Seeds of Doubt: The Innocents, or, Ghosts? Or Nah?

by Emmi Kurowski

“Do you have an imagination?” This is the question first asked of Miss Giddens on her job interview with a wealthy bachelor looking to hire a governess for his orphaned niece and nephew (regrettably) in his care. Miss Giddens eagerly admits that she does indeed have an imagination. “Good. Truth is so seldom understood by any but…imaginative persons.” And with that, in the first three lines of dialog in the film, Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece (yep, stone cold irrefutable masterpiece - fight me), The Innocents, the first seeds of doubt are planted. Doubts about what? Doubts about the reliability of our main protagonist, which begs the questions - GHOSTS? OR NAH?

The film starts with opening credits unlike literally anything I have seen. The screen is black. A creepy voice starts singing a creepy song (“O Willow Waly”). The screen….still black. Aaaand still. When the 20th Century Fox logo appears you realize, nah, your tv ain’t broken. The singing stops (finally). Back to black. Now there are birds chirping, then a pleasingly dissonant flute melody plays over a closeup of hands held in a gesture of prayer while a woman sobs. Delayed cymbals and menacing strings fill the room as we now see Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens in a state of desperation. We hear her thoughts, “All I wanted was to save the children, not destroy them. More than anything I love the children. More than anything. They need affection. Love. Someone who will belong to them, and to whom they will belong.” Already, I am SOLD. Applauding. Throwing flowers at my television. Planning the wedding in which I will marry this film.

Based on Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw (and also adapted from William Archibald’s stage play, The Innocents), the movie tells the story of a governess in Victorian England. The first scene is rather telling, regarding the character of Miss Giddens. We learn this will be her first job, as she has only ever lived with her preacher boi father. Judging by her reactions in this scene with this forthcoming bachelor, I doubt she’s ever even spoken with a man other than her father. The way she looks at him. Her very evident nerves. This lady…let’s face it, she just needs to get laid and move the hell on with her life. But instead, she agrees to become the guardian to these mysterious children at this place she’s never been to for a man who says she must agree to never ever bother him, ever. He is not even slightly worried about her lack of experience. He lays on the charm and she’s like, okay! Bring it on, world!

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So on she goes to this gorgeously gothic Victorian manor where she will now be living. She seems nervous, but also excited at what may await her, like a child going to summer camp. Now, can I talk about the sound design in this movie? It’s incredible. One aspect is the score. The music in this scene starts out joyous and hopeful. Now the further she walks into the property, more and more sinister sounding notes are being sprinkled into the mix. Then we hear a voice call for “Florrrrraaaaa”. Creepy. Then no music. Sound effects. Animal noises. This is the magical equation for the sound design:

Spooky score + sudden stops + groundbreaking synthesized delay effects (by the wonderful Daphne Oram) + various effectively used animal noises = Ashley catnip #1.

Now we meet the first creepy weirdo child, Flora.

Let’s get one thing straight. These kiddos are mega-strange. To me the most striking thing about them is the way they speak. They say weird-ass things. The first thing Flora asks Miss Giddens after they meet is, “Are you afraid of reptiles?” Weirdo.

That brings me to another thing I love about this film - the screenplay. There are many hands that went into writing it, but Jack Clayton has said that Truman Capote was responsible for 90% of what we see on screen. And I LOVE this. The book was a straight up ghost story. So was the play. But the director wanted something more ambiguous. He wanted each viewer to come to his or her own conclusion whether they thought it was a ghost story, or a Freudian psychosexual tale of repression and mental collapse. So if you want the latter, who you gonna call? Capote! Thanks to Capote we get this southern gothic tale that has us thinking…GHOSTS? OR NAH? There are so many great lines, especially spoken by Flora, that just scream Capote to me:

“Oh look! It’s a lovely spider and he’s eating a butterfly!” (said with absolute glee.)

“Can tortoises swim?"

“No.”

“I thought perhaps they couldn’t,” as she grabs the tortoise that was put in the lake.

These lines made me laugh. There is also a scene where Giddens sees a creepy statue of a child in the garden and a big ol bug crawls out of its mouth. Classic Capote!

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Back to the story. Flora and G (can we call her G? Like from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Nah? Okay) head to the house and here we meet the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. She is very happy to meet Miss Giddens and welcomes her warmly. Here is where I want to talk about the breathtaking cinematography of Freddie Francis. In the scene where Miss Giddens explores the first two rooms of this vast estate, we can see the gorgeous use of that ol’ 20th Century Fox favorite, CinemaScope. The camera moves around effortlessly, following Miss Giddens as she admires the beauty of her new home. Then with the use of deep focus photography (Ashley catnip #2), we see that lil creeper Flora pop into the scene again way in the background. It’s so effective. This is before we even touch on the use of candles, shadows and light, overlapping visuals…I digress.

I would really love to describe every single scene in detail. Actually, I would just like to watch this with each and every one of you, but that ain’t gonna happen. So let me try to get to the point in a less wordy manner. Flora shows Miss Giddens to her room, says weirdo things, and on her very first night, Miss Giddens has a nightmare. Naturally Flora walks over to her bed to watch her…have a nightmare and then walks to the window and starts humming that creepy tune from the film opening, thus beginning her main weirdo bit - humming. It made me think of this guy from my high school yearbook. Remember how when you were graduating, you could fill out different things about yourself? Like, nicknames, hobbies, quotes, that kind of thing? This one guy, only filled out his pet peeve. It was humming. Ooookeey. That is alllll he wanted to be remembered for. His name, and his hatred of humming. Buddy, don’t watch this film then, because I started a “humming count” to keep a record of how many times she hummed in this, but…I lost track.

Meanwhile Flora has been saying that her older brother, Miles, AKA Weirdo #2, will be coming home. This is puzzling to everyone because he is away at school. But of course, Hums McGee is right, and Miss Giddens receives a school letter forwarded from the uncle stating that Miles has been expelled. Now Miss Giddens is starting to become more nervous. What is wrong with this kid? The letter said he was “an injury to the others”, so good luck with this kid being normie. Mrs. Grose assures her that Miles is merely a precocious boy, one a dem snips and snails and puppy dog tails types. Mmhmm, we’ll see.

They pick Miles up from the train station and this kid - my god. This kid is one of a kind. He has a confident charisma that is so not childlike. He brings flowers for his new governess and totally charms her (a total Ashley Jane move - I’m allowed to say that about myself, right?). I kind of want to dress like him always? This guy, Martin Stephens, has got to be one of my favorite child actors ever. As much as I love Deborah Kerr’s performance, for me ol’ Marty steals the show.

They return home and the three of them continue to get acquainted. It’s very clear to the viewer that these kids are super smart. Although Miss Giddens is also well-read and intelligent, they can sense that she seems to be more innocent than they are. They ask her about how she grew up and if her house was big enough to hold secrets - uh huh. She replies that it wasn’t, basically cementing the fact that, yeah, they will be able to mess with her if they need to. I want to like Miss Giddens, because she is trying to be there for these poor lil orphans (ahem), but really…she’s just kind of boring. These weirdo kids are more interesting.

Many more nightmares occur, and more and more we notice that, although the place is beautiful, it is decaying, crumbling apart. The children keep being strange and calling adults “my dear”, and finally Miss Giddens sees what she believes are ghosts. Two of them. As it turns out, the former governess and valet had a rather intense and abusive verrrry open relationship. Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. Flora was enamored with Miss Jessel, and Miles with Quint. Both of these characters had rather mysterious deaths on the estate grounds. Miss Giddens keeps swearing that she sees and hears these ghosts, but she is the only one who ever admits this. There are a few spooky occurrences in the house, slamming windows, candles blowing out, but really there is nothing too sinister going on. The most sinister occurrences are in Miss Gidden’s mind.

She becomes obsessed with finding out everything about Miss Jessel and Quint. One one hand, she is disgusted by the stories of how they acted and influenced the children, yet on the other, she repeatedly implores Mrs. Grose to tell her everything, and leave no detail out. So yeah, I dunno. If I think something is repulsive I don’t want to know every detail? There is a part of her deep down that is excited by what she is learning. While her costumes started out as all white breezy things, as the film goes on, she wears more and more dark clothing, almost modelling herself after what she believes to be the ghost of Miss Jessel. She keeps a photo of Quint she found in the attic while playing hide and seek with the children. Oh, guess what else they found in the attic! A music box, which plays that creepy song Flora hums. Great! Because not unlike ventriloquist dummies, music boxes are always frightening.

One of my favorite scenes occurs when Miss Giddens allows herself to be manipulated by the children into having a costume party instead of doing school lessons. The children descend from the attic, dressed as a prince and princess, I think? Of course Flora is holding her stupid music box open as she introduces Miles with his glowing candle, who will recite a poem! Okay. This poem. You gotta see this. Like, *that* is his go to poem? He just has that at the top of his head ready for when he wants to dazzle a crowd. Like when your parents forced you to “perform” some stupid thing for their drunk guests. Miles is like, “I got this…”

Miss Giddens is now just troubled and upset all the time. She sees the children whispering and is plagued by paranoia that they have been corrupted by these evil beings. She constantly needs validation from Mrs. Grose that she is not imagining things. Dear Mrs. Grose doesn’t argue with her, but you can tell she is just going along with it to not make waves. She comes to this conclusion that if they just admit that they are being possessed, everything will be okay. Oh, so is thatttt how easy it is? You just admit something and - all better? Logical! After seeing the ghost of Miss Jessel in the school room cry for three seconds and coming to the conclusion that she is “hungry for him. For his arms. His lips”, she states that these ghosts want to be together so they are using the children in order to do so. She decides she must confront each child one at a time.

First, she finds Flora down at the gazebo by the lake where she heard the voice calling for Flora when she at the beginning. Flora hums (shocker). Giddens sees the ghost, does the ol’ “shaken baby” routine, trying to physically shake the truth out of Flora, that she too sees the ghost, and Flora loses her shit. The screaming. Wow. That screaming. She is terrified. It’s actually scary because it’s as if we are watching a child be broken right before our very eyes. Thankfully Mrs. Grose witnesses this and gets Flora the hell out of there. Finally, Mrs. Grose has had enough and she will not just go along with Giddens’ theories any longer. She takes Flora away and all the other servants leave the estate as well. Everyone leaves so that there is just Miss Giddens and Miles left.

Alright. To me the most uncomfortable thing about the film that needs to be addressed is the relationship between Miss Giddens and Miles. Sigh. Okay so…it’s no. No other way about it. She is basically in love with this kid and sometimes they look like they could actually be a couple. I think she really does believe that he is possessed by this Quint fellow and is projecting that image of this rough supposedly handsome dude on this kid…buttttt that ain’t okay. Miles totally knows he has her wrapped around his finger. The most troubling scene is when Miss Giddens tucks Miles in one night. A) she finds a dead pigeon with a broken neck under his pillow. And he’s like “oh yeah, gonna bury that tomorrow.” Okay, animal death #1, serial killer in the making. Then B) he says “kiss me goodnight” and kisses her right on the lips, for like, a longgggg time, guys. Way too long. She does not pull away. He does. So are we trusting her judgment still? That she is acting like a responsible adult? Just sayin’. (Fun Fact - the Kate Bush song, “The Infant Kiss” is about this scene.)

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They are finally alone in the house. They begin to have an oddly romantic tea party and head to the conservatory in another very Capote-ish scene. Miss Giddens presses Miles about what happened at school (this has never been dealt with). He admits that he said things that frightened other people. Where did he learn it from? Is it because he is possessed? Miles explains that the things he said came from his own imagination. Miss Giddens is not giving up. She intently shadows him in this room as he casually walks around, pushing and pushing and pushing. With each scene they are sweating more and more, as if this interaction is finally what each of them has been waiting for - a battle of wits. Giddens recoils in terror as she sees the ghost of Quint float into the window behind Miles as he tears a strip off her. He yells that she is going insane and is trying to make them believe things that aren’t true. He gets angryyyy, calls her names, laughs like a maniac, and throws Flora’s tortoise through the window (animal death #2 - serial killer). Miles now tries to get the hell away from Giddens, but trips and falls. Giddens holds him tenderly as he begs for forgiveness. She is still hellbent on getting Miles to say the name Peter Quint. She is totally obsessed. This sets Miles off again and he screams that she is insane, to which she does the ol’ “shaken baby” routine yet again (because it worked so well last time). Miles finally screams his name, and in the most heartbreaking scene of the film, he spins around frantically yelling “Where? Where?” He is legitimately hopeful that he will get to see Quint one more time. It’s hard to watch. Then he collapses. Miles is gone. We have one more uncomfortable kiss and come full circle to the scene during the opening credits. W-O-W.

I know I have used many (many many) words here, but really, words cannot describe how much I love this film. It is stunning for the eyes, the ears, and the imagination.

So. To make a long story short (too late), GHOSTS? OR NAH? Do you think she saw real ghosts? Did they possess these children? The innocents? Or did Miss Giddens imagine it all? I don’t think there is any correct answer. I know what side I sit on. I mean, even if there are ghosts, they are not the ones who *do* anything or cause any harm. I guess it all boils down to one thing. Do you have an imagination?