For the film Crimson Peak director Guillermo del Toro said he wanted to take the classic Gothic Romance story and twist it. As an example he pointed out that it’s not necessarily the woman who needs rescuing by the man, but the reverse. Whether he realizes it or not he also put twists on the classic concept of the serial killer couple. While the one in Crimson Peak realistically follows the basics of how these sorts of pairings function it also subverts the cliches found in most fictional portrayals for a fresh take. …But before I continue please note, if you’ve not seen the film, there will be lots of spoilers to come…
…Seriously, I’m going to reveal plot points and secrets…
Okay, if you read past this, it’s your fault!!
At its most basic Crimson Peak is about a young American woman, Edith Cushing, who falls in love with a man named Sir Thomas Sharpe, marries him, and moves into his super spooky rundown mansion with him and his sister, Lucille, in England. There Edith starts seeing way too many ghosts for one’s own comfort or sanity and decides to investigate. It’s a pretty straightforward plot honestly, but what Edith discovers is anything but. Without realizing it she’s stumbled right into the web of a serial killer couple.
To keep themselves afloat in their dilapidated castle of Allerdale Hall the Sharpe siblings have turned to an effective, if unorthodox, method of gathering funds. Thomas woos and marries wealthy women with no familial or social ties, brings them back to Allerdale Hall, and the two bilk them out of their inheritance as his sister poisons them. By the time the women are dead the Sharpes have all their money and the bodies are tossed into vats of liquid red clay for disposal. When the money runs out the two do it again somewhere else.
The method of seduction into marriage and then murder has been used frequently enough by other killers that there are names for it – females are known as black widows and males as bluebeard killers. Females more frequently use this method and rarely does it involve two people working together, but there have been two major cases of it recorded – in both cases the two were women and, in one, sisters. The sibling black widows were Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins who killed not just husbands, but other relations and lodgers in their home, for what was basically insurance money. Interesting trivia: Catherine and Margaret were actually active just about twenty years prior to when the majority of Crimson Peak takes place – the sisters killed in 1880-1883, the Sharpes are killing up until 1901.
In the vast majority of killer pairs there is a dominant person and a more submissive one; the dominant drives the murders and calls the shots – when, where, how, who – while the submissive, well, submits. In the case of male-female killer couples the dominant is typically the man, but that is decidedly not the case with the Sharpes. While it does seem that Thomas picks the women – when Lucille questions his choice in Edith it’s implied that he also picked previous brides-to-die – that’s about all he does. It is Lucille that is consistently pushing things forward, insisting they must go through with their plans immediately, and that they have to keep doing it over and over. She’s the one who insists on staying at Allerdale Hall, that the only way to keep going is to do these murders, and that Thomas has to stay with (and loyal to) her. Just like the men in these murderous couples – such as Gerald Gallego who bullied his wife, Charlene, into luring girls to kidnap and be his sex slaves – Lucille is the one driving the murders with demands Thomas bring in new victims to satisfy her darker desires. She’s the dominant; her needs are taking precedence over Thomas’. (It’s likely she is also the one that instigated and continues their incestuous relationship since their pre/early teens…she killed her mother to keep it going, after all.)
Another unique aspect of their murderous relationship is the roles taken within the context of the crimes themselves. No matter the motive it is the male that most often commits the actual murder while the woman most often lures the victims, but with Thomas and Lucille the opposite occurs. One could claim that it is Lucille who murders the women only because poison is used – which is considered a more “feminine” method given it’s hands-off, requiring no physicality – but she doesn’t just poison. She hatchets, bashes, and stabs victims; Lucille seems not only skilled at violence, but to enjoy it. Even without Thomas I’ve little doubt she’d have developed into a serial killer between the cold, hard, logic of her murders and the enraged outbursts of violence when things don’t go her way. She also does something that serial killers are well-known for…she keeps trophies. In a private drawer Lucille has a collection of hair clippings from each of her victims. She may claim to Thomas and others that it’s all about the money (and not getting caught), but the fact is Lucille enjoys killing.
Thomas, on the other hand, is not truly capable of any violence on his own. When told to get rid of a previous victim’s dog he puts it outside rather than kill it outright; even when pressed by Lucille to kill someone he asks the victim where to stab that won’t actually be fatal. This alone sets him apart from most submissive partners found in killer couples as there’s rarely a case in which the submissive doesn’t take part in the violence in some way. While they may later claim they were so terrified and abused by their dominant counterpart that they had to go along it’s been shown time and time again that they were equal contributors in the victims’ sufferings and deaths – including the female perpetrators in the Barbie and Ken Killers (Karla Homolka and Paul Bernado) and Moors Murders (Ian Brady and Myra Hinsley) who were both proven not only to be spurring on, but very active in, the violence. To his credit Thomas never participates, encourages, or seems to enjoy any of it. In fact he’s most frequently trying to convince Lucille that they don’t have to kill anyone. If it were up to him he’d get funds through legitimate investors in an invention he hopes will dig up rare red clay under Allerdale Hall that he can then sell for a profit.
So why does the empathetic, passionate, guilt-ridden Thomas Sharpe go along with his serially homicidal sister? He loves her. That he loves Lucille so much gives a final, ironic, twist to the serial killing pair that are the Sharpe siblings; there is some genuine love between them. The problem is, in the words of Lucille Sharpe herself: “Love makes monsters of us all.”