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Guillermo del Toro: You Can’t Take the Catholicism Out of the Collector

-2As regular readers of this blog are aware, Guillermo del Toro is a figure of particular interest to me. I edited The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro: Critical Essays (McFarland, 2015), and have written a number of posts about his work over the years. The most recent was “Del Toro, Bleak House, and Sacred Relics.” In that post I referenced an article in Rue Morgue where del Toro was quoted about how he views his vast collection of items in anticipation of the Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters exhibit in Los Angeles and other select cities.

"As the show's title suggests, to understand At Home with Monsters one has to understand the function of Bleak House and its contents. Del Toro regards it as sacred space.

'It's where I literally recharge my batteries. I feel a change in my energy, and it's incredible and inspiring for me, so objects are not there as a collection, they are almost like talismans, they are relics. [They are] holy relics the way that Catholics have an image of Saint Joseph or Saint Peter whoever they worship - that's the value of these things for me. I have a Saint Gill-Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon or Saint Dick Smith or Saint Dr. Pretorius - images of characters that are a part of my inventory of saints. When people say I am a collector, I feel as if collectors are obsessed with the object, of its value, specifically in the market of collecting. I don't give a shit about any of that! If I buy a toy, I take it out, I play with it, I put it on the shelf to look at, it's not hidden. No piece of my collection is hidden from view. Everything is on display...[because] it's an expression of myself.'"

Del Toro has made similar claims in many other sources. Comments like this intrigue me for several reasons. First, as a scholar of religion and popular culture I am intrigued by the way in which religious ideas influence conceptions of cultural artifacts from various fantastic genres. Second, del Toro grew up in a stern Roman Catholic household, and now describes himself as an agnostic, but one in whom Roman Catholicism is still a strong influence. This is evident in his body of work in film, television, and literature, and this is the case with his collection as well. Finally, I am a person with religious convictions, and a genre collector myself, and I too find certain objects inspiring and fuel for the imagination. I wonder how del Toro’s religious framework for understanding his collection might relate to my own perspective.

In the quote above del Toro refers to the items in his collection as talismans and relics, and he connects this to his Catholicism. In order to understand this better I had a conversation with a colleague, Kevin Cummings, a Catholic who writes for Geekdom House. The thoughts expressed below come largely by way of my conversation with Cummings.

To begin, let’s consider the talisman. Dictionary.com includes three definitions, the third of which applies to del Toro’s experience. It is defined as “anything whose presence exercises a remarkable or powerful influence on human feelings or actions.” Although we might normally think of the talisman in the sense of an object said to “possess occult powers”, one of the definitions at Dictionary.com, del Toro does not understand talismans in this way. Instead, they function for him as talismans in the sense of how they make him feel, which in turn influences his creative processes. There’s nothing especially Catholic or religious about that label.

But del Toro goes further and refers to relics and saints which he connects to Catholic conceptions. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a relic involves “some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint.” In another entry in the Encyclopedia it refers to saints who have been canonized and beatified by the Church as “only those whose lives have been marked by the exercise of heroic virtue, and only after this has been proved by common repute for sanctity and by conclusive arguments.”

How does the Catholic definition and understanding of relics and saints relate to del Toro’s conceptions of his collection? First, let’s consider the idea of the saint. In Catholicism saints are a select few that are recognized by the Church as having demonstrated great and heroic virtue. They thus serve as objects for appreciation and veneration. This concept finds a connection to del Toro’s horrific saints. In the quote above he says, “I have a Saint Gill-Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon or Saint Dick Smith or Saint Dr. Pretorius.” Those real and fictional characters that del Toro has deemed heroic and virtuous, sentiments that are echoed by many in the fan community and thus perhaps loosely paralleling the Catholic Church’s beatification and canonization process, are viewed as saints.

Connected to saints is the second idea, that of relics. With the Catholic definition in mind, technically, unless del Tor has items in his collection that came from genre saints, parts of the body or clothes of Boris Karloff for example (and perhaps he does), then the items in his collection are not properly construed as relics, at least not in the strong sense of trying to make a connection to his Catholic background. However, in the Rue Morgue quote del Toro brings together his idea of relics with sacred imagery of saints. This takes us to a consideration of Catholic iconography.

Returning again to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it defines Christian iconography in part as follows:

“The science of the description, history, and interpretation of the traditional representations of God, the saints and other sacred subjects in art. Almost from the beginning the Church has employed the arts as potent means of instruction and edification. In the first centuries the walls of the catacombs were decorated with paintings and mosaics (see CATACOMBS), and in all later times churches have lent their walls, ceilings, and windows as well as their altars, furniture, and liturgical vessels and books, to be adorned with scenes from the Old and the New Testament, from the lives and legends of the saints, and even from old mythologies, modified, of course, and harmonized with Christian teaching.”

The concept of the Catholic icon seems to be closer to what del Toro has in mind when he views objects in his collection in sacred ways. For Catholics, icons are “representations of God, the saints and other sacred objects in art,” it can also include legends and mythologies, and churches are often decorated with such things. This parallels del Toro’s situation quite well. His collection includes representation of various sacred objects in artistic ways, they reflect fantastic mythologies that the director finds inspiring and even sacred, and they fill his Bleak House much in the way that sacred iconography adorns church buildings. So rather than relics, it would seem that del Toro’s collection is probably better understood as drawing upon his Catholic background to function as icons.

The final insight that Cummings had after reflecting on del Toro’s Bleak House was that it involves similarities to Catholic chapels. There is a long history and various types of chapels in Catholicism, and after reading the extended entry in the Encyclopedia, it appears that votive chapels have some connection to the way in which del Toro has his collection structured and the way in which it functions for him. These types of chapels are “erected by the devotion of private persons, often to commemorate some special event or to enshrine some valued relic.” Del Toro has created Bleak House as a private person, and it enshrines relics or icons. So this part of the definition is met. But what about commemoration? Various media treatments of Bleak House have described the various rooms of the structure, many of which have certain themes such as the Dickens room and the Nosferatu corridor. Some of the major themes reflected in the house were incorporated in the At Home With Monsters exhibition. This included childhood innocence; Victoriana; Rain Room; Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult; Movies, Comics and Pop Culture; Frankenstein and Horror; Freaks and Monsters; and Death and the Afterlife. In the themed rooms of Bleak House del Toro is commemorating various saints and icons (if not relics), and even in the rooms that are not designed with specific themes, objects are included that commemorate and enshrine sacred ideals and topics, such as those that characterized the thematic sections of the exhibit. Beyond the structure there is the function. Del Toro has also said in interviews that he moves about the house and works in various rooms depending upon his mood and need. Thus, just as a Catholic might visit a chapel devoted to a special event or valued relic, del Toro moves from room to room that function similar to mini-chapels to interact with enshrined icons or relics.

I find this phenomenon fascinating, and have only scratched the surface. I hope this subject is treated in greater length in the future by others with greater expertise than I in the area.

Related posts:

"Del Toro, Bleak House, and Sacred Relics"

"Religious Tensions Expressed Again in 'The Strain'"

"Regina Hansen: Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film"

 

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