What These Horrors Want: Infectious Thought in The Innocents (1961)

“We must try to learn what it is these horrors want.”

CW (CONTENT WARNING): This film indirectly deals with Child Abuse and Domestic Violence, both of which are discussed here.

While the law argues that someone is innocent until proven guilty, certain Christian faiths suggest the opposite. One is guilty until they have been baptised, or fully introduced to the world as a person. Baptism is followed by a period of innocence until the child has grown up and been tempted to sin. It’s essentially a guilty to innocent to guilty model, versus the legal innocent to guilty that’s more straightforward. It leaves children in this strange middle position, not old enough to have sinned, but born with cleansed inherent sin. That perspective becomes an interesting playground for horror, as creepy or possessed children blur the lines between this model, as though baptism didn’t work. They aren’t old enough to have properly sinned yet are still close to that born sin. The classic Gothic horror film The Innocents announces this dynamic even in its title. Who are the innocents? Can innocence exist in the film’s perverted environment? Worse still, can this environment, the strange Bly Manor, extend its sin long after the sinful have died?

Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Innocents quickly established itself as an icon for horror. Its composition and characters have migrated into countless horror media, as while they were Gothic staples before production, they became far more quotable through this film. The Others (2001) allegedly takes its name from a quote, “There are still the others”, and much of Guillermo del Toro’s work draws clear influence, especially Crimson Peak (2015), with its decaying house, butterflies, ghosts, and Gothic heroine. Any work with creepy children since 1961 essentially has The Innocents to blame, and for good reason. It features some deeply troubling children, yet, what’s possibly more disturbing about them is that their creepiness isn’t necessarily their fault. There’s two major ways one can approach the film. One can either believe the Governess, Ms. Giddens, or not believe her. While James’ novella introduces this dilemma, the film’s structure makes it undeniable. The novella begins with a fireside story, told from the narrator to a party of wealthy elites, all gathered round to hear about ghosts. That frame doesn’t appear in the film, so while the narrator in the novella argues that his story is about something supernatural, the film never makes this claim. Miss Giddens’ obsession with the children and their innocence is arguably more disturbing than any of the strange things the children get up to. Miss Giddens is an interesting character with unclear intentions, much like Bly Manor itself. Something horrible happened at Bly Manor, a series of traumatic events that the children are still recovering from. But to Miss Giddens, it’s as though their presence to these traumatic events has infected them. They witnessed sin, and in doing so, it spread to them.  

Flora and Miles, Miss Giddens’ peculiar wards, are frequently described as the most beautiful and innocent children in the world. Flora first appears in a delightful garden surrounded by flowers, like Alice emerging from a Disney Wonderland. Miles is likewise overjoyed by Miss Giddens’ presence at Bly, even bringing her flowers when they first meet. Much like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), however, Miss Giddens begins to wonder if this innocence is two sided or worse, a disguise. Is it possible that the children are playing innocent to hide something horrible? Miss Giddens’ uncertainty is introduced in the film’s first shot, where we see clasped praying hands, shaking violently until they spread, grasping at the air, then finally interweaving fingers into a begging clutch. Faith, and the displays of it, are uncertain here. When the children pray, later in the film, Miss Giddens wonders if they are doing it because they want to, or because it lends to that innocent label. As the film goes on to suggest, however, the same can be said of Miss Giddens, as her wild assumptions go from trying to protect the children to trying to possess them, like the very forces she believes are plaguing the children.

During the first shot with Miss Giddens’ hands, we hear the song “O Willow Waly”, which plays throughout the film, only sometimes with words. It sounds like a childhood lullaby, and like so many of those, it’s about something not child appropriate. It’s sings of separated lovers killing themselves by a weeping willow tree, one weeping because of their tragedy. It’s technically just a willow tree, but the figures in the song call it a weeping willow because they are projecting onto their environment, as though their struggles have changed nature and made it react to them. This treatment is common in Gothic and Romantic works, it’s called pathetic fallacy. That is what Miss Giddens initially believes is happening to the children; that the former Valet (Peter Quint) and Governess (Miss Jessel) are trying to project onto them from beyond the grave, still changing the components of Bly with their toxic love. Nevertheless, the willow is also just a willow in the song, regardless of this projection. The lovers aren’t literally changing anything about it, just how they view it. One can say the same of Miss Giddens’ behaviour towards the children, as she is projecting this supernatural mystery onto them, regardless of how many times they deny it. Miss Giddens is the only person to see the ghosts. She hears noises, sees people mainly at a distance, and draws from what details she can gather from the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and the children. That information is enough of a plague to warp everything about Bly for her, just like the ‘so-called’ weeping willow in the song.

“More than anything, I love children.”

For the purposes of this article, I think it’s useful to believe both perspectives; that Miss Giddens is right and that she is wrong. Each is a valid interpretation simultaneously. We begin the film with Miss Giddens and the children’s Uncle, who like a Mr. Rochester type, is presented as this distant romantic figure. Yet that characterization seems to be Miss Giddens’ invention, a fantasy brought about by reading works possibly like Jane Eyre (1847)which is often read in relation to James’ original novella. The Uncle makes it clear that he is never going to be in contact with her or the children again, because he is this sinful bachelor, living a life unsuitable for children. Despite that declaration, Miss Giddens routinely talks about the Uncle and wants to know how pretty her predecessor was, if the Uncle was interested in her, and Mrs. Grose plays into this, encouraging her. It’s useful to remember here that Governesses occupy a strange position in this era’s household. Not quite a servant, but also not quite a family member. They are educated women caught in the middle, demanding respect and holding power, but not an aristocrat. Lots of stories sprung up in this era about how dangerous a Governess could be; how the wrong choice could pervert a family, from what kind of education she offered the children, to her tempting the husband and becoming a new wife, a label which concerns Jane of Jane Eyre. It’s left unclear what Miss Giddens’ intentions are for this position, as she is visibly overjoyed about the job, but also the Uncle and his personal request for her to be a “supreme authority” of his estate. The Uncle’s decision to utterly remove himself from the situation, with zero plans of ever visiting, suggests that he is trying to maintain this rigid distance between child and adult spaces. Hence him asking Miss Giddens if she has an imagination, which is often seen as a childish quality, making her a good fit for the child space. But, given that her interest in the Uncle extends to Bly, bringing up this adult bachelor while with the children, these spaces are not that distinguished, and that before we learn about Quint and Miss Jessel.

It’s crucial to note that both The Innocent and Bly Manor have been read as metaphors for child abuse, and notably, that abuse continues when Miss Giddens arrives. It’s clear that Quint and Miss Jessel had a toxic relationship, as Quint would often hit her and there were multiple occasions where the children walked in on them having sex. Mrs. Grose mentions that the children followed them obsessively, with Miles always trailing after the evil man, and that she was unable to do anything about it. It’s never outright declared, and again, not much is in either the novella or film, but it’s heavily implied that this abuse spread to the children. Mrs. Grose’s difficulty describing Quint’s relationship to the children suggests that something awful happened before Quint’s death, which also remains a mystery. How did Quint die? We know that Miss Jessel killed herself by walking into the lake after and can often be seen crying there or in the classroom, but Quint’s death is unspecified. He slipped on the ice suddenly and collapsed on the stairs outside Bly and was discovered by Miles. What happened before that fall is unclear, or even if we can believe that it was a fall, as no one saw it happen. It begs the question, was he murdered, and if so, by whom? By Miss Jessel, Miles, or a fed-up Mrs. Grose finally stepping up? He was evidently abusing Miss Jessel, both physically and sexually, and it’s certainly implied that the two also abused the children, which is so awful and beyond words that no one can fully address it. Instead, this abuse and the ghosts become intermixed, to the point where Miss Giddens can see manifested trauma everywhere she goes, and her need to declare it destroys the children.

“Are you afraid he’ll corrupt you?”

The film features multiple innocent icons, and Miss Giddens notices each of these. Flowers and butterflies appear round characters like Flora and Miss Giddens, but suddenly die near the house, like the scene where a smiling Flora watches a spider devour a caught butterfly. When Miss Giddens first arrives, the grounds are full of life. Flowers everywhere, a butterfly even lands on her back and stays as she walks to the house with Flora, whose name literally means flowers. It’s in the house that Miss Giddens begins to find little hints that things are not well at Bly. The flowers, even those brought in only a few hours before, wilt inside, which doesn’t bode well for poor Flora, another flower. It’s here that we are also introduced to antithesis innocent icons: spiders and flies. As Miss Giddens enters Bly, a large window above the door looks like a spiderweb, implying that she is now caught inside this treacherous web, the spider yet unseen. Flies, meanwhile, are both innocent victims, flying into the web as Miss Giddens does, and a symbol for decay, which we see in the tower filled with audible flies. The film initially sets up a clear boundary between the gardens and interior of Bly using these symbols, with one filled with life, the other with death, which is interesting as both Quint and Miss Jessel died outside. The ghosts mainly stay outside at the beginning of the film, threatening to invade the mansion and children, but it’s rare to see them in any of the rooms. Miss Giddens hears them in the hallway, and watches Miss Jessel in the schoolroom, both late into film, but otherwise they stay outside. If we read Bly like a body, they would be the bacteria trying to enter and spread. As these spaces become more complicated, Miss Giddens realizes that death and horror is everywhere, even in the lively garden, now filled with spiders and broken statues. This barrier between life and death, garden and Bly, thus proves non-existent, nor did it ever exist. Trauma is in every space, threatening to emerge with a single word.

Descriptions are crucial to Miss Giddens, as what’s said and unsaid informs her entire investigation. Initially, Bly is described as “a heaven”, similar to the children, as Flora is described as “she seems, well, she certainly looks angelic”. The appearance of innocence is at first enough to be innocent, simply because it looks that way. Hence why Bly initially seems like this heavenly place, as from the gardens, it looks that way. But this appearance, even to the children, can easily change. As Flora puts it, while showing Miss Giddens to her small, shared bedroom, “big rooms get bigger at night”, leaving more room for things and fraught imagination. Miss Giddens immediately has trouble sleeping, but it’s unclear if that is because of Bly or if she has always had trouble, moaning and thrashing, now in front of Flora. One could read Miss Giddens’ own undescriptive past through abuse, because we don’t know anything about her adulthood or what brought her to the Uncle, having never taken care of children before. It’s established that Miss Giddens grew up a Pastor’s daughter in the countryside, surrounded by siblings in a small house where they were forced to stay quiet so their father could practice for his next sermon. The only game they were allowed to play is hide and seek, which could absolutely take on a dark connotation. Now, that may be reading into things, but remember, this is exactly what Miss Giddens is doing. No one mentions abuse until Mrs. Grose notes that Quint used to hit Miss Jessel, and no one mentions ghosts. Everything that follows is Miss Giddens’ interpretation of events that she was not present for and has little knowledge of. These little details edge her towards a giant conclusion, arguably because a supernatural threat is easier to deal with than long term trauma that must be dealt with everyday. Regardless of if this abuse has happened, Flora and Miles have been severely traumatized by the death of these toxic people, so while we can wonder if the ghosts actually exist, these children are being haunted by these figures, just perhaps not literally.

“The children are watching.”

Miss Giddens’ imagination, the very quality she was hired for, turns against the children, leading Flora to a nervous breakdown of screaming and obscenity, and Miles to death. Imagination is a difficult quality for the children, as when they do imagine or speculate on things, it gets quite dark and thus messes their innocent persona. It’s as though the children have planned how to make themselves the best versions of a child to prevent further harm. Miles even explains that he disobeyed by wandering outside, barefoot, in the middle of the night because no one likes a perfectly good child, and he had to stay interesting, not boring. There are little breaks in their performance, and while one might see two children clearly struggling with a past, Miss Giddens views it as nefarious. The children are victims to her projection, playing along with what she needs, and confusing her when they break this illusion. When Flora shows Miss Giddens her drawing, Miss Giddens thinks it’s a vase of flowers, the thing she commonly associates with Flora and innocence. She’s wrong, as Flora explains, “Goodness no, it’s a thunderstorm”, which is totally opposite. Miss Giddens imagined this pristine vase, carefully organized by stem and bloom, when in fact it’s a chaotic and awe or terror inspiring storm, far more complex than the innocence Miss Giddens ascribes.

Flora and Miles have a different perspective on trauma than Miss Giddens, wanting to stay quiet and not acknowledge any strange occurrences, especially with their own behaviour or love. Their affection is always loaded with a need to possess, whether all of someone’s attention or otherwise. Miles accuses Flora of squeaking her pencil in class, just for Miss Giddens’ attention, and she responds by screaming. Miles’ hug during hide and seek in the attic becomes a chokehold. Loud and occasionally violent outbursts are how the children understand love, and it’s also how Miss Giddens has been instructed to understand love. In the film’s first shot, we hear Miss Giddens repeat the instructions the Uncle gave her, although we don’t know that they are instructions yet. She states, “They [the children or the ghosts, maybe both] need affection, love, someone who will belong to them”, which is a toxic and possessive stance, much like the one demonstrated by Quint and Miss Jessel. Notably, this is not exactly what the Uncle says during their first meeting, as he instead notes, “They need affection, love, and someone to whom they belong, and who will belong to them”. Miss Giddens has removed part of that statement, to make the expression one way versus two. These children belong to no one, according to her in the film’s first moments, but they demand she belong to them. Or, alternatively, Quint belongs to no one but demands everyone belong to him, even beyond the grave. Perhaps the greatest example of love and possession in the film is Miss Giddens, as she begins the film in bright white clothes and migrates to darker clothes until finally ending in a black dress, like the one worn by Miss Jessel. It’s a stark change given the film’s black and white format, with the only unchanging element about her appearance being her hair. She keeps it in this tidy bun (except at night), versus Miss Jessel, whose name is not far off from Jezebel and who is always shown, much like Flora or any young girl of the era- not a respectable Governess -, with her hair out. Notable still, Miss Giddens parts her hair so it frames her face like a heart. She presents herself as this personification of love, the literal heart following these children and teaching them, but that love takes a turn along with her darker clothing, becoming more sinister. She harms the children, killing Miles, because she is trying to save them with obsessive love. Much like how the children use the term innocent to dress themselves, so too does Miss Giddens use love in her hairstyle to announce what she wants people (and herself) to believe.

“Truth is very seldom understood by any but imaginative persons.”

Mrs. Grose accuses Miss Giddens of imagining Quint’s ghost because she had just found his portrait in the attic. What adds some credibility to that is that Miss Giddens never properly describes the ghost of Miss Jessel to anyone, only mentioning that she is wearing black, which is not enough of a detail for anyone to deny it being her. That lack of detail is arguably because Miss Giddens hasn’t seen a picture of Miss Jessel, as she has with Quint. Without confirmation on elements like this, Miss Giddens becomes possessed by the implication of things. For example, when Miss Giddens finds Miss Jessel in the school room, crying on the desk, a drop of water is still there after she disappears. Miss Giddens reaches out to touch it, confused and alarmed, and then, as though infected by that touch, she comes away with meaning. We hear flies with this touch moment, like she is caught in a web, but also touching decay or disease. Suddenly, she knows for sure that Quint and Miss Jessel plan on possessing the children, and she knows how to stop them. All of this happens without the viewer, who just saw a ghost crying. No words were spoken, no cut away even, it’s just Miss Giddens extrapolating things. This happens again when Miss Giddens chats with Miles by the fire while Flora is busy screaming. Miss Giddens walks away from the conversation noting, “he wanted to reveal himself and ask for my help”. Did he? He just sat down and smiled, trying to comfort her after what happened with Flora. The audience doesn’t necessarily come away with the same meaning in these moments, as although they can see ghosts like Miss Giddens, she is jumping to dangerous conclusions.

So much as Miss Giddens is paranoid about the ghost spreading into the children, fear is just as contagious the film. As Mrs. Grose puts it, “Well, you’re afraid, and perhaps you made them so”, making them less innocent in her eyes. The less behaved they are, like Flora’s obscene screaming fit, the more troublesome the implication becomes. Things were fine before because no one spoke of those implication, everyone pretended that trauma left along with those bodies. Flora and Miles are wary of their imaginations, or just relaxing, and as a result, when they do imagine or play, it’s off-putting. While playing dress up, Miles suddenly performs a dark poem with the utmost seriousness, including lines like “Gone is my lord and the grave is his prison”. Miss Giddens interprets this as a poem about Quint, and how Miles is welcoming him beyond death. Play and imagination are thus laden with trauma, as though momentarily letting go of that ‘innocent’ performance, by playing and being distracted, allows true dark things emerge through their imagination.

“They are both playing, or being made to play, some monstrous game.”

During her first night at Bly, Miss Giddens hears a noise outside, and when she goes to investigate, Flora notes, “We must pretend we didn’t hear it…then we won’t imagine things”, which feels similar to the later ghost voices Miss Giddens hears, shouting “knock before you enter”. In both cases, it’s easier to ignore what is clearly happening and be careful, knocking before you approach things, rather than just investigating because you hear something. Simply put, pretending something isn’t happening is better than imagining what is. Mrs. Grose is a prime example, as she knew abuse was happening, and that “rooms [were] used by daylight as though they were dark woods”, and that the children knew. Despite knowing that, later, when Miss Giddens mentions that they should ask the Vicar for help, Mrs. Grose replies, “What good would it do to tell the Vicar our secrets?” or admit their suspicions. While Mrs. Grose eventually confronts Miss Giddens about her increasingly alarming behaviour, she doesn’t do anything about it, nor did she with Miss Jessel. Like the children, she doesn’t want to talk about it, and only lets out little traumatic details over time, encouraging Miss Giddens by believing her, and wanting to help, but not actually helping the children. Mrs. Grose takes the traumatized Flora away, yet willingly leaves Miss Giddens alone in the house with Miles, having just witnessed her violently shaking Flora, screaming for her to admit that she can see a dead woman. That is just a continuation of Mrs. Grose’s behaviour around Miss Jessel and Quint. She states that “Quint took advantage” of Miles, left marks of his grave on the floor, in the same breath as “there’s no use telling tales of what’s over and done with”, even though the trauma of that tale is still happening. Mrs. Grose describes act like a helping a child with a nightmare, noting, “waking a child can sometimes be worse than any bad dream”, as the reality of a situation is too cruel, but that also means that the children haven’t woken up to the horrors they endured, and continue to. Both Flora and Miles’ breakdowns occur because they cannot see the ghosts, do not want to address them, and the very thought of having to is painful. It’s so intense that saying Quint’s name, freeing him according to Miss Giddens, kills Miles. The shock of waking up to confront reality, whether abusive, supernatural, or a mix, is too much.

When Flora begins screaming at Miss Giddens by the lake, she shouts, “Don’t look at her” to Mrs. Grose, as though Miss Giddens now possesses the so-called “crazy in her eyes” that Miss Jessel once had, and that it could spread. She turns away completely from this awful infectious thought, drowning Miss Giddens out both visually and audibly. While Miss Giddens believes the children are possessed, she is likewise possessed by people and thoughts, the most obvious example is that she appears like Miss Jessel in the film’s final scenes, all wild eyes and dark clothes. Her violent and inappropriate conduct to Miles, meanwhile, feels like Quint. She kisses him on the lips twice, both for an extended uncomfortable period. First when he is in bed, then when he is dying in her arms, like a failed Sleeping Beauty attempt. Much criticism of the novella and film centers on Miss Giddens as a perverse governess and on her inappropriate sexuality, first towards the Uncle, then Quint, then Miles, some even accuse it of spreading to Flora. The common alternative reading is that Miss Giddens has unknowingly been possessed by the ghosts herself, who were using the children, but have now moved on to her. Either way, Miss Giddens is possessed by thoughts; the idea of these people that she never met, the idea of what innocence is, the idea of these symbol and icons being perverted around her.

Miss Giddens’ need to confront the past, regardless of Miles and Flora’s coping mechanisms, is one of the true horrors of the film. There is grief and trauma to this house, as even before Quint and Miss Jessel died, the children lost their parents in another unspecified event. Miss Giddens recognizes this presence, but when she first tries to describe it, she calls it love, to which Mrs. Grose replies, “Love? Oh, I suppose that’s what she [Miss Jessel] called it, but it was more like a sickness, a fever that leaves the body burned out and dry” by using it up. Love and possession are again linked by the same pathogenic language, as Miss Giddens notes while describing Miles, “you like a boy with spirit [maybe literal], well so do I, but not to the degree to contaminate”, Flora or the other boys at his school. It doesn’t sound like they are describing a child here, this “boy with spirit”, but Miles is also described early on as “a deceitful flatterer”, as though his words can’t be trusted as they have an intention. The ghosts, meanwhile, transit through words, what’s said and left unsaid by the figures remaining, hence Miss Giddens’ description of Miles after his outburst as, “That voice, those words, they weren’t yours”. The spirits are “talking horrors” and the only way to rid them is with “one word…and we can cast out the devils forever” by acknowledging that they are there. The issue there is that Miss Giddens is unconscious to her own possessed words, or the influence these details have in her to cause this obsession, so while she is determined to have Miles and Flora declare the ghosts, she can’t recognize them in herself.

“Sometimes one can’t help imagining things.”

The dynamic between what is said and unsaid goes for trauma, ghosts, and Bly Manor’s past in the film. Bly Manor is an inherent Gothic landscape, even to the characters. Miss Giddens performs as this quintessential Gothic heroine, wandering the house with her trailing nightgown and candlestick, but that presumption leads to the destruction of this place. Miss Giddens projects onto this environment, regardless of if you believe her or not. There are multiple scenes where she watches something and comes away with meaning, not unlike what I am doing here. The statue in the garden, for instance, still clinging on to the hands of it’s missing partner, with a beetle crawling out of it’s mouth. To some, that might just be an interesting thing. To Miss Giddens, it’s this loaded symbol of the house, essentially an infection site, or a small thing that will intensify and broaden into her anxiety about Bly. It’s similar to a psychic who is clearly reading their subject to find meaning and lure them in. The film’s audience is placed in a similar position, as we see what she does, but our takeaways might be different, as Miss Giddens doesn’t often discuss her immediate interpretation with these objects. She will see the cracked picture frame, the beetle in the mouth, the wilted flowers, and she’ll draw conclusions that we can clearly trace in her later comments about the ghosts, but those specific moments aren’t fully described. It means that the viewer is both making their own conclusions on these icons and trying to determine how Miss Giddens came to her conclusion.

While Mrs. Grose is another complicated figure, she leaves the film with the line, “I can’t judge you Miss, a body can only judge themselves”, which is the inverse of what Miss Giddens is doing. She judges and examines everything outside of herself, ignoring the glaring issues in her story and behaviour. While Miss Giddens is concerned about Miles and Flora being possessed, she has become possessed too, by the ghosts and their story.