Have you ever wanted to wake the dead? Of course you have. Good news, people do it all the time. All it takes is the right lighting, a good makeup artist and a crap ton of editing. Some necromancers use magic, others use a camera.
The properties of cinema are uniquely suited to giving wraiths and specters new life. As a medium that mixes visuals, sound, and story, film can bring a depth and life to ghosts that is both terrifying and deeply moving.
Among the most striking cinematic ghosts of recent memory, and perhaps all time, are the haunting presences that inhabit Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015). A master of visual design, Del Toro uses every aspect of his phantoms to full effect. From the way they move to the color and texture of their skin, their design is deeply rooted in the story he is trying to tell.
One of the most important aspects of an onscreen ghost is motion. Floating is a popular choice. Del Toro sets the pace early in the film by including a familiar, floating ghost in the form of Edith’s mother. As character actor Doug Jones explained in an interview with SYFYwire:
That was more gentle, nurturing, but spindly. With spindly, you don’t know if that’s how a nice ghost moves, or it’s a creepy thing that wants to get into your ears.
This early experience with the dead helps set the later ghostly encounters in perspective. When we meet the red ghosts of Crimson Peak manor, they are not floating. Floating is far too clean for these ghosts. They move with jittering, unsure steps. They interact with the world in a way that is unsettling because it is so corporeal—and yet entirely unnatural.
These differences in movement hint at the deeper disparity between these spirits. Edith’s mother’s ghost has a completely different nature than the ghosts of Crimson Peak. Edith’s mother is a family spirit, presumably brought forth by her love for her daughter. Even if she looks super creepy—which she, of course, does—she is mostly benevolent. On the other hand, the ghosts of Crimson Peak are there because of deep, violent trauma.
Another classic element of screen ghosts that Del Toro uses to great effect is color. Ghosts occupy a night space in many of our minds, a dark place where they may only appear as shadows or white glowing figures. Edith’s mother is a lovely example of the dark ghost.
Color is a staple of the horror genre, but it is also used heavily in non-horror depictions of ghosts. Many filmmakers have used color to enhance their ghost’s otherworldly presence. There is a lovely vignette in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams which presents an entire troop of ghostly soldiers. They are instantly marked as uncanny by their bright blue complexions. Similarly, both Ghostbuster films use neon bright, otherworldly colors to set their spirits in opposition to the everyday world around them. Slimer isn’t Slimer without his iconic green hue.
The color-saturated ghosts from Crimson Peak do this with panache. The appearance of blood is everywhere in the film. Reddish clay drips from the walls of the estate, which makes the oozey apparitions more poignant. Is their bloody appearance meant to evoke the violence with which they met their end? Or, is it to connect them to the violent house in which their lives where taken? Well, yes. It’s very cleverly both. The ghosts that haunt the house in Crimson Peak are bound to that house, physically and metaphysically. They have literally become a part of the heart’s blood of the wretched monster that is the house.
Perhaps that’s merely a bit of Gothic melodrama, but it hints at the deeper questions these screen ghosts beg us to ask. It’s very common for a ghost’s deathblow to be worked into their character design, but Crimson Peak‘s red ghosts are transformed even beyond death. Somewhere in their afterlife, the greater sphere of tragedy that is the manor and the family that inhabits it has twisted them beyond mere humanity.
Despite the over-saturation that has turned M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) into a font of memes, the film remains excellent in many ways. One of the most interesting things about it is the portrayal of the ghosts in the film. Contrary to the hyper-stylized portrayals of the dead we see in Crimson Peak, Shyamalan allows his ghosts to be identified in context only. They are solid. Their palette, though not always healthy, isn’t immediately identifiable as otherworldly. They move like living humans and speak like living humans. Though there’s an obvious plot reason for these spirits to appear mortal, it is also a very important stylistic choice. The ghosts of The Sixth Sense are definitely menacing and are obviously stuck in a place of trauma, but they are also clearly people. Dead people, sure, but people nonetheless.
This is, of course, one of the reasons ghosts hold so much fascination for us. The ghosts we see in film are a kind of memento mori. They are almost always the products of a traumatic death. On the fundamental levels of their design, film ghosts explore the far reaching effects of that trauma. They force us to ask what kind of an afterlife a person could possibly expect after such a violent end. If the horrifying fate of Crimson Peak‘s victims are any indication, some of us aren’t holding out a lot of hope for a happy ending.