Guillermo del Toro's 2001 Spanish-language film The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story wherein ghosts get precious little screen time. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, it features an orphanage with an undetonated bomb lodged in its courtyard; a fractious group of pre-adolescents constantly jockeying for position; a lovelorn administrator unable to secure the affection for which he longs; and a bitter laborer with a lust for wealth and frighteningly few scruples. Oh, yes, and there's also an unquiet spirit, but it disappears (no pun intended) for long stretches of the narrative.
You know what? That works pretty well. The Devil's Backbone understands that horror isn't ultimately about the monster. For it, greed, war, injustice and the slow fading of youthful vigor are the true terrors. The ghost serves the purpose of highlighting these themes. That's what the best horror does: It uses scary stuff to turn the focus to weightier matters such as the insidious nature of paranoia (John Carpenter's The Thing), the beauty of family and civilization (28 Days Later), and every individual's innate need for redemption (The Addiction).
Of course, many other works keep the focus squarely on the things that lurk in the shadows. The Ring fixated on its spooky young drowning victim, entirely glossing over its terrible conclusion that that perpetuating violence is justifiable if it keeps one's family safe. Cabin Fever obliquely dealt with whether or not forced quarantine is just, but mainly reveled in all the lovely things flesh-eating bacteria can do to the human body. And the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises simply went straight for titillation with their scores of butchered coeds.
What's the difference between the two camps? Well, for me memorability is a big one. I can scarcely recall much of anything about the second set except a vague sense of boredom or disgust. So is a filmmaker's desire to tackle the stuff of real life. The first set tries to deal with universal human experience. Sure, its movies contain spooky set pieces and malicious monsters. But their creators are smart enough to know that such genre trappings are a story's spice, not its substance.
(Picture: CC 2008 by kevin dooley)