Early in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) eagerly gives a story she’s written to a publisher. But he sends her away, with the condescending instruction that ladies should really be writing romance stories, not ghost stories. She balks at the critique—not just because he’s a sexist ass, but because he’s misinterpreted her work. It isn’t a ghost story, she says, it’s a story with a ghost in it. “The ghost is a metaphor for the past,” she grumbles under her breath, knowing he isn’t really listening.
It’s the most self-aware moment in a largely self-aware movie. Del Toro has said Crimson Peak was inspired by Hammer horror films and gothic romances, with visual touches from Italian giallo films and Victorian paintings. Like Quentin Tarantino, del Toro is a synthesist with a passionate, wide-ranging devotion to culture, and a tendency to wear his influences openly. Those influences have never been more nakedly evident than in Crimson Peak, a lush, visually overripe love letter to the stylized cinema, literature, and art del Toro has loved in the past.
But the ghost-as-metaphor is del Toro’s own unique, heavily underlined author’s signature. With that line, he and co-writer Matthew Robbins spell out Crimson Peak’s central theme. And the burdensome past isn’t specific to this one movie. It runs through all of del Toro’s writer-director projects: the idea that people are haunted by their histories, and have to exorcise their memories to live complete lives.
That idea gets a literal treatment in Crimson Peak. (Cautiously worded spoilers ahead.) Edith is briefly haunted by her mother’s ghost, in a storyline taken from del Toro’s own family legends. But Edith was a child when her mother died, and they didn’t have much shared history together, so that haunting isn’t particularly persistent or significant. Her mother’s shade only shows up a couple of times, and only to dispense oblique warnings. More significantly, when the adult Edith marries melancholy, desperate Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and moves to the dilapidated family mansion he shares with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), it turns out the house is haunted by the ghost of Thomas and Lucille’s mother. They have much more of a history with her than Edith had with her own mother. An ugly series of family entanglements completely dominated their early lives, and dictates their current behavior, mortal and ghost alike.
Their mother isn’t the only ghost haunting the house, either. Other spirits in residence are even more active and resentful. Ultimately, to survive and escape, Edith needs to understand the siblings’ history. And to help her, one of them has to make a conscious decision to not repeat the crimes of the past — to throw off the longstanding ties that have controlled the Sharpes’ lives for decades. The ghosts that cling to the Sharpe house are literal angry spirits, but they’re also representative of past crimes and the way they linger. The only way forward, for the living and the dead, involves rejecting those crimes.
Guillermo del Toro seems to love ghost stories. He loves monsters of all types, from the historical rubber-suit Japanese kaiju that inspired Pacific Rim to original creations like the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, which has stalked many a modern nightmare. But he returns over and over to what Edith calls stories-with-ghosts-in-them, from Crimson Peak to his early writer-director project The Devil’s Backbone to films he’s produced, like Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s cheerful 2014 animated adventure The Book Of Life, Andrés Muschietti’s chilling 2013 ghost-adopts-kids tale Mama, and J.A. Bayona’s breathtakingly spooky 2007 haunted-house story The Orphanage. And that may be because of all the fantasy tropes and archetypes he’s played with, ghost stories tie most directly and easily into that one theme running through his work, about the necessity of coming to terms with the past, then escaping it.
In fact, ghost stories are almost always about the unfinished business of the past. They’re by nature about people stuck outside of time and waiting for resolution, as The Devil’s Backbone puts it, “Like an insect trapped in amber.” Crimson Peak and The Devil’s Backbone both deal with the theme openly — in both cases, with ghosts haunting the living because they want vengeance, while their murderers are stuck living alongside them, unable to escape the locale or the consequences of their actions.
But del Toro doesn’t need actual ghosts to make the point. He reaches the same conclusion through other monsters, or just through people. In Pacific Rim, protagonist Raleigh Becket and his partner Mako are both traumatized by their histories with the kaiju. He lost his brother in combat; she lost her family to an attack in Tokyo. But Raleigh learns to shuck off the emotions of his loss, and becomes a more stable and successful pilot as a result. When Mako gets lost in her memories while in the Drift—a state of psychic connection necessary to pilot the giant mecha called Jaegers—she nearly kills Raleigh and everyone else around her. “Vengeance is like an open wound,” her mentor and adoptive father tells her. “You cannot take that level of emotion into the Drift.” Hanging onto the past is a liability for Jaeger pilots, and successful warriors like Mako’s mentor, Stacker Pentecost, have learned to set their memories aside. “I carry nothing into the Drift,” he says late in the film. “No memories, no fear.”
Pan’s Labyrinth, meanwhile, subtly circles around the same theme from its opening narration onward. The story begins with a fable about a fairy princess drawn into the outside world, where she forgets her past. If viewers take the film’s fantasy story at face value, young protagonist Ofelia is a magical creature drawn into the mundane world and forced to live as a mortal until she earns her way back into Faerie.
But the film is also about escapism on a level to rival Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and the fantasy elements can just as well be read as existing only in Ofelia’s head. In that case, she’s withdrawing from a terrible era of fascism and oppression, into a magical realm she prefers. Either way, she’s losing her history in order to further develop as a character, whether as a hapless victim or as lost royalty. And no matter what, she sacrifices herself in the end. The larger story is about who gets to define the realities of life in Franco’s Spain, where rebels and the military each have their own form of mythmaking and propaganda. But Ofelia chooses to reject both sides, and pick her own instead. When her villainous stepfather is told at the end of the film that his past will be erased and his son will never know his name, it’s a heavy emotional blow. But for Ofelia, leaving the past behind is a necessary escape.
Other del Toro films don’t bring the conflict between past and present so literally into the dialogue, but it’s still built into the stories’ DNA. In del Toro’s live-action Hellboy movies, Hellboy is a demon brought to Earth as a baby, and he fights on humanity’s side, but his nature and his heritage hang over him and raise questions about his ultimate allegiances. His adoptive father emphasizes that he needs to make his own choices to become whatever he’s meant to be. In the first film, Hellboy briefly gives in to his demonic side and becomes a portal for a world-destroying evil, but his personality reasserts itself, and he battles his history to choose his own identity. Meanwhile, his pyrokinetic love interest Liz is held back by her fear of the ways she’s lost control of her power in the past, and she has to learn to trust it and herself to use her power to save him. It seems significant that in the films, the third member of their group, Abe Sapien, is presented as having no memories of the past and no known history, and he’s the calmest, most adult, most well-adjusted member of the team. In a way, he’s already set his past aside, and doesn’t need to make a conscious decision to overcome it in order to be whole.
History as a whole is an obsession in the Hellboy movies, which pit tradition-obsessed fascists (Nazis in the first film, ancient warrior-elves in the second) against modernist individualists who’ve chosen their own paths. Both those films feel like referendums between the past and the future, with the future presented as a brighter and more forgiving place where people consciously choose love and life over worldwide death. In Hellboy II, one character even chooses life by choosing death, prioritizing human survival over her family history, and claiming her own separate identity by sacrificing herself. It’s a tragic ending for her, but it comes back yet again to the idea that a hero has to throw off the tyranny of previous connections, particularly of family, to be true to herself.
In some of del Toro’s earliest films, the theme develops in the darkest way possible. In Cronos, Mimic, and Blade II, it’s the antagonists that are escaping their pasts to supersede their limits. In Mimic, scientists create genetically engineered insects to stop a plague spread by cockroaches, but their creations evolve rapidly, dodging the artificial limits placed on their lifespan and breeding. Before long, they’re human-sized, intelligent, fertile, and about to take over Manhattan. Blade II follows the same pattern, when the virus that created vampires mutates, producing a strain of super-powered, aggressively contagious vampire Reapers that threaten to wipe out vampires and humans alike. Blade himself is another character defined by his nature, in this case as a human/vampire crossbreed. And he’s another del Toro hero consciously choosing which part of his heritage to embrace, and fighting an ongoing battle against his history. To top it all off, in this sequel, the vampires who had been out to kill him have to set aside their past differences with him in order to work together against the mutant uber-vampires. Every part of the film embraces the idea of moving beyond the past, but the Reapers have the edge, as the creatures that have come the farthest from what they originally were, and are evolving quickest.
But del Toro’s debut feature, Cronos, brings up the idea first, as an aging antique dealer casts off his humanity in favor of a mechanical form of vampirism. After finding an ancient device that locks into his flesh, antique dealer Jesús Gris begins to crave blood and regain his youth. He’s yet another villain evolving past his original state, and into a new form, and the point where he literally strips off his skin to reveal a fresh new body below makes the symbolism of his rebirth particularly clear. But while he spends most of the film as a seeming villain, he’s also the first del Toro hero to strip away his past: While he gives up his age and humanity willingly, he also by the end gives up his new youth and powers to protect his granddaughter. His evolution and rejection of his history comes full circle by the end, as he chooses death over power that comes at a cost.
And the way that history hangs over him by the end of the movie seems like something Edith from Crimson Peak would recognize by the end of her film. When she mumbles that the ghost story in her ghost isn’t really a ghost, it’s a laugh line, both because she comes across as a wee bit pretentious, and because it’s clear to the audience that she’s never going to sell the judgmental publisher on her artful metaphor, not when he’s already setting her story aside after just a few pages.
Guillermo del Toro, on the other hand, has had considerably more luck than Edith with storytelling and getting work out to the public. After more than 20 years of watching his movies, it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point when his ghosts aren’t, strictly speaking, just ghosts. They speak to a specific career-long focus, and a single longstanding message about how we choose to define ourselves, regardless of where we came from. The Devil’s Backbone trailer suggests that a ghost is just “a tragedy doomed to repeat itself.” Del Toro’s films suggest that real heroism is finding the strength not to repeat the same old tragedies. What separates the living from the dead (or the undead, or the unreal, or the otherwise monstrous) is the ability to grow and change. If the ghosts are just metaphors for the past, the humanity around them represents a promise for a better future.
Tasha Robinson is a freelance culture writer and a former Senior Editor at The Dissolve and The A.V. Club.