. So I went to check the window, but it was closed, and the sigh moved with me through the room. So I went back to the bed and thought that I was pushing the air out of the pillows, so I pushed the pillows and the sigh continued. Then, I put my ear to the mattress, where he used to sleep. And I heard the voice inside the mattress, sighing. And I ran out of that room screaming and never went back in.”[13]

The third specter, a nightly apparition connected to the bells of a Catholic church in Guadalajara, led directly to the crafting of the trickster faun of Pan’s Labyrinth:

“When I was a very little kid, I used to sleep in my grandmother’s house. It was a huge Mexican house, with a patio and long corridors. And every night, punctually at midnight, in my bedroom, a faun would come out of the armoire. It must have been lucid dreaming, but for a child, it was as if it was real. I saw him. … We have a small gothic temple in Guadalajara—that’s like you having an Aztec pyramid in central London. Some people from Opus Dei erected this temple in the middle of my city and it’s called the Expiatory Temple.

So I would hear the temple bells ringing midnight, and as they started chiming, I would see the human hand of the faun come out from the armoire, then the smiling face of a goat, and then the hairy leg of a goat. I would clearly see him pulling his body out of the armoire and I would start screaming, repeatedly, every night that I slept in that bed. I would go to sleep at eight o’clock and wake up at 11:45, just in time to hear the goddamn bells.”[14]

The terrors of the night were matched by the terrors of the day. He was bullied, both as a child and as a teenager. The pale-faced, white-haired, blue-eyed boy was ostracized by the “nice, healthy kids [who] were all those outgoing kids with dark hair and a tan. That’s one of the reasons,” he writes, “why my villains were like that.”[15]

It was more than ostracism, however. Life at the Jesuit school he attended was rife with truly dangerous physical abuse:

“The violence growing up in that school in Mexico was incredible. … [I]t was akin to a male prison. And I remember every recess we would battle for a bench in the sunny side of the patio, and we would battle in groups, and we would use stones and sticks—and at the tip of those sticks there were rusty nails. And those nails embedded many a time in my arm or in somebody’s palm or in somebody’s back. … [O]nce in the boy’s bathroom I saw a kid stab another kid in the belly with a compass.”[16] 

Students bullied Del Toro by threatening to throw him off a balcony or stab him if he refused to hand over his lunch money. “And you knew they would,” he comments. And if he had been hurt or killed, Guillermo Del Toro says, the excuse would have been, “We were playing.”[17] The guilt would be shared. Adults would do nothing.

III. Super 8

Nonetheless, the odd, brilliant, spectacularly talented boy—targeted, bullied, stalked by specters at night, whispered to by the dead, and in love with monsters—kept developing. At age eight, he made his first movie. He shared his memories of early filmmaking with critic Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter:

“I was eight years old. My dad had a small, very compact camera that ran at 24 fps only. No stop motion or high speed. Very simple. I borrowed it from him—without him knowing, of course. To this day, I have never been as thrilled as the day the reel came back from Kodak. In those days, you took the Super 8 reel to the pharmacist and they sent it to be developed and it came back two or three weeks later. When I saw those images up on our projection screen I flipped. It is still the greatest thrill I ever felt in dailies.

I shot some action figures splattering on the pavement, falling from great heights. Two years later, when I had my Planet of the Apes figures, I did a super-production with big fight scenes and some explosions. Like any Super 8 filmmaker, you used what you had available. I got the best of my Super 8 cameras—the Canon 1014XL—and did stop motion, high speed slo-mo, dissolves in camera, fades to black, etc. The camera was gorgeous and perfect. … I still have a few of my films and even the ones I liked are proven to be crap.”[18]

Short films began to flow from the camera. Few of them survived, and Del Toro is not altogether disappointed some are lost, as he noted in a 2015 Reddit post:

“I did one of my shorts about a serial killer potato. I don’t still have it, thank God, but it was a serial killer potato that dreamt of conquering the world, that murdered my mother and my brothers, and then stepped outside and was crushed by a car.”[19]

Guillermo Del Toro’s delighted pursuit of all things cinematic had begun, melding his talents in drawing, sculpting, painting, and writing, penchants for which he had already shown such promise. Through the rest of his childhood and teenage years, Del Toro continued to develop all of his artistic talents, adding technical filmmaking skills as well. He also continued to read and to pore over comics.[20]

Guillermo Del Toro: The Faun From The Armoire (The Early Years: 1964-1993)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – source: Warner Bros.

The image of Guillermo del Toro as a child is that of a vulnerable young person made miserable by his striking, unusual physical appearance and a physically and psychologically abusive family matriarch. This was a child who, though clearly fantastically intelligent, had an edgy attraction to monsters that evoked worried responses from adults. The image that emerges is that of an artistic and bookish child hounded by monsters in the night and bullies by day.

There is, however, another facet of Del Toro’s personality in his youth, one possessed of no little mischief and the courage to express it. “When I was just a child,” Guillermo Del Toro writes, “I was observing the world, but I lived a lot, too. We used to break into abandoned houses. We explored the entire sewer system of Guadalajara on foot. And then I became a really crazy teenager.”[21]

Now growing up, the “crazy teenager” attended the Guadalajara School of Sciences. Rather than studying marine biology as he thought he might, Clarence Haynes writes, he studied film—and he met Lorenza Newton, whom he married in 1986.[22]

During this period Del Toro also met Mexican filmmaker Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, who became his mentor when he was twenty. Del Toro served as Hermosillo’s executive producer on the 1985 film Dona Herlinda and Her Son, in which Guadalupe del Toro, Guillermo’s mother, was cast in a starring role after Hermosillo saw her act in one of Del Toro’s short films. It was Hermosillo who gave the aspiring young filmmaker a priceless piece of advice: “If a road is not presented,” Hermosillo told him, “you build one.”[23]

Taking his mentor’s advice, Del Toro created Necropia, Mexico’s first special-effects make-up studio, while still in his early twenties, and then spent a decade building the company. To hone his own skills in crafting the “horrible beauty”[24] for which he would become famous, he took a course from Dick Smith, the make-up wizard behind The Exorcist, Little Big Man, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver—and winner of an Oscar with fellow artist Paul LeBlanc for his work on Amadeus.

Del Toro had idolized Smith since childhood. As Del Toro related to Gilbert Cruz, “When The Exorcist came out, I bought his makeup kit in a toy store. It came with gelatin and molds and colors, and I did my own makeup effects at a very young age.” Smith’s counsel was so integral to Del Toro’s development that he credits the Oscar-winner with his career. “Without Dick Smith,” he acknowledged to Cruz, “I would not be making movies.”[25] Until his death in 2012, Smith was Del Toro’s mentor.[26] He was also one of Guillermo del Toro’s most beloved friends:

“Sometimes I would go to New York and I would take a commuter train to Larchmont and spend the day with him. We’d be together the entire day, from morning, through lunch, until dinner, and then I would take the train back to Manhattan. We talked so much. And we wrote each other often. I have dozen and dozens of letters, from over the years, in which he would respond to every one of my photographs and drawings telling me what was wrong and what was right, so that I could continue learning. And that was a gift.“[27]

Jaime Humberto Hermosillo and Dick Smith were among the great early influences on Guillermo Del Toro’s artistry. There would be others, including Alfonso Cuarón, whom Del Toro met in his early twenties. Both worked on a Mexican Twilight Zone-like television horror series called La Hora Marcada.[28] In “Guillermo and Me,” Cuarón’s essay in Cabinet of Curiosities, he describes meeting Del Toro for the first time:

“Across the waiting room there was this guy sitting on a sofa looking at me with a mix of curiosity and mischief. I immediately knew who he was, since I had heard so much about him. He was the special effects guy who had studied with Dick Smith; he had worked on designing corpses, mutilated hands, and bullet wounds for a couple of people I knew working in film. … Everybody described him as smart, funny, and very, very strange.”[29]

They conversed about art, literature, and film, and Del Toro asked if Cuarón had directed an episode based on a Stephen King story. Cuarón affirmed that he had, and they both praised King’s work. “Suddenly, out of the blue,” Cuarón writes, “he asked, ‘If the Stephen King story is so great, why did your episode suck so much?’”[30]

“There was no malice in his statement,” Cuarón says, “just an honest opinion. I burst out laughing.” When Cuarón could “speak again,” he asked Del Toro to explain to him what he had done wrong. Del Toro did. “And he was right,” Cuarón writes. Del Toro worked on Cuarón’s episodes—and directed several of his own. “That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Cuarón notes, “one which has provided insights into my work and life that have become invaluable.”[31]

Throughout the Necropia days, Del Toro would rely on the sagacity of Dick Smith, his friendship and artistic brotherhood with Alfonso Cuarón, and the knowledge of Jaime Humberto Hermosillo. As always, he was reading and studying, gathering the fruits of brilliance that would shape his work.

Guillermo Del Toro: The Faun From The Armoire (The Early Years: 1964-1993)

Guillermo del Toro poses for a picture during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival on May 25, 2006 in Cannes, France. (Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images)

IV. 1993: Guillermo del Toro Becomes a Filmmaker

By 1993, Guillermo del Toro, the morbid child of Guadalajara, the voracious young reader with a penchant for the bizarre, who trod to school with bloodying bottle caps in his shoes, had grown up, married the love of his life, and started the special effects company Necropia, to which he would devote most of his time for a decade. Then, in 1993, he would make his first film, Cronos.

The production, writes Marc Scott Zicree, “was fraught with trouble. At one point, financing collapsed during shooting, and Guillermo had to tell star Ron Perlman, whose agent advised him to quit, ‘I can’t pay you now, but I promise you will get paid.’ The time and attention to detail paid off. In Cronos, many of Guillermo’s major themes are on display, particularly child/parent and especially child/grandparent relationships, the fragility of innocence and its inevitable dance with corruption, and the sociopathic impulse that spoils for an excuse to let loose unbridled violence.”[32]

Cronos debuted at the Cannes Film Festival on May 3, 1993, to critical acclaim. This “campy mix of fright and art”[33] won the Grand Prize at Cannes’ Critic’s Week. It also won nine Ariels, the Mexican film academy’s equivalent of the Oscars.

It is also a film that reflects a healing, for Guillermo Del Toro dedicated his first film to Josefina Camberos, his terrorizing grandmother. In Cronos he crafts the relationship between Jesús, who is the monstrous grandfather that represents Camberos, and ten-year-old Aurora, who represents Del Toro himself as a child. It is a reflection, Guillermo Del Toro says, of the “sweet and tender and bulletproof”[34] relationship that he eventually attained with the elderly woman who tormented him in his early years—the years when waving green fingers in the carpet tried to drag him into an abyss; when the sighs of a dead uncle haunted and followed him; and when, as the temple clock pealed midnight across the landscape of Guadalajara, there would emerge, as there always did, a faun from the armoire.


[1] The Dark Fantastic of Guillermo del Toro: Myth, Fascism, and Theopolitical Imagination in Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Preview

[2] Ichoku, Charles, ed. “Guadalajara, Mexico.” earthobservatory.nasa.gov. NASA, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

[3] Kirkwood, J. Burton. The History of Mexico. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009. Print.

[4] Mullen, Robert J. Architecture and Its Sculpture in Viceregal Mexico. Austin: U of Texas P, 2010. Print.

[5] Del Toro, Guillermo, and Marc Scott Zicree. Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions. New York: Harper Design, 2013. Print.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Brian de Palma’s terrifying Carrie (1976), crafted from a story by Stephen King, featured the most dangerous and feared of all poltergeist phenomena—fire—and many others, including playing with knives. The driving evil force of the film is Carrie’s mom, Margaret, the cruel, ultra-religious, sex-hating (and -loving), domineering, viciously execrating shrew who tortures Carrie for her telekinetic abilities and eventually tries to kill her. During the attack, Carrie has no choice but to kill Margaret, who is so fond of quoting Exodus 22:18 (“thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”). Carrie psychically empties the kitchen drawers of deadly knives and impales the vicious Margaret upon the wall in a visual echo of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Then she burns down the senior prom. Frankly, they just all had it coming. Unlike Carrie, Del Toro makes peace and comes to love his hyper-religious, incredibly cruel grandmother.

[8] Cronos Director’s Commentary [CDC]. Perf. Guillermo del Toro. Criterion Collection, 2010. DVD.

[9] Guillermo del Toro, “Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Horrible’ Childhood at the Root of His Dark Movies.” Interview by Richard Crouse. MetroNews.ca. Daily News Group, Inc., 15 Jan. 2013.

[10] Muir, John Kenneth. “Henry’s Kids: Othered Children and Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster.” The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro. Ed. John W. Morehead. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2015. 112-29. Print.

[11] Del Toro and Crouse.

[12] Guillermo del Toro. “Guillermo del Toro.” Interview by Mark Kermode. Guardian.com. Guardian Media Group, 21 Nov. 2006.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cabinet of Curiosities 114.

[16] The Devil’s Backbone Director’s Commentary [DBDC]. Perf. Guillermo del Toro. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2004. DVD.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Guillermo Del Toro’s Super 8 Memories.” Interview by Borys Kit. Hollywood Reporter.com. Guggenheim Media, 8 June 2011.

[19] “I Am Guillermo Del Toro, Director, Writer, Producer. AMA.” Reddit.com. Reddit, Inc., 11 July 2014.

[20] Cabinet of Curiosities, 11-15.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Haynes, Clarence. “Guillermo del Toro Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 21 Oct. 2015.

[23] Cabinet of Curiosities, 16.

[24] “Guillermo del Toro on His Love Affair With Monsters, ‘Crimson Peak’ and Being a Fanboy.” Interview by Jenelle Riley. Variety.com. Variety Media, 29 Sep. 2015.

[25] “Guillermo del Toro on Movie Makeup Artist Dick Smith, His Friend and Mentor.” Interview by Gilbert Cruz. Vulture.com. New York Media, 13 July 2014.

[26] Nelson, Valerie J. “Dick Smith Dies at 92; ‘Exorcist’ Makeup Man Won Oscar for ‘Amadeus.’” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 2014.

[27] “Guillermo del Toro on Movie Makeup Artist Dick Smith, His Friend and Mentor.” Interview by Gilbert Cruz. Vulture.com. New York Media, 13 July 2014.

[28] “the appointed hour”

[29] Cabinet of Curiosities, 54.

[30] Ibid, 57.

[31] Ibid, 57.

[32] Ibid, 78.

[33] “From a Mexican Grave Comes ‘Cronos.’” Interview by Anthony DePalma. NYTimes.com. The New York Times Company, 20 Mar. 1994.

[34] Cronos Director’s Commentary [CDC]. Perf. Guillermo del Toro. Criterion Collection, 2010. DVD.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Morgaan Sinclair, Ph.D., is a film mythologist and analyst. Her dissertation, The Dark Fantastic of Guillermo del Toro: Myth, Fascism, and Theopolitical Imagination in the Trilogia, is available from Proquest Dissertations.

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