Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is not about the horror of ghosts, but the horror of humanity. It’s a thread that runs through all of his films. Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and The Shape of Water are all populated with wondrous (and monstrous) creatures, yet all get cast in sympathetic lights as close-minded, destructive humans who refuse to expand their horizons about the possibilities for goodness and change.
Opening in the turn-of-the-century New York, Crimson Peak follows Edith Cushing, a young writer who makes the acquaintance of broke baronet Thomas Sharpe, and his beautiful sister, Lucille. Though his financial status and unnervingly close relationship to his sister raises a few eyebrows, Thomas enchants Edith, and he takes her to his ancestral home, Allerdale Hall, in rural England. Edith gets swept up in her budding romance with Thomas but is keen to crack Lucille’s icy demeanor–unaware that there is far, far more than meets the eye to her raven-haired sister-in-law.
Long before the secrets of Crimson Peak get revealed, we discover Lucille’s core motivation: Allerdale Hall is the only home she’s ever known, and she wants to save the crumbling manor. It’s where she learned to fend for herself, to keep her brother close, to become mistress of a historical estate. Guillermo del Toro’s character for biography for Lucille, posted on Twitter in 2017, featured extra information, including that Lucille’s depravity began with a desire to protect Thomas, then a little boy, from the abuse and neglect of their disinterested, cold parents. And protect him she does—to sinister, twisted depths, psychologically molding her from a protective sister to a controlling mistress of the house. When we meet the Sharpes in Crimson Peak, their parents are long gone, and Edith’s arrival threatens the status quo: Lucille is no longer the woman in charge.
Like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca before her, Lucille keeps a watchful eye over Allerdale Hall and refuses to allow the new Mrs. Sharpe to have any claim over the property—the estate’s only set of keys rests on Lucille’s chatelaine, the lower levels are forbidden to Edith as only Lucille knows how to navigate the decrepit basement safely. Lucille does not welcome Edith save for the occasional teatime spread (which has far less to do with English hospitality than she lets on), nor does she properly acquaint Edith with her new home.
Visions of skeletal ghosts in black and red plague Edith. Some have succumbed to illness (the black ghosts), others have brutally killed (the red ghosts have gruesome injuries upon their bodies). Each warns her to leave Allerdale Hall, nicknamed “Crimson Peak” for the red clay that seeps through the floorboards. The ghosts’ abilities to communicate are limited, but Edith suspects they have no sinister motives—but Lucille certainly does.
The depths of Lucille’s actions, only revealed in the final act of the film, show del Toro’s fascination with the capability of the human mind. It’s a film about purity, redemption, and depravity—its three protagonists represent one of each. Edith is pure, kind, and eager to know her sister-in-law. Thomas has a horrific history but wants to move past it. And Lucille is self-serving to devastating lengths—she is not unsaveable, but unwilling to be saved by anyone except her own strong will. The refusal to receive help, the rejection of anything beyond her own desire, is Lucille’s ultimate undoing. She knows that to become a good person, she will have to give up the control she has had since she was a young woman—control of Allerdale Hall, control over the social life of her younger brother, control over her warped sense of right and wrong. There is potential for humility and reform in Lucille. The ghosts that haunt Allerdale Hall are graphic reminders of Lucille’s actions—but they’re only there because of her.
“The horror was for love,” Lucille says, when her malevolent, brutal, violent history comes to light. Love for her brother. Love for her home. And the love of control. It’s a scary thing to surrender your desires for a greater good. But it’s even scarier to let your worst self become your only self. Del Toro knows this. The villains in all his films know this—his protagonists embrace change and look for the greater good. There’s a great deal of tragedy in Crimson Peak, and much of it is about moving beyond pain. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is the knowledge that Lucille’s story could have been entirely different, had she let go of the past.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Claire Di Maio is a recent college graduate with a large collection of books and a small horde of Downton Abbey paraphernalia. She is hopeless at solving math problems, but is alarmingly good at identifying the voices of celebrity spokespeople in commercials, which she hopes will prove useful one day. In the meantime, she loves to write, quote Gilmore Girls, and cook enough risotto to feed a small country.