Statues and Darkness and Curtains. . . .Oh My!

     What makes a creepy movie or play creepy? What conditions are conducive for ghosts? Surely the undead do not appear in downtown Manhattan, say, outside the Chrysler building around noon on a weekday. I have never heard of one popping in to visit the President as he sits in the Oval Office. It might be fun to see, and yet I cannot recall a poltergeist strolling on stage to stand beside Alex Trebek during the filming of the game show, Jeopardy! No, we all know that ghosts are confined to shadowy places, foggy places, dark and wintry and stormy places. Places like the country home in Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw were made for ghosts. In fact, I think that is how the whole idea of ghosts got started.

     You see, just a couple of hundred years ago, and certainly for much further back than that, people did not exactly have adequate lighting schemes. There was not any track lighting over the stairways in castles of old, no fluorescent beams in libraries and studies, and certainly no motion-sensitive halogen spots to warn of approaching carriages. It simply did not exist. Can you imagine how scary it must have been in those old places, with only candlelight or the wavering illumination thrown off by a fireplace? If you cannot, then just think back to the last time the electricity went off during a nighttime thunderstorm,and you were forced to try to navigate through the house with only an emergency candle at hand. Remember the deathly quiet that descended, after the comforting background sounds of our everyday appliances were halted? Remember how the slightest sounds about the house made you start, and say to yourself, "What was that?" Then try to imagine living like that every night of your life. It is certainly no wonder that ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night came into being. I can imagine very easily seeing something in the flickering shadows, especially after a hard day of work and a glass of wine. Add to that any number of sounds that probably emanated from the old structures, and it is not stretching the imagination very much to say that people often had thoughts that something was afoot.

     In the 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, entitled The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, all these devices were used successfully to lend a haunted air to the film. The use of subdued lighting, muted colors and faint music all helped give it a creepy feel. I felt the art direction in particular was effective, focusing on old but lifelike statuary on the grounds, which at times was quite disconcerting. It was effective as well inside the home, revealing murky hallways and dimly lit stairwells. It was not much of a stretch to imagine ghosts peering in through the windows of that spooky place. Who among us has not taken a fright at a curtain movement or partial glimpse of a reflection in the mirror? Just imagine how magnified all of that would seem by lamplight, with the wind howling in the eaves? In fact, it is hard to imagine a ghost in any other setting. Henry James knew this, as have a few other successful writers. Sometimes, the setting is everything.

Wade Kingston

For this writer's reviews of his many favorite films, please visit his "Movie Favorites" site.

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