Crimson Peak and the Gothic Imagination

It’s been about a week since Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak was released. I’ve been sitting on this post just as long, because I intend to lightly touch on spoilers and I hope by now, at least a few of you have seen it so I can babble freely and with enthusiasm because I seriously can’t remember the last time a film this invested into the gothic was on the screen. You haven’t seen it yet? Okay, let’s IMDB the thing:

In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds – and remembers.

Not enough? Okay, let me make this super convenient for you, because a picture is worth a thousand words, which means a trailer is worth a billion:

The last gothic film I recall is maybe Dracula. Maybe The Orphanage? Whatever. The point is that it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything that can remotely spit at Victoriana, much less load the viewer down with its mourning customs and costuming and architecture in one fell swoop. Sensorially, it’s a heady movie. For a Victorianophile, it’s practically porn.

Guillermo del Toro gave us all the tropes and went completely over-the-top ape with it: the Gothic Victorian house on a hillside in the isolated English countryside that sits on top of a mountain that basically bleeds because of the red clay content in the soil, the doomed love story, the bizarre love-triangle, the unfortunate tragedies, a bunch of freaky moths, the ghosts. All the ghosts. Since Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy: The Golden Army, del Toro’s been recognized for his creatures. I went into this film expecting a familiar, fabulous interpretation of the supernatural element, and he didn’t disappoint in the slightest. We even got a few jump scares. Great soundtrack to enhance it.

We’ve talked about this before, right? The Gothic versus Horror? There’s a subtle difference between the two of these things, but yes, I see you thinking it, there is a subset of gothic called “gothic horror” to further confuse things. I’ve been pouring through reviews for Crimson Peak trying to sort out where it fits, and there have been a few claims that suggest it’s actually gothic romance.


Let’s break this down, writer people:

Gothic Fiction:

Gothic fiction, which is largely known by the subgenre of Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature that combines fiction, horror, death and Romanticism. Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.”1 Chris Baldick’s “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales defines a Gothic text as being made up of “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 a sickening descent into disintegration.” The agent producing this disintegration may be of a supernatural, preternatural (mysterious/unknown), or fantasy/psychotic-related origin.2 

I really like this infographic in particular: 10 Signs you’re reading a Gothic Novel. I posted it a while back at The Midnight Society.

Gothic Horror:

I’m quoting this dude liberally: For a story to be Gothic, some kind of dark history must wrap the characters. For example, a past evil confronts a group of people in an isolated area (i.e. a haunting in a house.) The isolation results in claustrophobia. If the group reacts with a strong fear element, you have Gothic horror. On the other hand, such a story can be merely suspenseful, without being scary at all. Keep in mind that the claustrophobic “area” can also be within a person’s own mind, for example, someone in an extremely dreamy, deranged, drug-induced or nearly psychotic state.3 (Oh, please pass the opium, why don’t you. That’s a good love.)

Gothic Romance:

Let’s refer to Tom Hiddleston on this one, mkay?

Personally, I loved Crimson Peak. It delivered all the sensationalism I expected and the story lived up to my expectations and then kicked them in the teeth.

The specters were fantastic as well, but not terribly scary in and of themselves. I think the worst scare of the movie for me was when Jessica Chastain’s character, Lucille, picked up a dying butterfly (I hate butterflies) and brushed it’s quivering wing against her cheek. Damn near killed me. Then again I like to think of myself as being a little hardened against ghosts and ghouls and their ilk, so possibly I’m not the best judge of how “scary” the creatures of this film actually are — especially when I’d rather refer to the spooks in Crimson Peak as “gorgeous.”

I’ll leave you with this note, because it summarizes both the genre and the movie quite well:

Beyond the essential, though, there are obvious hallmarks of the gothic film. Often revolving around a female protagonist/victim, the gothic movie often includes a fraught love triangle, a big house appointed in luxurious and ornate style, ghosts of the real and imaginary variety, themes of sexual repression and/or jealousy, and Vincent Price. But gothic films are also often extremely beautiful, not just with respect to production design, but in terms of the kind of philosophy they attempt to grapple with —the relationship of the living to the dead, and the strange, vertiginous attraction that the spiralling unknown can exert, even as it terrifies the hell out of us at the same time. Gothic films dance along the line between life and death, between good and evil, between salvation and damnation, which makes the best of them so eternally, compulsively, titillatingly enjoyable.

– Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Go see it. Seriously.

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