“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained…Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable…does our education prepare us for such atrocities?”
It’s an old idea. The Gothic genre and its offshoots are chock-full of stories with women who are attuned to the horrific or spectral while everyone else nurses oblivious disbelief. From novels like Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (quoted above) to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, to almost any B-horror film where a ghost deigns to haunt a house, a longstanding history of the archetypal “hysterical” woman has created a neat, serviceable pattern. A woman sees creepy things; everyone says she’s crazy; she turns out to be right after all; and everything swiftly goes to hell in a handbasket.
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak takes hold of this trope and craftily worries it, with nods to Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, and others. Visually spectacular in its interplays of darkness and gorgeously saturated color, it is an undisguised homage to the literary Gothic, keenly aware of itself.
The film comfortably occupies familiar territory. Set in 1887, aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself entangled with members of an English family—Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), a brother and sister with aristocratic rank but utterly depleted fortune. A romance ensues between Edith and Thomas, and before long, Edith comes to live with the Sharpes in their actively decaying estate on the English moors. Edith also has an ability to see ghosts—of which there is no scarcity in the dilapidated house.
At first blush, Crimson Peak may appear indistinguishable from other nineteenth-century haunted house tales. That is, until one fully inhabits the world of the story, and finds that what lurks in the supernatural is less monstrous than what exists in plain sight. “Not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it,” as Edith says of her own novel-in-progress, the film visually illustrates the kind of well-worn Tilneian tropes it criticizes.
I tend to steer clear of “horror” movies, partly out of personal tastes and partly out of an already highly active imagination. But as I watched the film twice in theaters, I was pleased by how it transcends usual genre boxes. Functioning as a kind of terror-ific hybrid—a Gothic thriller, mystery, and fantasy that somehow remains intensely grounded—Crimson Peak is the cinematic equivalent to Shelley’s Frankensteinian monster.
Although Peak may not fall neatly into any particular kind of feminist criticism, either, del Toro takes on the notion of fear and hysteria with subtlety in his critical acknowledgement of the genre’s usual pitfalls. He’s clever, directing his audience to suspend disbelief in two senses: to side with Edith and acknowledge the evidence plainly before our eyes, and to accept the fantastic as reality. But again, we’re led to acceptance through proof of the visual, not merely because of Edith’s claims.
In establishing a framework of upended realism, Crimson Peak visits the notion of female hysteria indirectly, framing its critique through subtextual questioning rather than pedantry. Along with some of its plot nuances, this underlying investigation became increasingly evident to me after a second viewing. Why, it prods, do we only (sort of) believe upon seeing—even in the world of imagination? What malignity really lies beneath devaluing the word of women, in knee-jerk dismissal of the horrific?
The film doesn’t offer easy solutions, but instead trusts its audience to do the necessary self-investigative work. What it does insist upon, however, is a visual space where the supernatural and banal occupy the same territory so that the monstrous can be revealed. “Ghosts are real,” Edith asserts at the film’s beginning, looking quite ghostly herself.
As we share Edith’s point of view as audience members, we see del Toro’s unconventional phantoms in all their appalling physicality: visceral, bodily, almost tangible. Ghosts don’t really care, Crimson Peak shows us, about the mathematical probability of their own existence. They’re simply there in all their haunting deformity, daring us to confront what emerges when we engage with the paranormal as the norm, rather than the anomaly.
In this way, Crimson Peak understands what horror, as a genre, preys upon when toying with the human psyche. For a short time, it allows us to embrace the unseen as plausible, allotting structured space to unnerve ourselves with what we hope to God isn’t true. But it doesn’t let us off the hook, either. Here Crimson Peak challenges us to confront our dismissals of what we don’t empirically understand or want to believe, whatever form the specter takes.