The trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s latest horror film Crimson Peak pulses like a dreaded heartbeat. The setting is a giant gothic house in Victorian-era northern England where everything is dark and nothing feels safe. Mia Wasikowska stars as writer Edith Cushing who falls in love with Tom Hiddleston’s Sir Thomas Sharpe, and then has to move into his creepy secluded mansion with her new husband and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain.) The film’s color is lushly dark, with the exception of red, which is only associated with the ghosts that terrorize the young Ms. Cushing. This crimson stylistic decision isn’t just aesthetically interesting, it has a deep significance for Del Toro.
The biggest influence on Crimson Peak‘s red phantoms is an obscure short piece by ghost story master M.R. James. He’s known for turning his specters into featureless monsters draped in linen. They are often featureless, but they can have hair arms, tentacles, and spider webs instead of eyes. Del Toro was particularly struck by an unfinished vignette that was found among James’ papers after he died.
“I made progress until I was within range of the gate and the hole. Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.” – M.R. James
The description of the ghost as pink inspired Del Toro to weave this story about blood-red ghosts. Although they’re paranormal beings, Crimson Peak’s ghosts are actually colored by the natural world. The vast and gloomy mansion they haunt is situated on clay mines, and their spirits are stained by the earth their bodies are buried in. Red is also one of the most evocative colors for us, representing life and death all in one turn. We love it because it conjures that most exciting cocktail of lust and fear. It’s a common color for monsters, but it’s is a bold move for ghost stories because we’re used to ghosts being portrayed in shades of white, blue, and gray.
“The ghosts are buried in the clay like the bog people in The Mummy, and I thought it would be interesting to treat them in the same colour as the clay under the house which is a bright crimson,” Del Toro told IGN. “The house is built over clay mines, and the clay is a bright red. They are visually coded and the only red in the entire movie. Everyone who has a bit of red has something to do with the ghosts. The rest of the movie does not have that colour at all.”
Crimson Peak is also inspired by the ghost stories of Edith Warton, the namesake of the main character, and wrestles with the Victorian era’s flood of transformative technology and science that would drown out some of the superstition and belief in the paranormal. Ghosts are not only of the past, but they represent a time when people used ghosts (more often than now) to explain uncertainty. The family at Crimson Peak are literally haunted, but they are also tormented by their present situation’s comparison to the great wealth and success of of their ancestors.
Even in our modern era where their existence has been disproven, a great many people still believe in ghosts. Those of us who know ghosts aren’t real still weave tales and stretch the information we have into tidy stories in an attempt to make everything make sense to us. We wax paranoid, we make assumptions. We still try to find narratives to explain away uncertain circumstances given our limited understanding of the information at hand, and color it all with powerful sway of our moods and emotional states. Even hope is a feeling that comes from uncertainty. When faced with positive possibilities, we still need stories to steady our pace, and the idea of being haunted is always a great metaphor for the memories and fears whistling around in our heads.