The Shape of Water and Del Toro’s Cosmic Fairy Stories

Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most well-known fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s work, his influence on Del Toro is fairly obvious. I’ve even seen one internet commenter refer to Del Toro’s Hellboy as the closest we’re ever going to get to a big tent Lovecraft adaptation.

Lovecraft is famous for a brand of fiction known as cosmic horror. The basic idea is that the universe is vast and uncaring. Humanity has no special place within it, and in its dark reaches there may be things so far beyond our understanding that we could only classify them as gods or monsters—and those monsters would be indifferent to us. Whatever threat they pose to humanity comes not from their desire to destroy us, not from some special, directed enmity towards mankind, but simply from the fact that we may get in the way of whatever their true goals are.

Like Lovrecraft, Del Toro’s stories do not tend to explain the overall cosmic structure of the universe, but rather to unsettle it, to disorient the viewer and make them realize how little they know about how the universe truly is. Like Lovecraft, he calls down to earth creatures that are profoundly Other, whose purposes we cannot understand, whose very forms and way of existing are strange to us. He explodes the notion that human life as we know it is all there is, or is even particularly significant in the grand scheme of things.

But unlike Lovecraft’s readers, Del Toro’s viewers rarely come away with a sense of despair, disgust, or disturbance. Rather than take cosmic strangeness and use it to put an arrogant humanity back in its proper place, Del Toro takes it and does something else: he tells a fairy story.

The way many of Del Toro’s films feel like “fairy tales for adults” has been remarked on often enough, but it doesn’t usually get placed in the context of his Lovecraftian influences. Anyone familiar enough with the folklore can tell you, though, that traditional fairy tales have a lot in common with Lovecraft—the Fair Folk, the Good People, whatever you call them, are first and foremost strange. They are unutterably inhuman in their motives and their way of life. To encounter them is profoundly dangerous and unsettling, not because they hate mankind, but simply because they care little for us one way or the other. Simply by being who they are, they might upend our very existence.

Of course, one key difference between fairy tales and Lovecraft is that fairy tales may often have a happy ending. The fairy’s magic, rather than destroying you and all you love, not to mention everything that exists, may instead rescue you from some tragedy, or grant you a gift you never thought you could have. For Lovecraft, this was inconceivable, and stories like this were nothing more than lies delusion. For Del Toro, this is par for the course.

In this breakdown of The Shape of Water, I want to examine exactly how this works.

 

The Allure of the Other

 

If Del Toro is good at anything, it’s design. The guy is meticulous in how he crafts his sets, his props, and his costumes. He creates notebooks for his movies, with sketches for every element of the design, and background notes on characters. He chooses his color palettes carefully, distinguishing one realm from another, for example, by whether it is blue-green or orange-red in overall tone.

But it’s his creatures in particular that are most alluring. Many of them start from a human base, but are over-muscled, or have a strange bone structure to the face. They are taller than mankind, and sometimes lack eyes, or have intricate designs traced into their skin. They are rarely colored in any of the usual shades of brown, but are often red, pale white, green, gold, blue, or some other strange shade.

The more monstrous are often tentacled, but rarely slimy or fungous, and often bear features that are less squiddish or octopoid than the average Lovecraft knockoff. They are frightening, but not disgusting.

Whatever form they take, Del Toro’s creatures are rarely repulsive, and often attractive.

The Shape of Water is about the romance between a human being and a Del Toro creature. The creature in this case, referred to only as “the Asset,” is an aquatic humanoid from somewhere in the Amazon. He is built like a male model, but covered in scales and fins, and is oddly segmented, with large, strange eyes. Like every other Del Toro creation, it’s a work of art.

For Elisa, the mute cleaning lady who works in the government lab where the Asset is kept, it is even more than that. Over the course of the movie, she shares eggs with it, plays music for it, and teaches it sign language. She dances for it from the other side of the glass. The bond is clearly mutual, and she is devastated when she discovers how cruelly it is being treated, and the fate that is in store for it. She rescues him, lets him live in her apartment bathtub, and their friendship blossoms into a romance—one that is eventually consummated in what ought to be a few very off-putting scenes.

Setting aside for the moment the idea of having sex with an Amazonian fish-person, the fact that Del Toro really did manage to pull off this inhuman romance is significant. This was love between a human being and something that was incredibly other.

A number of Lovecraft commentators have, along with Lovecraft himself, said that the most primal fear mankind has is the fear of the unknown. That which we don’t know is somehow supposed to be frightening, to be unsettling, to be something we would destroy rather than face. Del Toro calls bull on this, and he’s right to do so.

Humanity frequently loves the strange, the other, the unknown. We are attracted to the exotic, the new, the different. We love travelers’ tales and fantasy stories, tales of the distant future or the distant past, or of some far-off kingdom in a land not quite like our own.

The moment capitalism gave us the opportunity, we ditched homestyle fare in favor of a dozen different foreign cuisines—and now pizza, tacos, General Tso’s, and all the rest are a central part of the American diet.

One complaint about the portrayal of certain ethnicities in film is the way they are made exotic and sexualized in that context—that is, we look for the ways they are different rather than the same, because difference attracts us. And of course, most of humanity is attracted to a particular kind of strange and exotic anyways—the opposite sex.

There is something to be said here about religion, too. While it is true that we have generally portrayed gods in anthropomorphic ways, this is always qualified by their unearthly attributes—whether that is merely size, strength, and beauty, or the unsettling powers they have over aspects of reality. As often as not, we portray the gods as animal or half-animal. The very notion of worship is based around the fundamental strangeness of the divine—here is a thing different from myself, strange and other, and far more powerful than I. I must adore it.

Lovecraft, a homebody, a racist, and a bachelor for most of his life, did not often get this love of the other, but certain fantasy writers do. One of the first real fantasy books I read, the one that got me into this lifelong obsession, was Song in the Silence by Elizabeth Kerner. In it, the protagonist travels over a vast sea to a dangerous island in search of a legend—dragons. She wants to see something and befriend something that is sentient, but that is not human. The driving force of the story is that she has a powerful desire to see and know the Other.

The Shape of Water understands this, as do many other of Del Toro’s stories. Rather than recoil in fright or disgust when we encounter the other, Del Toro’s design asks us to marvel at it, to enjoy it. His characters will learn to love such creatures, to trust them, to befriend them. He takes the unsettling cosmic horror, and turns it into an appearance of the Fair Folk—strange, but also beautiful.

 

True Violence

 

There is, however, a dark side to Del Toro.

Del Toro movies aren’t shoot-‘em-ups. They’re not violent in that sense. The more free rein he’s given, the less a gun is fired. But when a gun is fired, it’s sickening.

Hollywood has given modern people the ability to see violence over and over, but not to feel it. We know it’s acting, and we know the “movie magic” will be undone when the scene is cut and the dead extras rise again and walk offstage to visit craft services. Often, we barely see what happens to bad guys that are killed onscreen—a motion is made in their direction, and they fall. It is less important to know what exactly happened to them than whether the good guy neutralized them. This is not violence, it’s playing a game where you can tag out members of the other team.

But Del Toro portrays movie violence as violence. The first violent scene in the movie comes when a man’s fingers are bit off. We see the stumps and the blood spurting from them, see his pale, shocked face, watch him collapse. This is our antagonist—he’s supposed to be intimidating. But the non-fatal and non-crippling wound is shown as profoundly painful, and his lifeblood spills out everywhere. Soon after, we find his fingers, and they are placed in a brown paper lunch bag for transportation. He later comments on this, as a condiment got on them. They are reattached, and we watch for the rest of the movie as the character waits for them either to get better or to rot and have to be removed.

Other scenes of violence are equally torturous. We get a disturbingly humorous introduction to a cattle prod, and then we see it pressed into the Asset’s flesh repeatedly a few scenes later. I say “pressed” because you can see his skin actually pushed in, not merely contacted, and you have to wonder if he is being cut by the prod as much as he is being electrocuted by it. Where another movie might show us a few zaps and leave it at that, having communicated the fact that the Asset is in pain, Del Toro lets it go on, again and again, driving home the cruelty and the degree of suffering. “You will not enjoy this or shrug this off,” he seems to say, “You will understand what it does to the creature.”

Guns in his universe are not point-and-click instruments that remove an inconvenient opposition. They leave entry and exit wounds. If these wounds are punched in a cheek, a finger can go through them, and you can drag the bleeding person along in excruciating pain. If placed elsewhere, there will be plenty of blood, and it will spread rather than merely streaming down a single channel. It will get everywhere and it will stain. And still the victim will not be dead. Guns are cruel, and Del Toro will make you aware of the fact.

Though violence is hardly supernatural, I do think this is one of the most Lovecraftian elements in Del Toro’s work. The way he uses it tells us that the universe is not a kind place. Cruel, bad things happen, and they happen suddenly and irrevocably. Once they happen, there will be time to contemplate them, to experience the pain. It will not be easy. The universe does not care for your feelings. Violence happens, and it is not good.

But violence does not get the last word in a Del Toro film, and that’s another thing that makes it a strikingly distinct than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror.

 

The Misfits of the World

 

“All us freaks have is each other.”

The quote comes from Hellboy, but it’s applicable here, too. The protagonists are a who’s-who of marginalized groups—a “differently abled” Hispanic woman, a black woman, a gay man, and, depending on how sympathetically you read him, a communist. They stand in contrast to a white, heterosexual, American male antagonist with a wife and two kids who lives in the suburbs, wears a suit, and is trying desperately to be “upwardly mobile.” The most ridiculously stereotypical “normal” American against the most ridiculously stereotypical collection of “not normal” Americans.

A certain sector of Twitter has done a lot of eye-rolling at this, and with good reason. On the face of it, it’s ham-handed and clichéd, and is definitely trying to score political points. It also requires zero sacrifice on the part of the filmmakers, challenging absolutely nothing about the world they live in. Since when is Hollywood a bastion of middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous, family-centered, anti-blaspheming, straight-laced, suburban, patriotic conservatism? The Oscars have been described as a series of lectures on sexual ethics from the people who protected Weinstein. The Shape of Water does nothing to undermine that image.

But set aside the politics for a moment. The idea of the marginalized winning instead of the mainstream is a classic trope of fairytales and folk stories, and even of the Biblical narrative. Whether it’s cobblers or seventh sons or scullery maids, fairy tales are full of the most unexpected people being the ones who save the kingdom, and often who end up ruling it, alongside whatever prince or princess that met along the way.

The kind of misfits Del Toro chooses for his heroines and heroes may often tell you exactly what decades of Hollywood the guy has been working in, but the particular kinds of misfits are less important than the fact that they are misfits. Del Toro portrays a world where horrible violence happens, where humanity’s place in the universe is not as central as we thought it was, and yet in the end the little guy is the one who wins. The underdog comes out on top. His world is the world of fairy tales.

 

God or Monster?

 

The Shape of Water revolves around the Asset.

The Asset is vulnerable. He can be captured, chained, and beaten. He bleeds. He needs food to survive, and if the chemical properties of the water he lives in are not properly maintained, he suffocates and begins to die.

The Asset is not all-wise or all-knowing. He does not know Elisa’s intentions to begin with, and he is slow in learning sign language. Music is a novelty to him, and cats are strange and frightening. At one point, Elisa tries to tell him how she feels, and he doesn’t even notice. He is busy eating his eggs, as indifferent as a housecat.

The Asset, it seems, is not a god.

But the Asset is a god. He was worshiped by the natives of the Amazon. Brought back to Elisa’s apartment, he his capable of healing wounds and restoring youth, in a limited form. He shines with a strange and otherworldly light, and it is uncertain whether this is an emotional reaction or a sign that power is flowing out of him. And finally, when killed, he is revived. When others are killed, he can revive them. He can even change the very nature of a being into something new.

Part of Lovecraft’s project is to destroy our notion of the distinction between gods and aliens, gods and monsters. Religion, science, magic—they are all the same in Lovecraft’s world. They are simply different names for our interaction with the unknown, and what we call that unknown, whether we think it is divine or demonic, is irrelevant. It is simply Other.

In the same way, Del Toro breaks down the distinction between god and monster with the Asset, and with many of his other creatures. He is not concerned with a simple binary of good-by-nature or evil-by-nature, nor is he concerned with the ultimate structure of the universe and anything that is truly, transcendently Divine. He is concerned only with the wide and wild variety of beings that may live in a universe as strange and vast as ours, each with its own limitations, but whose limitations are far different from our own.

 

A Fairy Tale Ending

 

Del Toro’s stories are, from start to finish, a fairy tale spin on Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. We encounter the Other, and learn that our place in this cold, uncaring, indifferent universe is far from secure. But instead of destroying us or driving us insane, the Other offers us a chance at redemption, at escape from tragedy or at achieving some dream we never thought was truly possible. The universe these two authors live in is metaphysically the same, but their outlook on it is not. For Del Toro, there is a chance of a happy ending.

I find this strange and interesting and human. Lovecraft insists that a world where we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things must be horrible. He yearned for order, and when he did not find it, he was disturbed. But Del Toro is an anarchist, and a liberal. He believes in individual freedom, in the ability of individuals to create their own meaning, their own dreams, and to pursue them to the end of the line.

A world that is cosmically indifferent is, by definition, not hostile to humanity. Lovecraft was so caught up in the horror, that his stories reflected a world where, in practice, the Other is hostile. Del Toro recognizes that while the Other may indeed be hostile, it is just as possible that it might find a reason to help us, or at least refrain from hurting us. And so Del Toro can have a fairy tale ending.

Ultimately I can’t agree with either perspective. I don’t believe the cosmos is essentially disordered and meaningless, or that we have no special place within it, although I would agree that we’re definitely not at the center of things. But if the cosmos really were indifferent, I think Del Toro’s take is probably the healthier and more accurate one. In a world that does not care one way or the other, why not take a chance and see if it will side with us? If anything, that desire is certainly more human.

Regardless, Del Toro’s cosmic fairy stories a great deal more fun to watch than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is to read.

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