Buffy: Everyone gets horribly killed except the blonde girl in the nightie, who finally kills the monster with a machete. But it’s not really dead.
Jennifer: Oh, my God, is that true?
Buffy: Probably. What movie is this?
— Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Picture the scene: a girl, blonde and terrified, her white nightdress covered in blood, raises her weapon and brings it down on the killer, finally defeating them. It could be the end of Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street; but this is no modern horror. It’s the climax to a Victorian ghost story.
Guillermo del Toro makes a habit of finding the angle – Spanish Civil War plus monsters, Godzilla plus robots, romance plus fish – and for his 2015 Gothic horror, Crimson Peak, del Toro wanted “[a] modern take on the ghost story”. Enter stage right: American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), haunted by her mother’s ghost since childhood. The disfigured wraith comes with the same message each time – beware of Crimson Peak. After meeting and marrying Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who comes looking for a bride with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith is whisked back to their crumbling family seat in northern England. It sits atop a red clay mine; the crimson peak of her mother’s warning.
For del Toro, Crimson Peak was less a horror and more a Gothic romance, and it represented an opportunity to “play with the conventions of the genre … and at the same time subvert the old rules.” Del Toro wanted to flip the genre’s gender roles; instead of a male hero “carrying the girl without a shirt and rescuing her from imminent danger”, Edith Cushing would save herself.
The payoff for del Toro’s subversion is Crimson Peak’s final scene; Edith facing off against Lucille, the film’s other (living) female character, who turns out to be the real Big Bad™ (and counts as a genre subversion of her own). Yet, in saving herself (from the villain and the conventions of Gothic romance), Edith falls perfectly in line with another trope: the Final Girl.
The Final Girl has become familiar through classics of the slasher movie genre; we all know Laurie Strode from Halloween, or Sidney Prescott from Scream. Coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), the Final Girl is the female protagonist, a sole survivor who gets the ultimate confrontation with the villain, and is so privileged because of her implied moral superiority. She is “the main character … the bookworm … intelligent and resourceful.” Edith, with her glasses and writerly intentions and kindness, is all three.
Above all, the Final Girl “becomes her own saviour”, and in looking to flip Gothic romance on its head, del Toro has – whether purposefully or accidentally – made a Victorian slasher movie. His serial killer is Lucille, who has been murdering her brother’s wives for their money; and while they might already be dead, their deaths are revealed one by one, echoing the slasher movie structure that picks victims off in the same way. Lucille has living victims too; Edith’s father (whose grisly death kicks off the rampage), and Lucille’s own brother-lover, Thomas (who, like all good Byronic heroes, has fallen in love with the plucky heroine, much to Lucille’s dismay).
Other characters fit around the Final Girl trope, too. Part of her mythology is “the male rescuer”, a character who “rush[es] to the rescue only to be hacked to bits”. Edith’s childhood friend, Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), attempts a last-minute liberation, only to find himself on the end of Lucille’s knife, and it’s Edith who saves them both (granting Dr McMichael an admittedly genre-defying reprieve).
And the pendulum swings both ways; the overtly supernatural nature of Crimson Peak, rooted in Victorian ghost stories, joins up with the preternatural survival skills of the serial killer. Even when set in reality, slasher films play their is-the-villain-really-dead game; they’re resurrected in the final scene just to be killed off again. Sometimes it’s one step further. They return for a sequel, or even an entire franchise, permeating slasher films with their own type of paranormal; just like ghosts, the serial killer crosses the boundaries between living and dead.
But Crimson Peak digs even deeper into the Final Girl trope. Like paper folded back on itself, del Toro’s film runs parallel to Scream, a slasher movie which took its own long, hard look at horror film conventions. Self-referential and knowing, Scream gutted the slasher movie and set the genre’s intestines out for all to see.
For horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Final Girl’s moral superiority was commensurate with virginity; of all her friends, she would be “pure”, and this purity would allow her to defeat the final villain. “There are certain rules … to successfully survive a horror movie,” says Randy Meeks, the avid horror fan and Scream‘s audience insert. “Number one: you can never have sex.” But Sidney Prescott survives, even without her virginity; and so does Edith. Perhaps del Toro intended it as a tipping point away from the Gothic romance (where virginal purity is also revered); but it also does the work of modernising the Final Girl trope.
“I wanted this to feel like a throwback,” del Toro said of Crimson Peak; but in turning the Gothic romance on its head, del Toro threw back to an entirely different genre. It turns out that, even in horror, there’s always room for innovation.