One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Near the beginning of Guillermo del Toro’s new horror movie, Crimson Peak, a group of Victorian socialites describe the heroine, a young, aspiring American novelist named Edith Cushing, as “our very own Jane Austen,” cattily adding of Austen: “She died a spinster.” Edith replies, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley,” adding, after a pause, “She died a widow.”
Beyond this exchange’s underlying dialogue of marriageability, Edith’s preference for Mary Shelley situates Crimson Peak in the genre of Gothic terror which runs from Anne Radcliffe to Shelley herself to Charlotte Brontë to Daphne Du Maurier and beyond. Edith’s rejection of Austen implies that this movie is not a send-up of the Gothic genre, as Austen’s satirical Northanger Abbey is, even when the film self-consciously trots out the most worn conventions of the genre. More subtly but even more importantly, Edith’s preference signals the film’s distance from the worldview that produced Austen’s satirical novel: there will be no shaming of the female protagonist’s overheated imagination here, as there is via a pedantically mansplaining male figure in Northanger Abbey. In Crimson Peak, all the heroine’s fears are confirmed—along with some terrors that never occurred to her before they were revealed, though they probably occurred to the viewer with any experience of Gothic tales.
In the Gothic tradition, female feelings and fears are central. Often (though not in Shelley’s Frankenstein), these are the feelings and fears of an innocent young woman—from Emily in Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to the narrator of Du Maurier’s Rebecca—entering the mysterious house of a compelling and possibly dangerous man. That man is generally Byronic, gloomy, aristocratic, and in possession of a dark secret which is also the secret of his house. Crimson Peak does not deviate from these traditions. The requisite young woman is played by Mia Wasikowska, whose otherworldly—almost ghostly (no pun intended)—beauty makes her a dream for directors of moody period-pieces, and who has played Madame Bovary, Alice in Wonderland, and Jane Eyre herself. Here she plays Edith, the daughter of a wealthy American businessman, who finds herself swept off her feet by impoverished British aristocrat Sir Thomas Sharpe, played by the always unbearably handsome Tom Hiddleston. He brings her to his gorgeously decaying house, where she soon finds herself trapped.
How faithful is this film to its Gothic heritage? In one scene Sir Thomas declares his love for Edith in an almost word-for-word quotation of Rochester’s famous speech to Jane Eyre, declaring that he feels their hearts are linked and that he would bleed to death if that link was broken, though she would forget him. More importantly, however, the film follows its precursors in keeping female feeling foregrounded. Hiddleston’s character ultimately fades into an intermediary in the charged conflict between his wife and his venomous sister Lucille, played by Jessica Chastain. While Wasikowska and Hiddleston do their best to invest as much earnestness as possible into even the most ludicrous lines—“The water will run red, because of the clay,” Sir Thomas tells his new bride, straight-faced, before running her a bath—Chastain comes the closest to veering the movie into parody. She’s not having quite enough fun with her performance for it to be camp, but neither does she play down the lurid melodrama. That melodrama, however, never upstages or undermines what truly haunts about the movie, which is Edith’s attempt to maintain her identity when uncertainty starts to shroud every corner of her life.
As I watched Edith’s struggles in this respect, I was reminded of how the Gothic illuminates the horror of a particularly female experience: the nightmare of having your feelings and fears invalidated. Behind the Gothic narrative’s supernatural horrors lies the more familiar one of a woman’s emotions being silenced with the accusation that she is overreacting, irrational, or acting crazy. The term for this silencing of female feeling is gaslighting, from the 1944 movie Gaslight in which a husband tries to convince his wife she is going insane. A 2011 article by Yashar Ali in the Huffington Post (originally for The Current Conscience) examined this phenomenon. Ali writes that: “Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction— whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness—in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.” And why are women in particular the usual victims of gaslighting? “It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it,” Ali observes.
The fear that you are going crazy, that you are imagining the things that wound or haunt you, is one our culture is always ready to confirm in women. We have been culturally conditioned to distrust our own minds, our own responses to the world around us. The writers of Gothic narratives have always understood this. In Jane Eyre, during Rochester’s engagement to Jane, his first wife Bertha briefly escapes from the attic in Thornfield where he has confined her, and terrifies the bride-to-be. Jane, not knowing of any previous wife’s existence, quickly lets Rochester know that she has seen this inexplicable apparition. Rochester, having already deemed one wife insane, quickly works to keep his secret by assuring Jane that what she saw was the product of her overwrought imagination and delicate nerves.
Nineteenth-century American Gothic fiction used the same tropes: In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s wonderfully creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), a woman suffering from post-partum depression is confined by her husband to the attic of his ancestral house, because this husband, a doctor, believes that any stimuli—including the self-expression of writing—will be bad for her, and so forbids it. He condescendingly overrides her concerns that this treatment is harming her, and ultimately her mind disintegrates.
In this context, perhaps the scariest scene in Crimson Peak is the one depicting what happens after Edith encounters some of the mansion’s ghostly inhabitants—no pale specters these, but gruesome (and, this being del Toro, beautifully visualized) red and black corpses who move as if still in visible pain, and whose bodies steam with a sort of blood-colored smoke. Understandably unnerved, Edith confronts her husband with the question of the house’s secrets: have deaths occurred in this house? Murders most foul? With his sister’s aid, the Baronet tries to soothe her, expressing concern that she is hysterical, overcome by emotion—implicitly, that she is unhinged. This sinister emotional and psychological manipulation is an everyday horror more subtle, but just as nightmarish, as a moaning ghost with an axe embedded in its skull.
The Gothic resonates with what women already know: that the people they love and the spaces they inhabit—physical, domestic, psychological—may not be safe, might suffer invasion by things that haunt or hurt. We recognize the fear that our own emotions, our love itself, might be used as a weapon against us, while we become so accustomed to silencing our own doubts that we never see the weapon being used. I’ve met women who have lost the capacity to trust their gut impulses, who have become disconnected from the capacity for self-protective anger or action. We accept fault because to fully face the way our loved ones are wounding us creates such profound loneliness. I’ve heard a victim of emotional domestic abuse say: “Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe if I just…” I’ve heard an anorexic teenager insisting on the truth of what she had been made to feel: that her self-starvation is an act of selfishness on her part, the result of something morally wrong in her, in no way connected with family dynamics. I have had my own tears turned against me with the question: Why do you let him get to you?
Even our doctors gaslight us; recent studies have shown the effects on women’s minds and bodies of the medical community’s tendency to dismiss female pain as exaggerated. These effects were reported recently in chilling articles in both the New York Times and the Atlantic. Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in The Empathy Exams (2014) discusses the bias toward viewing women’s pain as “pain that is understood as performed rather than genuinely felt” (p.190). She refers to a 2001 study, “The Girl who Cried Pain,” which found that men reporting pain are more likely to be given pain medication, women to be given sedatives (p.187).
In any situation of intense pain or fear, whether medical or domestic, being told repeatedly that you are imagining things or “making them up” creates a hell of Gothic isolation. I remember the frustration and anger I encountered even from loved ones during a summer five years ago, when I was experiencing a variety of physical ailments and mysterious pains exacerbated by anxiety. When the wounds are not visible, “The Girl who Cries Pain” is not believed. Sometimes I began to fear I was fabricating my pain, that I was being melodramatic. “What if it’s all in my head?” I remember wailing to a therapist, who responded, “Why does it matter?” I was stunned. What she meant was that the pain was real, and deserving of compassion, whatever its source. Or as Jamison puts it, “Pain that gets performed is still pain” (188). Ghosts no one else sees can still haunt you—and they don’t necessarily mean you’re crazy. In an indirect way, the Gothic validates the experience of countless women, whether in relationships, doctor’s offices, or work environments, who know something is not right, but face denial or dismissal when they say so.
“The ghosts are a metaphor,” Edith explains, early in Crimson Peak, to a publisher skeptical of the supernatural presences in her novel. She repeats the same explanation to her husband-to-be when he reads the manuscript. The ghosts are a metaphor. But they’re also not, if by metaphor we mean “not real.” As the excellent 2014 horror movie The Babadook also illustrated, knowing what a monster represents (in that case, grief) only demonstrates the visceral menace of the thing it stands for.
As I was exiting the theater during the closing credits of Crimson Peak, a young man ahead of me scoffed to his girlfriend, “That wasn’t scary.” “I don’t know,” she replied quietly. “I liked it.”
I wonder if she meant, It scared me.
It scares me, too.