Gone Gothic: The Turn of the Screw



Typically, the horror genre can be separated into the slasher type of story and the psychological thriller. This is true in the mediums of both literature and film. One is defined by the fact that the audience is shown all the violence and gore, while the other revels in the power of suggestion. An even further focusing of genre leads fans of psychological scares into the realm of the Gothic ghost story. Setting is a key characteristic of this type of tale (an isolated place, usually a large house, often in Victorian England), but a classic example of the genre also pioneers a narrative technique now popular in thrillers: the unreliable narrator. The Turn of the Screw achieves ambiguity and atmosphere through its use of an unreliable narrator and the story is all the more frightening because of it.

Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1898, when it was serialized in Collier’s Weekly magazine beginning in January of that year. He has already made a name for himself with the novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and he would later write some of his other best-known works like The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). The Turn of the Screw remains James’ most famous short piece of fiction. In the story, a man relates to a group of friends a story in which a young woman is hired by a gentleman to be the governess for his orphaned niece and nephew at his country estate, Bly. She is to be in complete charge and not bother him, but once she settles into the place, she sees what she thinks are the ghosts of the previous governess and caretaker. She becomes convinced they want to possess the children and she must protect the boy and girl.

One of the most striking things about this novella when you read it now is how prescient it feels. With The Turn of the Screw, James accomplishes a stunning level of ambiguity. This is because James carefully uses elliptical language to present the story, so that the audience is fully able to interpret it both ways– the governess is correct about the ghosts or she is mad. Details on the page support each theory. The main character is never named in the story but she is one of the earliest examples of a narrator who may not be completely trustworthy. Is she able to accurately describe the dead caretaker, Peter Quint, because she really saw his ghost or because she glimpsed a picture of him? Are the children really scared of her when she tries to make them face the ghosts or are they just good actors? As a storytelling technique, using the point of view of a questionable character is well-suited to a scary tale because it adds a level of intellectual engagement for the reader or viewer.


Like with most classic literature, The Turn of the Screw has been filmed multiple times. A discussion of two of these adaptations highlights how the features of this story can be handled. The Innocents was released in 1961 and was directed by Jack Clayton starring Deborah Kerr. It is a movie version of a 1950 stage play titled The Innocents based on James’ novella, and one of the co-writers of this film was actually Truman Capote. Though Kerr is much too old to play the lead character, her performance is pitch-perfect. The black and white cinematography is also used to good effect, and the performances of the children stand out as well. Most importantly, the story is translated from the page as straightforwardly as possible. Daring staging choices allow the audience to consider both posible interpretations. In 2009, a television adaptation starring Michelle Dockery aried on BBC. This version shifts the setting forward slightly to the 1920s and adds scenes that feature a psychiatrist’s interactions with the governess after the events of the main action. There is no doubting this film shows support for “the governess is crazy” theory. (Fans of Downton Abbey will be happy to know, though, that Dan Stevens is on screen here with Dockery before that show as the psychiatrist.)

The Turn of the Screw is an ambiguous narrative and this is due in large part to it’s unreliable narrator. This intensifies the creepy atmosphere already present in a Gothic ghost story. Thrillers recently achieved a lot of popularity with this same feature, such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. The unsettling feeling of not being able to trust the person who is actually relating a story is something that has a lot of impact. And of course, horror is all about impact.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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