Edith Cushing, Crimson Peak (dir. del Toro)
“…but the horror, the horror was for love.”
She shines out of every single frame of the film she is present in, almost always the brightest point on the screen. Unlike her foils, who are outfitted in black, and even the other so-called heroes of the film, Edith Cushing wears nearly exclusively shades of white and cream, with yellow the deepest tone in her wardrobe palette, black present only to make the shade appear more brilliant in contrast. At times, she fairly glows with it against the gloomy atmosphere – her purity, her innocence represented visually and nigh impossible to miss. Only in the blinding snowstorm of Crimson Peak’s climax does the setting match Edith’s lightness, and even that serves to highlight both the blood and the earth that is smeared across her by the end of her final desperate fight for survival, the red a physical symbol of the growing she has done. In terms of horror movies, she is clearly the final girl.
But Edith is so much more complicated than that trope, and Crimson Peak is not truly a horror film. Rather, it is a Gothic romance, a genre much more commonly found in literature than in film.
This generic confusion has lead, logically, to a confused reception of the film, particularly amongst those who have cut their teeth on horror or Hollywood or both. While there are certain people – myself included – who received Crimson Peak rapturously, recognizing something they love in it and thinking “finally, finally, a film like this,” many of the movie buffs I know, particularly the horror ones, were disappointed by Crimson Peak, and its heroine. Some people, like a softer world’s Joey Comeau, thought the ghosts should have been “less sad” and “more scary,” which is fair enough if one was expecting a high horror film, a genre Comeau is extremely fond of. Others, however, considered the film a “failure” because it delivered something other than jump scares and monsters, something sadder and quieter and more underneath the surface. Without fail, every person I’ve encountered who feels this way has been a film expert or enthusiast.
The problem with this is that Crimson Peak, and Edith herself, originate from books. Books, in particular, written by women. Young women. Girls, almost – girls like Edith. Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Daphne Du Maurier, and of course the Bronte sisters; Gothic romance has, since its conception, been the arena of female imagination. Of course men have written in the Gothic mode, but they tend to write a different type. In fact, scholars of the genre consider the line between Gothic romance and Gothic horror to be a gendered one. Where women tend to write stories of social oppression and interpersonal horror, men write ones where the supernatural is actually real, and actually the sinister force at work.
There are many theories as to why this is the case. I favour a simple one: women have long had a great deal of very real things to fear; they do not need to make up ghosts and monsters to menace them.
Regardless of the reason for the split, the fact remains: the Gothic is a genre that has, since its very beginning, been the province of female imagination. We are haunted creatures, it seems. In being so, it has become a genre rife with coming-of-age stories for girls-become-women. This means that a rejection of the film based on the grounds of its genre, or lack of understanding thereof, becomes a rejection of girlish stories.
This troubles me for multiple reasons, but the strongest is that Edith’s story is not just the story of a girl, written in and paying tribute to a specific generic mode. Rather, it is a story that pays tribute to the Gothic even as it troubles it and pushes beyond. Crimson Peak, in telling Edith’s story, refuses to fall victim to the more sexist tropes inherent in Gothic romance.
Here are some of the very first things I learned about the Gothic, when I began to study it: the heroine is always a young, fair girl, often named Lily or some other variation of a name meaning “light” (Edith means “prosperous in war”). She will be innocent and pure (here meaning, of course, virginal), and that purity will be menaced by the villain of the story but ultimately not taken – she cannot, of course, be spoiled, not when she still has to marry the hero. She will be the foil to the hero’s tortured soul, ultimately redeeming him with her goodness. Often, particularly in the Gothic stories that are centered around an imposing architectural structure that can be taken to be the physical manifestation of a tortured or traumatized psyche, the heroine and her hero are ultimately two sides of the same split soul or consciousness, on a symbolic level, and their marriage is the healing of that rift into a single self once more.
The Gothic, even as it has been the arena of girlish stories, has still been written in a patriarchal world, after all.
Of course, long before Guillermo Del Toro gave us Crimson Peak, Gothic conventions were being troubled, and troubled by young women. Edith, you see, resembles no filmic heroine so much as she does the literary creation of Charlotte Bronte, the famous Jane. (One in fact wonders if Del Toro chose to cast Wasikowska due to her turn in the 2011 Fukunaga adaptation of Jane Eyre). But even Jane, even as she leaves in favour of freedom, even as she refuses love until it can be gained on equal footing, still has her story culminate in marriage, reaching full maturity finally only after returning to Rochester.
Edith Cushing is the only heroine I can think of who must survive marriage in order to come out the other end a woman, finally mature in her ability to stand alone.
At the outset of the film, Edith, though physically mature, is very much still a girl: sheltered and doted upon by her widower father, she is intellectually precocious, but emotionally naive. She wants nothing so much as to be a writer, and finds her own girlishness – much like the way her film was received in our world – to get in the way. She is not taken seriously, as an artist or, truly, as a person. Not yet.
Her naivety makes her an easy target for Thomas and Lucille Sharpe, the man she will marry and his sister, after her father’s murder makes it impossible for him to protect Edith from them any longer. This lesson is one she must learn on her own, and like all such lessons it will take much more strongly for the learning.
A whole web of men work on Edith’s behalf or attempt to save her throughout the film: her father, the private detective he hires, her childhood friend and potential love interest Dr. Alan McMichael, and even, in the end, Thomas himself. Ultimately, however, every single one of them is completely ineffectual, and it is Edith who saves herself – and Alan. And while Gothic conventions would have this mean that Alan was in actuality the true hero all along and Edith’s real love interest, he spends the majority of the time after he arrives in England to save her unconscious and bleeding out, and does not reawaken for the film’s final moments. Edith stands alone in the snow and mud and ruins of the place she thought to make her home, and it is her married name the villagers in the distance call, the name she has earned with the death of her husband and sister-in-law: “Lady Sharpe!”
But even before Edith begins the process of surviving and defeating her marriage, it is her desires and choices that drive the entirety of the film. Certainly Thomas Sharpe sets out to seduce her, but she falls for him less because he is handsome and dashing, and much more because she believes that he understands her, and her stories.
In fact, at the outset of the film, the combination of Edith’s paleness, her intellectualism, and rich interior life combine to make her seem almost bloodless, a wholly cerebral creature. It is only as we get to know her that we discover this assumption to be untrue. Edith has a great many passions, and equally as many wants, and one of the great triumphs of Crimson Peak is that it does not shame her for any of them, not even the sexual ones.
Actually, it is Edith’s bodily desires that start the process that saves her in the end. Thomas falls in love with her after all, a development that seems to truly begin after they finally consummate their marriage in a night spent away from his ancestral home and the overarching presence of his sister. At no point is it presented as odd or wrong that Edith should want her husband, and nor is it him who truly takes the lead in their lovemaking. Edith’s sexual desires simply exist, naturally, as part of who she is. And unlike the horror movie trope, they lead not to her downfall but to her survival.
And while it is true that Edith’s love seems to redeem Thomas in the end, it is not through their marriage or even the consummation thereof that this takes place. Rather, Edith saves Thomas only in his death, and only because her love and goodness have worked to make him want to be better, to move beyond the twisted, incestuous and murderous life he and his sister have lead. So while Edith still helps to move Thomas into the light, it is not through some arbitrary measure assigned to the state of her virginity, but an inherent goodness that has to do with her morals and integrity.
This is in no small part related to the fact that, in the end, it isn’t actually Thomas who is Edith’s foil, but his sister, Lucille.
Again, a common Gothic trope is to have two characters be symbolic of two sides of one, larger, soul or psyche. The tortured hero is either the subconscious or the darker side of the being, while the heroine is the less substantial light side that redeems the other. In the act of that redemption, the hero sublimates his redeemer and becomes the full being once more, which is why the process occurs so often through marriage.
Crimson Peak subverts this trope first by having Edith’s other half be her sister-in-law, Lucille (played by Jessica Chastain in arguably the most compelling performance of the film), who is Edith’s foil not through being her love interest but because where Edith is naive Lucille is cynical, where Edith is innocent Lucille is world-weary, and where Edith is good Lucille is twisted, depraved by cruelness and isolation to the point of corrupting even love.
And love is what truly sets the two women apart from each other, with Thomas in the middle. Where Edith’s love is a force for good, a redemptive balm, Lucille’s love, or the love in between the siblings, may have been all they had for a long time, but it is destructive and tainted. The love between the Sharpes has been perverted to the point of arguably not even being love any more, but merely lust, or perhaps even just obsession.
Even more than this difference between the two, though, Crimson Peak subverts the light-and-dark trope by having the light win. Of course Edith and Lucille are never going to marry, and Lucille’s double roll as foil and villain means that they won’t reconcile, either. So Edith matures not by becoming someone else’s other half, but by doing the very opposite. In the climax of the film it is herself that Edith must rely on, her own strength and her own abilities. She saves herself, and she saves Alan, and she redeems Thomas, and in the end she stands by herself in the snow, stained by Allerdale Hall and the Sharpe family, but not consumed by either.
She must be touched by the darkness, exposed to lust and blood and betrayal and heartbreak in order to fully reach this point, but in the end it is Edith who stands alone as a full and mature character at the close of the film. A whole character not through another, but by being forced through circumstance into becoming fully, entirely herself. •
[all images © Universal Pictures]
Jacqui Deighton still considers London, England “home”, but currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is pretty okay with that. Her writing has appeared in One Week / One Band, Goblin Fruit and elsewhere, as well as winning some awards. She likes lip gloss, stompy boots, and cephalopods. Probably she was Remus Lupin in a past life.
She is a Shakespeare and Punk staff writer. GIRLisms, a column about girls and the worlds they hold inside themselves, is her brainchild.