Posted on December 7, 2015

Piano Keys to the House: Crimson Peak, the Gothic Romance, and Feminine Power

Guest Post

On the eve of Crimson Peak’s opening day, Guillermo del Toro tweeted, “One last time before release. Crimson Peak: not a horror film. A Gothic Romance. Creepy, tense, but full of emotion…”

Before seeing this film, I had read all about its Gothic, particularly literary, influences, and most particularly the influence of Ann Radcliffe. But, when I saw the trailers, which feature the heroine, Edith, pronouncing, “Ghosts are real,” as well as images of the ghosts themselves, I had to wonder what these influences could possibly be. Radcliffe championed the concept of the explained supernatural in her late eighteenth-century Gothic novels: her ghosts are intentionally not real. What her heroines first imagine to be ghosts turn out to be wax figures or wandering romantics, or some other easily-explained phenomenon. Crimson Peak, however, engages with these literary Gothic influences in a more nuanced way. It’s not that the ghosts aren’t real, it’s that the ghosts aren’t the real threat to our heroine. The real threat is flesh and blood.

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Synopsis

The film begins with New Yorker Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) attending her mother’s funeral and encountering her first ghost: her mother’s ghost returns to warn her, “Beware of Crimson Peak,” thus inspiring a life-long interest in ghosts that comes through in her writing. A baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), approach Edith’s father for the funds to develop machinery that will harvest the red clay on the Sharpe lands. Thomas seduces Edith and, after her father’s violent death, takes her back to England with him as his wife, to the rot and crumble of his ancestral home, Allerdale Hall (nicknamed Crimson Peak, Edith later discovers). There, she takes up the role of the good Gothic, Radcliffian heroine detective to discover that she is not Thomas’s first wife (or even his second or third), that the house is full of ghosts (though, it would seem, only she can see them), and that her sister-in-law has been poisoning her tea (and sometimes her porridge). She also discovers where Thomas’s incestuous heart truly lies, as well as the Sharpe family legacy of abuse, violence, madness, and perversion, all festering within the house and those who inhabit it. When Thomas begins falling in love with Edith, he attempts to liberate them all from this cycle of abuse but is met with fatal resistance from his sister, who proves herself to be the strongest of them all, with one weakness: love for her brother and for the undeniably sentient Crimson Peak.

In this post, I’d like to discuss Crimson Peak on two major fronts: its Gothic literary inheritance and its relationship with female power.

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A Bookish Film

There has already been a slew of articles and posts about Crimson Peak’s categorization, not as horror, with its unrelenting scenes of gore, suspense, and monstrosity, but as Gothic Romance, a form founded in the mid-eighteenth century with Horace Walpole’s 1764 The Castle of Otranto, Matthew Lewis’s tales of horror, and Ann Radcliffe’s tales of terror in the 1790s. Horror is about active bouts of fear that are sudden, visceral, and often fleeting. The Gothic, however, involves a sense of dread that lingers. Certainly, horror and gothic go hand-in-hand, so much so that it can be difficult to distinguish between them. While scholars debate the definition of the term, Gothic, many agree on the definition provided by Chris Baldick in the introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales: “For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration” (xix). The house embodies the gothic in Crimson Peak: it is the very structure on which the film is built, disintegrating yet obstinately reinforced by its perverse histories and by the blood that has been shed again and again within its walls.

Across the Gothic tradition, blood is always tied to the house, even in the earliest Gothic texts. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the decaying house mirrors the decaying family. In this sense, the clay into which the house is sinking is directly connected to this family’s survival: it is the blood of the Sharpe house, its vitality in the form of financial security but unattainable and unproductive without Thomas’s clay harvester, still in the developmental stage and fueled by the wealth of his marriages.

The Castle of Otranto showed us this bond between the desperate, dying family line and the bleeding castle, its paintings surveying events as scrupulously as does the Sharpe matriarch’s portrait. But, rather than feeling haunted by these portraits and their ghosts, Lucille revels in being watched. She says, “I like to think she can see us from up there. I don’t want her to miss a single thing we do.” Walpole’s painted ghosts get up and walk around, just as Mother Sharpe’s ghost crawls through her hallways, seeking revenge for the usurpation of familial authority by the text’s central villain. We see Walpole’s frantic male tyrant in works by Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne Du Maurier. Pretty much every text within the Gothic tradition has this character in some capacity.

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Women of the House

Crimson Peak, however, has a female tyrant. Her closest literary kin might be Mrs. Danvers from Du Maurier’s 1938 novel (and later film), Rebecca. Both are dominant, possessive, vindictive, and jealous of the petite, bubbly young heroine, the master’s new wife. Lucille is the villain the film had to lead us to think was male, showing us a figure in male clothing killing Edith’s father. She’s the monstrous female who’s channeled her feminine weakness into her brother, her strength directly connected with her possession of him. In this film, women dominate men, dominate each other, and subvert the idea of womanhood as passive, helpless, and weak in the process. And, if Lucille is not one to manipulate her men and women without getting her hands dirty, Edith also proves herself to be a formidable opponent. Both women have blood on their hands by the end. If Lucille takes up the horror, violence, and sexuality of Matthew Lewis’s scandalous tradition, Edith takes up the terror, rationality, and intelligence of Radcliffe’s more respected texts.

The feminine is intrinsic to del Toro’s translation of the Gothic literary tradition to the silver screen, usurping a villainy usually reserved for male characters—with some exceptions, of courses—but also including the strong, capable women who challenge femininity from within convention. Neither of these women shies away from the violence, gore, and power typical of their literary male counterparts. It is only fitting, then, that the final battle for power is between these two women—the evil, sexual, dark woman and the pure, good, blond woman—reminiscent of Charlotte Dacre’s 1806 feminine take on the male Gothic tradition, Zofloya. In that text, as in this one, “Monstrous love makes monsters of us all.” Lucille, madly possessive of the incestuous relationship she has with her brother, seems just as proud as she is defensive when Edith discovers them, taking her feminine strength too far when it transgresses into the ultimate taboo. Lucille has been institutionalized in an asylum once, after she kills her mother, and it is her first word of warning to Thomas when he considers altering their plan: “I would be taken from here, locked away.” The intensity with which she speaks of her fate in the face of their discovery exposes her horror of it, born of her own experience. To refrain from killing Edith once she knows what they’ve done would bring her instant and enduring imprisonment, but not just any imprisonment: imprisonment away from the house and from Thomas.

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Lucille, having rid herself of her oppressive mother, does not seem to consider her life in Crimson Peak to be just another form of confinement. Rather, she seems to need it as much as Thomas needs her. It may contain a horrible history of abuse from her father and mother as well as a dying family line that thrusts its care on two struggling siblings without the resources to maintain it, but it also contains her liberation from abuse through her relationship with Thomas: they are the only members of the Sharpe family who prioritize love towards one another over abuse. Lucille says, “The only love Thomas and I ever knew was from one another, in these rotting walls, hiding.” The house, thus, stands for comfort and protection: an asylum of a different kind.

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The madwoman in this film does not dwell in the attic. No, this madwoman lives everywhere in the house because she owns it, from kitchen where she brews her poison tea to the subversive, maternal space of the mines, where the walls are always bleeding and Lucille turns vats of clay into death-wombs. Lucille, through her crimes, is also the masculine protector of the Sharpe inheritance: she controls the finances, the keys, and the male heir—the power, the home, and the future—within the same grasp. And that is why, when Thomas says both that he wants to leave the house and leave her, she can only maintain that control by killing him.

I find Lucille’s fate at the end of the film—haunting Crimson Peak after Edith kills her—to be incredibly convoluted in terms of its feminist implications. Some of the critics whose articles I list below read the ending as oppressive, as yet another example of an unruly, evil woman who has been abused all along, being punished. I find those arguments convincing, but I still can’t help but read the ending as a win for her.

Edith earlier asks, “All this horror, for what?” and Lucille answers, “The horror was for love. The things we do for love like this are ugly, mad, full of sweat and regret. This love burns you and maims you and twists you inside out. It is a monstrous love. And it makes monsters of us all.” She’s clearly talking about Thomas, and killing him will be the only murder she commits that we do see her regret. But I think she’s also talking about the house, about her perverse love for it and its love for her. They maim and twist one another. During the final battle, she says twice that she won’t stop until Edith kills her… or until she kills Edith, but, the emphasis is on the first part. It is a clear and desperate plea for death. In death, she becomes wedded to the house, fused with it. She cannot be “taken away from here,” as she fears.

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In death, she stays in the house forever, but she does not appear to haunt it as the other ghosts do: they have existed for Edith alone. Lucille exists for… whom? For herself? For us? For the house? We leave her playing the piano, just as she is when we first meet her and just as she’s always done. She’s playing the lullaby that she wrote for Thomas, but now she’s playing it for the house and for us. If there’s a positive reading here, I think it’s in this last scene; she is, after all confined to the house, but I think it matters that it’s to this house. It’s clear that she’s not stuck on a wall like her mother is, forced to watch what she doesn’t want to see. The piano is a symbol of power, a mixture of feminine and masculine power, both transgressive and redemptive. A power influenced by abuse but also proof of triumphing over it. Lucille only seems to play it in the film when she is in possession of that power. And now she’ll be playing it forever.


Cited:

Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Recommended reading:

“Crimson Peak—A gothic romance that takes us back to the feminine early days of horror”: https://theconversation.com/crimson-peak-a-gothic-romance-that-takes-us-back-to-the-feminine-early-days-of-horror-49396

“Guillermo del Toro’s Guide to Gothic Romance”: http://www.rookiemag.com/2015/10/guillermo-del-toros-guide-gothic-romance/

“Mining the Feminist Messages of Crimson Peak”: http://www.btchflcks.com/2015/11/review-pending-mining-the-feminist-messages-of-crimson-peak.html#.VkioLb-GOcx

“Rise of Female Monsters Shows Horror Movies are Not Afraid of Big, Bad Women”: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/29/rise-of-female-monsters-shows-horror-movies-are-not-afraid-of-big-bad-women


Laura Kremmel received an MA in English from Lehigh in 2009 and an MLitt in Gothic Literature from Stirling University in 2010. Her dissertation considers the ways in which the Gothic imagination extends Romantic-era medical experimentation throughout the Gothic texts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including poetry, drama, novels, and chapbooks. Where scientific thought reached its limits, the Gothic could pick up the scalpel and set to work on dissections and cures of its own. Though she considers herself to be a Romanticist, she is also a Gothicist, interested in all facets of the tradition, Romantic to Contemporary. At Stirling, her MLitt dissertation explored the vampiric character of melancholia in works ranging from Polidori’s The Vampyre to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Laura also runs Lehigh’s Gothic reading group, has published on The Walking Dead, and is a frequent blogger. Follow her on Twitter.

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