Oscar-winner’s childhood trauma fuels success
Guillermo Del Toro says there is a technical term for his longstanding fascination with monsters - it's called a "counter-phobic reaction".
The revered Mexican filmmaker has made a career out of terrifying creatures such as the Pale Man (with eyeballs in his hands) from Pan's Labyrinth, the clockwork Nazi assassin Karl Ruprecht Kroenen in Hellboy, the colossal Kaiju in Pacific Rim and the heroic fish-man in The Shape Of Water, which won him Best Director and Best Picture at last year's Oscars.
But he can trace his obsession with the weird and the macabre back to an episode of seminal, '60s, sci-fi show The Outer Limits, and specifically an episode called The Mutant, which he stayed up late to watch against his parents' wishes.
"That's where is all started for me," says Del Toro over the phone from Los Angeles, where he is promoting his latest scare fest as a producer, Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark.
"My analyst would say that I generated a counter-phobic reaction, meaning that I fell in love with the thing that scared me the most. That is the analysis - that hasn't cured me from it, I still love monsters, just like back then."
And as if seeing a bald, bug-eyed Warren Oates in that episode wasn't enough to blow his two-year-old mind, his older brother dressed up like the character to freak him out and further compound the trauma.
"My brother was for many years the bane of my existence and I would get into fist fights with him very easily," Del Toro recalls.
"And he very kindly decided to dress like the monster in that episode with one of my mother's stockings over his head and he put two plastic fried eggs under that to simulate the giant eyes and I got so scared."
From then, the young Del Toro saw monsters everywhere and began to wet the bed - it was only when he made a pact with the creatures to be their friend forever that he learned to live with the fears that would eventually fuel a career that has taken him to the highest echelons of Hollywood.
"It's been a loyal love affair since then," he says.
"No one in my family can remember me being interested in anything else."
Those early childhood influences are part of the reason that Del Toro decided on a 1968 setting for Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark, the collection of classic, but kid-friendly, horror stories from the hit '90s books of the same name that he produced and Norwegian Andre Ovredal directed.
But there were also other practical and political reasons for setting events 50 years in the past. In addition to taking mobile phones and the internet out of the equation for storytelling purposes (how many classic horror scenes of the past could have been averted with a single phone call?), Del Toro believes that some of the social undercurrents - wars, protests, a controversial president - of the 1960s parallel current times.
And with a haunted book that brings its horrifying tales to life, Del Toro says the film's recurring theme of "stories hurt, stories heal, if we repeat them often enough they become true" is particularly relevant in the era of so-called fake news and politicians who stoke division, while being economical with the truth.
When he was presented with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last month alongside his horror heroes Boris Karloff, Lon Cheney and Alfred Hitchcock, he used the occasion to urge fellow immigrants to reject fear and division in the US.
He says he approached Scary Stories with a similar attitude, embracing diversity, unity and teamwork by casting a resourceful, intelligent female and a Mexican-American hero who is "very different from any Mexican/American kid you have seen in this type of movie" in the key roles.
"That is exactly the feeling behind it," he says.
"The idea behind is that we are now being told things that divide us - by nationality, by gender, by religion - and that is a very scary fact and that was very much behind what I thought thematically this movie had to put on the table."
Scary Stories director Ovredal says he never had a childhood experience as traumatic as Del Toro's but remembers his grandmother reading him Norwegian folk tales when he was young.
"I grew up in a house that was surrounded by forest and the feeling of trolls and creatures of my mythology being present all around me when walking through the forest from my house to my grandparents house was my scary moment," Ovredal says.
Indeed, it was his 2010 creature feature Trollhunter that put Ovredal well and truly on the Hollywood radar. Del Toro, who also made an animated Netflix series called Trollhunters, came in contact with Ovredal after admiring his first English language feature The Autopsy Of John Doe, and the pair bonded over their mutual love of horror.
"To be scared is a such a fun, engaging thing to feel," Ovredal says of the enduring appeal of the genre.
"It comes down to it being a very exciting emotion to be able to feel that you don't want to feel in your daily life. In a movie theatre you can actually feel that. It's also a communal experience, feeling it together with hundreds of people and I think that's why people are attracted to it."
Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark opens on Thursday.