The Fall of the House of Usher: A look at Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak

In the crowded world of cinematic horror and supernatural stories, Crimson Peak is a beautiful, rare tale that falls into the category of gothic romance. When asked about his influences for this particular project, Guillermo del Toro answered that he tapped into literary works rather than old horror films

“I read E.T.A. Hoffman, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Wuthering Heights, and Great Expectations—everything that’s been affected by the gothic spirit. When I was a kid, one of my favourite writers was Edgar Allan Poe. He has that beautiful tale, ‘The Full of the House of Usher.’ Essentially, Crimson Peak is a cross between a classic gothic romance, like Jane Eyre or something like that, and The House of Usher. I tried to capture the dark spirit that gothic romance has. Marketing may contradict me, but Crimson Peak is not a horror film; it’s a mixture of darkness and beauty, melodrama and eerie atmosphere.”

(October 16, 2015 ‒ Films School Rejects).

Ripe with references to the original literary genre, the film is a love letter to what makes gothic romance so alluring but the filmmaker also took great delight into playing with its conventions. Bearing the marks of Del Toro’s directorial sensibilities and his flair for the unusual and the eerie, Crimson Peak is infused with traditional Gothic imagery and tropes but it also turns certain archetypes on its head ‒ particularly when it comes to gender roles.
Set at the turn of the 20th century ‒ the end of Victorian times (Queen Victoria died in 1901) for England and for the United States of America, the closure of a period known as the Gilded age ‒ the story follows the 24-years-old Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), aspiring ghost stories author and the only child of a self-made, widowed American businessman as she unexpectedly falls for a dashing English baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston).

The film opens with a shot of a white-clad and bloodied Edith as she utters the words “Ghosts are real, this much I know.”, immediately setting the tone for the viewer. Indeed, the protagonist of the tale is also the narrator. The use of the first-person point of view is typical of Gothic fiction as it renders the experience more vivid but also limits what the reader or viewer have access to, forcing them to trust the narrator. For instance, this is the case in Dracula by Bram Stoker with Jonathan Harker and of course, in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher with however an unnamed narrator.

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” ‒ Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

That opening establishes Edith’s connection to the supernatural by telling and showing us that when she was 10, her mother died from black cholera. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, the little girl started to have interactions with her mother’s ghost who whispered to her a then incomprehensible warning: “When the time comes, beware of Crimson Peak”. Crimson Peak is a fiercely female-centric film. Everything in the story connects to female characters, especially the heroine Edith and her rival Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), Thomas’s sister. The characters assume narrative positions that are expected in the Gothic genre but Del Toro twists those archetypes by telling us a story that is essentially driven by the two very complete and opposed female characters.

I – Onomastics and characterisation 

An uncommon but interesting way to approach how the three main characters are constructed is to take a look at the underlying significance of the names chosen in the film and hypothetically, how they relate to Poe’s own choices for this short story.

Edith Cushing, Lucille Sharpe and Madeline Usher

When Del Toro introduces Edith, we meet her fourteen years after her first ghostly encounter, in the buzzy city of Buffalo (state of New York), the most electrified city in the world at that time. Daughter of the businessman Carter Cushing and thus heir to his fortune ‒ wealth and social status play a key part in the plot ‒ it is probably no coincidence that Edith is named as such. Edith is a name originating from Old English, rare then revived during the 19th century. It is composed of “ēad”, meaning “wealth or fortune (in the sense of ‘blessed’)”, and “ġȳð”, meaning “war”. Edith is a lively young woman. Bright and headstrong, she values hard work and endeavours to publish her writings, pieces of fiction she insists are not ghost stories but rather stories with ghosts in them. She disregards marriage and seeks to live a fulfilling, independent life, something she makes particularly clear when she tells Mrs. Michael “I would prefer to be Mary Shelley. She died a widow”. Del Toro sprinkles the story with quite a few explicit references to timeless literary figures (Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle are mentioned) which naturally, backs the idea that Edith is a consummate literature lover but it also is a play on intertextuality between the works of those authors and the film itself. Our heroine is also very conscious of what is expected of her, a young, single woman in a 20th-century society that is still very much patriarchal although she rejects those conventions.

A good illustration of that is her decision to switch from handwritten to machine typed manuscripts after a fruitless meeting with a publisher. She deems her handwriting too feminine, too perfect and believes it gives her away. Serious genres such as Gothic or Romantic fiction at the time were considered inappropriate for women, at a time where women were expected to marry, be honourable housewives and to maintain very private lives. In public, they had to display virtue and chastity. It was not uncommon for female authors to publish their works under a male penname. Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights under the pseudonym of Ellis Bell while Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published anonymously.

Edith is directly contrasted with Lucille, Thomas’ sister and lover. Lucille Sharpe and Madeline Usher both have French first names that not only allude to romance and courtship (French has, after all, been considered as the language of love and passion for a long time) but also connote light and purity. Lucille is derived from the Latin “Lux” which means “light”. Madeline is a name rooted in biblical origins. It is derived from Greek, a modern rendering of Magdalene, a name widely associated with Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus Christ. While in The Fall of the House of Usher lady Madeline’s role is limited, she physically moves through the story like a ghost, passing down corridors and paying no attention to her brother’s guest. We do not see her again until she rises from her alleged death. At the end of the story, she appears in a blood-stained white dress. Lucille, very much like her brother, has almost vampiric qualities (see for instance Lucy in Dracula). She is enigmatic, pale, dark-haired and possesses an austere, voluptuous beauty while Edith’s youth is evident. She is introduced at the McMichael reception as she plays the piano, wearing a dark red long-sleeved dress with a collar that resembles an Elizabethan ruff and her hair is elaborately tied up. The colour is a hint to the name of the Sharpe estate and Lucille’s link to the ghosts who haunt the mansion, her victims. Edith has luminous, angelic, innocent traits that are opposed to Lucille’s appearance and beneath, her true nature. One fills the traditional role of the distressed heroine, the other that of the enticing, almost supernatural female figure.

“Normally, in gothic romance, females end up being damsels in danger. They end up being rescued by Fabio without a shirt. I wanted this movie to be very centric to the female figures. The movie tries to speak to different types of life: destructive, possessive, controlling, or liberating. At the end of the day, I wanted two opposite beings of love in the middle of the window, booking it out.” – Guillermo del Toro (October 16, 2015 ‒ Films School Rejects)

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“I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them.” ‒ Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Thomas Sharpe and Roderick Usher

The name Thomas is a name of Greek origin, derived from Aramic תאומא” (t’om’a) which means “twin”. Thomas and Lucille Sharpe, just like the Usher twins Roderick and Madeline, are siblings who beyond blood ties also share a carnal, taboo relationship. The Sharpe siblings are the last of their line on whom the preservation of the family name and estate depends. Roderick, on the other hand, is a name deriving from a combination of proto-germanic words that together mean “fame” and “power” (famous power).
Hiddleston’s Thomas Sharpe bears a striking resemblance to Poe’s Roderick Usher. He is tall, lithe and long of limb with sharp yet harmonious features, a pale complexion, gentle and expressive blue eyes, thin lips and jet-black, slightly dishevelled curls that frame his face. His body language, his gait assert a certain confidence but do not contravene his genteelness and the elegance of his speech. He favours black, magnificently tailored but out-of-fashion suits which accentuates his gentlemanly side but also has meaning in the social context, as it hints to his fading wealth. Sharpe is the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the embodiment of the Byronic hero.

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“Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten.” ‒ Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Sir Sharpe is also a baronet, an aristocrat. He is intelligent, sophisticated and well-educated but the impoverished heir to Allerdale Hall (Cumberland county), a no-longer profitable estate on the desolate English countryside. The Byronic hero, a literary character archetype of the Romantic period has served as the template to mold the contemporary anti-hero. Thus, for all the allure and magnetic qualities, the character is a contradiction with at his core, emotional and moral struggles. The young baronet is moody by nature but passionate. He is a dreamer and a lover who dances the waltz perfectly, ambitious, eloquent, keenly aware of social conventions. He is flattering in his words and manners, deceitful in his actions.

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“I cannot leave you here. In fact, I find myself thinking about you even at the most inopportune moments of the day. I feel as if a link exists between your heart and mine, and should that link be broken, either by distance or by time, then my heart would cease to beat and I would die.” – Thomas to Edith

II – Gothic setting and intrigue

“A lot of people refer to Gothic romance as a pleasing terror, a pleasing terror that reminds you that, behind all the modernity, at the same time lies death. Gothic romance is characterized by being basically graveyard poetry. It’s a genre that is very cagey because it’s not entirely romantic and it’s not entirely a horror genre. It’s a creature in between. It’s the clash between love and death.” – Guillermo del Toro (October 9, 2015 – Los Angeles Times)

Gothic romance is a hybrid genre that functions as, rather than the opposition between Eros (love) and Thanatos (death), their reunion. Crimson Peak captures that exquisite mixture of sensuality and darkness, of awe and fear but the great evil, all the horror in the story doesn’t come from the supernatural, it is of human origin. At its heart, it’s a tale about love, loss and overcoming the past. Edith is very much a modern character in that that she looks towards the future and rejects the ideas that are forced on her. In the Buffalo section of the story, she is constantly told what to do by the people around her (both men and women). Her manuscripts are dismissed and she is told to write romance instead, Mrs. McMichael teases Edith for her apprehension towards Sir Sharpe while women around her are gushing about him. When she finally warms up to the Englishman, her father and her childhood friend Alan McMichael are overprotective and stand between Edith and Thomas. She is constantly told who to love, who to refuse, what is acceptable, what isn’t.

Ironically, their beginnings are quite difficult. When the two meet, Edith’s prejudices against aristocracy get in the way and at first, she is cold towards Thomas. She goes as far as to refer to him as a “parasite with a title” without having met him yet. It is only when he compliments her writings that she has a change of heart and start warming up to him. At this moment, Mr. Cushing turns Sharpe down, declaring “In America we bank on effort, not privilege”. Those moments lay ground for conflict and cement the heroine’s values. When she accepts Thomas’ marriage proposal, it is because she has slowly fallen in love with him and she recognises in him the same desire for success and independence. She isn’t a “dollar princess”. Edith marries Thomas out of love not in search to establish herself in aristocratic circles in England or to enrich herself even more. This is a reversal of expectations and social conventions. Alan and her father were wary of the baronet because of his financial status and acted upon that assumption. Edith notices how out-of-fashion Thomas’ clothes are but she still follows her heart and mind. Instead of being the one who marries for money, it is Thomas who does.

Edith and Thomas both are defeated dreamers. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography expresses the journey of the characters through a triadic use of colours. The scenes set in America use mainly warm, yellowish tones while the biggest chunk of the story, set in England uses a combination of red and green-blue hues to convey the eerie atmosphere and make Edith look like a fish out of water. The Sharpes are exclusively dressed in dark colours while Edith, even at Allerdale Hall, dresses in light, vivid colours that reconnect her to Buffalo and her past life. To further get that point across, Del Toro uses the visual leitmotiv of moths and butterflies, a metaphor that is explicitly explained in a conversation between Lucille and Edith.

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“Beautiful things are fragile… At home we have only black moths. Formidable creatures, to be sure, but they lack beauty. They thrive on the dark and cold.”
“What do they eat?” 
“Butterflies, I’m afraid.”

Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe family mansion functions like a trap for those who inhabit it. Aesthetically, the house and its surroundings play the traditional role of creating the atmosphere and sense of dread typical of Gothic settings. The dilapidated mansion sits on red clay mines that once were the source of wealth of the Sharpe family. The detailed sound design of the film and Del Toro’s constantly moving camera creat tension and inject life in the structure. The manor is both grotesque and beautiful, almost personified. As the story unfolds, it bleeds red clays and sinks more every passing winter day. Allerdale Hall is a representation of the inner turmoil of the characters within. The closer Edith gets to the truth, the more in love Thomas falls, the more Lucille’s calm façade fades away, the more frequent the appearances of the ghosts: the more visible the clay becomes and the unrest in the house intensifies. Allerdale is not given a sentient quality per se but it is a reflection of the state of the characters and the progress of the story.

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“upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul…”  – from The Fall of The House of Usher
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The interior of the house
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Allerdale Hall concept art
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Allerdale Hall’s entrails

As Edith gradually pieces the clues of Thomas’ past and understands she is being poisoned for her inheritance, she takes a more proactive role and instead of being a damsel in distress, she makes decisions and demonstrates her cunning. She deceives Lucille several times and tests Thomas by asking him on a stormy night about Milan to see if he twitches at the mention of Italy and thus, the connection to Enola Sciotti who was his previous wife and to whom he on the paper is still married. Thomas’ struggles become more and more evident. He is caught between two women, caught between integrity and the realisation that he loves Edith and his duty to Lucille, their design and longstanding incestuous affair. What he develops for Edith is love in a pure, romantic sense. What he has for Lucille is lust. One could argue that their relationship is unbalanced and abusive. When Thomas seduces the young American, he very much takes on the role of the suitor. When they consume their marriage, he is sexually dominant although he pleases her and lets her have some control. When it comes to Lucille, her desires take precedence over his, both in bed and in scheming. Instead of having the female character be the dark seductress, it is the Byronic who serves as a bait, so to speak.

Sexuality is Victorian times was somewhat repressed. Gothic literature explores romance and sexuality with an emphasis on transgression and desire in a patriarchal society. Here, the transgressive aspect is heightened with the taboo of incest, the monstrous love the Sharpe siblings have for each other. That element is only implied in Poe’s text – “I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them.” – but the wording makes their connection very clear.

“For the time, gothic romances were shocking – very racy, filled with the promise of violence and sex, I wanted to have the shocks and the erotic elements sort of bubble to the surface, because it’s 2015, and you can no longer titillate with a bare shoulder or a pretty ankle. But I actually do my best in the ballroom scenes, which I shot with Visconti’s The Leopard in mind, to make things erotic – the touching of a hand on a shoulder or a waist or neck. I shot them as little moments of mini-intercourse. But I’m not reinventing anything: it is a gothic romance, it’s exactly what it says on the box. But I go hard at trying to design, visually and aurally, a narrative experience. I try to tell you a story with what I call eye-protein, not eye-candy.” – Guillermo del Toro (October 10, 2015 – The Guardian)

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“But the horror… The horror was for love. The things we do for love like this are ugly, mad, full of sweat and regret. This love burns you and maims you and twists you inside out. It is a monstrous love and it makes monsters of us all.” ‒ Lucille to Edith

Sharpe is a tragic, vulnerable character whose fate is ultimately tied to that of his sister and this idea that the past cannot be escaped is hammered throughout the story, especially via the ghosts. They are especially important as they are an essential component of the narrative. Del Toro, who is no stranger to monsters, gives them a very particular role to play that goes beyond the simple jump scares and momentary thrill. They are tormented created who transcend time but not space. Excluding the denouement, the film counts a series of ghosts who all come to Edith: Eleanor Cushing (Doug Jones), Pamela/Margaret/Enola (Javier Botet), Lady Beatrice Sharpe (Doug Jones). All four ghosts are female and aid. Her mother’s ghost warns her about Crimson Peak while the others nudge her towards discovering the gruesome past of the siblings, from their incest to their mother’s death at the hands of Lucille and finally, their very own fate.

The ghosts are benevolent, initially misunderstood creatures, a choice Del Toro made as he wanted to detach himself from stereotypical boundaries between the evil and the good in classic horror “I love the visuals of horror, but I don’t like the mechanics of horror. I refuse to use Judeo-Christian notions of evil… I don’t make my ghosts evil, the ghosts are ultimately sad.” (October 10, 2015 – Inquirer.net). Visually, the design is quite unique too. Instead of being spectral, highly volatile, those ghosts have a tangible quality to them (they were practical with additional VFX). The move their emaciated bodies across the mansion in thuds meant to recall the sticky clay, screech, lament, whisper and display some degree of emotion in their eyes. They are also colour coded in relation to place and death. Lady Cushing’s ghost is entirely black and veiled as she died from black cholera, Lady Sharpe and Thomas’ three wives are skeletal entities dripping with red clay.

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Lady Cushing’s ghost
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Enola Sciotti’s ghost

Those ghosts are vastly different from what the deceased Thomas and Lucille become in their tragic demise. In Poe’s text, the siblings die in each other’s arms while the narrator runs away, leaving behind a collapsing mansion “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher”.

The House of Usher refers both to the estate and the family. The twins, last of their bloodline, die and with them, the terrible house disappears. In Crimson Peak, it is not Thomas who kills Lucille (Roderick entombed his sister alive) but she who in a fit of jealousy and rage, murders him before going after Edith and goading the young woman into killing her, which Edith does. The final confrontation, the resolution does not take place between Edith and the supernatural elements or between Edith and Thomas: it is a confrontation between two opposite forces, two women whose personalities and choices drove the story. She then says her farewells to her husband’s pallid ghost and the film ends with her and Alan leaving behind Allerdale Hall. It is important to highlight on what note the story ends. Edith’s goodbye can be interpreted as a gesture of forgiveness but she does not weep for her lost love.

One could have expected Alan – the devoted friend, good-looking enough but plain in contrast to Thomas gentleman – to end up with Edith but the final shots and Edith’s voiceover suggest otherwise. The film ends as it began, with the protagonist talking about ghosts and it is fair to assume that Edith continued to chase her dreams. Her ending isn’t just happy because as our heroine, she survived. It is happy because she stayed herself, guided by her desires and ambitions. The house does not sink or crumble but instead, it stands there, amidst snow and crimson clay, haunted by the restless spirits of two tortured souls who were beyond saving and are damned for eternity.

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Edith and a phantom Thomas
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A spectral Lucille plays the piano
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