Early in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015), heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer, draws an important distinction about her latest work. It is not a ghost story, she asserts – “It’s a story with ghosts.” These are not metaphysical spooks, but metaphors for the past, for the memories that linger and haunt the living.
Ghostly hauntings that function as insistent memories of the evils of the past are a typical feature of the Gothic horror genre from which Crimson Peak draws inspiration (and of which the film, at times, seems like a parody – most notably in the staging of a late scene of sexual deviancy). In most famous examples, such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, ghosts serve as agents of evil, destructive and terrifying remnants of past violence. In the novella, as well as Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation and Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, the spectral Peter Quint and Miss Jessep return to their earthly place of employment after suffering gruesome deaths and wage war with the central governess for possession of the children’s souls. In Britten’s take, their presence is an explicit metaphor for the ongoing, haunting trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
The ghosts in Crimson Peak also carry the weight of past horror – whether that be ravaging illness, calculated serial murder, or passion-fuelled violence. But their function in the lives of the living is strikingly different. Despite their frightening appearance (and the film’s occasional over-reliance on jump scares), these phantoms are not harbingers of doom or agents of terror. In fact, each of the film’s ghosts appears only to warn Edith of the evil and danger around her. This role is established at the very beginning of the film, when the audience is introduced to the fact that the ghost of Edith’s mother has appeared to her throughout her life with the prophetic warning, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” After her marriage to the charming, manipulative Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and her move to the remote estate of Crimson Peak, the ghastly figures that visit Edith are not malicious predators, but the tortured souls of wronged women who come to Edith with warnings of her looming fate.
Interestingly, these ghostly figures who continually aid the film’s heroine are all female – with the exception of one notable figure. Edith’s father, who is murdered in an act of horrific violence, is never granted a metaphysical reappearance, while her mother, who dies of a natural if miserable disease, remains a regular and prophetic presence in her daughter’s life. Later in the film, the other ghosts that appear are those of Thomas and his sister Lucille’s (Jessica Chastain) mother, and those of Thomas’ ex-wives, whom he and his sister ruthlessly murdered. (The final ghost who aids Edith is that of Thomas himself, though his ghost appears after the film engages in an ongoing process of framing the character in typically feminine ways, typified by a fascinating sex scene in which Edith remains fully clothed, while Thomas removes his clothing and dives beneath her skirts.)
The film takes place in a 19th century world, where the average woman’s only goal and possibility for change was marriage. After her father’s murder, the newly orphaned Edith marries hastily and moves to another country, to an isolated house with no means of contacting the outside world. Like all of the murdered women before her, Edith finds herself in a position of total vulnerability, subject to the whims (benevolent or otherwise) of the man in her life. The spirits of the women of the film share urgent, life-saving guidance with Edith, much as women have traditionally relied upon the information and wisdom passed on from older generations of women, mothers and grandmothers and friends – ways to protect oneself, physically and psychologically, in a world in which women are eternally vulnerable.
As Edith describes in the beginning, these female ghosts carry symbolic weight, illustrating in a heightened, fantastical fashion the ways in which women can protect each other, even while living in a world that is structured to act against their autonomy and self-preservation. They, too, are visions of the legacy of the past trauma and violence that reverberates through the lives of the living, though theirs is not limited to their own personal suffering, but carries the burden of an eternal history of women lost to violence.
While Crimson Peak draws heavily from the Gothic horror tradition, the film’s sisterhood, bridging the living and the dead, offers a fresh perspective on the function of ghosts and women within the genre. While Thomas may be a Byronic, Rochester-like figure, the ghostly Bertha Mason figures of the ex-wives’ ghosts have broken free of the attic, telling their stories and valiantly aiding another woman in peril.