Since When Have Flowers Symbolized Evil?

     We have all received flowers for happy occasions like birthdays and graduations. When we think about flowers, we usually picture a bride with a beautiful bouquet of roses or a little girl skipping along picking daisies. Flowers are given to giddy schoolgirls on Valentine's Day as a token of love. They are used to brighten hospital rooms and funeral parlors. Flowers are displayed in homes and gardens for their sweet scents and lovely appearances. In the 1961 motion picture The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and based on Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw, flowers appear for a far different purpose than those mentioned above. The flowers in the film are chilling reminders that evil is lurking nearby. So, the question is, since when has a flower become a symbol of evil?

     Our first clue that flowers play a twisted role in this story is found in the name of one of the innocents. "Flora" comes from the Latin word for flower. Flora is also the name of the seemingly sweet and innocent little girl played by Pamela Franklin. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) arrives at Bly mansion and marvels at its majestic beauty. As she is exploring, she touches one of the roses in a large bouquet. The petals die and fall off the flowers. This is, perhaps, a warning that with her arrival comes evil and death. When Miles (Martin Stephens) arrives at Bly, Flora drops the arrangement of flowers that she has been gathering along the path in her hurry to greet her brother. This may signify that trouble is on the way. Miles comes into the story bearing flowers and flattery for the young governess. This seemingly kind gesture may warn that Miles is the bearer of evil.

     Flowers are also used to announce the presence of the ghosts. When Miss Giddens is cutting roses in the garden, she spots the ghost of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) atop a tower. Also, when the governess is playing hide-and-seek with the children, she knocks an arrangement of flowers to the floor. This symbolizes the presence of a nearby spirit. This incident occurs right before her quick encounter with the ghost of Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) in the hallway and her encounter with Quint through the window. Another foreboding event occurs when Flora happily places some pretty white flowers on the grave of her former governess, Miss Jessel. This abnormal childhood behavior is used to emphasize Flora's innocence, but it is really quite chilling.

     As a fire burns in the fireplace, loud screams, eerie voices; and the sounds of a woman weeping are heard throughout the room. It is unknown whether these sounds are real or only in the mind of the governess. Miss Giddens is crying over a black book, with a white cross on the cover, that may contain the rites of exorcism. A single rose petal falls directly onto the book where her tears have fallen. Next, the piano begins playing, and a rose petal falls onto it as well. These are signs that evil is very near.

     In the final battle between Miss Giddens and the ghosts, she and Miles are in some sort of garden. They fight one another in the midst of greenery and flowers. Although the two are surrounded by beauty, they are also cornered by the evil spirits. Therefore, these beautiful flowers may actually represent the surrounding evil and the nightmare that is taking place all around them.

     This film may be one of the only cases in which flowers have had the power to send chills up the spine. However, this proved extremely effective in warning the viewer that evil is lurking around the corner.

Megan Douglas

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