While we were talking to Guillermo del Toro about his latest horror creation Mama, the monster-maker started telling us about his real-life experiences with the paranormal. Turns out del Toro has had two separate paranormal experiences. Read the whole story, straight from the source, in our exclusive interview.
Plus find out what's happening with Mountains of Madness — it might not be dead yet!
Do you read a lot of real-life paranormal testimonials, and where do you go to find them?
I have an incredibly extensive library, because I've been into this sort of thing since I was a kid. I've had very few paranormal experiences. I've never seen a ghost, but in two instances I heard a ghost. All my life, I've stayed in the haunted room in the haunted hotel, everywhere I travel. I've stayed in deserted houses. It's one of the biggest endeavors of the human mind: to find out what happens after death. I have read a lot, and I have pretty early manuscripts or texts from the 1700s which describe a lot of supernatural situations.
How old were you when you had your paranormal experiences?
I was about 11 or 12 the first time. And I was 45 the second time. Nothing in between.
You heard ghosts. What do ghosts sound like, did they say anything to you?
Well, the first time I was in a room that I had inherited. My uncle had passed away, and the house that we lived in had a guest room. My uncle passed away, and my brother turned 15 or 16, and he wanted me out of his room. So my mother gave me the guest room where my uncle had lived in when he was alive.
[My uncle] and I made a deal, because he was one of the earliest influences for me we talked about the paranormal and the supernatural and all that. He said to me that if and when he died, he would come back and let me know if there's anything else. So it was a couple years after he had died. I was not thinking about it, I was doing my homework, the TV was on. And then I started hearing a voice, a human voice breathing and sighing really close to my ear. Really sad, long sighs filled with sorrow. I didn't panic. Strangely enough, I started trying to logically figure out where the sound was coming from, and what it was. As I moved around the room, I noticed that the voice basically walked next to me. This happened for about five minutes. The last few seconds that I recognized the voice as my Uncle's. And then I ran out of the room. That was the first time.
The second time [was] in New Zealand, scouting for The Hobbit. We went to a place called Waitomo, which is really famous for its worm caves. So I looked it up and I knew from my research that there was a haunted hotel with a haunted room. The hotel was empty, because it was off season. So this huge 1800s hotel was completely empty except for the eight people who were in my film scout party. We arrived and everybody went to a different room in the hotel and I specifically asked for the haunted hotel room.
They gave me the key, and nothing happened until around — talk about cliche — midnight. Around midnight, I started hearing a woman screaming horribly, like she was being murdered. And once again I didn't panic. I thought one of the guys or girls on the crew was pulling my leg. So I didn't get scared and I started to track the voice. The voice was coming from the ventillation chute that went directly to the basement. That's when I got a little creeped out, but I didn't leave the room. The voice eventually stopped but then 5 minutes later I started hearing the most heartbreaking, loud, loud bawling from a male voice. Full of regret and sorrow. It was coming from the same place.
That was when I freaked out. I put on my headphones and watched the entire season of The Wire that I was carrying with me. I opened my macbook and put on my headphones because I had to stay in the room, the hotel was empty. Everyone had left for the night, including the manager. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't get a new room. I didn't sleep a single second.
What was the importance of the "unfit parent" theme throughout Mama?
From the beginning, we wanted to make a movie about the essence of motherhood. What is so scary about it? Which is sort of the blind possessiveness. That's very scary. On the other hand, there's the selflessness. And at the center of the movie, those two themes struggle with each other in Jessica and Mama.
Why are fathers in horror movies always so dopey? They often feel like he last person to pick up on things. This happens with the brother in Mama and the father inPoltergeist and Insidious are two other examples that spring to mind. It always seem like the men are the last people to pick up on it.
It's curious because actually — and I'm not saying that Mama is grounded in fact — but when horror occurs within the house, in the heart of a family. Whether it's in fiction or in real life, when you talk about anyone having a paranormal experience, the fact is the Mother catches on to it faster and smarter than the males. If you read testimonials on paranormal cases, the husband is often away at work, coming home late or leaving early. The guy is not used to a haunting. And that is absolutely true with Poltergeist and the ultimate absent father movie The Exorcist. The nucleus of the house often resides within the female of the house.
Did the studio ever pressure you to change the ending of Mama?
The producers and the director, we were always obsessing about how difficult it was going to be to get [the ending] though. We all got ready for a big battle, but Universal saw the movie and they simply said, "We love it, exactly as it is, we don't want to change it." I wish I had another tale of trouble, but the partnership with Universal in this movie has been absolutely amazing.
A lot of the monsters that you help to create like in Mama, the Hellboy movies and Pan's Labyrinth, they all seem to be grounded in nature. What's your connection between nature and monsters?
I think that the most outlandish creatures ever conceived are conceived by nature. The deep sea fishes, the sea cucumber, the vampire octopus, insects, so many species that if you invented them, they would be too outlandish. There are creatures in nature that have 16 eyes, white blood, they have a body that can squeeze through an opening ten sizes smaller [than their own body]. It's really amazing how inspirational nature can be for the design of the creature. Ultimately designing the creature, you have to imagine it as a whole character. One single glimpse tells you a lot about it the creature. It's like when someone dresses up to go out at night, to a fancy dinner, everyone is dressing to look the best. The creatures look exactly like what they are. A lion looks majestic when he's in repose, but looks scary when he's attacking. I think a lot of creators make the mistake of designing a creature to be scary for scary's sake, and not make it part of the storytelling.
We talked about this property before, and I know you're a fan, so what do you think Warner Bros. should going to do with Akira?
I don't know, that's a tough one for me. I think it already exists in its ideal form. [Katsuhiro] Otomo made the manga into a sprawling, giant epic. And the way he synthesized that manga into the anime movie is perfect. It has the perfect mixture of whimsy, horror and it's humanistic. So it's really hard for me to advise anyone on what to do on what may be the Citizen Kane of anime movies.
That's a good way to put it, would you ever want to direct it?
No, not at all.
Last year you said you that you weren't going to make Mountains of Madness because Prometheus had very similar themes, among other reasons. Do you still believe that? Do you think you could maybe make a cheaper Mountains of Madness?
I would like to do Mountains, because I think that ultimately Prometheus tackled the same subjects, but when I saw the movie I think they tackled them as part of such a wide variety of themes and ideas that really there's no risk. I'm happy to say I will still pursue it. But I think that Mountains can not be a cheap movie, simple because it's about the scale. It's about humans discovering a city so vast, so ancient, so mind bogglingly complex in the cave that it needs that kind of scope for the cosmic fervor for the fact that mankind was created as kind of a joke.