A Story With a Ghost in It: On Family, Trauma, and Hope in Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak | artwork by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

[content warning: brief mentions of gore, domestic violence, child abuse, abduction]

I used to have a t-shirt with a cartoon of an axe murderer on it. The killer clutched her still-dripping weapon in one hand, a man’s severed head in the other. She wore a polo shirt and an expression of abject horror. OH NO, read the caption. I’VE BECOME MY MOTHER.

The joke is that the killer needs to reassess her priorities. The joke is that a woman in golfing attire has removed a man’s head from his body. The joke is that we can’t outrun our roots. The joke is that buckets of blood are her birthright, that this violence was inevitable.

On its surface, Guillermo del Toro’s film Crimson Peak presents the same story. The tale of creepy British nobles (Tom Hiddleston and a gloatingly-villainous Jessica Chastain) luring an American heiress (Mia Wasikowska) to their haunted mansion hits all the major gothic horror notes: the gauzy nightgowns, the poisoned tea. A little dog trotting curiously down a darkened hallway. Dark legacies. Axe murder.

But all of this is beside the point. On this subject, del Toro has been quite vocal, both personally—“Crimson Peak is not a horror movie,” he insisted in interviews—and through his plucky hero, the heiress/writer Edith Cushing. Her novel is not a ghost story, she explains to a patronizing publisher. “It’s more a story with a ghost in it.”

We’re meant to chuckle, here; it’s understood that Edith’s defensive pedantry is del Toro winking at his own reflection. Yet the distinction still matters, because this really isn’t a story about ghosts. It’s about learning to listen to them.

All three of the film’s central characters faced gruesome trauma as children. Edith was visited by ghostly visions of her mother’s blackened, decaying corpse; Sharpe siblings Thomas and Lucille endured far, far worse. Young Lucille bravely bore the brunt of her family’s violence, but no child’s body could possibly contain it all. Her impulse to protect her little brother twisted into something terrible. The horror began to surge forth from her. It didn’t stop.

These are, of course, extreme cases, the awfulness aggrandized for dramatic effect. Technically, trauma is any experience that makes a person feel unsafe and overwhelms their ability to cope. That might be extreme violence like military combat or sexual assault. It might be an accident like a car crash, or sustained stress like chronic pain or emotional abuse. Too much happens too fast, or for too long.

Which is to say: trauma befalls everyone at one time or another. But not everyone develops post-traumatic stress. The difference between someone with PTSD and someone without is not, experts say, the nature or severity of the event, but whether the person in question can regain a sense of safety, and process what’s just happened. We need social support in order to soothe our activated nervous systems. We also need to physically release our panic-fueled energy. Sometimes that looks like fighting back. Sometimes it means running away.

This is partly why violence at home can be so damaging for a child: there is nowhere else for them to go.

Family violence is often bound up in secrecy, creating a closed system that normalizes dysfunction. Children born into these systems may be trained from birth to accept abuse, no matter how it might hurt them. They may be taught that destructive behavior—others’, and, often, eventually, their own—is an ugly fact of life rather than a decision. They may be told that it’s unsafe to leave.

A stranger tried to abduct me when I was 17. I was lucky; I realized what was happening just in time and ran. It would happen again a few years later, and I would begin to wonder, because how could I not, if everything my mother had said when I was a child was true. If I really was too cute and little! for my own good. If venturing outside alone was inviting violation. If it really would be better to stay in the house, no matter who or what else was in there with me.

Trauma psychology is still a young field; our understanding of what trauma is and how to treat it is constantly shifting. Many psychologists argue that post-traumatic stress is not an illness but a healthy response to unbearable circumstances, that aftereffects like panic attacks and hypervigilance are survival mechanisms activated by a body under siege. These practitioners believe that the focus of recovery should not be suppressing a person’s so-called symptoms, nor erasing a traumatic event from their memory. It should be helping the traumatized person pay attention to what their body is telling them—to help them finally find their way to safety.

Crimson Peak’s Edith seems to know this instinctively. Raised by a loving father in a warm, sturdy home, Edith is equipped with the resources she needs to carry on despite her losses. She grows into a compassionate and courageous woman. This doesn’t mean that she is not haunted wherever she goes. It means that when the ghosts appear, grotesque and terrifying though they may be, Edith does something extraordinary: she asks the moaning phantoms what they want. And, when they tell her to flee, she heeds them.

Thomas and Lucille spent their early years locked in an attic. They never once knew safety or a parent’s love. They also never developed Edith’s uncanny talent for seeing the dead. Unfortunately, this doesn’t spare them from being haunted. The red riptide of their past drags them endlessly toward a red horizon. They do a lot of very bad things. They can’t conceive of doing anything else.

When Thomas and Edith first meet, he is mystified by her wild ideas about free will. He devours her story-with-a-ghost-in-it while she’s still writing it.

THOMAS (reading): This fellow Cavendish, your hero.
THOMAS: There’s a darkness to him. I like him.
THOMAS: Does he make it all the way through?
EDITH: It’s entirely up to him.
THOMAS: What do you mean?
EDITH: Well, characters talk to you. They transform.
EDITH: They make choices.
THOMAS: Choices.
EDITH: As to who they become.

The Sharpes set a marriage trap, and lovely Edith gamely wanders in. She does not share her wealthy, protective father’s distrust of her suitor. She also does not doubt the accidental nature of her wealthy, protective father’s sudden death.

Thomas brings his new bride home to desolate Allerdale Hall. The Sharpe family home is in a state of literal collapse. Snow and dead leaves fall softly through room-sized holes in the rotting roof. A pit of liquid red clay oozes beneath the house like an open wound.

At first Edith roams the halls too freely, disturbing the mansion’s deadly stillness. The house’s ghosts shriek and snatch at her with their mangled hands; Edith holds out an open hand in return. She listens to what they have to say. Cracks appear in Lucille’s chilling composure. This is not how it’s supposed to go. Thomas’ resolve wavers. Crimson clay bleeds through the walls.

But before long the poisoned tea does its work, and Edith’s bright eyes dim. Even as the ghosts accosting her grow more insistent, escape becomes harder to imagine.

EDITH: I have to leave. I have to get away from here.
LUCILLE: Edith, this is your home now.
LUCILLE: You have nowhere else to go.

This is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to reveal which character I’d be. If I see myself in Edith, the bright butterfly, or in the dark, predatory moth, Lucille.

Yes, is the answer. I do.

A moth is not the opposite of a butterfly, nor a refutation of it. The differences between them—genetically, aesthetically, behaviorally—are infinitesimal compared with all they have in common. And a blonde woman is not the opposite of a brunette, even if the brunette murders people. They are both human, and haunted, and falling apart. By the time this is all over, they’ll both have blood in their mouths.

My heart is tender, as Edith’s is, and as Lucille’s was, once. And like Lucille, over the years I did more than my share of damage.

These days, I feel most like Thomas: scarred and remorseful, stepping hopefully over the threshold.

“Trauma is a fact of life,” writes psychologist Peter Levine in his book Waking the Tiger. “It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”

Survival often comes down to chance or privilege or luck. Being born into a safer body, or family, or world. Realizing the danger you’re in before it’s too late to run. Being able to run. Having someplace safe to go. Finding the right self-help book or support group or therapist or meditation or medication or poem or prayer or all of the above. Deciding on a whim to listen to an album or watch a TV show that ends up saving your life. Meeting someone who says, Why are you doing this?, which is another way of saying, You don’t have to do this, which is another way of saying You get to choose what kind of person you become. Realizing that they’re right.

When my realization came, I knew I had to tell my mother. I sat her down at my dining-room table, took a deep breath, and started weeping. She pulled me into her lap and held me tight. I was 33 years old.

I told her that I was making some big changes in my life. I outlined for her the size and shape of my dysfunction. She was silent for what felt like a long time. When at last she spoke, it was through a pained smile. “Well,” she said, “you certainly come by it honestly.”

Del Toro may disagree, but to me the climax of Crimson Peak is the moment Thomas—passive, tormented Thomas—makes the improbable decision to escape with Edith, and his sister, if he can.

THOMAS: We can leave, Lucille, leave Allerdale Hall.
THOMAS: Think about it. We can start a new life.
THOMAS: Anywhere. It doesn’t matter.

I won’t claim that Crimson Peak has a happy ending. Lucille dies, and Thomas dies too, horribly; our curses and demons don’t give us up easily. Still, the last moments of Thomas’ life are brave ones, and his fleeting afterlife is expended helping Edith escape. The ghost of Thomas Sharpe bids his wife a loving goodbye—and then, at last, he leaves.

The axe murderer t-shirt eventually went to Goodwill. It wasn’t that my sense of humor matured; if anything, the older I get, the harder that horrible cartoon makes me laugh. What changed was my willingness to dress myself in violence. We can’t control what happens to us, or the stories we’re born into. But we don’t have to live, or die, or kill, inside these bloody houses. We can leave, Lucille. We can leave.