Apparition or Illusion? Ghosts and Neurosis in The Innocents

innocents 1
Photo Credit – The Innocents, 1961

We’ve all seen it before – and it’s a frustrating trope.  One person (often the insightful, level-headed, observant wife) believes that the house, child, etc., is haunted (or possessed).  Annoyingly, the cynical, often condescending detractor (the husband, usually, in contemporary horror) remains completely unfazed by whatever alarming occurrences are taking place and refuses to take helpful, significant action (see Sinister and The Shining, for just a couple examples of this phenomenon).  The equation stems from, I believe, a contemporary cultural awareness of sexism, and our understanding that maybe the “little lady” isn’t crazy when she senses that something’s truly wrong (with the hotel, the house, the kid, and so forth).  But let’s crank the clocks back to a novella written in the 19th century, long before the Women’s Rights Movement, and then a bit ahead again, to 1961, when the movie based on the novella was released.  The Innocents, based on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” is either a soul-chilling ghost story or a complex jaunt into the frenetic world of acute neurosis, depending on whether or not you think Mrs. Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the governess and leading lady, is imagining things.  We are not frustrated viewers who want the protagonist to believe his “pesky” wife in this film.  Rather, we’re not sure we believe the female protagonist’s suspicions of haunting.  Of course, “The Turn of the Screw,” and even the film, The Innocents, were products of a time in which women were often labeled hysterical and neurotic, so we should hardly be surprised that the film’s intrigue stems, in part, from the prospect (though, I would argue, not the certainty) that our female lead is severely unhinged.

I would characterize “The Turn of the Screw” as Gothic literature.  (In case you’re wondering, Wikipedia agrees with me).  The dark romanticism of the Gothic genre manifests obviously in The Innocents, which recreates the large, secluded mansion from “The Turn of the Screw” beautifully.  A cold, rather self-centered Uncle (one possible inception of the villainous Byronic Hero) laments the unexpected custody of two children, Flora and Miles, who would interfere with his carefree bachelor existence if he didn’t find a devoted caretaker to completely assume responsibility for the young pair in a remote location.  Luckily, the vivacious but ingenuous Mrs. Giddens applies for the governess job.  Though, in the film, she hesitates to accept the uncle’s job offer when he emphasizes that he’s not to be bothered about the children under any circumstances, he persuades her to assume the governess role, almost literally refusing to take “no” for an answer.  The first time I saw The Innocents, I didn’t mark Mrs. Giddens’s trepidation, which lays an appropriately anxiety-ridden foreground for any neurosis she might, speculatively, posses.  A more careful eye during this viewing made her pause apparent and important.

Mrs. Giddens is immediately enamored with Miles and Flora who are, in the film, remarkably (even oddly) self-possessed (most of the time), sometimes willful, but mostly loving.  Mrs. Giddens gets on well with the long-standing, more simple-minded and deferential Mrs. Grose, and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Mrs. Giddens sees a mysterious man peering down from a tower one afternoon.  This initial sighting is a catalyst for unceasing dread and myriad other sightings of both the strange man and an often forlorn woman.  However, only Mrs. Giddens can see them.  After uncovering a story of the manor’s past and the death of two former servants, who shared a tumultuous, even abusive relationship, Mrs. Giddens determines that the apparitions she sees are the ghosts of the two dead servants, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.  (The drunken, abusive Peter may also be a Byronic Hero).  She becomes convinced that Flora and Miles can see the parted lovers but aren’t admitting it, and that Jessel and Quint are trying to inhabit the children’s bodies as their sole way of reuniting posthumously.  If Flora and Miles will not speak aloud of the hauntings, surmises Mrs. Giddens, they are doomed, presumably to irreversible possession.

There is simply so much to rave about in this film, including its acting, its directing, its storyline, and its openness to at least two divergent interpretations.  Deborah Kerr plays a lovably naïve and easily manipulated Mrs. Giddens, a genuinely caring character who’s hesitant to discipline the children because she finds them so charming and adorable.  Martin Stephens (Miles) and Pamela Franklin (Flora) are phenomenal actors who portray the children complexly.  Though on the one hand Miles and Flora are loving and obedient, they’re prone to strange, needlessly subversive behavior, and there is distant, subtle coldness in their ostensibly affable charm.  The film calls us to question whether they really see the ghosts Mrs. Giddens sees, but are allied with them and thus refuse to voice their visions, or whether they are literally “the innocents.”  If they are innocent, then they have no idea what Mrs. Giddens is talking about when she accuses them of seeing the same ghosts she sees, and Giddens may be hallucinating.  The children, then, become victims of Giddens’s neurosis.  And their brilliant acting is such that either interpretation of events is plausible.

Deborah Kerr does an equally perfect job of portraying a woman who is obviously terrified and potentially, though not necessarily, neurotic.  As I watched the film a second time, I saw the events through a notably different lens than I did during my first viewing.  I tended to see Mrs. Giddens as a troubled, imaginative, but ultimately near-psychotic woman who raves about specters not present to anyone else and goes so far as to concoct a story around what she sees.  I do not proclaim this is the ultimate interpretation of the story, only that such a perspective is completely possible given the film’s events and the fantastic acting of the cast.  Of course, the truth could lie in the middle.  Perhaps Giddens is not neurotic, but perhaps her story is mere fantasy.  It’s possible that the children really don’t see the ghosts, aren’t allied with them, and aren’t in danger of being possessed by them, despite the ghosts’ presence.

And the ghosts in this film are indisputably creepy.  Unlike most present-day horror movies, the director simultaneously builds suspense and gives us a warning by showing Mrs. Giddens awe-stricken eyes and agape mouth before slowly panning to the often still, distant ghosts who stand, eerily, subtly threatening to wreak havoc but in that moment merely existing to frighten the onlooker.  I’ve written before that I find female ghosts more foreboding and unsettling, for whatever reason, and this film is no exception to that rule.  Fun fact: During one scene, when Mrs. Giddens sees Miss Jessel, stationary in her black dress, standing in a field in the distance, the power went off around me.  The lights went black, the television went off, and the semi-lighted room turned to complete darkness.  I was, unsurprisingly, terrified, and almost flung myself across the couch toward Michael.  Thankfully, the power came back on quickly, and Miss Jessel didn’t appear odiously by the side of my couch, waiting to inhabit my unsuspecting body.  Phewww. 

The ending of the movie continues to leave the events of the film open to interpretation.  A well-developed discussion could spring from this observation, but perhaps you’d like to see the movie for yourself (if you haven’t already), and perhaps you’d like to form your own opinion about it before hearing mine.  I often advocate for seeing movies on this site, and I mean it when I advocate for them; if I don’t like a film, I’ll readily critique it (though I see interesting elements and components of merit in much horror).  But I advocate this film more than most.  Especially if you consider yourself a genre connoisseur (but even if you don’t) the phenomenal acting and keenly clever, deft directing of this ominous film makes it unquestionably worth your time.  And if you see it, you can tell me your take on it.

Apparition or Illusion? Ghosts and Neurosis in The Innocents

10 thoughts on “Apparition or Illusion? Ghosts and Neurosis in The Innocents

  1. Phil Zamierowski says:

    Great analysis of the film. Director Jack Clayton’s decision to shoot in black & white adds to the creepy atmosphere. You would find ” The Nightcomers” by director Michael Winner interesting. It is a prequel in which Marlon Brando plays Peter Quint.


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