Superfluous Ghosts

It is odd to find oneself arguing that a ghost story would be better without the ghosts, but that’s how I felt coming away from Crimson Peak.

Crimson Peak, as others have noted, is a Gothic romance. Ghosts are de rigeur for the genre. They give form to emotional traumas and compel the hero or heroine to uncover the horrible secrets behind them. The ghosts of Crimson Peak fulfill this role and prod the film’s heroine to expose the dark past in the house. Eventually. She takes an awful lot of prodding. In the meantime, the ghosts just take up screen time being ghostly and doing ghost stuff, none of it terribly interesting.


“The ghosts are a metaphor,” we are told early in the film, except they aren’t. A metaphor is when one thing stands for or represents another, but there is nothing metaphorical about the ghosts of Crimson Peak. The ghost of the old woman in the bathtub with a meat cleaver in her head does not represent the lingering traumas of the past or the madness of the characters. It represents the fact that an old woman was killed in that bathtub with a meat cleaver to the head. The crumbling, bleeding house is a metaphor for the unraveling of the family that dwells there, but the ghosts are the most literal ghosts you have ever met.

The only purpose the ghosts serve in the narrative is to nudge our heroine Edith into uncovering the truth. They might as well just be standing in the hallway holding signs that say “PLOT-RELEVANT INFORMATION IN THIS CLOSET” or “ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS BATHROOM.” They are narrative shortcuts that save the heroine the bother of actually having to do much thinking. The most interesting part of the story is when Edith finally does a little investigating, but the ghosts do most of the uncovering for her and rob the story of complexity. I would rather have watched Edith do the work of piecing together what was going on at Allerdale Hall without the ghosts standing around holding their “THIS WAY TO THE PLOT” signs.

“It’s not a ghost story,” we are also told early in the film. “It’s a story with ghosts.” I give the movie enormous credit for its gorgeous visual design and for showing how well a period piece can incorporate active and effective female characters. But maybe it should have been a story without ghosts.

Image: Crimson Peak, (c) Universal Pictures 2015 via imdb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.