Mild Spoilers for Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth
Of all the sins, gluttony is the only one we truly commit against ourselves, where the implications of the sin are seen in the sinner. There is a visceral image to gluttony, which itself derives from the old French word “gluton” meaning wolverine—teeth glistening with spittle, jaw agape, tongue flailing. There’s a biting irony in this. We—a species that has done irreparable damage to an entire planet with our own gluttony—metamorphosed the image of gluttony into an animalistic farce. It is a potent vehicle for horror because it allows us to empathise with and fear its consequences while assigning the blame to others.
Spirited Away, a movie from my childhood which I am still scared to watch to this day, features one of the most subversive and horrific representations of gluttony in film. Chihiro, the ten year old protagonist, is moving with her parents to a new home when they accidentally take a wrong turn that leads to an abandoned amusement park. While exploring the area, her parents stumble upon an empty restaurant filled with food (think pintxo bar in San Sebastian)—and they eat.
They eat, and they eat. Chihiro wanders off, and (I’m editorialising to not reveal too much of the plot) when she returns her parents have morphed into snarling adult pigs; snouts covered in drool, chewed up food falling at their feet.
The scene is so effective in its horror because the image of raptorial pigs is terrifying enough in its own right. However, Hayao Miyazaki (the director) also uses gluttony as a precise metaphor for the permeation of Western materialism in post-war Japanese society at the turn of the 21st century. Chihiro’s westernized parents, from their imported car to their European-style dress, stand in stark contrast with the aesthetics of the rest of the film, which draw on traditional Japanese influences. The gluttony in the earlier scenes serves as a thesis from which the rest of the film will draw on—the sly encroachment of capitalism, maximalism and consumerism welcomed with open arms by metaphorical pigs.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia, 10 years old and terrified in a hostile military camp ruled by her tyrannical new stepfather, ventures into the lair of the Pale Man to retrieve a magical dagger (again, I am editorialising the lore and story line a bit). When elements of gluttony are matched with unlikely suspects, the jarring disorientation that ensues provides another avenue for horror. A feast awaits her; platters of roast turkey and delectable dishes cast shadows in a dank stone room. At the head of the table, in front of a crackling fireplace, sits the monster itself; a famed child-eater staring into a plate empty except for two eyeballs—its own.
In a movie filled with the devastating misery of war, the scene with the Pale Man stands out. Ofelia had been instructed by a magical faun to not eat anything, but, in a moment of weakness, she gives into the banquet and begins to eat. The elements of horror in this scene are exaggerated and precise—the Pale Man absorbs the eyeballs into his hands, fanning out his digits into a ragged mane framing his face. Ofelia escapes miraculously but not without the Pale Man capturing a few of the fairies who accompanied her and eating them whole.
It is difficult to understand or sympathise with Ofelia’s actions in this scene—why could she not just retrieve the dagger and leave? The years of nightmares that followed accidentally watching this scene as a 5-year old seem particularly unnecessary when I found out that she personally awoke the Pale Man and brought the scene upon herself. This contributes to the slightly outlandish terror of this scene—it was completely avoidable.
The villainisation of gluttony logically accompanies our fatphobic society, where food can be either celebrated or vilified depending on the body consuming it. The discourse around bodies—what’s beautiful, what’s not—have created the myth of “good” and “bad” figures under the guise of health and wellness. Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, used this internal bias when designing the Pale Man’s appearance, whose flabby, pale skin was inspired by the excess of skin tissue after dramatic weight loss.
For filmmakers, gluttony is a useful technique for horror because there is no end to the dramatic imagery to which it is associated—bigger bodies, snarling animals, or a combination of both projected onto mythical monsters. It is the subversion of safe spaces—food, which is typically shared with family and friends—into sinister overarching evils that makes its usage all the more unnerving. The nightmarish landscape of food production, with billions of animals destined for blood-soaked slaughterhouses, is deeply entrenched in the modern globalist hellscape we live in. Filmmakers are able to tap into this modern horror, and use it with deft storytelling to craft and weld fear.