The story's beginning is classic; an unsuspecting outsider steps right into the middle of a complex and haunting tale of secrets, mystery, and ghosts only to watch his or her life be changed forever. Is this not the way all ghost stories begin? Certainly those who experience the paranormal never anticipated their experiences, nor did they ask to be a part the tales that will forever haunt mankind. Yet, why do we allow these stories to terrify the corners of our mind when we are walking a shadowy sidewalk at dusk? And why do we pull our covers closer about our heads when the branches of a tree tap against our window on a windy night?
Henry James knew a thing or two of the elements that make a haunting story unforgettable. And while James used all the elements of a truly scary ghost story to jar his readers in the 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, he relied heavily on playing with the most terrifying element of all; the human mind.
The best ghosts stories have several common elements. Usually, they begin with a decrepit mansion surrounded by the mystery of its past. Those who stumble across the said mansion are unknowledgeable about its past and later learn of its eerie history from a local citizen. The story is always dark, with much of the action taking place at night, idealy during a horrible storm. Henry James relied on all of these aspects when he composed The Turn of the Screw. The 1961 movie, The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, went further to add ominous statues about the gardens of Bly Estate and further jarred the viewer with a score of typical eerie music, composed by Georges Auric.
Why is The Turn of the Screw so scary if thousands of other ghost stories share such a similar setting? The fact that two innocent children are the victims of the ghosts of their former teachers adds an unexpected twist. After all, to meddle with children is truly evil. And while we know of the ghosts' presence on the Bly estate, we know very little of their past. The very fact that the deaths of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are shrouded in mystery makes their ominous appearances even more formidable. The movie adaptation, however, added a shocking twist to the story by suggesting that the two ghosts (Clytie Jessop and Peter Wyngarde) were making contact by entering the bodies of the two children[, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), according to Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). These factors meddle with the mind, making The Turn of the Screw and its cinematic counterpart terrifying both asthetically and psychologically.
At the end of the novella and movie, the reader and viewer are left with many questions as to what really happened at Bly and what is to become of the governess, Flora, Miles, and Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins). We can theorize, we can guess, and we can assume. But we no more know what really happened than did the first readers of the Henry James novella and first viewers of The Innocents. What we do know is that the story itself has haunted us to the core.