There are spoilers ahead, so put away the wax cylinders if you don’t want to hear all of the secrets.
Ghosts can be of the mind and they can be of the world. Crimson Peak shows this in incredible detail through its setting and character. This is a ghost story that is all about how ghosts are not only made from hate, but also by love. And how love can be one of the most destructive things in the world.
As I stated in my post about Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key, the Gothic always explores the taboo, the uncomfortable, forcing the viewer or the reader to confront parts of society, human nature and themselves that they do not always want to. Crimson Peak does this in quite a shocking way, but before I discuss that, I’d also like to draw your attention to how the film explores another important facet of gothic literature, that of the female Bildungsroman.
Gothic authors understood that instead of growing outwards, many woman of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were forced to grow inwards due to a world that did not accept and encourage independent thought from the “fairer sex”. And so these stories of female maturation did not focus on women going out into the world in the same way as their male counterparts. Women like Jane Eyre found themselves trying to find themselves in the one place that they were encouraged to be: the home. These stories showed that despite society’s pretence, the home could be a strange and discomfiting place. In this way, the home mirrored the mind of women, how women were torn between their true natures, their passions and desires, and social norms that required them to be retiring, docile and disinterested in intellectual pursuits, especially those that were considered masculine.
In Crimson Peak, young heiress, Edith Cushing (played by Mia Wasikowska), wants to be a writer. But she is told that she should write love stories, because it is suggested that that is the only genre in which woman can write. She should not have interests in the supernatural, and all she should be interested in is getting married, like the other social climbing women in her social circle. The only person who encourages her interests is her friend, Dr Alan McMichael (played by Charlie Hunnam). When Edith meets Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain respectively), she will enter into a journey of intense maturation. In order to survive, she must do the “unfeminine” thing and use her mental faculties in order to find out what her husband and his sister are hiding.
In true gothic fashion, she unlocks secrets held in the Sharpe siblings’ ancestral home, Allerdale Hall, which is nicknamed Crimson Peak due to the dark red earth on which the property is built. Edith has already been warned about the property by spirits, but she does not know how to decode these warnings until she is already at Crimson Peak. In the gothic genre, there is always an examination of how human beings interact with their intuition and their understanding of the other. In the case of Crimson Peak, Edith does not use her intuition as first, nor her understanding of the other, in this case, the other world. The world behind the veil. When she is a little girl, she is visited by the ghost of her mother who has died from cholera. Her mother warns her about Crimson Peak, but she is too young to fully appreciate the value of this warning.
When she goes to her new home, with its shell-like appearance, showing the decay of the British landed gentry as the Industrial Revolution completely takes hold; Lucille tells her about the spirits of the house. How she believes that her and Thomas’ mother is still watching over them. The past plays an incredibly important role in the film, both in a literal and figurative sense. There are actual ghosts that haunt the house, seeking to find some sort of peace and come to terms with their violent demises. All of the living characters have to come to grips with the past as they remember it. Lucille has been shaped by the intense cruelty she experienced as a child, which made her commit matricide. Thomas wants to enter the world of the future, of industrialisation, but he is largely halted by his unhealthy ties to his sister and what she has done, supposedly, for them.
Edith is also a woman of the future. She is very interested in female emancipation and sees herself as an equal to any man. Lucille is the same, but in a disturbing and destructive way. When she murders Edith’s father, she dresses as a man. She also shows the intense physical strength of the masculine. She has indeed developed inwards, and because of this, there is much darkness, hate and bitterness within her. In the film, Edith and Lucille take on the stronger, more dominant roles within the story, whereas the men, especially Thomas, are far less purposeful in their direction and do not possess as much agency. Lucille has directed the course of Thomas’ life.
When he meets Edith, it is the first time he has made his own decisions about who he wants to associate himself with, and she is also the first woman he has ever loved aside from Lucille. In the film’s climax, he shows his childlike thinking when he suggests that he, Lucille and Edith can all live together, even though he knows that Lucille hates Edith and has been trying to murder her like she did Thomas’ previous wives.
Edith and Lucille are much like Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason in that they are linked. In The Mad Woman In The Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss how Bertha shows Jane’s anger and passions. The entire book, Jane is expected to suppress her emotions, until she finally confronts both Rochester and St John with the fact that she has her own needs and wants. Bertha is said to be foul mouthed and insane, but this is largely because she has not been able to conform to ideas of how refined European women should behave, and also because her mental illness has been left untreated. In Crimson Peak, Edith’s father loves her, but is impatient with her desires to go against the norm, and when she marries Thomas, she is forced to live with him as if they were siblings. When she finally consummates her marriage with him, this changes. But Crimson Peak inverts the norm by having Thomas be sexually involved with his actual sister, and be removed from his wife. Lucille is furious when she discovers that Edith and Thomas spent the night together, much like Bertha is enraged when she discovers Rochester’s intentions towards Jane.
The corruption of the institution of marriage is often explored in the gothic. Most famously in literature written by the Brontës with Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In Jane Eyre, polygamy is explored, and Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall both show forms of spousal abuse, as well as the desire of women to have more freedom in marriage, especially who they marry. In Crimson Peak, the monetary facets of marriage are explored. Thomas has married multiple women in order to gain control over their finances and fund the continued existence of a crumbling estate and experimental mining machinery. Although marriage for money was a common practice in high society for centuries, Crimson Peak asserts the gothic examination of this and shows its potential and real dangers. It is Thomas’ dead wives who appear to Edith and warn her of her own possible fate. One of the most chilling scenes in the film is when Edith listens to wax cylinders created by one of the dead wives, and discovers Lucille’s fatal plans for her.
The style of the film is unquestionably gothic. It pays homage to films such as The Innocents, The Haunting and Hammers cycle of Gothic horror films such as Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and Brides of Dracula. The colours of the film are shockingly visceral, with greens, blues and reds being used to show the pitiless world of the titular manor. Edith is always dressed in light colours to show the purity of her heart and to represent good, whilst Lucille is clothed in dark colours, usually her crushed velvet dark green dress, buttoned to the throat to show how she attempts to present herself as a staid lady.
Thomas begins the film is dark colours, too, but when he appears as a spirit to Edith, he is completely white, showing the transformation he has undergone and the innate goodness of his soul. Lucille’s ghost in comparison is dark and deformed, as her soul was in the world of the living.
The heart of the film is Allerdale Hall, with its enormous gaping hole through which snow and ash filter down. The bowels of the property house huge vats containing the estate’s earth that resembles thick, dark blood. In these vats are found the remains of Thomas’ dead wives. It is here that Edith discovers important secrets and also has part of her confrontation with Lucille towards the end of the film. The red earth appears in the snow like blood, seemingly providing evidence of the terrible events that have taken place at Crimson Peak. In the gothic, the setting is always vital, and it is usually a place that is frozen in times past, unable to move into the changing future. Allerdale Hall resembles Hill House, Manderley, Thornfield, Udolpho and The House of Usher.
At the end of the film, like all gothic heroines, Edith saves herself. She does this by outwitting Lucille, but she also survives. And that is the legacy of female characters in the gothic, they survive despite all of the odds being stacked against them, whether it is the supernatural or the natural. Crimson Peak is my favourite Guillermo Del Toro movie not only because of its beautiful visual style or because of the brilliant performances, but because he understands that the survival of women despite so many obstacles is their greatest achievement. And that the gothic has always shown the strength and tenacity of women. Their refusal to give into their “fate”.
This is my second contribution to my Gothic Blogathon. Please click here to read everyone’s contributions which have been written with ink stained quills.