2017’s Verónica, directed by Paco Plaza (REC) and co-written by Plaza and Fernando Navarro, is a Spanish horror film that has become the victim of its own marketing, facing backlash from many viewers who felt that its scares fell short of the extravagant terrors that they had been promised. Ostensibly based on true events, the film follows the story of Verónica, a young woman whose family life is anything but tranquil. Following the loss of her father, Verónica is forced to take on the involuntary role of surrogate parent to her three young siblings while her mother works long shifts at a local cafe to support the family. After an ill-fated bout with a ouija board in which she attempts to make contact with her father, Verónica and her younger siblings seem to be stalked by a terrifying paranormal presence in their home.
Taken at face-value, the film could be seen as nothing more than a competently produced supernatural thriller, one that falls short of the hyped-up promises of its scare-centred marketing campaign. But throughout the film, there are layers of nuance that complicate the simple, straightforward narrative. When pieced together, these clues deepen the horror to an uncomfortable degree. Stylish and satisfying, Verónica is steeped in rich symbolism and disturbing imagery that hints toward a far darker subtext.
Verónica is the primary caregiver of her siblings, as her mother works full-time to support the family in the wake of her husband’s death. Verónica essentially takes her mother’s place as the head of the household, compelled to grow up too quickly. The film is a sensitively-wrought coming-of-age story and family drama wrapped up in paranormal horror, but I think that it also lends itself to another, more sinister, interpretation.
There’s a case to be made that Verónica is a survivor of physical and sexual abuse.
Verónica: “You’re never home. You don’t know what goes on here.”
Her mother: “So, what goes on here?”
Verónica: “He wants to hurt us.”
When Verónica is first haunted by the spectre taking the shape of her father, he is naked and approaching her in her bedroom. The unexpected nudity and incest taboo render the scene both shocking and revolting. As her father approaches her bed, a terrified Verónica is suddenly overpowered and pinned to her bed by demonic hands, which roughly take hold of her body and will not let go. Is this simply a horror movie scare designed to elicit the maximum shock value, or could it be interpreted as a psychic echo; a flashback or allusion to an earlier incident during which she felt powerless, violated, and robbed of her bodily autonomy? Is it a coincidence that so much of the tangible physical evidence of the haunting is connected with the beds of the children? Even the chronic bed-wetting of the youngest child, Antoñito, is often a strong indication of child sexual abuse.
In another harrowing sequence, Verónica gets her first period after waking up from a nightmare about being eaten alive by her family. When attempting to clean her bed, she finds large, corrosive stains on the underside of her mattress — stains that are matched by similar marks on the mattresses of her siblings. These stains are not composed of blood, but of some supernatural substance that eats away at the physical objects it touches. Could the stains be a metaphor for the trauma experienced at these sites? A physical manifestation of psychic shame? Speaking of physical signs, Verónica’s body also displays wounds which seem to have no rational explanation, and are interpreted by another character as being self-inflicted (another possible sign of sexual abuse).
There are a number of sequences or shots in the film that use mirrors, doubles, or camera tricks to imply a psychological split or crisis affecting Verónica. In a scene earlier on in the film, Verónica enters into what seems like a fugue state while eating a meatball dinner with her siblings. She appears to dissociate as the meatball is perched on a fork halfway to her mouth. She becomes non-communicative, sitting nearly frozen, and staring blankly ahead. Against seemingly great resistance, her arm fights to move her fork towards her mouth. When the meatball eventually finds its way between her lips, her trance breaks; she hurriedly spits the meatball back onto her plate, to the surprise and concern of her siblings, her chin covered with red tomato sauce. If we were in the mood to psychoanalyze, I think there is a lot to be said about the symbolism of this scene; the resistance and rejection, the penetration and bloody expulsion.
Verónica: “Whatever you don’t say goodbye to, stays with you.”
People who live through abuse in childhood often grow up to either become the perpetrators of abuse within their own homes or communities, or enter into relationships in adulthood wherein they suffer further victimization. The haunting can be interpreted as a vital metaphor for the intergenerational transmission of violence. The idea of intergenerational transmission of violence (which can occur between parent and child, but also between siblings) is explored several times during the course of the film. During one sequence at the midway point, Verónica finds herself unable to move as she watches a shadowy hand move over the body of her sleeping sister, only to wind up with her own hands gripping the young girl’s neck as she screams. When Verónica claims that someone else was there and responsible for the attack, the sister insists that no one else was in the room.
When Verónica seeks help from a nun regarding her supernatural visitor, she is told that she must return to the ouija board and say goodbye to the spirit. But she is unable to do so alone. It is significant that, in order to attempt to expel the evil from their home, the siblings must work together. The disruption and violence that plagues their home life cannot be healed without the cooperation of all of those who have been affected.
The cycle of violence is most transparently referenced during the climax of the film, when the film strongly suggests that the violence acted upon the three younger siblings has been perpetrated by Verónica herself. Was she compelled to commit these acts because of the influence of a supernatural spirit, or was she instead enacting the same violence upon her siblings that she herself had been victim to? The film is ambiguous on this point, yet offers more than enough tantalizing clues to encourage further discussion. So, let’s talk.