“You have a secret that you don't want to tell me”: The Child as Trauma in Spanish and American Horror Film

Jessica Balanzategui


In the years surrounding the turn of the millennium, there emerged an assemblage of American and Spanish horror films fixated on uncanny child characters. Caught in the symbolic abyss between death and life, these figures are central to the films’ building of suspense and Gothic frisson—they are at once familiar and unfamiliar, vulnerable and threatening, innocent yet unnervingly inscrutable. Despite being conceived and produced in two very different cultural climates, these films construct the child as an embodiment of trauma in parallel ways. In turn, these Gothic children express the wavering of narratives of progress which suffused the liminal moment of the millennial turn. Steven Bruhm suggests that there is “a startling emphasis on children as the bearers of death” (author’s emphasis 98) in popular Gothic fiction at the turn of the new millennium, and that this contemporary Gothic “has a particular emotive force for us because it brings into high relief exactly what the child knows ... Invariably, the Gothic child knows too much, and that knowledge makes us more than a little nervous” (103). A comparative analysis of trans-millennial American and Spanish supernatural horror films reveals the specifically threatening register of the Gothic child’s knowledge, and that the gradual revelation of this knowledge aestheticizes the mechanics of trauma. This “traumatic” aesthetic also entails a disruption to linear progress, exposing the ways in which Gothic representations of the child’s uncanny knowledge express anxieties about the collapse of temporal progress. The eeriness associated with the child’s knowledge is thus tied to a temporal disjuncture; as Margarita Georgieva explains, child-centred Gothic fiction meditates on the fact that “childhood is quickly lost, never regained and, therefore, outside of the tangible adult world” (191). 

American films such as The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) and Stir of Echoes (David Koepp, 1999), and Spanish films The Nameless (Jaume Balagueró, 1999) and The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001), and also American-Spanish co-productions such as The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) and Fragile (Jaume Balagueró, 2005), expose the tangle of contradictions which lurk beneath romanticised definitions of childhood innocence and nostalgia for an adult’s “lost” childhood. The child characters in these films tend to be either ghosts or in-between figures, seemingly alive yet acting as mediators between the realms of the living and the dead, the past and the present. Through this liminal position, these children wreak havoc on the symbolic coherence of the films’ diegetic worlds. In so doing, they incarnate the ontological wound described by Cathy Caruth in her definition of trauma: “a breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world” caused by an event that “is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself ... repeatedly ... in the nightmares and repetitive actions” (4) of those who have experienced trauma. 

The Gothic aesthetic of these children expresses the ways in which trauma is locatable not in the original traumatic past event, but rather in “the way it was precisely not known in the first instance”, through revealing that it is trauma’s unassimilated element which “returns to haunt the survivor later on” (Caruth, author’s emphasis 4). The uncanny frisson in these films arises through the gradual exposition of the child character’s knowledge of this unassimilated element. As a result, these children trouble secure processes of symbolic functioning, embodying Anne Williams’ suggestion that “Gothic conventions imply a fascination with … possible fissures in the system of the symbolic as a whole” (141). I suggest that, reflecting Bruhm’s assertion above, these children are eerie because they have access to memories and knowledge as yet unassimilated within the realm of adult understanding, which is expressed in these films through the Gothic resurfacing of past traumas. 

Through an analysis of two of the most transnationally successful and influential films to emerge from this trend—The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001)—this article explores the intersecting but tellingly distinctive ways in which the American and Spanish horror films figure the child as a vessel for previously repressed trauma. In both films, the eeriness of the children, Cole and Santi respectively, is associated with their temporal liminality and subsequent ability to invoke grisly secrets of the past, which in turn unsettles solid conceptions of identity. In The Sixth Sense, as in other American ghost films of this period, it is an adult character’s subjectivity which is untethered by the traumas of the uncanny child; Bruhm suggests that the contemporary Gothic “attacks adult self-identity on multiple fronts” (107), and in American films the uncanny child tends to launch this traumatic assault from within an adult character’s own psyche. Yet in the Spanish films, the Gothic child tends not to threaten an individual adult figure’s self-identity, instead constituting a challenge to secure concepts of socio-cultural identity.    

In The Sixth Sense, Cole raises a formerly repressed trauma in the mind of central adult character Malcolm Crowe, while simultaneously disturbing the viewer’s secure grasp on the film’s narrative world. Ultimately, Cole raises Freudian-inflected anxieties surrounding childhood’s disruption to coherent adult subjectivity, functioning as a receptacle for the adult’s repressed secrets. Cole’s gradual exposure of these secrets simulates the effects of trauma for both Malcolm and the viewer via a Gothic unsettling of meaning. While The Sixth Sense is set in the present, The Devil’s Backbone is set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)—a violent and traumatic period of Spain’s history, the ramifications of which have been largely unexplored in Spanish popular culture until very recently as a result of forty years of strict censorship under General Franco, whose dictatorship eroded following his death in 1975. Unlike Cole, Santi does not arouse a previously submerged trauma within an adult character’s mind, instead serving to allegorically raise socio-cultural trauma. Santi functions as an incarnation of Gilles Deleuze’s “child seer”, a figure who Deleuze claims first emerged in Italian neo-realist films of the 1940s as a response to the massive cultural rupture of World War II (3). The child seer is characterised by his entrapment in the gap between the perception of a traumatic event, and the understanding and subsequent action required to move on from it. Thus, upon experiencing a disturbing event, he suffers a breach in comprehension which disrupts the typical sensory-motor chain of perception-understanding-action, rendering him physically and mentally unable to escape his situation. Yet in experiencing this incapacity, the seer gains a powerful insight beyond the limits of linear temporality. On becoming a ghost, Santi escapes coherent space-time, and invokes the repressed spectre of Spain’s violent Civil War past, inciting an eerie collision of past and present. This temporal disruption has deep allegorical implications for contemporary Spain through the child’s symbolic status as vessel for the future. Santi’s embodiment of cultural trauma ensures that Spain’s past, as constructed by the film, eerily folds into the nation’s extra-diegetic present. 

The Sixth Sense 

In The Sixth Sense, adult protagonist Malcolm Crowe is a child psychiatrist, thus unravelling the riddles of the child’s psyche is positioned as the central quest of the film’s narrative. The dramatic twist in the film’s final scene reveals that the analysis of the child Cole’s “phobia” has in fact exhumed dormant spectres within Malcolm’s own mind, exposing the Gothic mechanisms whereby the uncanny child becomes conflated with the adult’s repressed trauma. This impression is heightened by the narrative structure of The Sixth Sense, in which the twist in the final scene shifts the meaning of all that has happened before. Both the audience and Malcolm are led to assume that they have uncovered and come to terms with Cole’s secret once it becomes clear two-thirds into the film that he “sees dead people”. However, the climactic twist exposes that Cole has in fact been hiding another secret which is not so easily ameliorated: that Malcolm is one of these dead people, having died in the film’s opening sequence.  If the film’s narrative “pulling the rug out” from under the audience functions as intended, at the climax of the film both Malcolm and viewer simultaneously become privy to a layer of Cole’s secret previously inaccessible to us, both that Malcolm has been dead all along and that, subsequently, the hidden quest underlying the surface narrative has been Malcolm’s journey to come to terms with this disturbing truth. Thus, the uncanny child functions as a symbolic stage for the adult protagonist’s unassimilated trauma, and the unsettling nature of this experience is extended to the viewer via the gradual exposure of Cole’s secret. 

Further intensifying the uncanny effects of this Gothic disruption to adult knowledge, Cole also functions like a reincarnation of the crisis which has undermined Malcolm’s coherent identity as a successful child psychiatrist: his failure to cure former patient Vincent.  Thus, Cole is like uncanny déjà vu for Malcolm and the viewer, an almost literal re-evocation of Malcolm’s past trauma. Both Vincent and Cole have a patch of grey hair at the back of their head, symbolising their access to knowledge too great for their youth, and as Malcolm explains, “They’re both so similar. Same mannerisms, same expressions, same things hanging over their heads.” At the opening of the film, Vincent is depicted as a wretched madman. He appears crying and half naked in Malcolm’s bathroom, having broken into his house, before shooting Malcolm and then turning the gun on himself. Thus, Vincent is an abject image of Malcolm’s failure, and his taunting words expose a rupture in Malcolm’s paternalistic, professional identity by hinting at his lack of awareness.  “You don’t know so many things” Vincent remarks, and sarcastically undermines Malcolm’s “saviour” status by taunting, “Don’t you know me, hero?”.   

Functioning as a repetition of this trauma, Cole provides Malcolm with an opportunity to discover the “so many things” that he does not know, and also to once again become a “hero”. Cole functions as a literalisation of Malcolm’s compulsion to repeat the trauma which has exposed a breach in his sense of self, and to gain mastery over it. On first viewing, the audience is led to believe that this narrative is the primary one in the film, and that the film is wrapped up when Malcolm finally achieves his goal and becomes Cole’s hero. However, the final revelation that Cole has been keeping yet another secret from Malcolm—that Malcolm has been dead all along—reveals that this trauma is actually irrevocable: Malcolm was in fact killed by Vincent at the beginning of the film, thus the adult’s subjective breach (symbolised by his gunshot wound, which he suddenly notices for the first time) cannot be filled or repaired. All Malcolm can do at the close of the film is disappear, as a close-up of his face fades into the mediated image of him, now his only form of existence in the world as we know it, on the home videotapes of his wedding which play as his wife sleeps. Thus, Cole evokes the experience of a violent, unassimilated trauma which is experienced “too soon, too unexpectedly to be fully known in the first instance” (Caruth 4), a breach in subjectivity which has only become consciously known to Malcolm through the “nightmare repetition” figured by Cole. 

This experience of a traumatic disruption to the wholeness and coherence of subjective reality is echoed by the viewer’s own experience of The Sixth Sense, if the twist-narrative functions as intended. While on first viewing we are led to believe that we are watching a straightforward ghost story about a paternalistic psychologist helping a young child with an uncanny gift, we learn in the final scene that there has been an underlying double reality haunting the surface narrative all along. Central to this twist is the recognition that Cole was always aware of this second reality, but has been concealing it from Malcolm—underscoring the ways in which Malcolm’s trauma is bound up largely with what he was unable to comprehend and assimilate when the traumatic event of his death first occurred.   

The eerie effects of Malcolm’s traumatic confrontation with the child’s Gothic knowledge is extended to the viewer via the film’s narrative structure. Erlend Lavik discusses The Sixth Sense and other twist films in terms of a particular relationship between the syuzhet (the way in which a story’s components are organized) and the fabula (the raw components which constitute the story). He explains that in such films, there is a “doubling of the syuzhet, where we are led to construct a fabula that initially seems quite straightforward until suddenly a new piece of information is introduced that subverts (or decentres) the fictional world we have created. We come to realize the presence of another fabula running parallel to the first one but ‘beneath’ it, hidden from view” (Lavik 56). The revelation that Malcolm has been a ghost all along shatters the fabula that most viewers construct upon first viewing the film. The impression that an eerie, previously hidden double of accepted reality has bubbled to the surface of our perceptions is deeply uncanny, evoking the experience of filmic déjà vu. This is of course heightened by the fact that the viewer is compelled to re-watch the film in order to construct the second, and more “correct”, fabula. In doing so, the viewer experiences a “narrative bifurcation whereby we come to notice how traces of the correct fabula were actually available to us the first time” (Lavik 59). 

The process of re-watching the film in an attempt to solve the riddles of Malcolm’s existence reveals the viewer’s compulsion to undergo their own “detective work” in a parallel of Malcolm’s analysis of Cole: the exposure of the child’s secret turns a mirror upon the protagonist and audience which exposes a fracture in the adult’s subjectivity. Discussing the detective story, Slavoj Žižek explains that “the detective's role is ... to demonstrate how ‘the impossible is possible’ ... that is, to resymbolize the traumatic shock, to integrate it into symbolic reality” (58). On first viewing, this detective work is realized through Malcolm’s quest to comprehend Cole’s secrets, and then to situate the abject ghosts the child sees into a secure framework whereby they disappear if Cole helps them. The compulsion to re-watch the film in order to better understand how Malcolm experiences time, consciousness and communication (or lack there-of) represents an analogous attempt to re-integrate the traumatic shock raised by the twist-ending by imposing more secure symbolic frameworks upon the film’s diegetic world: to suture the traumatic breach in meaning. However, there are many irremediable gaps in Malcolm’s experiences—we do not actually see him trying to pay for the bus, or meeting Cole’s mother for the first time, or pondering the fact that no other human being has spoken to him directly for six months apart from Cole—fissures which repeat viewings cannot repair. 

The Devil’s Backbone 

The Devil’s Backbone is set in the final years of the Civil War, a liminal period in which the advancement of Spain’s national narrative is disturbingly uncertain. The film takes place in an orphanage for young boys from Republican families whose parents have been killed or captured in the Civil War. In the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard stands an unexploded bomb, an ominous and volatile reminder of the war. As well as being haunted by this unexploded bomb, the orphanage is also haunted by a child ghost, Santi, a former inhabitant of the orphanage who disappeared on the same night that the bomb landed in the orphanage’s grounds. We learn mid-way through the film that Santi in fact drowned in the orphanage’s cavernous cistern: after being struck on the head by the angry groundskeeper, Santi was left unable to swim, and is shown sinking helplessly into the water’s murky depths. Thus, Santi’s death represents the ultimate extreme of the child seer’s traumatic entrapment between perceiving and understanding the traumatic event, and the physical action required to escape it. Both the ghostly Santi and the unexploded bomb exude an eerie power despite, and perhaps because of, their apparent physical incapacity. Such corporeal powerlessness is the defining feature of Deleuze’s “child seer”, as the breach in the sensory-motor chain comes to imbue the child who encounters trauma with a penetrating gaze which sees beyond temporal borders. 

Once he becomes a ghost, Santi escapes the bounds of linear time altogether, becoming forever fused to the moment of his drowning. Santi’s spectral presence warps the ether around him as if he is permanently underwater, and the blood from his head wound constantly floats upwards. The sensory-motor chain becomes completely severed in a cinematic moment which can be likened to Deleuze “crystal of time”. Like the dual layers of narrative in The Sixth Sense, this crystal of time sparks a moment of Gothic frisson as linear time collapses and dual modes of temporality are expressed simultaneously: the chronological moment of Santi’s death—a ‘dead’ present that has already passed—and the fractured, traumatic memories of this past which linger in the present—what Deleuze would call a ‘virtual’ past which “coincides with the present that it was” (79). The traumatic effect of this collapse of temporal boundaries is enhanced by the fact that the shot of Santi drowning is repeated multiple times throughout the film—including in the opening minutes, before the audience is able to comprehend what we are seeing and where this scene fits into the film’s chronology. Ultimately, this cinematic crystal symbolically ungrounds linear narratives of Spanish history, which position the cultural rupture of the Civil War as a remnant of Spain’s past which has successfully been overcome. Through uncanny repetition, Santi’s death refuses to remain lodged in an immobilized “historical” past—a present that has passed—but remains forever alongside the present as an ethereal past that “is”. Santi’s raising of Gothic knowledge incites the wavering of not an adult character’s self-identity, as in The Sixth Sense, but a trembling in conceptual models of linear cultural progress.   

As a ghost, Santi is visually constructed as a broken porcelain doll, with cracks visible all over his body, emphasising his physical fragility; however, in his ghostly form it is this very fragility which becomes uncanny and threatening. His cracked body fetishizes his status as a subject who is not fully formed or complete. Thus, the film presents the post-Civil War child as a being who has been shattered and broken while undergoing the delicate process of being formed: an eerie incarnation of a trauma that has occurred “too soon” to be properly integrated. Santi’s broken body visualises the mechanisms whereby the violent conditions and mentalities of war permeate the child’s being in irreversible ways. Because he is soldered to the space and time of his death, he is caught forever as an expression of trauma in the inescapable gap between perception, assimilation and action. His haunting involves the intrusion of this liminal space onto the solid boundaries and binaries of the diegetic present; his abject presence forces other characters, and viewers, to experience the frisson of this previously concealed traumatic encounter.  In so doing, Santi allegorically triggers the irruption of a fissure in the progression of Spain’s socio-cultural narrative. He embodies the ominous possibility that Spain’s grisly recent past may return within the child mutated by wartime trauma to engulf the future. The final scene of the film ideates the threshold of this volatile future, as the orphaned children stand as a group staring out at the endless expanse of desert beyond the orphanage’s bounds, all the adult characters having killed each other in a microcosm of the Civil War. 

Ultimately, both Cole and Santi enforce an eerie moment of recognition that the previously unassimilated traumas of the past live on within the present: a Gothic drawing forth of buried knowledge that exposes cracks in coherent meaning. In The Sixth Sense, Cole reveals the extent to which trauma is located in “the way it was precisely not known in the first instance” (Caruth 4), haunting Malcolm with his previous failure before exposing the all-encompassing extent to which this past trauma has fractured Malcom’s subjectivity. Santi of The Devil’s Backbone alludes to the ways in which this process of eliding past trauma extra-diegetically haunts contemporary Spain, particularly because those who were children during the Civil War are now the adult filmmakers, political leaders and constituents of Spanish society. These disturbances of historical and personal progress are rendered particularly threatening emerging as they do at the millennial turn, a symbolic temporal threshold which divides the recent past and the “new” present. The Gothic child in these contexts points to the danger inherent in misrecognizing traumatic histories—both personal and socio-cultural—as presents that have long-since passed instead of pasts that are


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The Orphanage. Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona. Perf. Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo and Roger Príncep. Esta Vivo! Laboratorio de Nuevos Talentos, 2007. 

The Others. Dir. Alejandro Amenábar. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann and James Bentley. Sociedad General de Cine, 2001. 

The Sixth Sense. Dir. M. Night Shyalaman. Perf. Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis and Toni Collette. Hollywood Pictures, 1999. 

Stir of Echoes. Dir. David Koepp. Perf. Kevin Bacon, Zachary David Cope and Kathryn Erbe. Artisan Entertainment, 1999. 

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horror; gothic; uncanny; child; trauma; America; Spain

Copyright (c) 2014 Jessica Balanzategui

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