Pan’s Labyrinth of coping mechanisms

Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW17) brings with it anecdotes, admissions, well-wishes, and life-saving information. A communal spirit and heightened awareness does, for at least a week, attempt to make those with mental health issues feel less alone, and more equipped for the future. Sharing the in’s and out’s of your head isn’t for everyone – regardless of the state of your mental health – though that doesn’t mean there aren’t stories to be told.

I was reclusive and 16 when I saw Pan’s Labyrinth. I didn’t do much for my birthday that year; the outside and other people crippled me, but even at the best of times I’m a low-key reveler. A new DVD at midnight and pajamas was an ideal way of celebrating.

Diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I had pills and a person to share my worries with. A doctor asked me intrusive questions about my home life, looking for where it all went wrong, when actually that was the one thing that was fine.

At home, I had access to books, videogames, music, and films (not to mention loving parents). Harry Potter and His Dark Materials were a revelation; Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts were the grandest adventures I’d ever go on; Nightwish saved and changed my life; Pan’s Labyrinth told me it was okay to live this way.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, the young Ofelia escapes the terrible realities of life (war, her mother’s ill health, her stepfather’s tyranny) through fantasy tales. She read before arriving at her new home, but the stories become evermore vivid as the horror around her amplifies.

Led to a dilapidated maze on the house’s grounds by a fairy, she meets a nameless faun (Pan’s Labyrinth’s original title, El laberinto del fauno, doesn’t give him a name). In stark contrast to the hopelessness around her, he tells Ofelia she’s in actual fact a princess of the underworld. She’s far from home, and upon completion of three tasks, he will help her return.

Ofelia’s reality is unbearable, but she commits herself to restoring a tree, retrieving a dagger, and an initially unexplained third task. By having something for her mind to work on, she copes with the bloodshed and abuse around her.

Her mother is thankful for what her stepfather, Vidal, provides, but is wholly submissive to his standards, which she tries to inflict upon Ofelia. The faun’s quest gives Ofelia a fearlessness – where first she was quiet and inquisitive, she begins exploring and snooping. She puts herself in harm’s way because she’s been empowered by a purpose that makes sense to her. Instead of bowing to Vidal’s dominance, she’s been given what she needs to make sense of his actions, oppose them, and escape them.

Even when things go wrong – Ofelia’s greed awakens The Pale Man – there’s an Alice in Wonderland-like thrill. After a grotesque child-eating monster chases her through his lair, she doesn’t reconsider what she’s signed up for. It’s a misstep with gruesome consequences, which the faun punishes her for, but her drive is unfaltering. She has an escapist’s purpose.

Retreating into myself became a self-fulfilling prophecy: as I physically withdrew from my peers and the outdoors, I felt mentally defeated because I had turned to fiction. That sense of defeat fueled my depression, resulting in a combination of worthlessness and fear.

But here was Ofelia, someone you root for. She’s undoubtedly strong and sure of herself, even if it’s quietly so. She clearly has a moral compass, and the faun’s information energises her in a way that makes sense to her (she doesn’t care for a new dress, but this expansive new world is the type of excitement she identifies with).

I imagined, in my situation, Ofelia would have coped much the same way I did. The art I engaged with was life, to me. The outdoors may have been a no-go, but what I was doing indoors was actually a thrill. My books, my music, my videogames, my films – I was learning and experiencing life the way I wanted to, completely on my terms.

Even if I was physically retreating into myself, I didn’t have to be ashamed for doing so mentally, because I wasn’t. Pan’s Labyrinth is all about contrasts – Ofelia’s story is juxtaposed with her stepfather’s, and also the kindhearted housekeeper Mercedes. As Vidal and Mercedes are warring on the surface, Ofelia is introverted and off doing something completely different. Vidal doesn’t understand her interests and doesn’t care for them, while Mercedes unconditionally loves her.

My world wasn’t a civil war, but the major disconnect between Ophelia and Vidal made sense to me. If she is me, then he is the outside world that I hadn’t found my peace with yet, nor found my Mercedes in. Ophelia isn’t empowered to the point of sneaking around Vidal’s office at the start of the film, but she is by the end of it. She does’t become a different person, but she begins to find a part of the world that makes her feel less alone, and that gives her the tools she needs to bite back in her own way.

Ofelia doesn’t change, and that’s what struck me most. Something touches her on a level that the rest of the world isn’t able to, and that motivates her to push past her usual boundaries. That something was a part of her world she had already been indulging in – the fantastical – so she felt capable and equipped to the faun’s tasks on. The faun tells her a story, when up until now she’s been telling stories to herself.

That’s Pan’s Labyrinth to me. It made me feel okay about struggling with the outside world, and proud of what kept me going in my home life. Ofelia faced monsters, both literal and fantastical, because of an introverted sense of curiosity and wonder, and she made me believe that by immersing myself in similar art, as I was doing already, then I’d be able to face my monsters too. Not only that, but that the world had as many Mercedes as it does Vidals, and they’re waiting to love and embrace you.

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