There’s Blood on My Comics! is a bi-weekly horror column about how our comics make us afraid of turning to the other page. But it doesn’t stop there! Oh no, it doesn’t. Each horror comic will be paired with a horror movie that shares a similar approach in getting those blood-curling screams out of us. It’s like pairing fine wines with perfectly cooked meals, or Blood Cocktails with sacrificial goat cheeses. This week: Gasolina and Tigers Are Not Afraid. Enjoy!
Confronting horror with horror is a difficult thing. The genre itself is known for looking inwards, into the dark corners of the human psyche. Monsters come out of the shadows as terrifying metaphors for anxiety, depression, fear of living or dying, and many other things that ail the human spirit. But when that horror looks outward, into the outside world, and simply finds horror staring back, then the whole dynamic changes. This is the case with horror stories concerned with narco violence and the ugliness it brings to whole countries entrenched in drug wars. Image Comics’ Gasolina and Issa López’s movie Tigers Are Not Afriad (2017, Vuelven in its original Spanish title) stand as two of the most interesting and hard-hitting examples of this type of horror, which I will refer to as narco-horror.
The stories I will discuss take place in Mexico, whose government is currently struggling to establish a narrative about narco violence decreasing nationwide. The numbers, though, tell a different story. According to the BBC, Mexico’s drug war—launched by the government in 2006—has exponentially escalated in lethality year by year. In 2018, Mexican authorities were reported to have opened more than 33,000 murder investigations. Official figures put Mexico’s current murder rate on a steady climb, seeing a 9.6% increase in the first three months of 2019 alone when compared with that of 2018’s.
But the numbers are just one part of the story. They do their job in expressing how deadly Mexico is, especially since drug-related violence has spilled over from the cities and spread throughout the country. There’s horror behind those numbers, and what they dig a hole into is what’s truly scary. This is where narco-horror starts taking form.
I consider Narco-horror to be a different style of storytelling that opts to populate its worlds with monsters and vengeful spirits that are either bred from narco violence or are a reaction to it. It adds layers of horror on pre-existing horrors, monsters on top of narcos. Although, the main monster position will almost always belong to the narco.
Sean Mackiewicz’s and Nico Walter’s Gasolina, for instance, looks at the effect narco violence has on a family’s and a community’s sense of security, where narcos become religious-like figures that use flesh-eating monsters that take residence inside human bodies to get a leg up in the ongoing cartel wars. Tigers Are Not Afraid on the other hand turns to children that have been made orphans by that same type of violence and then conjures up some truly vengeful spirits to haunt them. The effect is one that stacks horror to heighten real-life horrors. As a result, you get a deadly stare-down between different strands of horror that are cut from the same cloth, both real and imagined. It’s a very terrifying thing to consider.
This is no place for kids
Gasolina and Tigers Are Not Afraid want readers to know what life in the middle of a drug war looks like. Gasolina follows Amalia and Randy, a couple that has had to take more than a few extreme measures to survive. They are quickly put into a situation that requires they become leaders of a sort as narcos have taken to worshipping and unleashing bug-like monstrosities against their enemies.
Tigers Are Not Afraid follows a group of small children left orphaned by Mexico’s drug wars. They navigate a city haunted by the ghosts of narco victims. It more closely follows the character of Estrella, a girl that is granted three wishes just as her mother disappears, presumably taken by narcos. She meets another group of kids, led by a boy called El Shine, who stick together to survive the streets they have been forced to call home. All throughout, Estrella is followed by the ghost of her mother. It’s a dark fairy tale that might show hints of The Goonies (1985) in it but is entirely the opposite. In any case, it’s as anti-Goonies as they come. It has more in common with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) that it does with 1980s kids horror movies. It’s raw and excruciatingly honest.
Gasolina and Tigers Are Not Afraid begin their descent into narco-horror by doing some intricate world-building and then drenching it blood and decay. Gasolina puts us in Veracruz, Mexico, amidst bright colors and clear sights, even in night sequences. We get to see everything. This level of visual exposure helps Mackiewicz and Walter install a sense of constant danger in every page and every panel of the story. When there’s a hint of something scary obscured by shadows in one panel you can be sure you’ll see it in all its sinister glory in the following ones.
Serene locations such as farmlands and lively street markets are set up as potential horror scenes, which they eventually turn into, and are made to feel unsafe from the beginning. Images likes that of a remote warehouse burning in the middle of the night surrounded by sugar cane fields are effective in building a world where safety as an idea has been missing in action for quite some time.
The story benefits from this visual style as it makes each of its narrative elements stick together. Blood is plentiful and not shied away from but it never veers into gratuitous territory. It has a very measured approach to violence, favoring a kind of realism over B-movie splashes of blood and gore. That each setting feels so unsafe gives the comic a very post-apocalyptic feel. Everything looks hopeless and unlivable. It’s all governed by danger, as if Veracruz itself was out to kill you.
Tigers Are Not Afraid shares in this post-apocalyptic approach. Its city is a reflection of the violence it enables. Buildings look rotten, streets are littered with trash, and every dark corner either houses a ghost or a narco. Which is scarier is up to the reader. Tigers doesn’t keep everything hidden away in shadows either. We get our fare share of horrors in plain sight, with the city’s surroundings acting as its own kind of monster.
The idea of orphaned kids running around the movie’s city adds a whole new layer horror as, like Gasolina, it feels unlivable. It feels purposefully made to be unlivable, that is. The city has transformed into a place for wicked men. It’s become their natural habitat. The kids’ chances of survival dwindle down by the minute and the architecture, the geography of the city, descends upon them to let them know they are no longer welcome there.
The reasons behind the city’s decay, or the sugar cane fields and smaller towns in the case of Gasolina, are never much of a mystery. These places are were made into living hells because of narcos and their insatiable desire for territorial control. This environmental aspect sets the stage for narco-horror and frames it as all-encompassing. Whatever it touches it corrupts and it brings monsters with them.
The cruel hauntings of the narco world
Narco-horror steps into the world of ghouls, ghosts, and monsters already carrying a monster of their own. That monster is the narco, the leader of the drug organization that has turned Mexican cities and towns into their own dark kingdoms. This monster meets the quota for blood and terror set by fictional monsters and is a unique source of horror that tends to require little to no prosthetics. And this isn’t a stand in for the classic 80’s slasher or the disturbed serial killer. The narco is a death dealer. They have more in common with Hellraiser’s Pinhead than they do with Halloween’s Michael Meyers.
Gasolina’s narco is a somber man with upside down crosses tattooed on his eyes. He is the leader of the Los Queridos cartel and his underlings treat him as a spiritual leader, the chosen servant of La Querida, who we only see statues of (a dark angelic figure with a skull head that’s holding a book in one hand and a scythe on the other).
This narco carries himself like an enlightened being that must spread the gospel of La Querida. Spreading that gospel requires offering sacrifices to bug-like creatures that burrow inside human bodies, sometimes growing and guiding its host to satiate its hunger. Gasolina’s main characters are thrust into a situation where a particular loved one ends up being one such host.
Los Queridos embody a form of black magic and it puts them in death cult territory, with the lead narco acting as one of the story’s main monsters. He has some control or communication with the bug monsters, but his willingness to oblige them with human lives is where we find the overlap between real-life horrors and fictional ones. The narco produces the monsters. He then uses them to take over the other cartels and reign supreme. Real-life horror meets fictional horror.
Narco-horror is hierarchical. Real horror sits at the throne. Monsters and ghosts come second. They don’t exist without the narcos. Tigers Are Not Afraid knows this very well and keeps it present at all times to create its narco monsters, El Caco and Servando “El Chino” Esparza (a politician that represents Mexico’s history with narco politics).
El Caco is the one responsible for kidnapping Estrella’s mom, the girl who possesses the three wishes. This narco has a reputation on the streets, one of the group of kids knows all too well. He’s referred to as a ‘narco-satánico,’ a narco who has made a deal with the devil. One of the kids, Shine, says ‘narco-satánicos’ kidnap and sell children for body parts and for use in ritual sacrifices. We don’t get sequences involving this horror element in particular, but we do get scenes of children trapped in cages in the house of El Caco.
With this ‘narco-satánico’ idea already set up, the movie establishes the narco as the main supplier of horror. This mix of narcos and satanism is also rooted in the real-world, as narcos have a track record of not only being sadistic in their violence but also superstitious. While the topic requires further investigation, there are reports of narcos resorting to ritualistic violence to inspire fear in a very crowded cartel environment. The movie takes this element a step further to envelop the kids’ experiences with the supernatural.
El Chino, the true face of power in the movie’s narco world, is the man responsible for the presence of vengeful spirits on Mexico’s streets. The ghosts we see in the movie, that appear to Estrella to ask for help, are all victims of narco violence. They are bloody apparitions wrapped up in clear plastic, which is El Chino’s preferred method of disposal. They carry their deaths on their ghostly bodies and are a constant reminder of what living in a narco state means for those who are left behind after the tragic death of a loved one.
We’re not allowed to forget that these ghosts are here to exact their revenge on El Chino. He’s the reason they’ve refused to move on. The narco creates the horror that haunts both him and those living in the shadow of Mexico’s drug war. What we end up with is a brutal confirmation that narco-horror’s supernatural beings are not the primary source of fear. That position belongs to the narcos. And what makes them so profoundly terrifying is that they are real. They are outside the movie theater, able to corrupt the community your live in, and indiscriminate in their killings, with kids being fair game in the process.
Horror fights horror
The reality of narco-horror hits close to home for many. It’s not just an idea or a different take on the horror genre. It’s a real problem. There’s little choice in the matter when trying to consider real-life narco stories as anything other than horror. It’s the language that best communicates what it means to live under the threat of relentless violence at a national scale. It considers nothing to be out of bounds. Not innocent people, not kids, and not even entire families. Nothing is sacred. It’s all horror.
Try watching Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) as a horror movie and you’ll be hard-pressed to think it’s anything other than that. The scene where the federal agents go into a house that hides the bodies of people killed by narcos behind its walls is quite simply chilling and unsettling. The same thing happens with Justin Jordan’s and Raúl Treviño’s comic Sombra, about a DEA agent that is taking out cartel members in obscenely violent ways by matching their violence with more extreme violence. In here we see narcos inspiring sadistic vigilantism, where people embrace their inner monsters to fight cartels and drug pushers.
Gasolina creates monsters that kill indiscriminately, which are sought by narcos looking to extend their reach in Mexico’s drug industry. Tigers Are Not Afraid looks to ghosts as vengeful horrors that want to play at the same level of violence as the narcos that killed them. When life is horrifying enough, these are the stories we craft to make sense of them. But what’s unsettling about narco-horror is that it has to dig quite deep with its fiction to come up with something that’s as terrifying as living in a narco world. Very few things are as uniquely terrifying as that.