What happens when we fix our eyes on things we are not supposed to see, when we behold that which we were not meant to behold? Do those things to which we expose ourselves become part of us, shaping us, forming us into vessels in their own image? And by the same token, can innocence of evil bring discernment, or does chastity, in fact, cloud judgment? Such are the questions provoked by The Innocents, a film that provides a terrifying, expertly crafted glimpse at the transformation of human nature when it becomes witness to, and even participates in, defilement.
Based on the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw, the film debuted in theaters in 1961. Masterfully directed by Jack Clayton, the screenplay adaptation was written by Truman Capote and William Archibald, the latter of whom had already adapted the original story into a play by the same title in 1950. The unmatched Deborah Kerr gives what is arguably the greatest performance of her career in the lead role of Miss Giddens, a governess who begins to encounter the ghostly and unholy upon taking a new job, caring for two orphans in a mysterious Victorian mansion.
The story begins with orphans Flora and Miles having been left in the care of their distant uncle. This nameless uncle is quick to hire Miss Giddens as the children’s new governess during the film’s first scene, and he insists she must not contact him for assistance. Detached and worldly, the uncle stands in stark contrast with Miss Giddens, a parson’s daughter, who is eager and warm, with a self-professed love for children. Miss Giddens and the uncle interact only briefly, with the conversation focused almost entirely on the uncle explaining that while his life in London is full of amusement, it is “not the sort of amusement that one could suitably share with children.” He admits to Miss Giddens that he’s selfish, with “no room for [the children], neither mentally nor emotionally.” The children are entirely her responsibility, with Flora currently living at the uncle’s country estate named Bly and Miles away at school.
Bly itself is a luscious, sprawling Gothic estate. Miss Giddens arrives at the enormous property during the thick heat of summer, when the mood is sensual and warm, the grounds awash in sunlight with white roses and reptiles in a sort of “heaven for children” as Miss Grose, the maid, calls it. But upon entering the mansion itself, the light leaves and the darkness takes over. Bly House is vast and otherworldly, with countless empty and locked rooms and hallways leading into deeper darkness still. And as Miss Giddens explores the grounds further, she observes an unnatural sense of decay—the roses are wilting and dying, a spider eats a butterfly. It’s as if the place is rotting from the inside out.
The rot, it turns out, extends into the estate’s recent history. Miss Giddens discovers that the former governess and former valet at Bly—Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, respectively—both died tragically one year ago. There are early hints that the relationship between the children and the deceased employees was a strange one, but the specifics remain unclear and Miss Grose urges Miss Giddens to not speak of the pair around Flora. Simultaneously, Miss Giddens begins seeing the frightening apparitions of Miss Jessel and Peter throughout the estate—in the reeds beyond the lake, atop a tower, in the garden, through the windows.
Miles then returns home to Bly unexpectedly. He’s been expelled by his school for being “an injury to the others”, with no explanation of what that means. Young Miles is entirely unbothered by the circumstances of his homecoming; he’s blissful and at ease. But there’s a knowingness in his character and language that is unsettling, an odd maturity unfitting for a boy his age. He brings out a similar quality in his sister, too. “… You’re far too young to be such a deceitful flatterer!”, Miss Giddens declares to Miles upon observing his precociousness and silky way with words. She is alarmed at the children’s increasingly bizarre behavior; a fixation on secrets, a love for dark rooms, and some oddities with animals (Miles keeping a dead pigeon under his pillow, for instance). And she slowly begins to wonder if these behaviors are connected in some way to their relationship with Miss Jessel and Peter, as well as the ghosts and disembodied voices she’s been encountering.
Miss Giddens’ suspicions are soon confirmed. In a conversation with Miss Grose, Miss Giddens learns that Miss Jessel and Peter not only shared an abusive and codependent relationship, but that they openly engaged in sexual activity with little care—or perhaps it was with pleasure—for who saw them; “Rooms … used by daylight … as though they were dark woods” in the words of Miss Grose. She also learns that the children have borne witness to the pair’s illicit sexual activity at Bly, but more sinisterly, that what may have started as an accidental encounter soon devolved into something of a more complicit, exploitive, teacher-and-pupil nature. She concludes that the children are now being used as conduits for the ghosts of the two lovers, with Miles, at one point, reciting a spine-tingling poem conjuring “[his] Lord” to “come from [his] prison … come from [his] grave.” Miss Giddens resolves to drive out these forces of corruption from among the children, with the remaining conflict centered on her urging them to confess the nature of their relationship with the deceased so that they might be free of the past and its ghosts.
At this point we must circle back around to one of my initial questions. Many have suggested that we have an unreliable narrator in Miss Giddens because she is “sexually repressed.” A piece of technical evidence for this theory is her reaction to the ghosts: her face is always shown to us before the ghosts appear on camera, prompting us to wonder if these ghosts are, in fact, there at all. But more so, her characterization as a parson’s daughter—having seen little of the world and having grown up in a very small, quiet home—raises questions about Miss Giddens’ faculties. Are the children really possessed by the ghosts of former lovers or is this whole thing a fantasy, a mere projection of Miss Giddens’ repressed desires?
Virtually every analysis I’ve come across on this film favors the idea that this is a tale of stifled sexuality, the idea being that virginal Miss Giddens is inappropriately projecting sexual attraction for the uncle on to Miles. I’m surprised by the popularity of this interpretation. The Criterion commentary for The Innocents boasts that part of what makes the film so fantastic is how skillfully the direction, cinematography, and script toe the line between “The ghosts are real” and “It’s all in her head”—there is enough evidence for the viewer to argue either way. Considering this, it’s remarkable how broadly accepted the latter interpretation is. Even if Miss Giddens does possess an active imagination as she herself confirms in the opening scene, it is the children’s uncle who points out to us in that same scene that, “Truth is very seldom understood by any but imaginative persons.” Meanwhile, the argument that Miss Giddens is immediately attracted to the uncle in a sexual way during their brief interaction has somewhat flimsy foundations—there’s little obvious proof for this attraction based on the script, and the body language exchanged is relatively inconclusive.
So what is it that makes the idea of Miss Giddens as delusional so tempting for contemporary critics? Does that say something about the film, or more about us? We can perhaps blame the common and tiresome “virginity makes you stupid” trope. In comedy, we see this trope most typically played out with virginal characters that are unknowledgeable and adorably dumb. In horror or drama, however, we’re more likely to encounter a sexually abstinent character who, upon being exposed to some hint of lust or naughtiness, descends into a sort of psychosexual madness or paranoia because they are unstable and/or less worldly and knowing than those who’ve had sex (see: Black Swan). Because we all know that sex unveils the wisdom of the ages, grants us supreme spiritual discernment, and heals us of all mental illness, yes? Because if you are a virgin, and if you are a Christian – and especiallyif you are also a woman– then you’re surely fragile as cracked glass, yes?
Why are we so quick to think of the sexually abstinent as burdened by their abstinence, as opposed to people who have made their own moral choice of restraint? There’s a strange eagerness to buy into the narrative that until their virginity is done away with women and men will be at risk of destructive, psychosexual fantasies (that then lead to literalhallucinations and child abuse in Miss Giddens’ case, if we buy the argument). This explanation essentially posits that her whole character, her whole being, her whole ability to think and judge, is utterly dominated by the fact that she’s never had sex. While I’m always tempted by an interpretation involving an unreliable narrator, I’d argue that in this case, Miss Giddens is worth believing at face-value: the ghosts are real, and the children are under the grip of Miss Jessel and Peter from beyond the grave.
In fact, I would submit that it is Miss Giddens’ own virtuous nature that allows her to more clearly perceive the evil forces at work within Flora and Miles. Christ says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23) The uncle’s self-admitted unrestraint and worldliness has damaged his spiritual eyesight and bridled his ability to properly care for his niece and nephew. There is zero positive correlation between the uncle’s “knowing” experience and actual wisdom, or at least an engaged knowledge that cares about the children. Miss Giddens, on the other hand, is sober and restrained; she can see. Her own innocence makes her capable of sensing the danger surrounding the children and their need for the love and protection of which they’ve so long been deprived.
Being innocent of the experience of evil isn’t a quaint suggestion from your crusty, finger-wagging schoolmarm. It is a command that Christians are called to. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul proclaims, “For you were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light consists of all goodness, righteousness, and truth – testing what is pleasing to the Lord. Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what is done by them in secret. Everything exposed by the light is made visible, for what makes everything visible is light.” (Ephesians 5:8-14) Other translations of this passage replace the expression of “done by them in secret” in verse 11 with “done in darkness”, equating and making partners of darkness and secrets, the twin themes of the film. As far as the audience is concerned, Miss Giddens is the first and only person at Bly that seeks to aggressively expose and deal with the fruitless works of darkness occurring there. Her own light in the Lord makes her an instrument of his illumination, able to make visible what has remained hidden away in one of Bly’s innumerable shadowed rooms.
There is a sense in which we become agents for what we fix our gaze upon. What Miles and Flora have seen and participated in (through no initial fault of their own) has affected their language, their thoughts, how they interact with others, and how they perceive the truth. In them, we see an illustration of how participation in sin makes us ambassadors of that sin. We become little beacons of that sin—children of it—while the Word conversely calls us to live as children of light now that we are in Christ. And as children of light, we are given power to expose that which hides in the dark so that it may be made visible. Miss Giddens desperately urges Flora and Miles to openly confess—to bring out into the light—what has happened to them with the firm conviction that there will be healing power in that confession.
Ironically, reflecting on these scripture passages in connection to The Innocents challenges the way I relate to the horror genre altogether. While I relish a psychological thriller and a good scare more than most things in film, I’ve had to consider the boundaries that the Word calls me to as a guard over my mind and heart. Put plainly, there’s stuff out there I really just shouldn’t lay eyes on. The images and narratives we saturate ourselves with have a way of lodging themselves into our beings; curiosity and “art” mustn’t be excuses I use to justify the viewing of something that deserves no place in my person. Therefore, there are places in the horror genre that I will not touch out of obedience and respect for these boundaries. But nonetheless, you’ll (hopefully) continue to find me writing here from time to time, mostly messing around with horror film from the 1960s and earlier when directors and cinematographers had the theater of the mind working overtime. After all, the best horror films are the ones that know there are some things we aren’t meant to see.