Monday, November 9, 2015

Sexual Anxieties and Horror: Crimson Peak

This is the final installment of my three series set on horror films and sexuality. My first two posts examined Teeth and It Follows. Each of these films embraces female sexuality in different ways that I think deserve scholarly attention. Teeth creates a monstrous feminine that frames female sexuality to be a tool for empowerment that is often suppressed by male domination. It Follows neutralizes sex as an equalizer between the sexes and removes the stigma of promiscuity from female sexual interactions. In this final post, I will unpack the sexual anxieties present in Crimson Peak (2015). As with the last two posts and my other posts about horror films (e.g., The Visit, The Purge: Anarchy), this post will have spoilers and detailed analysis about the film's key ideas.

Movie poster retrieved from IMDB.

To be frank, Crimson Peak was an awkward film to see with my brother. The film addresses incest and the blurred lines of familial love and familial violence. I will discuss the use of incest in the film as well as the romantic aspects of this horror film. I think Guillermo Del Toro has created another horror masterpiece. I do not know if it will stand up to the classics of Pan's Labyrinth, the Devil's Backbone, and The Orphanage, but it does embody an aesthetically pleasing and intoxicating horror story. The main character, Edith, is a timid virgin that falls hopelessly in love with Thomas marries him, and goes to live with him in England. Edith can see ghosts, namely the ghost of her mother, and writes ghost stories inspired by her supernatural abilities. This power is at first terrifying as she finds deformed, blood-soaked ghosts wandering her new home. It becomes clear, however, that these ghosts are warning Edith about her fate and imminent death at the hands of her new spouse and his sister, Lucille. It is revealed that Thomas and Lucille are lovers and have conspired to murder Edith for her father's money. Fighting and blood-stained snow occurs before Edith manages to escape the clutches of the incestuous pair. In what follows, I will bring up a few important points where I find female sexuality explored in interesting ways and sexuality's role in horror. I first briefly address the use of romance in the film, examine the taboo nature of incest, then the character of Lucille, and finally the role of women and traditional gender roles.
Lucille, Thomas, and Edith movie poster. Retrieved from this site.
In Edith's first rejection letter from a publisher, the editor laments that her ghost story does not include enough romance. This small scene was brilliantly added by Del Toro because it sets up the entire rest of the film for the audience to expect romance and not horror. Although Del Toro is the King of Horror and the film was marketed as such, this nearly throwaway line redirects the audience's attention from the ghost story to the romantic plot line. The film is really about Edith's love and, arguably more so, about Lucille's love. The two women have competing love stories that tie them together in a fight to death. Yes there are ghosts and yes there is blood, but the story's forward progress is not fear or anger, but love. Love is also an uncommon theme in horror films; more often it is lust, obsession, revenge, and sex that drives the character's actions. In this move, I think Del Toro does a great service to horror films by reminding contemporary audiences that fear and catharsis is but one aspect of a good story. Indeed, his film's often have the unique ability to incite both fear and awe, horror and hope, anger and sadness.

Del Toro immediately sets up the film so that we are suspect of Thomas and Lucille's intentions. There are secret meetings, unscrupulous attempts to raise money and to blackmail others, and an air of suggestive closeness between the two. At first, I thought perhaps they were married and were using a ruse of being siblings to attract dowries from Thomas's future spouses. The audience's mind, even though offered that they are related, first attempts other explanations to explain their lingering hugs, sideways glances, and Lucille's jealousy. When it is revealed in more explicit detail that Thomas and Lucille are sleeping together, Edith at first cannot believe it and shouts that she knew they were not brother and sister. Lucille responds, "but we are!" Confronted with the information directly before her eyes with knowledge of their deformed child, Edith still reconciles her perceptions with anything but incest. Incest becomes the twist, the plot point that was in front of our eyes the entire film, but we could not yet believe it until it is confirmed by Lucille. Incest is a sexual taboo not often addressed in horror films. It emerged in Here Comes the Devil, another film with a Spanish director, but is not a common media trope. Dysfunctional families and families undergoing trauma are often fodder for horror films, such as We Are What We Are, The Devil's Rejects, Red Dragon, The Babadook, and, of course, Psycho. Del Toro's use of incest and elevating the dysfunctional family to the level of incest draws forth interesting thoughts about how society differentiates between sexuality and love. If Lucille had simply loved her brother without having sex with him, perhaps the implications of their relationship would not be so terrifying.

Lucille taking control. Retrieved from this site.
I think that Lucille could have easily been the hero instead of the villain of the film if her sexuality had been removed from the film by either being Thomas's sister and not having sex with him, or not being his sister. Upon reflection, many of Lucille's actions are ones of pure love and adoration - she murders those who might come between her and Thomas, sacrifices her temporary satisfaction in the relationship to help the family financially, and is jealous of those that compete for Thomas's affection. For example, in Del Toro's other films, we don't fault the mother in The Orphanage for jeopardizing her relationship with her husband in her search for her son. In Mama, we don't question the actions of the lead character for protecting her boyfriends nieces. These familial relationships are honored and understandable, but we do not perceive of Lucille in the same way. Instead, Lucille is evil because her brand of love is taboo. I do not condone incest; it's presence caused me to think about the lines that all humans draw through symbols and communication that separate the sacred and profane. Mircea Eliade argued that religious thought is rooted in human separation between what is sacred and thus revered and worshiped, and what profane or filthy. Much like eating cow if you are Hindu, certain actions and rituals are deemed off limits to remain pious to a particular order. I remember talking in sociology class about how eating human flesh and incest are as close to the two most universal taboo actions in human history, and still they are not universal. Incest is close enough to it, however, that its presence in a narrative immediately defines those who are good and those who are evil. I wonder if this particular sexuality were removed from Lucille, however, that we would hate her so much for her actions. She is fighting for the wrong, most profane, most taboo type of love, whereas Edith's virginity and purity are the foil.

Brother and sister. Retrieved from this site.
These two arguments unfold what I think is the most important part of the film - it's not about Thomas. Although he does receive a good portion of screen time, the film is a war between Edith and Lucille with Thomas as merely a chess piece. You are clearly told through the plot that Thomas has been overwhelmingly influenced by his sister to act as he does and you wonder if Thomas is responsible for any of film's terrors. The audience becomes sympathetic to him as he tries to reconcile his sister with Edith, the new woman he loves. Thomas has no control over the action of the film; even in death he is only a brief distraction that Edith uses to kill Lucille. The female leads trump the "hero" doctor, Alan, who comes to save Edith and only ends up a burden to her as she slowly walks his injured self back to town. The men are ancillary characters to the epic battle between empowered and strong women. They fight for their lives and also for love and normalcy. Unlike the traditional story line of multiple men fighting over a woman like an object, it is Thomas who becomes the target of the audience's gaze as he is pushed and pulled between the two women, unable to control his own emotions and unable to act to protect himself, Alan, Lucille, or Edith. Instead it is Lucille and Edith who take strong, decisive action - they break rules to explore passages, they murder men with their bare hands, they beat and chase each other, they sacrifice their own flesh and blood for what they want.

In these three horror films, I find fascinating and interesting themes about female sexuality and how it can be used as a source of power, can be normalized in everyday life, and can be used to invert traditional roles for women. As I've mentioned in a previous post, one aspect that draws me to the horror genre is its penchant for creativity. Many genres become pigeon-holed in cliche plots that never seem to vary from the boy meets girl or person saves someone from place they aren't supposed to be narratives. In horror, however, I find innovation, inversion, and inquiry into the very aspects of what makes us human, and the different ways that people deal with reality and the supernatural. Unlike other genres, I also think horror addresses sexuality and the line between life and death in unique ways. I'm hopeful that the genre will continue to innovate and push our expectations for what we expect films to do.

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