Ghosts Are Movies: A Love Letter to Crimson Peak

What to look for hidden in Guillermo Del Toro’s bloody, tragic Gothic Romance story set in an era that still haunts us

A few nights ago, I asked myself: what would Guillermo Del Toro advise? Hungry for a movie, I was dead set on a new release when I discovered that I could catch a 35mm film print of Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Inspired by his knowledgeable and arcane new twitter account, and as someone who regards Del Toro as the college professor (or Dumbledore, or Totoro) I never had, I felt his admiration for the Master of Suspense whispering to me: go see the Hitchcock, while you still can. For a projection of a film print right now is like seeing fireflies in summer, a breathless flickering set to die out in an age of radical transition.

In a packed theater on a weeknight in Brooklyn, there was a nervous couple on an early date sat in front of me, all tentative sideways glances and halting speech. It was sweet in the way all early dates are, and very modern, as they handled their nervousness by playing with their phones in every awkward moment. The movie started: and wow, how modern Hitchcock’s films still run, that peerless rhythm wound the audience in, laughs in the right places.

Gregory Peck & Ingrid Bergman falling in love in Spellbound (1945)

Then: Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck collided in a supernatural, primordial, irrational moment, an act born from their dissolving psyches, and it’s summed up in one exchange of looks, one of those mythical, transcendent depictions of love as devastating as it is liberating, all heightened strings and so powerful as to change the very nature of light in the room. This love is the engine of Spellbound’s story, as two people draw out their anima from one another with insane devotion to their dark sides, to the brink of violence and affection.

And the audience found it hysterical. Riotous laughter. The tentative couple in front of me couldn’t believe it, giggled. And yes, sensibilities have moved on, and Spellbound isn’t a somber movie, but I think there is a deep telling undercurrent there, that belies that the greatest horror for modern movie audiences is not zombies or the end of the world, or even venereal disease. There is nothing more terrifying to the modern audience than romance. We have been trapped since the turn of the century, and all the historical darkness that has followed, in an ironic modality in culture. And that aloofness is horrified by romance.

Thus: Crimson Peak, which is a kind of horror film on one level, but truly it’s a Gothic Romance. A slightly pervy, fucked up, painful romance. A collision: of golds and turquoises, of patina & lace, of horror and beauty, blood and snow, butterflies and moths, creation and destruction, possession and rebellion, hate and love. I loved it. I hope to explain why, and to suggest that we’ve been programmed to think of stories in movies in a very narrow way, which has disorted how we talk about them and what we expect of them, the same way we’ve been programmed to fear the sight, the very image, of romance. And if you’re open to it, the Romantics speak through that, a phantasmagorical message, from a long gone era that echoes our own. It may not be for everyone, but for those who want to see ghosts, it is vital.

Now I say Del Toro is a professor (although I’ve never met him) because every time he releases a movie he gives interviews that become freewheeling eclectic digressions into politics, the history of art, and the craft of filmmaking laced with some decent profanity that become worth the price of admission to a movie itself. Here is a very brief exchange I believe is key to understanding his recent work.

And here is the illustration he mentions above by Ruelas, a wonderful bastardization of iconography.

La Piedad / The Profane Pieta by Julio Ruelas

The suggestion of icons is an interesting mutation of Scorsese’s idea of the director as smuggler: that against the commercial forces movies are beholden to, some filmmakers traffick in subversion to voice their philosophies. Beneath the surface of their work is the forbidden, the unspeakable: a truth. And for countless external reasons it seems to have become ever harder for auteurs to make their imprint on movies with grand canvases, which are becoming increasingly producerially driven. In an effort to engineer movies that will play to a vague, nebulous concept of an international audience, the new realm the smuggler works as their border is that of icons: biopics, eschatological fantasies, power fantasies, pseudo religious science fiction and medieval fantasies, remakes. Iconicism dominates.

While we appear to be a secular culture, is it any wonder that Sunday nights are now spent deciphering serial narratives on television? What draws more hushed spiritual epiphanies than a new blockbuster trailer? Isn’t Force Friday a consumer grade version of hoarding relics? Anyway, Del Toro is a new breed of smuggler in this hinterland, a perpetual exile (from his nation, from the constraints of genre) who will paint you a gorgeous icon; but the fine detail reveals myriad subversions. And that is the true story of Del Toro’s movies. For movies are never real or unreal, movies are only true or dishonest. And it doesn’t matter if they are about Kaiju and Giant Robots or The Spanish Civil War. I contend that Crimson Peak’s story is true to itself, and far more complicated than many believe or perceived. The nature of its ghosts, the sense of predicatibility about some of its revelations: I believe they are wholly intentional.

“Ghosts are real…”

Crimson Peak’s story begins with the death of a mother, her ghost, and the waning of the Victorian era, and then we are in America at the beginning of a new millennium. And these are very specific storytelling choices. In a few moments, in the confines of a ghost story, we meet our heroine and situate her in a world pivoting into radical technological & societal change, still haunted by disease and the Victorian era’s familiarity and fethisization of death. The gothic soul is born out of death: mortality wasn’t unknown to the young, the loss of mothers that begins the movie Mary Shelley endured and may be partially responsible for giving birth to the entire genre of science fiction (and also has roots in Del Toro’s own family history). Edith’s gilded new age is Golden but the ground is muddy, unpaved, and the past and death’s power is everywhere from architecture to insects. Edith’s childhood experience with a sublime terror, a visitation removed from time, has revolutionized her, and now she seeks to be a writer (declaring verbally, to aspire to Mary Shelley’s life) and looks askance at the social structures she’s born into. The subversion has set in.

Now that’s conveyed in mere minutes in what seems to be a very simple, old fashioned movie story. Del Toro has tweaked the form he’s working in already, and underneath the clockwork engine of his story the mutations have begun, crystalline vibrations that adjust what we know. It’s conveyed in social environment, in wardrobe, in props, in choice of time and place, in human behavior. These are the rich details that, combined with plot and character, are Crimson Peak’s story that you may not even be consciously aware of, a story of dualities intertwining with one another.

When discussing movies lately, we keep falling into the trap of confusing plot for story. We discuss story in strictly dramaturgical, literary terms, praise scripts above film editing, and this neverending discourse has conditioned audiences to believe an enormous fallacy: that plot is the same thing as story.

Plot is a specificity of events that happen. Story is narrative, the thing that some theorize you impose upon the confusing events that occur in a dream upon waking. Story emerges not just from plot, but from connections ascribed in one shot to another joined by an edit. Story builds in an emotional register on an actor’s face and how it is contrasted against the environment it occurs in. It blooms in the only non empiricial element of color: the propensity of color to engender emotion. Story is driven by moving through time and space; in a movie, this can be a single cut.

While watching a movie you are detecting and perceiving this spectrum unconsciously, and reforming everything in your own mind, imposing your own creativity upon these individual photographs and audio recordings that in motion and time become alive. You fill in details with your own life experience, you vicariously experience heightened states you might’ve never had. The director tells you when and where to look, but you do the looking. And this dialogue between movie and yourself, that’s where story truly comes from.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a thing I heard Wim Wenders recently say: that when he was beginning to make films in the 60s, the midpoint for the history of the medium, coming from training as a painter, he experimented to the breaking point with making films that had no story (they weren’t very good). But he soon came to realize that by the very nature of moving a camera or making a cut in an edit, a story happens. Thus, story in movies is an emergent phenomenon, the inherent fabric of the medium caused by joining thousands of still photographs together, and filmmakers like Del Toro are hoping that a multitude of cues greater than merely plot will fluidly convert what you see and hear into story. So it is up to us to stop thinking of the story of movies as merely filmed scripts. A movie that asks you to think about its images in time is doing what a movie can, that no other medium can.

This is why admirers of Del Toro discuss and praise details: oneiric cues that make us turn over the story, and reintepret what we saw (the Production Design by Thomas Sanders, Costume Design by Kate Hawley, and Cinematography by Dan Laustsen is peerless, legendary work). There’s a hexagon recurring in Crimson Peak, and I’m not sure what it’s about just yet. I keep turning it over like a strange detail in a dream that puzzles me throughout the day, like so many other moments and details I saw in the movie. These are movies to be savored after you’ve seen them, in your sleep that night.

I see in the details of Crimson Peak a collision between old social orders and new. I see forms of love borne from societal conditioning in a predacious struggle. Possessive love, love for blood versus a rebellious love of choice and free will. I see the way empires decay, as 1901 is the year Queen Victoria passes away, that an Old Empire waged distant wars, that the millennium turned, and women began to break free of social constructs imposed upon them, and photography and audio recordings became commonplace. This is the end of the Victorian era, but it is also our era.

In fact photographs and audio recordings are present in the movie as a literal manifestation of ghosts, a sigil they point toward, something Del Toro makes certain to include. Despite being an extraordinary technological advance that would transform how humans perceived the world for millennia, the invention of photography was immediately claimed for spirit photography. In our own era we are making horror films about video recordings and cellphones in which the supernatural materializes.

Marthe Béraud aka Eva C an early 20th century medium, photographed by Albert von Schrenck-Notzing in 1912

Thus, all movies are ghosts, for any audiovisual recording is of a moment that occurred in the past. As William Gibson writes: “We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting” (And I highly recommend Gibson’s book of essays Distrust That Particular Flavor for incomparable reading on how ghosts are bound up in technology. He really saw The Victorian era echoes before others).

And I myself wonder why we are in an age when technology augments all our memories, but our culture as a whole seems to forget everything quicker. There are ghosts everywhere, and they haunt us as a reminder of all the social ills we haven’t abandoned, the changes we haven’t made to society. In Del Toro’s reckoning, there are ghosts, and monsters, and their nature is not one and the same. There is a definite subversion of the nature of ghosts in Crimson Peak. They are indeed monstrous upon sight, decaying and corrupted flesh, anatomically exposed and bearing vicious wounds. But most importantly they are not, as in so many ghost stories, manifestations of Edith’s guilt. Rather her alienated sensitivity to the world (wonderfully, empathically embodied by Wasikowska) has made the echoes of their terrorized past apparent. The ghosts, the monsters on the surface, are humanized.

I suspect these subversions are why some feel the story in Crimson Peak is predictable, or “not scary”: because it is only at first glance. And also quite deliberately, as the dramatic form and function of tragedy is, as actual real world stories of Victorian murders were. In his 1991 novel The Kindness of Women J.G. Ballard wrote: “In the future, everyone will need to be a film critic to make sense of anything.” On social media we have all become film critics, but for all the talk we do on a daily basis in pop culture about story with such a professed expertise for narrative structures, we have totally forgotten what the purpose of tragedy is. Wim Wenders again: “They’ll tell you, it’s ok to kill a thousand people in a movie, but never make a movie about death.

Tragedy is the doom that is inevitable because the characters, and the viewers, saw it coming. Its excruciating waltz requires foreknowledge. It is us, in the year 2015, only a few years past a millennial change, living in an era marked by radical transformations in technology, our Empires waging distant wars, unable to do anything about racial oppression, gun violence or police violence or state violence, or the violence enacted by men upon women.

Look at all those little details in Crimson Peak, and there’s the exact same story, told by ghosts. Listen to the story Lucille tells about the father. Crimson Peak may be set in a long gone past, but it is a story where modernism is inevitable, and the hauntings we’re left with are what we mourn of the world that could not move on although they had the chance to. The second time I saw Crimson Peak, free from having to piece together the past, I strangely saw the siblings as heroes (aided by the incredibly multilayered performances by Chastain and Hiddleston that manage to be both melodramatic and emotionally true) knowing full well they are monsters. Tragic heroes, who even with love could not escape true monstrousness: human frailty, their times. That is our haunted world, then and now. There are small victories: I suggest watching the end credits of Crimson Peak to their final image. In a very small grace note Del Toro shows us how we can escape, that benevolent ghosts reach out to us from stories.

I know that Crimson Peak is a singular thing, that I cannot recommend or convince everyone of their enjoyment, or that what I see is what they will. I do think if you like the Brontes, Mary Shelley, Angela Carter, or if you like this, you’ll absolutely love Crimson Peak.

Beyond that, I can claim that it’s inarguable that we’ve never had a movie director like Guillermo Del Toro. He is pushing at the use of genre limitlessly and personally (and color, and production design, and sonic space, and all the aspects that comprise filmmaking) when so many others are content to retread a morally simplistic narrative or power fantasy.

Rewatching his movies reveal them to be “an emotional autobiography” a phrase I’m stealing from him. No other director in our times has synthesized a connection between our pasts’ subversive narratives, our tales of ill repute and lowly forms, comic books to Renaissance painters, high art to low art, horror to history, to a life lived in the here and now. It reminds me of Mary Shelley, and the times that coalsced into her masterwork. I like to believe she would have loved Crimson Peak. I cannot get her to see it, but I hope you will.

Thank you to @danahsaurus, @bbw_bff, @GLValentine, & @jenyamato for the discussions on the movie and corrections and suggestions to this.