31 Days of Halloween: A guide to Gothic and the ghosts behind Crimson Peak

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Oct 14, 2015, 5:50 PM EDT

Crimson Peak is not just a horror film. And it is not a ghost movie. Yes, there are ghosts, and horror tropes, and plenty of violence. But this is a Gothic romance that uses emotions and picturesque locales to tell a foreboding tale of love, loss and vengeance. Bathed in reds, it is a creepy and creeping valentine lovingly composed in blood. 

Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak is an elegant piece of craftsmanship by someone who clearly, effusively loves the genre and has done it justice ... and who is obviously a ghost nerd, like myself.

But the Gothic genre is not entirely about horror. Taking its name from an architectural style, it combines elements of horror, romance and the supernatural. A subgenre of Romanticism, it features big emotions and escalating tension. There is often a sense of creeping dread and the macabre, and plot devices frequently featured orphans, fallen families, exotic and gorgeous locales, curses, creaking sounds, distressed heroines and nasty villains of the mustache-twirling kind. A mystery often figures prominently in the plot of Gothic stories. The genre is thought to have emerged in the late 18th-century Georgian era (with The Castle of Otranto, but more on that in a moment), but did continue through the following Victorian period.

Guillermo del Toro packs a lot within Crimson Peak, and it is worth a closer look at the origins of the Gothic genre, as well as the world in which it is set, and some key inspirations from which the director has drawn.


The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Tale

The first edition of Horace Walpole's 1764 book was treated like found footage, and presented as the translation of a manuscript about a real family. The story begins with the absurd death of Lord of Otranto's son on his wedding day, which makes Lord Manfred freak out about a family prophecy. To avoid this curse, the dirty old man pursues the young princess for his own (after dumping his wife) and runs afoul of a peasant who ends up being a true prince. There are a lot of twisty narrative threads, and all kinds of hand-wringing. Walpole was a big fan of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the play's influence is felt throughout the plot.

Ghosts do figure in the story, but as guides, and not the source of terror itself. This was a popularly held Catholic view of spirits at the time. They warn of the dangers of Otranto, call for vengeance and appear as ghostly portraits or skeletons. And when you see Crimson Peak, think of this description from Otranto: "The figure, turning slowly round, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit's cowl." 

It is also worth mentioning, as described by Robert B Hamm Jr. in the 2009 essay "Hamlet and Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto," that the author was a big fan of Shakespeare – and admits to such in the preface to his second edition -- and was inspired by horror elements from the play.

When Walpole copped to creating the whole story in his second edition, he caught a lot of heat for writing something ridiculous -- basically, for creating pop-culture fluff that was too romantic. But that second preface also introduced the template for Gothic lit. He claimed he was trying to blend the "ancient and the modern" romance. He wanted to utilize ancient imagination (magic, supernatural, etc.) and incorporate modern romance with realistic people behaving in believable situations. He wrote, "in short, to make them think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions."

Read it for yourself:

It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life… The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions.


American Ghost Stories

Guillermo del Toro begins Crimson Peak in the mid-to-late-1800s in Buffalo, N.Y., a location known for being at the epicenter for a mainstream pursuit of ghosts.

While the Civil War still raged on in the 1860s -- and continuing even after its conclusion in the American Gilded Age -- the nation was emotionally wounded, and people sought to give meaning to the strife and all the loss they endured.

Spiritualism provided that comfort by presenting a belief that a soul can grow even in death, and can be communicated with from the afterlife. Spirit communication was viewed as a positive activity, and ghosts were used to provide moral guidance to the living, or advice on important decisions. Seances led by mediums – utilizing rappings, table tipping, spirit boards, Mesmerism, and sometimes producing so-called ectoplasm -- were ways to communicate with spirits who were advancing through different levels of higher planes (but the belief system didn't ascribe to a soul's eternal placement in a heaven or hell). 

Though they did not create Spiritualism, The Fox Sisters of Hydesville, New York (now known as Arcadia, near Rochester) became celebrities of the movement. The three young sisters claimed to be in contact with a spirit named "Mr. Splitfoot," who communicated via rappings (or cracking joints, as skeptics claimed). The girls would travel and perform public séances in front of hundreds before they were disgraced and died in poverty. The 1888 confession of the hoax by sister Margaret Fox was recanted. The Fox Sisters were the first of many influential female leaders of Spiritualism, and the movement advocated equal rights.

Lily Dale, New York, about an hour away from Buffalo, became a hub of Spiritualist activities in the late 19th century, and the small town remains dedicated to the beliefs to this day. This area of upstate New York was also referred to as the "Burned-Over District" because so many religious revivals took place there that it was believed it would be spared during the Second Coming.

Belief in ghosts was not uncommon, and became fairly widespread, during the mid-to-late 1800s. Even Mary Todd Lincoln was public in her support of Spiritualism. Urban legends such as Bloody Mary (who was either a child-killer or witch, who may show you your future, let you talk to dead relatives, or kill you, herself) became popularized, as well. Works of fiction with Gothic elements, such as Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843), also enjoyed immense popularity. By the end of the century, it was not absurd for a newspaper in America to report on hauntings.

The philosophy moved beyond New York and the States, and Spiritualism took hold in Canada and England. And the paranormal (though the term wasn't coined until around 1920) became an area of study for well-respected men of learning.


No s—t, Sherlock

One such giant of Spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Known for his famous sleuth, the late Victorian novelist and ophthalmologist had an interest in the paranormal. But it was following the first World War – long after the events of Crimson Peak transpire – that he became heavily involved with it. Doyle had suffered a series of deaths in his life that impacted his beliefs, and quest for meaning.

A member of The Ghost Club, the oldest still-operating paranormal organization in the world, Doyle became a booster to celebrity mediums and spirit photographers (who said they could capture images of ghost on film; most notable was the fraud William H. Mumler who tricked Mary Todd Lincoln). Doyle was additionally a believer of the famous Cottingley Fairies photos, and even wrote the Spiritualist novel The Land of Mist. He made a mark in Gothic fiction with Tales of Terror and Mystery, a collection of short stories that feature the increasing uneasiness of the genre, and gorgeous descriptions of gory acts. 

One can't mention Doyle without his paranormal frenemy, Harry Houdini. While the illusionist and author were close friends – and Houdini began as a supporter of Spiritualism – the two experienced a falling out over a séance which supposedly involved the ghost of the former's mother. Houdini then launched on a mission to expose mediums, and the two engaged in public back-and-forths until his death.

Charlie Hunnam's character in Crimson Peak is something of a Doyle surrogate. Like the author, he is an ophthalmologist who collects spirit photos, and applies some of his own detective skills to unravel a mystery.


Henry James to Heathcliff to Poe

Crimson Peak masterfully recalls several notable Gothic creations. Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a frightening haunted house tale about two ghosts stalking young orphan siblings. But the big question is whether the ghost are real, or if the character of the governess is simply insane. It seemed as if del Toro is playing with this same question with the character of Edith (Mia Wasikowski). Should she believe the grotesque things she sees?

Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston's character, Thomas Sharpe, feels like he could be cut from the same cloth as Heathcliff from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is a character who has experienced poverty, and managed to find his way into the upperclass. He is a man who is difficult to interpret: A sadistic, scheming villain or a romantic hero?

The mansion at the center Crimson Peak, Allerdale Hall, is a crumbling ruin and relic of a once-great family. It could also stand in for the castle of Otranto and the structure in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." In Usher, there are themes of incest and illness, and the decaying structure calls to mind a human body breaking down. 

There are also nods to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the late-Gothic-era Dracula by Bram Stoker.


Cumbria Connection

This is a minor mention, but much of the film is set at Allerdale Hall in Cumbria, England, a rural area once known as Cumberland until 1974. Cumberland, and the county next door, Northumberland, are something of a cradle for Romanticism and Gothic literature. Cumberland is the birthplace of William Wordsworth, a poet influential in launching Romanticism. And Northumberland was once the homestead of the Percy family, the "ancient Catholic family" in whose library Horace Walpole initially said he found the Otranto manuscript.

This is just a sampling of the depths one can plunge within Gothic literature, and the studies of Spiritualism. While there is no one resource to direct you to, we advise looking into these topics more. Or, if you would like us to talk more about this, let us know.