I am about to get full-on horror genre nerd on you and talk about why Crimson Peak was a love letter, and why it would be what we regularly see in genre films if genre fiction hadn’t been taken over by male voices and the male gaze.
There are a lot of triggers and spoilers under here, so please proceed with caution.
Women invented genre. At this point, we know that. We all see righteous posts about Mary Shelley inventing horror and scifi one night while being a bored teenager, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch under the clay surface.
People that were the “others” in society in all differing intersections were not out to invent anything–genre was something forced upon them. Terming things “gothic” was not romantic. It was an insult. Gothic means ugly, terrible, gaudy. It was what the privileged called the stories they wouldn’t even lower themselves into reading. How did they know it was dreadful fiction? Most of the time it was because it was written by PERISH THE THOUGHT those awful scribbling women. So when we begin to celebrate genre like we do with Shelly, it’s triumphant, it’s the underdog story.
Except somehow the genre as a whole seems to be writing the underdog story while keeping the women out. All recent pastiches and parodies have been celebrating recent horror fiction, which is disproportionately made by men. The example I’ll give is Cabin in the Woods. Though I liked that movie a lot, the horror that it gives homage to is of the cabin in the woods monster-movie style, and pretty much that only. That is exclusively what you get on a horror movie weekend. Isn’t horror great, you guys? Isn’t it great? Look at all this blood. We’re gonna have something jump out at you. Ah yes, horror, the genre where we stab caricatures of people we don’t like! A bully punched me once in high school.
In Crimson Peak, you have an example of the exact underdog genre fiction should be celebrating in Edith Cushing. She’s independent enough to have the freedom to write, but has her agency taken away from her. She has a bustling environment that ceases to exist when she’s married and taken into an isolated house in the country. And she is compassionate and curious enough to follow the clues to find out why.
That is the setup for many early gothic fiction tales. Why?
Because if you’re a woman in the regency-victorian eras, you will have your agency taken away (you can’t even pick up mail without your husband), you will be isolated in your house, mostly alone when your husband goes away for months (why doesn’t she just leave the house? well, because it’s so far from anywhere else that she’ll probably die of exposure), and you will be so lonely that you may begin to see things.
This is what women were afraid of. They were afraid of it not because it was a story concept. They were afraid of it because it was their lives. They were afraid of what happens, and who could possibly come to call. They are afraid of isolation and a lack of an outside perspective, which at some point in that situation, they have to believe doesn’t exist.
Now try to figure out why haunted house stories today carry so little weight.
Edith both acts out and participates in a gothic romance with intelligence and gumption. She moved towards the ghosts, not because she is dumb, but because of her curiosity and need to know. She only runs from the ones that are chasing her. Edith knows something the other characters do not. She knows something’s not right, and the ghosts are the metaphor. She knows it because she’s a dreadful scribbling woman. She knows the ghosts are telling her something about the characters in the drama unfolding around her.
Her gothic fiction impacts the plot around her simply because she’s sharing the techniques of storytelling. In so doing, she unwittingly reveals to Thomas Sharpe the characters in the story he’s devouring can change in the telling, and they make decisions that allow them to do that. It’s a turning point for him, because it was something he never considered.
It’s that for him because when he goes to bed with Edith, it’s likely the first act he’s made with agency in so long he can’t remember. The joyous act of taking action and sharing it with a consenting partner is foreign to him, and it sparks a rebellion against this:
Here’s where the trigger warning comes in because make no doubt about it, Lucille is a sexual predator. If you need evidence, listen to her talk about him when he was a child. The describes how beautiful he was, and laments his further departure out of that version of him. While they were isolated in the house as children, she began to molest her brother. She contextualized it as love, and made it into a romance about the both of them. She told him it was a mad love that made them monsters, and they must embrace it. “No one must ever know because they wouldn’t understand and they’d hurt us.” But of course it’s not real. It was the story he had to accept out of fear. It’s abusive power dynamics. Until he reads an unfinished book, the horrid scribbles of a woman, he has no outside perspective to tell him something else exists. He doesn’t realize he is living in a house of horrors. He can’t even see the red oozing down the walls. He doesn’t notice his horrible conditions because it’s his normal. He doesn’t know until he reads gothic fiction.
That wouldn’t have happened without a story with a female voice, and one so different from his sister’s (it makes one wonder how cultivated the collection of books she allowed in that house, and how a rich collection in a library could be in such disrepair). He related to feminine fears of the age. A feminine voice could only reveal such things out of the experience of what happens when people are isolated and abuse goes unchecked. “Others” get isolated, put away, and must suppress themselves and with that comes madness. So the fears come out in stories, and with their fears in the form of ghosts and monsters we recognize the things we’re really afraid of. Those were the only writers who had the guts to show us what is in the cellar. The ghosts are there as fairy-tale helpers, those that show you what happens if you’re passive in the face of horrors. The Blumhouse ghouls that jump out at you in a mental institution have no place in this.
The men who called these terrible scribblings “gothic” would never write about a female sexual predator. What droll, exploitative nonsense! Ladies and Gentlemen do not act that way. Most especially ladies! The gentry is much too civilized for such phantasmagoria. No, these serious men of letters were much too busy writing important things about, uh…I don’t know, like, guys who prove themselves? I can’t find out what serious literature is. Does it have ghosts in it? Not for another few decades? Alright wake me up when we get there. But in any case, in a society that is so occupied by how civilized they are, the women writers and other “others” were mad enough to show them their fears.
They are scared of the ghosts that are there in the house, a house they can’t escape since a husband is not what he seemed when they married. They are scared of not being taken seriously, passed of as hysteric. But they are right and they will make you scared too, god help you. The way modern genre is trying to bury the women, poc, and lgbtq+ authors, filmmakers, and other creatives, to continue stealing from them, is shameful. For me explains why horror movies are empty, overproduced, and written by committee–it doesn’t belong to male-driven hollywood, and they don’t understand it. To them, it’s an empty trope. It’s why they have to rely on jumpscares every two minutes. They don’t know how to make anything scary because they’re not surrounded by what they’re scared of. To moviemakers now, scary is a concept. Horrifying is safe. Worse yet, sexual abuse is exciting shock value, not part of the horror.
It’s why the only interesting things in the last few years were made with those important voices again. Horror that is feminine is where the roots are, and finally, in Crimson Peak, they’re celebrated. Though celebrated by a man, it’s a man of color who embraced the feminine, and has related to monsters from a romantic, gothic perspective.
If writers like Angela Carter, Mary Shelly, Daphne DuMarier, and Shirley Jackson were the big names cited in the origins of horror instead of, and apologies to Mr. King, just dude author after dude author, Crimson Peak is what you’d see in the theaters much more often. They woefully aren’t.
“Crimson Peak, a Love Letter” ©noncorporealform, originally posted on 16 October 2015