With the success of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and other literary horrors like AMC’s The Terror, it was just a matter of time before season two was greenlit and the details fleshed out. Ghost stories are all the rage in 2020. This year will bring two different adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Brothers Chad and Carey W. Hayes from The Conjuring have adapted the novel for the screen. With The Turning premiering in two weeks and The Haunting of Hill House season two releasing sometime this year the time is now to bone up on James’s The Turn of The Screw.
Literary horror, in particular, has really seen a resurgence in the last several years. Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House was a classic of heavy symbolism, sharp imagery, and well-developed characters. The newest contender to enter the ring is Henry James 1898 horror novel The Turn of the Screw. The setting is similar, a massive isolated mansion, and like the first, a multitude of apparitions make an appearance. Aside from that, this is a very different tale and as such will provide a very different experience for the viewer.
In Hill House, a large family is haunted quite literally by the ghosts of their past. The small screen version took plenty of liberties with Jackson’s original book, but the dark heart of the story remains the same. James’s novel has a similar sensibility and ominous ambiguity that should provide plenty of opportunity for exploration. In The Turning, a decidedly female perspective is placed on the psychological tale. Director Floria Sigismondi has stated she wants to explore the idea of women being silenced out of fear. In this case, both the patriarchal society of the day, and still have to some degree, and fear of potential evil forces. Here’s a primer of all the things you must know before The Turning and The Haunting of Bly Manor comes out.
What is The Turn of the Screw About?
The story first appeared in serial form in Collier’s Weekly Magazine during the winter and early spring of 1898. It is a highly regarded piece of Gothic/ghost story fiction and James’ ability to create such a lush world comprised of confusing events, people, and circumstances is still relevant today. The abject terror and uncertainty the governess feels is conveyed right along to the reader and elicits a visceral response that is best described as intimate disorientation.
The novella by James tells the story of a young woman hired to act as governess to two children in a secluded old house. As time goes on she begins to see two ghosts who are fixated on the children. She goes to shocking lengths to protect the children that she becomes convinced are haunted by evil forces. Who or what is really happening is a mystery as the story is told from the ultimate unreliable narrator.
The Importance of light and words in The Turn of the Screw
The viewer should watch for candles that are extinguished at important times and moonlit events as light plays an important role in the novel. For the Governess candlelight represents safety. Once the candlelight is gone so is their protection from supernatural forces. Likewise, several times in the novella, Miles is seen in bright moonlight portending trouble ahead. Just as the use of the color red was used in reference to the room the red door housed, the use of light and how it is transmitted is very important to the story. Watch for this in the series as an early indicator of sinister events.
In addition to illumination, the written word is very important to this story. The Governess is reluctant to put her concerns of the ghosts into written form for fear once she does it becomes fact. The result is a last-minute telling of the story that ends abruptly with no explanation adding to the puzzlement of the reader. It is also of note that her only confidant at the manor is Mrs. Grose who is illiterate and thus incapable of sussing out reality from fantasy.
The ghosts may or may not be a hallucination of the Governess.
It is all a matter of the unreliable narrator. This plot device has been used in everything from Kafka’s nihilistic novels to American Psycho’s homicidal maniac Patrick Bateman. In this case, the governess may or may not be seeing ghosts. The ghosts could be actual entities haunting her and the children, or as posited by many over the years, just the delusions of an unwell mind. This unreliability increases the perplexity for the reader and should allow plenty of room for exploration.
Most twist endings rely on a narrator to be purposely evasive or indirectly mistaken to set the audience up for the “gotcha” at the end. Just as many have argued that the Governess may be a delusion, just as many argue the ghosts are real and have the ability to manifest power over those they haunt. As in the brilliant Sixth Sense (arguably Shyamalan’s best work with Unbreakable as a possible contender), some people are just more sensitive to those supernatural forces.
Just as in that film, the viewer’s perspective is shaped by the first person point of view. The Turn of the Screw begins and ends with the Governess’ very myopic view. Through her own words we know she is a chaotic mix of hopeful optimism and troubling confusion. She consistently refers to herself as the captain or hero of a rudderless ship lost at sea. Her infatuation with her employer, coupled with a hero complex may be the clues to her sanity or insanity. It is also entirely possible that Peter Quint(one of the ghosts) may be driving the Governess to madness. There is reason to suspect he had an affair with the previous governess, Ms. Jessup, who dies while pregnant, possibly by suicide.
Miles Maybe the Big Bad (THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION)
Miles, one of the governesses wards, maybe a sociopathic monster who likes to cohort with ghosts, or he is an unwitting plaything. The Governess herself can not make up her mind and vacillates wildly from one extreme to the other. The ending as told through her eyes does nothing to solidify the truth. He is either an innocent that is possessed or influenced by evil apparitions, or he is evil himself. The only details we know for sure are that he has misbehaved so badly in the past that he is expelled from school.
The rest of his character analysis is complete conjecture from the Governess who comes to believe him too good to be true and thus pure evil. Whether he is the embodiment of all that is unholy or a poor innocent child is left up to the reader. Adding an element of The Bad Seed child into the mix should play nicely in a serialized story. Of course, he could also be completely innocent and a madwoman has become obsessed with him and concocted a story from which to rationalize her behavior at the end.
What does the turning of the screw mean?
This adage means to make a bad situation worse. In this case, possibly the provocation of a demon, or mentally unstable person(either Miles or the Governess, take your pick). It generally relates to applying pressure to someone to force them into action. It is unclear who is truly turning the screw, The Governess, Miles, or Peter Quint. The Haunting of Bly Manor should be a fantastic reimagining of James’ The Turning of the Screw and will be another in what I hope is a long line of literary horror giants to have their work adapted for the screen. The Turning premieres in theaters January 24th and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House season two comes out sometime this year.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.