Crimson Peak’s Very Physical Spirituality

In one of Crimson Peak’s early scenes, Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, an actor whose obvious Caucasian-ness del Toro has bent to his purposes twice now; I bet if he could, he’d go back and cast Hunnam in Rupert Evans’ role in Hellboy) shows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, an actress on permanent loan from the Victorian Era, and she only seems to mind in Only Lovers Left Alive) his collection of glass, photographic plates that bear the indelible imprint of beings from beyond the mortal plain. “I believe spirits leave their impression on things,” Dr. McMichael tells Edith as she holds the spooky images up to the light. (Or at least he says something very much like that. Though I’ve seen the film twice, I have failed both times to get the quote down verbatim.)

Objects and the traces of past life left on them by those long dead recur throughout Crimson Peak. Objects and their effect on the film’s characters and the film’s audience dominate the narrative. del Toro shows us toys hand-made by a boy in captivity given as gifts to placate his tormented sister. He focuses on mirrors made foggy by climate and time, kettles and cups used repeatedly for murder, pens that prove mightier than swords, and a typewriter used to mechanically conceal ones gender. A key plot point turns on wax cylinders that record the voices of now-ghosts struggling to communicate with the for-now still living. The movie’s creepiest moment involves not a poltergeist but a rubber ball. The more I watched Crimson Peak, the more I believed Dr. McMichael. Perhaps objects do contain traces of the past.

del Toro’s assertion that all these things, literally these objects, matter rubs against the way I typically approach life. I try to be unconcerned about things, to value the heart over the shell that contains it. I see things as potential idols that come between me and God. When I don’t stop to think about it, I let myself draw a line between the physical and spiritual worlds, hating the former and loving the latter. Crimson Peak suggests that doing this is not only wrongheaded. It’s also impossible. The physical and spiritual worlds co-mingle. They are one and the same.

I think Crimson Peak is correct about that. The physical and spiritual parts of my being co-mingle as well. One of the main things Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and the way we commemorate those events by eating bread-as-body and drinking wine-as-blood ought to tell us is that the physical and spiritual are inseparable. Indeed, when we are living to the fullest of our humanity, mimicking Christ in the fullness of his humanity, we are living to the fullest of our spirituality as well, mimicking the fullness of Christ’s spirituality. As Paul wrote in Romans 12, our spiritual act of worship is offering our bodies as living sacrifices. What’s spiritual is what’s physical.

The same is true in Crimson Peak in very practical ways. It’s not irrelevant that Crimson Peak’s ghouls are physical effects—(the great) Doug Jones and Javier Botet in costume and make-up—augmented digitally. Furthermore, Edith’s investigations of the haunted mansion hinge on her physically reaching out to the ghosts, and, without spoiling anything, the film’s penultimate moment is when the spiritual and physical finally touch.

We might take it a step further and a tentative step back toward Crimson Peak’s eerie objects as well. Take, for example, the salt and pepper shakers I bought at an estate sale a few years ago. They may not bear the residue of their deceased owners, but the things we have do have histories, whether those histories are totally in time with ours or not. Owning these salt and pepper shakers has an effect on me, just as owning all the other things I own has an effect on my life. I should mind what I own, because what I own owns me. These salt and pepper shakers are part of my life, and I am part of theirs. Since they are made of ceramic, they will, no doubt, outlast me just as they outlasted their previous owners. If only they could talk.

Movies can talk, of course, and from that early scene with the photographic plates—the forerunner of cinema—through all the meta-comments the characters make about stories and Crimson Peak’s story in particular throughout the film, I couldn’t help but think that I was watching the modern equivalent of those wax cylinders. One day, all the actors in the movie will die, but their likeness and voices will live on in the movie. Actually, those exact likeness and voices have already passed on. Those actors have aged, and they are not who they were then. Ghosts haunt every theater in the country.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Guillermo del Toro likes making movies – he’s making ghosts, capturing the past, and preserving it so it can continue to effect people long after he’s moved on to another project or another life. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of movies for us all – we’re watching something that happened, but it feels almost as real as it did then. In some cases, more so. We commune with spirits long dead made physically manifest on the screen, resurrection every time the projector flickers to life.