Do you believe in ghosts? Ghosts are all around, whether you believe in them or not. They exist in the form of the actors who have died in the old movies we watch, songs we listen to who singers are long gone and photo albums of loved ones that have passed. Henry James's novels Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw both deal with ghosts that haunt the people left behind.
The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler, is based on Washington Square (1880). In both book and film, Doctor Sloper (Sir Ralph Richardson) is haunted by the memory of his beautiful wife, who had died in spite of his medical expertise. Unable to console himself over his loss he neglects his daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). Catherine grows up without the loving attention a mother gives and has few social graces. Through the years her father remembers all his wife's wonderful traits and none of the bad. Catherine cannot measure up to the standard of her ghostly mother.
The 1961 film The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, is based on James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw. The audience must decide if the ghosts are really there or not. Miss Giddens is a young governess (Deborah Kerr) who is hired to be in charge of a country estate and two young children. She has doubts about accepting the charge but is charmed into accepting by the children's handsome, rich uncle (Michael Redgrave). She arrives at the isolated country estate and is awed by the beauty of the house, the grounds, and the precocious little girl Flora (Pamela Franklin). After a short time, things begin to seem strange. She receives a letter stating Miles (Martin Stephen) has been dismissed and may not return to school after the holidays. The letter gives no reason for the dismissal. The brother and sister have an unusual relationship, closer than most siblings. They exchange odd, knowing looks.
The haunting appears to begin when Miss Giddens sees a strange man on the wall of the house. When she questions the housekeeper (Megs Jenkins) about the man, she says he sounds like Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the master's butler who had died. Then the governess sees a woman who resembles the previous governess who had also died. Miss Giddens becomes more stressed and sleeps less and less. She is obsessed with these ghosts and is convinced they are trying to inhabit the children. She finally scares Flora so that the girl will not go near her. The housekeeper takes the distraught child off to London to her uncle, and Miss Giddens is left alone with Miles. By this time the woman is obviously unbalanced and physically disheveled. Miss Giddens badgers Miles about his friendship with Quint and tries to perform a kind of exorcism. The story ends with Miles saying Quint's name and then dying. The governess is glad that boy is free from Quint's influence, and his soul is in God's hands. The movie ends with Miss Giddens kissing the dead boy in a way that is not at all motherly.
A house does not have to be inhabited with supernatural beings for there to be ghosts. Vibrations of experiences both good and bad remain long after the moment has passed. A house where a murder has taken place is forever stigmatized. Dr. Sloper would have scoffed at the idea of a ghost at Washington Square, but he was haunted all the same. An old country manor can feel creepy without any claim to being haunted. The premature deaths of two people will cause people to talk and avoid the place where it happened. Combine this with two children raised in India, who behave differently from other children. Is it any wonder that a sensitive, inexperienced young woman would unknowingly pick up on such vibrations and be physically affected? Miss Giddens and Miss Sloper had the odds stacked against them, and the ghosts won.