This article contains spoilers.
Horror comes in many guises. Psychological, violent, gothic, sure. But rarely – in contemporary culture – romantic. Romance (in the modern sense of the word) doesn’t tend to crop up in much modern horror, or in gothic garb – and when it does, it is frequently looked down on, and labelled a perversion.
Take Twilight. Both the books and their (female) readers were derided as lacking credibility. Although an inheritor of the tradition of the gothic dating back to the 18th century, it faced criticism in a contemporary culture for whom the word “romance” has come to signify cliché and naivety, lacking artistic credibility. Twilight was sidelined, considered unauthentically gothic in attempt to bolster the genre’s reputation.
The same is true of Guillermo del Toro’s keenly anticipated film, Crimson Peak. Indeed, Forbes’ review suggests that it is little better than Twilight, so disappointed are they with the film’s lack of horror. What Crimson Peak reminds us, though, is that gothic romance is the originator of modern horror: gothic and romance are inextricably related.
Crimson Peak is set at the turn of the 20th century and follows the fate of the American middle-class Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as she is seduced by the English baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and travels with him to his crumbling Cumberland ancestral home, Allerdale Hall. As she explores the gothic mansion, which is slowly sinking into the oozing red clay of the family’s now defunct mines, Edith realises that the Sharpe family hide a host of unsavoury secrets. Ghosts, unburied bodies and secret wax recordings by the house’s former residents reveal the Sharpe family to be morally corrupt and psychologically unstable. Trapped by a raging winter storm, Edith searches desperately for an escape.
This might sound horrific, but critics remain divided as to the legitimacy of the film as a piece of gothic horror. For Digital Spy, it is the fact that the film is so overtly a romance – and not horror – that renders it a failure. What these reviews reveal is a split in our cultural consciousness between forms of fiction deemed masculine (horror), and those deemed feminine (romance). But Crimson Peak divides critics precisely because it presents an ambiguous mixture of both: it refuses to entirely disavow the feminine in favour of the masculine. And this is its triumph.
The birth of horror
The genre of gothic romance held court between 1760 and 1830. Walpole initiated the trend with The Castle of Otranto in 1764, a self-styled “Gothic Romance” featuring many of the tropes we see in Crimson Peak. Following the publication of Walpole’s Otranto, stories of virtuous heroines incarcerated in the crumbling ruins of medieval Europe, pursued by degenerate aristocrats hiding gruesome terrible family secrets, were eagerly consumed by a bourgeois English reading public.
Del Toro adapts this familiar format replacing “savage” medieval Europe with “savage” fin de siècle England. The decaying wilderness of Cumberland provides an apt backdrop for a tale of child abuse, incest and murder. This is contrasted with Edith’s bustling modern hometown of Buffalo, New York.
In 18th century gothic it is possible to identify female tropes (entrapment and incarceration) alongside male ones (exile and isolation) in the same works. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – a classic work of masculine gothic focusing on the transgressions of the anti-hero – is also intimately concerned with the feminine in its exploration of motherhood and familial relationships.
Crimson Peak’s portrayal of the sinister Sharpe family contains the tropes of monstrosity and transgression that are associated with the “masculine” gothic. But Crimson Peak also explores what Kate Ferguson Ellis dubs the “female gothic”; a story concerned with the way female subjects are incarcerated and confined by the repressive ideologies and structures of patriarchal society. The horror of Crimson Peak lies as much in its exploration of the characters’ emotions, in its “feminine” concerns, as in its depiction of gruesome violence and sexual transgression.
Initially, Crimson Peak is a little squeamish about the idea of romance. Edith writes ghost stories but does not want to be seen as a women’s writer and baulks at the idea of inserting a romance plot into her manuscript. She also rejects the idea of romance for herself, reminding friends that Jane Austen died a spinster and Shelley a widow.
Some critics have found that the subsequent romance between Edith and Thomas somewhat stilted, but this is the point. The unsatisfying interactions between Thomas and Edith reveal the film’s feminine concerns: Edith’s arrival at the rotting Allerdale Hall brings with it a sickening sense of regret and dismay as she realises that not only is she trapped in the crumbling castle, but that she has fatally misjudged her lover’s intentions and feelings.
It is Thomas’s sister Lucille who most entangles the masculine with the feminine. Transgressive and violent, Lucille is the film’s anti-hero, taking the masculine role from her brother once the action moves to Cumberland. Yet she is also incarcerated, confined by her domestic role as daughter and sister, consumed by bitter disappointment and regret. Lucille’s homicidal madness is a necessary gothic trope, as well as a nod to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). But it is also a result of the particular psychological demands made on women in the patriarchal family. We find out that both Sharpe children were neglected and abused by their parents: Lucille had to care for Thomas and sit by her mother’s bedside, nursing her abuser back to health.
One review of the film applauds its “feminist” climax, which sees Edith and Lucille locked in physical battle, the male characters nowhere to be seen. The decisive action of the plucky heroine is laudable indeed, but it accompanies a feminine tragedy. Though our plucky heroine will escape, her antagonist cannot. The most horrifying and haunting image of the film is that of Lucille – now a ghost – inescapably incarcerated in the shadow of her mother’s portrait, while Edith escapes through the castle’s gates.
Crimson Peak is a gothic romance intimately concerned with the emotional burden of familial and romantic relationships – and with the psychological cost that care demands take on women. It is also a film that is interested in sexual transgression, monstrosity and excess. Del Toro’s entangling of horror with romance refuses to privilege one form over the other. Subsequently, the film’s horror is located both in the grotesque ghosts and brutal violence and in the claustrophobia its feminine emotional register produces. And as such, it takes horror back to its beginning.