The Horror within Fairy Tales

crimson-peak-posterCrimson Peak is the latest film from acclaimed writer and director Guilermo Del Toro.  In true Del Toro style, the film is grim, yet strangely beautiful. Reminiscent of his earlier work, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is more than just a horror film; it’s also about why the expectation of a fairy tale marriage is damaging.

We follow the young aspiring author, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as she falls in love with a mysterious Baronet from England, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). The pair meet in New York when Thomas comes to get investment money from Edith’s father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver).

Thomas’s sister, Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), has accompanied him to New York, and it is clear as day to the audience and to those around Edith that the Sharpes are not to be trusted from the moment they arrive. Yet, in a twist of unfortunate events, Edith finds herself alone and needing comfort, and so ends up marrying Thomas and follows him to his family home, Allerdale Hall, located in middle-of-nowhere England. From there, horror ensues, and terrible secrets begin to unravel.

Del Toro has picked a female lead for a very important reason; one that is also relevant in his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. With woman at the centre of the story, what happens around her has a powerful and thus almost political message. This is noticeable in Crimson Peak. For instance, Edith struggles to gain recognition for being a female writer after she shows a publisher her carefully crafted story that includes themes such as ghosts and hauntings. The publisher rejects Edith’s manuscript because he feels there at least needs to be a love story in it for it to sell. His feedback makes Edith feel that she must type her manuscript instead of handwriting it so that publishers don’t know that she is a woman. Her inability to gain momentum in any other profession besides being a housewife means that she has little options when she finds herself alone. Marriage and falling in love with a handsome man such as Thomas seems to be her only possible path, a path she follows blindly.

Just as in Pan’s Labyrinth where Pan’s mother marries the despicable Army General because she was lonely, Edith marries a man of stature and soon discovers that the one she loves has many dark secrets. The two films both have shock value elements such as spooky ghosts and monsters, which will appeal to the standard moviegoer, but most importantly, they also twist the fairy tale story on its head.

Most of us could consider ourselves a product of the Disney era because Disney has power that has not ceased to gain momentum. In fact, Disney is now more relevant than ever (take the upcoming Star Wars film, for example). I can (unfortunately) easily call myself a Disney lover; as a child I worshipped Belle and Ariel. All I wanted as a child was to find a man who would help me live happily ever after. This unreal expectation has shattered many things in my life, however, and upon reflection and a re-watch of movies such as The Little Mermaid, I’ve realised just how misogynistic Disney can be. To grow up and think that I will be somehow saved by a man and that only he can make everything alright is just plain ridiculous, but these were the expectations I had due mostly in part to my Disney fascination.

It’s worrying to me that young girls and boys are still watching these movies and are still listening to fairy tales that tell the story of a princess being rescued by a handsome prince. For all genders, this places an incredible amount of unnecessary and unrealistic pressure on what and how we should act towards on another. It perpetuates the cycle of womanising, abuse, and low self-esteem.

Although Del Toro’s work isn’t for young children and is certainly not seeking to replace Disney in any form, what he says about fairy tales could have a real impact on this ongoing cycle. In Pan’s, the story itself was about whether we should believe in fairy tales, and whether a young girl’s imagination was worth listening to. In Crimson Peak, we have a horror film for the masses, but a message behind it that is subtle, yet incredibly important. Crimson Peak tells women not to follow the path that Ariel or Cinderella took because it shows the extreme horror that can happen when you trust someone who hasn’t earned it, who you have been conditioned to trust.

Del Toro is trying to scare us out of what we have been previously told to do, and it’s about time these messages are getting pop cultural space. If he continues on this path, I think we can look forward to many more surprising gems to come.

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