The Orphanage came out in 2007 and was marketed during the last few years of the “In a World” trailers popularized by voiceover artists like Don LaFontaine. The trailer gave the impression that this was a ghost story that would rely on jump scares. Now I certainly enjoy a good jump scare now and again, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover The Orphanage was much more reliant on atmosphere, character, and suggestion to send shivers down your spine. A loud BANG certainly makes you jump, but a creepy shot of a dark stairway lingers far longer in your mind. It was slightly mismarketed and, because of the trend to rely on jump scares and gore at the time, some people were disappointed and even claimed that The Orphanage wasn’t a real horror film. But if a haunted orphanage with dead children buried underneath it, a séance communicating with the dead, and a child in a terrifying cloth mask don’t add up to a horror film, then I don’t know what does. To be fair the film absolutely plays with the tropes of a traditional ghost story, however, the ending leaves it up to the audience’s interpretation as to whether the ghosts are real or not.
Directed by J.A. Bayona, the film follows protagonist Laura (Belén Rueda) coming to terms with her own past as she opens the orphanage where she once lived. At the same time, she’s dealing with her son Simón (Roger Princep) and his realization that he’s adopted. Simón, lonely in his new home, makes an “imaginary friend” named Tomás when exploring a beach cave and drawing some foreshadow-y pictures of Tomás wearing a cloth sack over his head. During the opening of the orphanage, now a facility for disabled children, Simón stumbles across his adoption file, either thanks to a meddling social worker or from clues left by Tomás. This culminates in an argument with Laura who slaps him and Simón running away and hiding. As Laura searches for Simón, regretting her actions, she is confronted by a child wearing the spooky cloth sack over his head making strange breathing sounds (which now calls to mind Milly Shapiro’s ‘cluck’ in 2018’s Hereditary). Whether this is Simón, the ghost of Tomás, or another child from the opening party is not clear. When Laura tries to take off the sack, the kid pushes her into the bathroom and locks the door before running away. After her escape, Laura cannot find Simón anywhere despite searching frantically for him, including shuffling through some old building materials under the stairs. At night she hears loud banging sounds in the house which are hinted at being paranormal.
Six months pass and Simón is still missing. In her grief and amidst strange goings-on in the orphanage, the normally skeptical Laura turns to a psychic medium to try and communicate with Simón. Although the séance apparently gets in touch with five children who used to live in the orphanage with Laura when she was young, the séance is suddenly ended when the medium asks the children if Simón is with them. This experience leads Laura to spiral further down the ghostly rabbit hole and she starts to find objects around the house which she interprets as clues left by Simón. She takes a large dose of sleeping pills to get into a death-like state and communicate more easily with the spirit world. Through her desperation, she hallucinates, or communicates, with the spirits of the five children and discovers a secret door in the orphanage under some old scaffolding leading down to the cellar. Peering into the darkness, she descends.
At the bottom of the stairs, she finds Simón apparently alive and well despite it being so long since his disappearance. She wraps a blanket around him, cradling him close to her in relief. After a while, the light in the room darkens and she realizes that the blanket she’s holding is empty. She drops it to the floor as she sees what she was too devastated to comprehend at first: Simón’s dead body on the ground with the cloth sack over his head.
In a flash, she realizes what must have happened. Simón hid in the cellar after their argument, and when searching for him, Laura accidentally trapped him there while moving some scaffolding. The banging she heard at night was not paranormal but Simón trying to escape. Eventually, he must have fallen and broken his neck. Laura cannot cope with this discovery and takes more sleeping pills. The film ends with her seemingly rejoining Simón along with the other five children who helped her discover Simón’s fate. They are all pleased to see her, and she tells them a bedtime story as they gather around. Although a heartbreaking way to end the film, there is some sad comfort in Laura rejoining her deceased son and childhood friends.
The idea that the orphanage is haunted by dead children, and then Laura finds the bodies of the five dead children buried beneath it in her search for Simón, is definitely scary. The idea that a ghost boy in a creepy cloth mask locks her in the bathroom and perhaps steals Simón away from her is also pretty frightening. For me, however, the revelation that perhaps there were no ghosts after all and that the banging she heard was her son trying to escape the cellar before falling to his death is so much more chilling. The idea that her frantic search for him, in her utter desperation, accidentally causes his death is more haunting to me than if a ghost was somehow responsible. I still remember very clearly watching this in the cinema, arriving to an empty home afterward, and the sleepless night that followed. On one level, it has an effect because it’s so grounded. It’s every parents’ worst nightmare; it’s a tragic story.
The film also shows how we can create our own ghosts as ways of coping with tragedy or by trying to understand the inexplicable. We see what we want to see, what we need to see, dosed on sleeping pills or not. The real world is not the same world we experience inside our heads but is instead filtered through our own individual perceptions and interpretations. In that sense, the real world is unknowable to the extent that we can only perceive it through our limited perceptions. Physically this is because our eyes and ears can only see and hear certain frequencies of light or sound. Psychologically we develop maps of the world in order to understand it, and then fit the world we see onto that map. We have shared cultures and shared languages, perhaps shared experiences, but we also have a different perspective or understanding of each one.
In Laura’s case, she is haunted by the death of her childhood friends, and then those ghosts manifest when she experiences the loss of her son. Who are we to say that those ghosts are not real for Laura? Even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, who are we to deny its existence and the comfort it would bring her to be reunited with Simón and her friends? It’s easy to rationalize Laura’s ghosts as sleeping-pill-induced hallucinations, but if reality is partly subjective, then who’s to say her ghosts aren’t real?
That’s the other thing that haunted me after watching The Orphanage. Although on the surface ghosts didn’t cause Simón’s death, the film reminded me on some unconscious level that the world is unknowable and filled with shadows. We’re all susceptible to traumatic experiences, and in such times, we don’t know what’ll emerge from the darkness.
Luke Beale is a writer interested in horror films, fantasy, comic books, and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @mutantgenes.