Haunted House Style

On The Innocents, The Others and the postmodernism of gothic horror cinema

Movies Features Gothic Horror
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Haunted House Style

The following contains spoilers for The Innocents and The Others, both of which are recently featured in our list of the 50 best ghost movies.

The opening of 1961’s The Innocents is pitch black, a pool of secrets and spirits. A little girl’s voice comes from the shadows and sings, “We lay my love and I, beneath the weeping willow / But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.” The little lullaby—a faux Victorian song that has the additional utility of bringing up death with children—sets the mood, seeming to, like much of the film’s sound design, echo through the haunted house hallways in which we are lost. Its placement at the very top of the film, before the studio logos or the main title credits, is crucial: It helps establish not only the film’s atmosphere, but the idea that The Innocents is, like the best of its gothic kind, about haunted houses and ghosts as historical texts.

Derived from the Gothic literature of the 19th century, itself a response to the formal realism that had taken hold at the time, Gothic horror cinema includes many of the trappings of its literary origins (dank houses, doomed romances), but, with the added visuality of film, can more aptly approach a conceptual understanding of the haunted house—not just a vehicle for restless spirits, but an actual text, like a book or a movie, to be studied by the people in the story itself. The Innocents perfected this, merging the anxieties of its protagonist with narrative ambiguity by way of subjective storytelling—released 50 years later, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others tries to invert the haunted house story while maintaining its postmodern affect. On the heels of that film, the adaptation of Sarah Waters’ neo-Gothic novel The Little Stranger, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, explores how Gothic cinema functions as self-reflexive, helping us understand our own obsessions with narrative and identity.

Based on both Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw and William Archibald’s stage adaptation—which would serve as an even more crucial source text—The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, simmers with dread and psychosexual charge. The original James novella was long used in academia to study New Criticism, a formalist movement in literary circles, as an exemplar of how ambiguity could be used in literature, and much of Clayton’s task was set on translating the precise opaqueness of the story and articulating the entrancing beauty of James’s language to the screen. In came Truman Capote, whose additions to Clayton and Archibald’s script imbued it with its iconic subtext about repression and Freudian sexual latency.

But Capote, Clayton and Archibald seemed to be aware that the draw to The Innocents wasn’t just the looming question of whether or not Deborah Kerr’s governess was really mad or whether or not the ghosts really did exist, but the power that the house in and of itself had over the characters. The story of a young woman who has come to take care of two orphans, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), in a remote house at Bly (while their uncle ignores them back in London and abroad) has all the workings of a fiendishly clever ghost story and chamber drama. As Miss Giddens (Kerr) becomes more paranoid, her subjective experience cleverly conveyed by reaction shots as opposed to just the apparitions she sees, it’s as if the house closes in on her.

While James’s story might be more firmly rooted in the Gothic tradition in comparison to that of the film, Clayton’s work has a keen awareness of the house at Bly’s existence as a text itself. It has a history to be uncovered, something sinister. Death creaks around, and while Miss Giddens has trouble getting a clear story out of the children—there’s a history to this house, and to the children, and to the family, and, implicitly, to Miss Giddens herself—the walls almost talk behind her back. With Freddie Francis’s chiaroscuro-driven cinematography, the darkness feels as if it is about to consume Kerr.

In the darkness are secrets that Miss Giddens seeks to uncover. What The Innocents realizes abouts its characters and about itself is what the best Gothic horror films do: It knows that such stories are fundamentally about texts, that the bodies moving around in these houses, and the houses themselves, are objects to be studied whose history has cultural and personal consequences and ramifications. Rather than existing within a vacuum, Miss Giddens and the house at Bly are like two things with seamy pasts that interact with one another. If the story of The Innocents is, as some scholars have claimed, a story of Miss Giddens’ crazed psychosexual repression projected onto the children, whether the ghosts existed or not does not influence the point that, nonetheless, the characters and the building are both part of the film’s formal bones, both capable of being critically analyzed within its own story.

The Others, as postmodern homage to Gothic horror cinema, is patently aware of the implications of its genre. Heavily influenced by Layton’s film, Amenábar sets up his with mirroring scenarios and subtexts: a large, strange house in a remote area (the island of Jersey), strangers to be servants, weird children, noises at night, lessons rooted in Christian mythology, discussions of the afterlife, a strange dynamic between the mother and one of her children, World War II anxiety. For better or worse, Amenábar throws a bunch of ideas at the wall, and while the crucial issue of the film is that it seems to be rooted in no one’s perspective (for the sake of adding dramatic irony in a few scenes), The Others, with a solid emotional pull, operates like a fun thought experiment.

Reports of a boy in their home send Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman)—from her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), who are photosensitive no less—reeling, and she slowly begins to lose her mind in the gigantic house. Doors slam, stairs creak, curtains disappear. Though Grace continues to unravel, her sense of security about life and whatever constitutes it evaporates. But The Others, unlike The Innocents or Peter Medak’s The Changeling, is not set up like a mystery box to be solved, in spite of the fact that the ending plays like a solution.

Not unlike the ending of The Sixth Sense, Grace and her family are already dead, and the noises they’ve been hearing, and the boy that Anne has seen, are another family, presumably living. Amenábar created a mirror world where one can imagine, “Gee, how do the ghosts feel about all of this?” If The Others is somewhat less successful than others in its genre, it’s mostly because of the way it incongruously lifts from them with an air of super-seriousness. Nonetheless, Kidman’s performance grounds the film, and Amenábar finds his way to create a fairly cohesive core.

Amenábar, too, realizes that Gothic horror cinema is a deeply self-referential or self-aware subgenre in film, or has the potential to be that way. Like The Innocents, the house inhabited is full of secrets and doors that must be locked. The conscious opening, closing and locking of doors indicates ways that the house as a text can be entered and not exited, indicating that the souls within the house cannot escape while facetiously indicting the academic or critic who get trapped in a house of their own making. Grace wields the keys to open and lock doors like a weapon, like a self-effacing writer and gatekeeper. On the other side of the light are the living, here represented by a family who have moved into the house, desperately trying to unlock the same kind of mystery that normally frames Gothic horror movies: Who are the spirits and why are they still here? What happened to them? The Others wittily guards itself against a conventional approach by making the text basically come alive, shielding itself against analysis. In the end, the family of the living, only having gotten a glimpse of the dead, vacate, leaving the family’s secrets in a state of liminality, like the family themselves. Open, yet still encased.

Even if The Others is supposed to be an “answer” to The Innocents in some way, the two films still loop around to the center: a woman in distress, trying to make sense of how she understands herself in a larger context. Both Miss Giddens and Grace Stewart seek to contextualize their identities within histories that have already been created and spun, stories that have already been narrativized, but the dramatic crux of the films is how these women lose control as they burrow into the history and narrative of that context. As much as Gothic cinema argues that, like in postmodernism, there is nothing outside of the text, The Innocents and The Others depict women whose anxieties are borne out of the displacement from the text. What’s scarier than a house full of ghosts? Not being able to find yourself in your own history.