1960 saw the release of what is arguably the most famous black and white horror film in cinema history: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In a departure from his usual tales of espionage, love and murder the British auteur presented audiences with, well…a tale of espionage, love and murder! Psycho is known to audiences across the world ranging from those who have studied the film at an academic level to those who can identify it from a mere few bars of Bernard Herrmann’s score, despite never having seen it before. However, in the few years that followed the master of suspense’s self-funded horror project two other black and white films emerged that are often much overlooked, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962).
Set in both stunning and imposing locations with tenacious female leads, these films offer an intimate and highly psychological examination of the female mind whilst ruminating heavily and hauntingly on the age-old themes of sex and death. What makes both these films so compelling is their duality and potential for multiple readings as, through the power of suggestion, we are encouraged to question the reliability of the narratives that are unfolding. Miss Giddens of The Innocents and Mary of Carnival of Souls are two women harbouring feelings of sexual repression and find themselves experiencing supernatural occurrences. However, instead of providing us with definitive proof of their mental fragility we are given no clear answers and are left to reflect on the question of whether all we’ve seen has been real or imagined.
Although it has acquired status as a horror classic by devoted fans of the genre, The Innocents didn’t enjoy success on anywhere near the same scale as Psycho and has a tendency to be forgotten by the wider audience. Set on a healthy budget of $33,000, it is at heart a collaborative project being an amalgamation of Henry James’ novella: The Turn of the Screw, William Archibald’s play entitled The Innocents (from which the film takes its name) and the imaginative mind of Truman Capote. Drawn to the original source of James’ novel for more than just professional reasons, the Director found that it resembled some fragments of his own childhood, identifying particular associations with the character of ten-year-old Miles. In this respect then, The Innocents also takes on a semi-autobiographical meaning that makes its motifs even more intriguing to unpick. Just like the enigmatic young boy who is sent home early from boarding school to a parentless house, Clayton too was expelled from school having only spent a single term there and also experienced some disconnect in his relationship with his father.
If Clayton’s film, which is preoccupied with the notion of innocence (set in a period that was obsessed with virtuousness), is a look back at attitudes concerning female sexuality and death, Herk Harvey’s first and regrettably only feature length film is an equally uncomfortable assessment of the present at its time of making. After a brief prologue which serves as a neat and simplistic set up for the ambiguous events that follow, Harvey cleverly subverts our expectations by revealing over the course of the film that the entire structure has been played out inversely. We witness a drag race intended as a bit of harmless fun go tragically wrong, with all that follows to central character Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) seeming to resemble a surreal fantasy.
Much has been said of the ethereal quality of Carnival of Souls and indeed, there is within its full context a strong case for interpreting the film as a metaphor for a dream. When the vehicle veers off the bridge and plunges into the murky river below, Mary is trapped underwater and essentially enters into an unawakenable sleep with subsequent events being played out as though they were a hazy dream. However, once the initial chaos has subsided and the townspeople begin their search of the river for the bodies, Mary unexpectedly emerges from the algae ridden swamp, appearing more like a final girl – see 2005’s The Descent or 2008’s Eden Lake for examples of this – than the Hitchcockian heroine she will soon transform into, complete with perfectly coiffed hair, fitted dress and kitten heels. This early scene shows Mary as a survivor, but over the course of her journey her resilience will fade just like the possessive ghosts that plague her.
At the centre of Clayton’s story is Miss Giddens, played with a beautiful balance of nervous fear and gentle subtlety by Deborah Kerr. Mrs Giddens is a governess embarking on her first employment at Bly, a country house owned by the rich and disinterested Uncle of two young children, Miles and Flora. Thrust into the role with only a housekeeper to assist, Miss Giddens is given explicit instructions by her employer not to disturb him with any aspect of the children’s care, and thus all parental responsibility is pushed onto her. A vicar’s daughter who has led a closeted life, she tells the youngsters soon after her arrival that her home was so cramped that it was impossible to keep secrets. This of course stands in stark contrast to her new home of Bly, the big, ugly, antique but convenient house (as James has her describes it) with its labyrinth like corridors illuminated only by candlelight. It’s little wonder that such a place of shadows and whispers gives birth to the governess’s encounters with the ghosts of the deceased valet Peter Quint and housekeeper Miss Jessel.
The opening of The Innocents might at first glance seem remarkably different to that of Carnival of Souls, but a closer inspection shows that there are some striking similarities. As the introductory credit’s roll, we are shown an image of hands clasped in prayer with no wider shot to enable us to establish just what is taking place. It will later be revealed that Clayton’s film (just like Harvey’s) is beginning at the end, as the closing shot is a repetition of the opening. With its religious connotations and seeming virtuosity, the opening scene itself seems to contain the innocence that the title suggests, but in actual fact this is Clayton employing a clever use of narrative structure to control our assumptions. By the end of the film, we will learn that this shot, which is punctuated with sweet sounding birdsong, is in actual fact the horrifying death scene of the infant Miles who Miss Giddens (to whom the praying hands belong) has failed to protect.
Walking into what she presupposes to be a gothic nightmare, Miss Giddens is notably relieved upon arrival to find Miles and Flora well-mannered and the house itself pleasantly welcoming. However, this is a mark of her own innocence which permeates throughout the film rendering her endearing but also setting her at a great disadvantage. This naivety even extends to her judgement of Mile’s questionable behaviour following notice of his dismissal from school, in her refusal to believe that he could be a destabilizing influence on his classmates. When in dialogue with the housekeeper Mrs Grose, Miss Giddens frenetically babbles away exclaiming how angelic he is in a manner that seems as much a design to persuade herself of the fact, as to convince her older counterpart of her opinion. The governess does little to further her authoritative position and assert herself with the youngsters in these early scenes, as she readily gives into their pleas to dress up, play hide and seek before bedtime and cut short lessons in favour of: pretending it’s Flora’s birthday.
In Carnival of Souls Mary, who has suffered a trauma that she is trying to put behind her begins initially as a character full of wit, independence and the ability to handle any situation presented to her, even when it involves some rather slippery characters. In the aftermath of the accident she seeks work as a professional organist at a church out of town, and her conversation with the local vicar upon her departure sheds some significant, but still rather small light on her outlook. She declares confidently that she is only in her line of work for the money (a remark she will repeat during an exchange with her neighbour, the lecherous Mr Lyndon), and thus we readily assume that Mary is a practical rational person rather than a religious or spiritual one. Furthermore, she is quite resolute when she announces that she will: “never come back”, a statement that might feel rather biennial and throwaway at first but is perhaps truer than she cares to believe.
We are purposely given very little background to the private lives of Miss Giddens and Mary but in the latter’s case especially as we literally only know what we are shown within the duration of the film, the rest we are required to piece together ourselves. Of the film’s female lead, writer John Clifford has remarked:
“I decided early on to give the heroine no real sympathy or understanding from any other character, so for the viewer there is no relief from her dilemma.”
This lack of catharsis is true of both films, as even once the ghosts fade out of view from Bly, Miss Giddens moment of release is shattered by the knowledge that she has tragically failed at the one task she committed to. For the women then, it would seem that within the confines of the film’s cyclical narrative structures their devasting fate is doomed to be repeated on a constant loop of terror.
If we step back and examine their character arcs, both females undergo a pattern of interchangeable transference between positions of strength and weakness. Clayton’s heroine begins as a timid, fragile and naive seeming character who is keen to win the affection of those around her. As the narrative unfolds however, she becomes more readily convinced that Miles and Flora are in danger from the ghosts her demeanour shifts. With new-found assertiveness she assumes a controlling role and is comfortable issuing orders, such as exiling Mrs Grose and Flora from Bly so that she can be alone with Miles. By comparison, Mary starts out in a position of strength when she rises from the river like the phoenix from the ashes (or perhaps more aptly like a ghost from the grave). In rejecting the unwelcome advance of Lyndon whilst wearing nothing but a bathrobe from the other side of the door she demonstrates self-confidence.
Mary can also play verbal tennis with the imposing neighbour who calls over with early morning coffee and a quart of whisky illustrated by quips such as: “you must be hilarious by noon”, and “what’s the matter, can you still taste the coffee”. Harvey’s heroine secures her own accommodation and employment, proving that she is able to carve out a life for herself without having to depend on a man (or anyone else for that matter). Despite all this, as her encounters with the ghostly figures escalate, Mary’s response is to sink increasingly into a state of vulnerability and she seeks company in order to stave off her nightmarish visions of a phantom man. Is it possible that this independent, strong willed and self-sufficient version of Mary is an imagined projection of her ideal self? Is this the manifestation of a life she wishes she could’ve led, and what she is running from as she scurries terrified across the beach under pursuit by the ever-increasing crowd of ghouls? To put it simply, perhaps Mary’s greatest fear is of herself and the film is an exploration of her trying to run both towards and away from her demons.
When the spirits appear in The Innocents, they are alarming chiefly because they resemble fully formed living, breathing people. Furthermore, Quint and Miss Jessel are not merely creatures who walk at night as they are able to appear in broad daylight as well as in pitch black darkness. The figures that haunt Mary in Carnival of Souls however, are much more gruesome in appearance and achieve an overall affect that sits somewhere between guignol and the supernatural with their pale make up and darkly lined eyes. They also grow notably larger in number and are more active than Quint and Miss Jezzel, who for the most part remain passive. Both films work to subtly combine cinematography and small seeming occurrences which we can all identify with, such as mistaking a reflect in a mirror or window to be something else in order to keep all possibilities open. Whilst Clayton’s spirits are perhaps the most successful, as they are more smoothly juxtaposed with human images, Harvey’s phantoms take a larger step into the human world, be it through occupying the chair of the Doctor consulting Mary or during the beach scene where she is uncomfortably hounded by her pursuers.
Clayton and Harvey shot their works in black and white at a time when technicolour was widely used. Such a choice allows for the dark and brooding themes of sexual repression, and the real versus the imagined to be fully exploited to create an overall air of mystery and disorientation. Adding to the often hypnotic and dizzying atmosphere are the specific methods employed by the cinematographers. For The Innocents, Freddie Francis made the artistic decision for the focus to rest on the centre of each shot, leaving the edges of the frame blurred and even colouring the lens out with a marker pen. Truman Capote also contributed to the overall aesthetic by introducing the theme of decay, including beetles that crawl out of statues, wilting flowers and crumbling architecture all of which work to create a visual metaphor for something lost or slipping out of reach. Everything may appear idyllic and perfect on the surface level, but beneath the superficial layers is an unavoidable sense of something rotting and becoming lifeless.
The feeling of decay is likewise detectable in Carnival of Souls, where the gothic house is switched for a dilapidated pavilion. The empty vastness of space acts as a visual metaphor for the loneliness of Mary who, like Miss Giddens, wonders around the abandoned landscape searching for purpose and identity. The atmosphere in Harvey’s film feels all the more disturbing as the pavilion is a space totally uninhabited by human life. The fairground images that this choice of location conjures up are also symbolic of a nostalgic era that has now slipped away into non-existence.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest Mary and Miss Giddens have personal histories that complicate their attitudes towards men and sex. During her interview for the governess position, her employer clearly stirs something sexual within Miss Giddens. Similarly, when finding the portrait of the deceased valet Peter Quint she now believes possesses young Miles, she demonstrates feelings of arousal which are abruptly followed by terror and fear. Her obsession with the affair of Quint and Miss Jessel is also indicative of her constant ruminations on lust. Thus, she is at once a highly sexualised woman whose instinctive response is to move towards the physical desire she feels, but is prevented from doing so by the response of utter repellence that follows.
In literature the image of a rose is often used to represent sexuality, fragility and delicateness. In The Innocents, Clayton (or rather, Capote) goes to great pains to establish an association between Miss Giddens and the romantic flower. Upon arrival, she first moves to touch a display of roses, only to find that they fall apart in her hands, linking to the ongoing motif of Bly being in a state of sickening decay. William Blakes’ The Sick Rose is therefore a perfect partner piece to The Innocents as the poet reflects on the subjects of love, innocence and sexuality:
“O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.”
The famous French poem Romance of the Rose (Guilluame de Lorris) personifies the flower as a woman and moreover goes onto observe that the plucking of a rose signifies man’s conquest of a woman. Notably, Miss Giddens is shown plucking the rose bushes of Bly herself, ensuring then that she is not being won over by any man.
In a recalling of Hitchcock’s Marnie, Mary is caught up in the dilemma of desperately not wanting to be left alone with the ghoulish figure whilst being unable to stand any form of physical contact with the men that surround her. It’s hardly surprising however, that she would choose not to get close to her fellow tenant Lyndon, an intrusive figure who imposes himself upon Mary at inconvenient times (assumedly to catch her off guard), such as late at night or early in the morning. A sympathetic reading of Lyndon would conclude that he is lonely and in search of a woman, but his only objective is a physical conquest of Mary, as he displays little concern for her wellbeing. When he picks her up from the church to take her out she is quite evidently in a catatonic state, yet he makes no enquiry as to why. Likewise, when she later sees the male figure that is plaguing her in the bedroom mirror, a revelation which reduces her to hysterics, he abandons her, callously calling: “you’re off your rocker!”
We don’t hear any explanation as to why Mary finds relationships with men so difficult, so are left to form our own opinions as to how this came to be. Was she out on a date getting up to no good when the car came off the bridge, or has some element of her childhood experiences had a lasting impact on her ability to allow herself to get close to the opposite sex? At the films closing, before we see the lifeless body of Mary pulled up inside the car, she is chased across the beach by a large group of the ghostly fiends. As we see her alive for the last time, she leaves nothing but a footprint for the investigators; has she been consumed by the mob, murdered or has some kind of orgy taken place in one final attempt towards sexual liberation?
One of the most problematic aspects of The Innocents is Miss Giddens’ relationship with Miles. Its worth noting that in Clayton’s version of James’ novel, where he chose to cast a woman in her mid forties to portray Miss Giddens (not the younger woman in her 20’s as featured in the original), that one possible explanation for her closeness and affection might be her inflated sense of never having the opportunity to become a mother herself. Having said that, there are still some highly controversial moments between the governess and her pupil including two lingering kisses directly on the lips, which lends a distinctly Freudian reading particularly around sex and death. It’s the ambiguity with which actor Martin Stephen portrays his character that makes these scenes so troubling and uncomfortable. Can Miles’ behaviour towards Miss Giddens be explained through his exposure to the carnal affairs of Miss Jessel and Quint, who Mrs Grose tells us: used rooms in daylight “as though they were dark woods”, or do his actions have motive and intent?
Aside from the Landlady who is not crucial to the plot, Mary is the only primary female character in Carnival of Souls. From the Doctor who wants to play psychiatrist to the Vicar who can see she is troubled, but dismisses her rather than offering spiritual guidance, to the aforementioned Lyndon who is only interested in sex, she is surrounded by men who either fail her or want something from her. There is also a darkness leading to the realization that the ghostly figure stalking Mary is not only a male who invades her private space, but is played by none other than the Director. There is nothing to suggest that Candace Hilligoss was mistreated in anyway during filming, but there’s certainly scope for seeing a blurring in the boundaries between life and art, as Candace is followed by her Director just as Mary is by the phantom figure. The ghost is in fact the only male character who is able to get close to Mary, as by the films end they are seen dancing together amidst a gorgeously macabre scene of possessed couples in the pavilion.
With the exception of Miles’ admission at the end (whose reliability is questionable), the presence of the ghosts in The Innocents are denied by all other characters aside from Miss Giddens which makes believing her account problematic. After spending time with the character, we could also interpret her experiences as irrational, unexplainable or the result of an overactive imagination. To add to this, she is also away from home undertaking her first job, and is therefore in an unfamiliar environment and dealing with a new set of circumstances. However, Clayton makes doubting Miss Giddens incredibly difficult, as we see everything through a filter that remains focused on her reaction and what’s more, Clayton shows us the ghosts too and in turn we feel as though we share in her thoughts and experiences more than any other character.
In as captivating and as clever a way as The Innocents, Carnival of Souls invites us (up until the last moment) to form our own conclusion as to whether Mary is to be trusted, and if what we have seen has actually taken place or is a product of her imagination. That she believes what has occurred to her is undoubtable and we as an audience have (just like Miss Giddens) been given privileged access to share directly in her experiences. Therefore, in questioning the ghosts that walk the walls and hallways of The Innocents, or the spirits that wander the pavilion in Carnival of Souls, what we are also being compelled to question is how much we can rely on our capacity and judgement… and there is little more terrifying than that.