Beautiful things are fragile; Female Gothic and Crimson Peak

As part of Halloween month and our Contemporary Media and Gothic series, Stephanie Gallon has done a review on the newly released Gothic horror Crimson Peak. Stephanie recently graduated with an MA in English Studies from the University of Sunderland.

Crimson Peak is a gorgeous and decadent movie which should be on the to-see list of every horror and Gothic fan. What could easily have been a rehash of the same tired clichés—the damsel in distress, the foreboding castle, the patriarchal tyrant—is a marvel of interesting characters and story. It is in many ways a true adaptation of the Female Gothic genre. Be forewarned, there will be spoilers ahead.

It tells the tale of Edith, who marries Sir Thomas and goes with him back to England. There she encounters ghosts, death and fear. The house itself bleeds, breathes and revolts against the sins committed inside it.

Edith is the most interesting character. She is independent and a writer, thrust in to the isolation of marriage and stripped of the agency afforded to her through her creativity. That she is a writer is no small thing: Gothic is the genre of women. Writers such as Anne Rice, Ann Radcliffe and Angela Carter have all influenced the genre and carved within it their own tropes and revolutionary topics. Women would read Gothic openly, whilst men would hide their like for it. Some men would even adopt female pseudonyms to publish their works.

Ann Radcliffe, referred to often as the mother of female Gothic, famously denounced her own works by claiming she was insane when she wrote them. She later claimed to be dead. This was the reputation the Gothic had: it was popular, therefore it was worthless. The women who wasted their time on such dreadful nonsense were ridiculed. Amongst those women, we have Edith. Edith, who is nothing like the proper women portrayed in the movie:

Thomas: You’re so different
Edith: From who?
Thomas: Everyone.

Edith is also given enough character that she doesn’t neatly fit in to the typical Gothic heroine role. She does not throw herself in to danger through stupidity. Instead, she is curious about the strange things that happen in the home. She runs from malicious creatures, but is drawn to the safer ones because her curiosity drives her to. She is a writer and a creative spirit: she believes these things to be true because she makes these things true in her mind.

An interesting and terrible twist on the traditional Gothic formula is the incest. While Gothic fiction has never shied from the perverse of human psyche, it is rare to find the predator as a woman. The sibling incest between Lucille and Thomas is portrayed as twisted, and Lucille manipulates her brother from their childhood:

Lucille: No one must ever know because they wouldn’t understand and they’d hurt us.

Pictured: Jessica Chastain as Lady Lucille

Pictured: Jessica Chastain as Lady Lucille

Thomas has his agency removed from a very young age. This house of horrors is normalised to him because he knows nothing outside his sister’s words. He does not flinch at the vengeful spirits and bleeding walls because he has never known anything different. It is only Edith and the world she weaves for him that gives him an escape, and his chance to make what may be his first free choice: he falls in love with her, and not his sister. His free choices come from the influence of Edith in his life. He is haunted by more than ghosts, and it is when he is able to break free of his sister’s madness that he is given a chance at redemption for the wicked things he has done.

While other horror films are filled with empty tropes and void of genuine world-building and emotion, Crimson Peak found its place as a representation of female Gothic. It’s intense, it’s melodramatic, and it is sincere and respectful Gothic romance. A must-see for anyone who loves Gothicism or horror.

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About spectralvisions

Spectral Visions is an annual Gothic conference hosted by the University of Sunderland. It explores the dark, the decadent and the terrifying aspects of Gothic literature and language. This blog is a student-run initiative, where Visionaries showcase their creative talents and learning in short stories, poems and essays on the Gothic. You can follow us on Twitter at @spectralvisi0ns or like us on Facebook at facebook.com/uosgothic
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