Is there anything we can all agree on with regards to “The Turn of the Screw”? Let us doom our pursuit from the outset, and start with the title. For the Christmas Evers telling, being told, and to some extent analyzing ghost stories, the phrase “a turn of the screw” seems to be commonly understood as that which gives a scary story its effect, that which makes a frightening story frightening at all. In the case of the book written by Henry James, this title is clearly self-reflexive. It does not refer, like “The American” or “The Golden Bowl”, to a tangible person or thing in the story. Perhaps it is more like “The Portrait of a Lady” or “What Maisie Knew”, insofar as those titles refer, respectively, to an artistic status and function, or to psychological content, instead of to direct objects within fictions. But even then, this title we deal with now goes even further. It does not simply refer to itself as a piece of fiction, but to all horror fiction, and to the ghost story in general, by calling itself, essentially, “That Which Makes the Frightening, Frightening”. Yet this paraphrased title is still open-ended: we might well understand James’s title as referring to the capacity to induce fear, but we are still left with the challenge of pinpointing, either in the specific or the generalized case, what exactly does the inducing. And so it becomes our task to investigate how horror fiction works, and particularly what it must do, or contain, in order to scare us.
This task, as it is proposed, is one of structural analysis, and so James is conscious early on — and we may be as well, especially if we are re-reading — of the need for a kind of interpretive framework that will allow one to analyze and interpret horror as horror. One such framework is offered immediately by a story that has just been told, by a man named Griffin, when the book begins, and further by the response to this story from an audience internal to James’s book. In that story, a ghost appears to a young boy, who wakes up his mother, who also sees the ghost. Griffin’s audience claims that the story is interesting and impactful because its subject is a child; most if not all of those in attendance agree that the presence of this child gives the story its screw-turn. When a different attendee named Douglas introduces the prospect of a 2nd child being an additional victim in a different story (a story we will soon hear), the audience agrees that the 2nd child indeed offers a 2nd screw-turn, and so our proposed framework is complete: a child being a victim of a ghost is a scary thing, and the situation becomes incrementally scarier with the introduction of each additional child.
I don’t think I need to argue to anyone familiar with this book that this framework is a lame and unsatisfying one. There is a veritable endlessness of things about “The Turn of the Screw” which are interesting, challenging, and frightening, but the fact that there are 2 children, and not one, at Bly does not seem to be among them. If it is, it’s certainly not the crux of the story, not so central as to merit claim to the work’s title. Nor would the presence of 15 more children at Bly give 15 more proportionately successful deepenings of the story’s effect. If anything, what does emerge as worthwhile and memorable about the story exists much more on the basis of localized, individual experience.
Luckily our narrator points out what is far more interesting, as well as what is specifically frightening, about the story that Griffin has told, and in doing so provides an alternate framework that I hope we can hold to instead. He observes that the child who has seen the ghost wakes his mother “not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shocked him”. In making this more clever observation, our narrator pinpoints that which is truly frightening about the story being told. The rest of the internal audience doesn’t give it any further thought or mention, but this needn’t discourage us; James does not present this audience as a particularly insightful one, so it’s no surprise they favor a shallow explanation, and ignore this deeper one.
At the center of this alternate framework is the ability to reliably dismiss the false as false, as well as the dread, anxiety, and horror which result when that ability is crippled or altogether removed. The interference of a mother to “dissipate dread” of a frightened child appeals to our own sense of reality, detached from the fiction; ghosts are not real, and the introduction of an authority figure, one unimpeded by the wild imagination of a child, should serve to confirm that reality, and to clarify that this ghost was only a figment of the boy’s mind. This is what our narrator expects, based on what would presumably happen if a child in our real world claimed to his mother that he had seen a ghost. That the opposite happens in this story is what makes it frightening — far more compelling than a child’s fear of false imaginings, a fear easily soothed away by a mother’s comforting reassurances, is the experience of that mother, one who should, but cannot, dispute the presence of a supernatural evil, as she is undeniably faced with its impossible presence before her. She who was meant to serve as dismisser of falsehoods, verifier of realities, has been rendered unable to do so — the floor has fallen out from beneath her, and in turn from beneath us. Our own sense of reality no longer prevails within this fiction, and we must confront the possibility, even if only hypothetical, that the laws of our world — that which we think to be true, that which prevents nonexistent things from existing, and the very possibility that human judgment is reliable at all — might also fail us, subjecting us to the same horror we see in a mother who is no longer capable of dissipating dread.
This possibility of dissipating dread is associated with a hierarchy of narrative footing and authority which puts the frightened child at the bottom, followed by his mother, followed by Griffin’s audience, and then Griffin himself, and then us as James’s audience, and finally by James himself. As long as any one layer retains a reliable grasp on reality, it should indeed be able to dissipate the dread of the layer below it — for example, if Griffin’s audience was suddenly visited by a vampire, we as James’s audience in our higher tier should still be able to recognize vampires as fictional, and remain immune to the horror they invoke. When the mother awakes unable to do so, we see a failure of that hierarchy, and a flattening of the tiers, which leads us to the sincerely horrifying questions of: what happens when we can no longer dissipate the dread of those on the tiers below us? And when it comes to us, who then will dissipate our dread?
As he leads us down this path of thinking, James has done something wonderfully underhanded which we may not have noticed. That is, he has essentially made us forget that we are dealing with fiction at all. We who once, as audience, would have felt rooted in our own ability to judge fiction as such, to separate it from fact, and to remain immune to its dread, initially and implicitly defer that capacity to the mother within the story, unaware when we first do so that she will prove not up to the task. We grant her the authority to judge the ghost as unreal, but she is forced to report the opposite, and we are forced to believe her. We momentarily fail to see that using fictional evidence and a fictional witness to confirm or deny the presence of a fictional ghost is an absurd activity to get caught up in. Some 90 pages later we may or may not realize what an absurd activity we’re again caught up in as we debate internally whether the ghosts at Bly were real or not. More than 100 years, and thousands of pages of critical writing, later, we remain caught up in it en masse.
As I hope it has been demonstrated, this writerly sleight of hand is made possible by the introduction of an internal presence, on an intermediary tier of the narrative hierarchy, that serves to distance us as knowing consumers of fiction, and weaken our judgment to regard fiction and reality in ways that are sensible and trustworthy. In Griffin’s story this presence is of course the boy’s mother, but we will find an analogue in the small audience which hears Douglas’s tale, as we proceed to that which constitutes the actual bulk of James’s book. That Douglas’s tale is presented as it is — as decidedly performed to a captive and (arguably) discerning audience — defers our vantage from truly external (to James’ book) to one which is internal. It brings us down a narrative tier to sit alongside Douglas and his listeners, so that we may forget our usual place above them and get caught up in their fiction. In the same way that we gave up our own judgmental authority to the mother in Griffin’s story, we once again lose our footing in reality as we grant to an audience within James’ book — both the particular audience of characters who listen, and our broader co-occupation of that level of perspective — the “real” power to dismiss or confirm the events in the governess’s tale as we will soon hear them.
Just as the mother in Griffin’s story cripples our judgment in a way that allows horror to be actually possible — that enables us to feel her fear as co-participants, and not removed spectators — so will this distancing through narrative framework of the larger story enable everything that is interesting about “The Turn of the Screw”, from its power to invoke endless literary debate, to its simple power to horrify. Each of these layers of narrative distancing — these are the real screw-turns!!!