During the Halloween season, horror stories of every kind thrive: on film, in books, in commercial haunted houses, and even in neighborhood front yards. Horror stories include everything from ghost tales for children, designed to make the dark feel scarier, to the extreme “torture porn” movies of maniacs, torture, terror, and rivers of blood.
Personally, I prefer the fright of things “creepy”…that strange scariness that makes me nervously afraid and apprehensive. I prefer the subtle fear of ghost stories—more than the grotesque fear of slasher stories—where the danger is uncertain, the adversary is a mystery, and the possibilities create a sense of fears unknown.
My favorite example of subtle fear is Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. First published in 1898 as a serialized story in Collier’s Weekly, the story carefully presents a gradual realization by the unnamed narrator and then her stepwise campaign to save two possessed children…the story progresses methodically and cautiously, like the turning of a screw in the title. When the narrator first senses and then sees one of the ghosts, James builds the scene with growing realization and prolonged interpretation by the narrator: “I became aware that…we had an interested spectator. The way this knowledge gathered in me was the strangest thing in the world.” No slashing screaming ghosts in this story! The narration is calculated; the motivations of the heroine are deep-rooted; the innocence of the children is too perfect; and the ghosts are ravenous to possess them; yet James gives us fears through a narrator and children and ghosts who are ambiguous. The ghosts and their haunting seem real and frightening, but doubt makes it all creepy…a nervous apprehension for the children…is it the ghosts or the narrator who threatens them?
Then in 1961, Jack Clayton adapted James’s story to film—an adaptation I love because it honors the original subtle creepiness and accentuates it appropriately. The Innocents is a psychological ghost story that maintains the lushness of James’s prose and exploits all the uncertainty, mystery, and ambiguity of his story. The opening 45 seconds—a child’s voice singing a morbid song before any visuals begin—introduce an immediate creepy sense, which is then reinforced with a shift to birdsong and weeping as two wringing, praying hands appear. A trapped, claustrophobic feeling begins here and pervades the film. Deborah Kerr, as the governess Miss Giddens, gives a powerful portrayal of James’s frightened and frightening narrator.
Clayton chose to work in black and white to deepen the shadows of the story and created over-lush sets to mimic James’s rich language; cinematographer Freddie Francis focused the visuals with special filters to darken and blur the edges of nearly every scene; and Truman Capote adds his Southern gothic perspective of both language and elements. For example, Capote invokes creepiness without forcing straightforward horror when the girl, Flora, innocently observes, “Oh look, a lovely spider and it’s eating a butterfly.” He populates the story with statuary, birds, reptiles, and bugs…inhuman characters as creepy as the ghosts.
Clayton introduces the ghosts themselves always through the eyes of the governess…we see her reaction first and then we see—or think we see—the ghosts. They appear through fogged glass or a haze of fog on the tower or, when in plain daylight on the lakeside, the ghostly image is blended grey into the surrounding landscape. Are we seeing them or is she imagining them?
Both children are played perfectly, in their own ways scarier than Regan in The Exorcist. For the final creepiness, the boy, Miles, exudes a growing sense of perverse maturity as he evolves into adulthood in the presence of the governess. Although just a boy, he plays into a suggestive role through his language and comportment. While at dinner—when Miles says that he “feels quite the master of the house”—he offers to protect Miss Giddens and reaches his hand across the table; she is disarmed and reaches to take his hand but he giggles and slaps an aspic rabbit instead…which wobbles grotesquely and erotically. The tension and interplay between these two characters is suggestive, ambiguous, tortured, and creepy—they share two kisses, each more creepy than the other!
If the Saw franchise of torture porn is your idea of good horror, then neither Turn of the Screw nor The Innocents is for you. But if you want the subtle creepiness of psychological uncertainty and you enjoy the masterful telling of a gothic ghost story…treat yourself to either or both.