Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Inquisition: Surreal Sci-Fi or Gothic Horror Story?

I've been in Spain about a month and already I've been to two Inquisition museums.  (Not by choice).

Now here's a little history lesson.  (If you don't care, scroll down for the writing part.  But keep in mind that history is one big epic story, so as writers, we can learn from it, and we should definitely appreciate it):

Spain is a very Catholic country, but it wasn't always.  In fact, it was controlled by Arabs from North Africa for almost 800 years, which meant that a large percentage of the population practiced Islam.  It influenced architecture, language, food, and more, and those influences are still around to this day.

At this point, Spain didn't exist.  It was a bunch of small kingdoms up until the 1400s, when one of historys' most famous couples got married:  Ferdinand II and Isabella I.  With their marriage, they united Castile and Aragon, two of the biggest kingdoms, and from there, set out to "reconquer" the kingdoms still controlled by the Arabs.  In 1492, the last Arab city (Granada) fell, and for the first time, Spain was united under one monarchy.

Yet Ferdinand and Isabella, nicknamed the Catholic Monarchs, sought to secure their new country with more than political unity.  They wanted religious unity, as well.  So they set up the Holy Office of the Inquisition to seek out falsos conversos, generally Muslims or Jews who claimed to have converted to Christianity, but still secretly practiced their original religion.

But the Inquisition was used for far more than that.  It was frequently an excuse for something else, like personal vengeance or commercial gain.

So how did the Inquisition work?

Enter Diego, a wealthy merchant.  His competitor, jealous of his success, informs the Holy Office of the Inquisition that he has reason to believe that Pablo is secretly practicing Judaism.  Why?  Because he never buys pork.  In reality, Diego just doesn't like pork.  (This is the case with Natalie Portman's character in the movie Goya's Ghosts).

He doesn't know why he has been summoned by the Holy Office, and when he shows up, the inquisitors don't tell him.  Not for awhile, anyway.  When they do, he tries to explain that it's a simple misunderstanding.  He's a very pious Catholic.  But the inquisitors have already confiscated his property, and they don't want to release him.

And here's where it gets gory.  In order to get Diego to confess that he is secretly Jewish, the inquisitors subject him to torture:  the rack, the wheel, etc.  They believed that a confession gained through torture was hard evidence of someone's guilt, because if they were innocent, God would give them the strength to withstand the pain.

Now let's say Diego caves.  Even though he isn't Jewish, he tells them he is.  OK, so enough with the torture, but now he's stuck in a tiny dungeon cell until it's time for his public auto de fe, a trial that most often resulted in public humiliation, but could also end in punishment as severe as burning at the stake.

Now onto writing.

Since being in Spain, I've visited two Inquisition museums.  To my surprise, they were completely different, though they both told the exact same story.

Gothic Horror

The first one we visited while in Córdoba, a city about an hour from Sevilla.  It was a small museum, situated on a tiny street, with only about five rooms; but by the end of it, we all felt a little nauseous.

Why?  You can probably guess.

This museum focused heavily on torture, and it had on display dozens of different devices.  (Yup, we asked.  Not recreations.  That was an authentic guillotine I tripped on.)  Lining the walls were drawings from the time period that showed the devices at work.  Honestly, these were the most disturbing part.

Notice the "Do Not Touch" sign.  "Do not put your hand in the spiky wardrobe!"
Then there was the atmosphere.  To enter and exit the exhibit, you had to pass through black veils that hung over the doors.  Once inside, the lights were dim, giving the rooms an eerie reddish glow.  They were small rooms, too, perfectly square, with very low ceilings.  There was no background music, no television screens.  Not even a guard to keep you grounded in the present.  Just you, your friends, and the Iron Maiden.

Overall tone of this museum?  The Inquisition was dark.  Scary.  Bloody.  Nothing short of a gothic horror story.
Notice the red light and the chandelier in the background.  Both set the mood:  dark and scary.
(Sidenote:  I tripped on this thing.  Thank goodness it wasn't on something with spikes, though.   Nothing was behind glass, or even roped off, so if you tripped and fell onto the Judas Chair, sucks for you.)

Surreal Sci-Fi

The second museum was in Sevilla.  It's located in what's left of the Castillo de San Jorge, which used to house the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Sevilla.  So this is the real deal.  Where it happened.

Kind of dreamlike, right?
But what happened?

Unlike the museum in Córdoba, this one housed very few artifacts.  Almost none.  Instead, this museum utilized video to emphasize the mental and emotional components of the Inquisition.  And not the kind of video you'd expect, either.  These were surrealist clips, no more than a few minutes long.  What do I mean by surrealist?  Well, one showed a naked man in a fetal position, floating in a black void.  A bunch of different angles, close-ups, etc., until finally he grew smaller, and smaller, and smaller…

Nope, there was no plaque with an explanation.  No words at all.

The other part of the museum focused on spaces.  Here's where the stables were, and here was the kitchen, and here were the cells.  No complete walls remain, so they're just spaces marked by walls that are two feet high.  There is nothing in these spaces, either.  They're a hundred percent empty, and dare I say it?  Yes, walking through them was somewhat surreal.

Notice the lighted boardwalks.  Almost futuristic.
Now for the atmosphere.  Lots of television screens with strange videos.  Lots of glass, including a glass ceiling.  A lighted boardwalk that went over the ruins.  Huge spacious rooms that allowed for an echo.

As I toured the museum, I felt like I was floating through a dream; or better yet, a surrealist painting like Dali's The Persistence of Memory.  Very strange.

Overall tone?  The Inquisition was bizarre.  Kind of like a surreal sci-fi story.

So which is correct?  Which is better?

Is the fake skeleton really necessary?
No, but it's all part of the genre.
Like a horror writer, the museum is
trying to create a certain atmosphere.
Well, they're both correct, that's for sure.  They tell the same story.  Same setting, same characters, same plot.  The big difference is the genre, which sets the tone:  the content, combined with the dim lighting, of the museum in Córdoba pinned the Inquisition as a gothic horror.  But based only on the museum at the Castillo de San Jorge, I'd file it as sci-fi, or maybe magical realism.  Very different genres.  Very different messages.

Is one better than the other?  Well, let's see.

As writers, we have to be aware of our genre and the expectations that go along with it.  What mood are we trying to convey?  When is it a good idea to combine genres?  And if we want to do that, how can we do it well?

The best way to figure that out is to read books within your genre.  Lots of books.  And as you read, pay attention to the tone.  Is this the tone you want for your story?  Does it work well?  Or will something else work better?  Make your story stand out?

All in all, it depends on your focus.  The museum in Córdoba focused on torture, and the physical horrors of the Inquisition; but the museum in Sevilla wanted to explore the mental and emotional side, so it sought to create a hazy dreamlike atmosphere that left its visitors a little confused, a little shocked, but with a better understanding the quiet chaos and perpetual fear that went along with the Spanish Inquisition.

Same story, different messages.  Is one better than the other?  That's for the visitor to decide.

Combining Genres

So what if these two museums were combined?

Surreal Sci-Fi + Gothic Horror = ?

Well, I'm not sure there's a name for the result, but when I first thought about this question, my mind immediately went to the movie Pan's Labyrinth.  If you've never seen Pan's Labyrinth, you should.  It's a fantastic movie set during the Spanish Civil War, and it combines the above elements.  (OK, so fantasy instead of sci-fi, if we're going to be nitpicky.)  The blend of genres works perfectly for this movie.  The dark fantasy elements express the characters' fear, and their attempts at coping with the horror and violence of the period.

In Summary

Know your genre.  Know your tone.  Know your message.

And perhaps most importantly, don't be afraid to experiment.  Maybe write a few pages intending it to be in one genre, then try in another.  Heck, I wrote half a book as a YA paranormal retelling, only to then try writing a few chapters of the same story as a MG fantasy adventure.  Very different tones, very different messages.  (Ultimately, I went with the MG fantasy adventure.)

Whew, this is a long post! 

Your thoughts?  Are you familiar with two versions of the same story with very different tones?  What are they?  Which do you like better, and why?


  1. enjoy the trip!!! I studied in Seville for a year when I was in college, soaked up a ton of the history and history of the language. have a glass of fino for the rest of us.

    1. Thanks Kurt! I'll certainly have that vino. Any recommendations for must-see sights in Spain? Unfortunately, I'm not here for a whole year, but I still have four months before I've gotta go back to reality.

  2. It is like an armchair vacation, albeit a somewhat macabre one. Thanks for sharing. Really enjoying the tour.