“Beyond Everything”: Storytelling and Pathogenic Possession in The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Introduction to pathogenic media and adaptation unit

Stories pass from one speaker to the next, possessing each figure momentarily before entering another. This creates an exponential relationship, one where listeners innately transform into storytellers and continue to spread the narrative. Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw visualizes this exchange by implying that the act of storytelling is the same as ghostly possession. In both situations, the listener or subject is influenced by an outside source until they eventually absorb the material. The Turn of the Screw likewise suggests that this mimics pathogenic movement, as the story and spirit enter the body to cause physical and behavioural symptoms or changes. It introduces this characterization in its first line; “THE story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome” (James 1). Here, the story latches onto the listener, leaving them breathless and unable to categorize what exactly about the story made it gruesome. Storytelling is thus a form of possession, making any stories themselves as Douglas, the storyteller character, describes, “beyond everything” (4) including speaker and listener. James’ text intermixes the supernatural with the pathogenic using this bacteria-like movement between information and people. Ghosts here become a symbol for repeated stories or narratives, those which are looking for new listeners or vessels.

Pathogenic language is widespread in horror, thanks in part to works like The Turn of the Screw. Any form of invasion in film and television gets riddled with disease rhetoric, tying political, geographic, or expansive emotional bodies (mass panic and crowds) to individual ones. Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), for instance, where aliens invade the human population, tend to rely on disease terminology to describe the spread of aliens, violence, and horror in general. There are obvious issues with this usage, because as prevalent as pathogenic horror can be, it frequently appears in racist and anti-immigration media. Whether intentional or not, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is commonly read as an extension of fear of foreign invasion, so both extraterrestrial and terrestrial aliens. There are countless films from that era which follow suit with varying degrees of subtly and complexity. That noted, pathogenic language has influenced numerous works, especially now, extending outside of horror science fiction and into other genres, as our example today demonstrates.

Gothic horror relies heavily on pathogenic language to describe supernatural threats. Infection and possession are nearly interchangeable in these works. Dracula is a prime example, as he and other vampires enter the blood stream, slowly infecting their victims until they succumb to a mutation. It’s even been given a medical term: vampirism. Noting that history, pathogenic horror has become extremely prevalent in contemporary media, due to the current ongoing pandemic. Everything from media directly targeting viewers’ COVID anxiety, to the pandemic indirectly influencing the language and gaze of contemporary media. It’s altered the very way we think of disease and contact, reminiscent of James’ era, where disease was frequent, widespread, and meticulously ingrained in displays of mourning and distance.

The words ‘invasion’ and ‘spread’ equally describe storytelling, possession, and literal disease to authors of Gothic media, so my goal for the next two months is to discuss major works that outline this transaction. First, the literary work, then it’s adaptation, or the strain of that work. For this article I am focusing on James’ The Turn of the Screw as an informal introduction to a future article on The Innocents (1961) and Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). While James’s work is not the most prevalent pathogenic text, it has a more contemporary and widely known adaptation than other works on my list, namely H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds (1897), which was released just prior to James’ text. Wells’ story is arguably a more famous work, but less known for its adaptations. That outlined, the purpose of this unit is to detail how pathogens are defined in literary works, then how that definition migrates and mutates into these later cinematic bodies.

Near the conclusion of James’ ghost ridden novella, the Governess believes that the horror has ended, and that her charge Miles has finally returned to his own face (144). She asks, “what did this strain of trouble matter when my eyes went back to the window only to see that the air was clear again…the influence quenched?” (144). Here, the virus or “strain” plaguing Miles has disappeared, as the air is finally clear of “influence” or disease. However, when the ghosts return to fully possess Miles, their influence reappears with even greater force because of Miles’ earlier prologued exposure to the supernatural. Ghost exposure is thus identical to medical contamination. Simply put, Miles spent too much time breathing bad air to start, and so a second stronger fever or possession could take root. Another example of this comparison between disease and ghost is how the Governess describes Miles’ proximity as “the poison of an influence that I dared but half to phrase” (106), because naming it would bring her too close to the thing as the very idea of it poses a threat. This use of proximity and purity relates to Julia Kristeva’s abject, specifically her description of leprosy. Kristeva is a well-established essayist known for her work on horror and proximity, like her famous 1980 book The Powers of Horror. There,Kristeva argues that leprosy is an abomination because its impurity erases identity, or the difference between virus and person (Kristeva 101). Leprosy, along with other visible diseases, leave undeniable traces, making the disease’s identity synonymous to the person’s. As such, the person cannot escape from the disease, as it announces itself on the inside and outside of their body. The most disturbing element of these traces, however, is that there was a time when the disease wasn’t visible, it was still mutating inside, unknown yet hiding in the subject and their social circles, spreading quietly before spreading outright.

Kristeva’s work is largely focused on proximity, being too close to horror, both the person suffering the disease and the people who are afraid of catching it, afraid to even look in case it’s contagious by sight. Her work goes on to suggest that this fear around proximity and disease extends to all horror, anything where something suddenly emerges that was there before, but we couldn’t see it. I call this transgression; it’s the movement where something inside (suppressed and hidden) suddenly externalizes. Not the thing itself, but it’s ability to move between these realms, announcing itself when it’s already too late. I’ll return to this concept in more detail with future articles, so for now, I’ll note that James’ text fixates on transgressive spirits. Transgressive both for their actions in life, but also their movement in the afterlife, floating invisible before suddenly emerging through the children.

While Kristeva and James’ texts each deal with threats towards identity, Kristeva focuses on visual and visceral aspects, while James on behavioural. Possession in James’ work is an attempt to draw one body into another, to the extent that what was outside becomes indefinitely tied to whatever or whoever is hidden inside, like a needle pushing into the skin. One soul moving inside and displacing or mutating the original. The children still look like children during these possessions, it’s their behaviour and speech that become unnatural. Douglas’ story often compares the supernatural with the bacterial using plague tropes. For example, the ghosts attach to children, Flora and Miles, those who are most at risk for viruses. Likewise, Bly manor becomes a contaminated outbreak site, one which Flora must be quarantined from. The ghosts’ quest to invade Flora and Miles similarly becomes viral or parasitic, as the ghosts function as bacteria and the children as hosts. The text further emphasizes this threat by treating Miles and Flora’s behaviour as an infection, given that Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, notes that “It’s beyond everything, for a young lady; and I can’t think wherever she must have picked up” (James 129). The phrase “beyond everything” is the same phrase Douglas uses earlier to frame his story (6), which indicates that possession mirrors the storytelling relationship between listener and speaker. This juxtaposition also implies that storytelling is a form of possession, as the children are victims to corrupted influence or knowledge, what Flora “picked up”. Flora demonstrates this shortly after running away. The Governess comments that “The wretched child had spoken exactly as if she had got from some outside source each of her stabbing little words” (122). This “outside source” has invaded Flora, making her words like needles, hence those “stabbing little words”.

One way James’ text details this pathogenic possession is by describing both the act of storytelling and listening. Before Douglas, the storyteller of James’ work, imparts his tale, he emphasizes the listening experience, both what his audience should anticipate and how he felt as a listener to this tale. While discussing the story’s origin, Douglas notes that he had to fill in many of its details, like the Governess’ love story. He claims that this detail is true, even though she never spoke of it. Instead, the fact simply “came out- she couldn’t tell her story without its coming out. I saw it, and she saw I saw it; but neither of us spoke of it” (6). In other words, it externalized against her will, much like the spirits in the story. Neither she nor Douglas are willing acknowledge or verbalize it in that moment, yet it’s undeniable. Instead, they passively allow the story to move between them, spreading from one source to the next. As such, the Governess’ story is an agent unto itself, moving with an independent will and trajectory. That means that the reader of James’ novella is likewise infected with the story, thus continuing the spread. Douglas suggests repeatedly that this involuntary exposure also means that the story will never belong to one figure. It lives past the storyteller in being retold by other figures, even those he is currently talking to. This adaptation model is again clinical, with the very term adaptation arriving with a heavy scientific history. But how does this perspective on stories blend into adaptations of James’, and therefore Douglas’, story?

 Thinking ahead to my next article on adaptations of The Turn of the Screw, and the other articles for this pathogenic unit, there are some key questions to consider. The Turn of the Screw links the supernatural with the pathogenic through specific language. The Governess often describes Flora and Miles’ behaviour in two ways; bringing out and influence. For instance, she details how Miles “was under some influence operating in his small intellectual life” (66), as if some outside pathogen invaded his mind. It is noteworthy that these situations revolve around pieces of information like letters and lies. Why does the text make this comparison? In what ways are other sources of information treated as infectious sites? Can we read pathogenic literature like James in the same light, given that it spread through adaptation into other media? Does this treatment represent a form of Kristeva’s abject material?

The Turn of the Screw extends Kristeva’s assertion that “A body without a soul, a non-body…is to be excluded from God’s territory” (109) by asking what is a soul without a body? The answer is something beyond containment and control: a story. A ghost story, to be more specific, and as our adaptations next month prove, a single story can travel into multiple bodies of work.