Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw is one of the most well-known works. The enigmatic and hotly debated novella always boils down to two central questions. Was Miss Jessel insane, or were there ghosts? The reimagining of his classic ghost story, The Turning, features MacKenzie Davis(Kate) as a young woman hired to care for two orphans on a massive estate after their parents died and their former nanny left unexpectedly.
She feels a need to help these kids because her father died when she was a child, and her mother was institutionalized, leaving her, in effect, parentless. Shortly after arriving at the estate, Kate senses something very wrong with the house and the children. Flora(Brooklyn Prince) is initially sweet but says things that could be simple precociousness but could also be something weirder. On the other hand, Miles(Finn Wolfhard) presents as deeply troubled from their first encounter before she is tormented and introduced to a mannequin mausoleum.
Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning sets up just as many questions. Between mysterious deaths, disappearances, and highly creepy children, there are a lot of possibilities in the film’s ambiguous and shocking ending. Was Kate insane after all? Are the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel possessing the children and haunting the house? Is it possible both are true? Some think there are fates worse than death. Those fears are coming true for Kate, whose biggest fear is becoming like her mother. Here’s everything you need to know about Kate’s sanity, what was real, and whether ghosts exist in The Turning.
Early on, Kate sees things that can’t be real. She sees images in mirrors, chases dead bodies into ponds, and is taunted by Miles. Over time, her nightmares become more intense, and she begins to question everything she sees and feels. She is left with a story of the previous nanny, Miss Jessel, who was sexually assaulted and killed by the stable master, Quint. He had been harassing her for some time, sneaking into her room, taking pictures of her when she was sleeping, touching her without permission, and, in general, trying to force her to submit to his advances. Shortly after, Mrs. Grose killed Quint, and then she was killed by Quint’s ghost.
In the tense final act, Kate tries to save herself and the children by driving through the gate to safety. Unfortunately, just as they passed the gate, she was transported back to a previous scene when Kate received artwork from her mother, and Mrs. Grose mentioned she hoped Kate’s mother’s mental illness wasn’t genetic. The film ends with a look inside Kate’s mind’s eye. She sees herself in the same dry pool, watching her mother draw, as we visited at the film’s beginning. When her mother turns around, she screams. Likely, she does so because she finally recognizes herself.
What really happened to Kate at the end of The Turning?
What was real and what was imagined depends on your view of Kate. If you believe the film is set in the 1990s and we see things play out in real time, she is a victim of the ghosts of Fairchild Manor. She is a caring young woman who desperately wants to make a difference for Flora and Miles. Her biggest fear was going insane like her mother and ending up in an institution. In this reading, there are two possible conclusions. One, everything that happens is real, and the ghosts destroy her mind; and another, Kate has an inevitable psychotic break.
Miss Jessel is inadvertently driving Kate crazy. She is stuck in Bly Manor with Quint, who terrified her in life before killing her as she tried to escape. Quint, however, is not accidentally driving Kate mad. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is a cunning, abusive man who preys on people’s vulnerabilities and breaks them down brick by brick. Quint likes the power and the chaos he leaves in his wake. He gets off on controlling others, and now that he is dead, he has little else to do but abuse the poor people who come to Fairchild Manor. If this is the case, Kate has become just like her mother and is now in her own personal Hell. She has been broken and is doomed to be stuck forever with the inevitability of insanity.
Miles says as much earlier in the film when he tells Kate light will not protect her from what she fears most. She is terrified of inheriting her mother’s mental illness. Worse than anything else, that is what scares her. The ghosts that haunt Fairchild Estate ensnare their victims and keep them stuck in a personal Hell. For Kate, that would be the certainty of mental illness. In this interpretation, Kate has been broken by Quint and or Miles, and what remains is a destabilized woman forced to confront a horrific reality.
The second option is Kate did come to the estate to care for the children but slowly went insane without the aid of ghosts. None of the supernatural elements would be real in this option. However, some of The Turning’s best scares came after Kate left the room, making it less likely to be an accurate interpretation. If Kate left the room, there would be no way for us to see ghosts through her perspective, which means the ghosts had to exist.
Is Kate really her mother?
Perhaps the most compelling answer to the riddle of what happened to Kate is Kate never was Kate at all. The young woman we see visiting her mother and traveling to Fairchild Estate could be a younger version of her mother. It’s possible everything we see is a memory of past events. Kate and her mother are the same people at different times in their lives. When Kate was a young woman, she may have experienced this event. She may have been driven mad by ghosts or succumbed to an inevitable disease while acting as a nanny.
It’s possible none of this happened at all and is a metaphor for being sexually assaulted or childhood abuse. Kate could have concocted this entire story to explain terrible things that happened. To her, being driven crazy by ghosts is better than being unable to conquer a mental illness or escape from abuse. This would explain why Kate’s mail was opened in the final act. Mrs. Grose never had a reason to open the mail. She was a lurker but had no motive to open her mail. If Kate never left the institution and everything we see happens in her mind, her mail would be screened. None of this is real. All of it is what Kate’s mother lives with every day. There is no Kate, only her mother.
The possibility also exists that everything we see happen in The Turning happened to a younger version of Kate’s mother, who is trapped in her memories. Perhaps the ghosts did exist and did drive her mad. The woman living in the institution is the aftermath of those events. She is broken down.
If you watch The Turning literally, Kate is haunted and tortured by the ghosts of Fairchild Estate, AKA Bly Manor. Maybe Quint and Mrs. Jessel really existed, and Quint was manipulative, invasive, and cruel. He killed Miss Jessel, and Kate became his next victim when she was hired. It’s also possible Quint abused Kate as a child, and Flora is another representation of Kate. Who knows if she was driven mad by ghosts or succumbed to her insanity for the first time? The film’s abrupt ending leaves everything unanswered.
We have no context for which parts are metaphors and which are factual. Kate could be trapped inside her own fears and trauma, forced to relive them repeatedly, in which case, there is no loop beyond the one in her mind. The children are not trapped in the house, possessed by ghosts. Kate is trapped inside her own mind. She is both the young woman Kate and the older woman living in an asylum.
The final sequence seems to harken back to James’ original story. Scholars have debated whether the Governess was insane and nothing else was real. In this bleak interpretation, she killed the children because she was mentally ill and suffering from a psychotic break. If Chad and Carey Hayes, who wrote the script for The Turning, were fans of this theory, then the Kate we follow is nothing more than the ghost of her own past. She is trapped with her memories and condemned to live with trauma. Whether she was abused by a sadistic man who drove her to the breaking point or imagined the entire thing is open for discussion.
The Turning is currently streaming on Peacock.
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.