Episode 645: Spirited Away

“We’ll go downstairs, and be ourselves again.”

Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw is one of Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis’ favorite stories. Dan used story elements from the book twice on Dark Shadows, and then he made a TV-movie adaptation in 1974.

It makes sense that Dan was fascinated with this story, because The Turn of the Screw is about one of the major themes of Dan’s career, namely how tedious and irritating governesses can be.

639 dark shadows amy david ghost

Here’s what Dan said about The Turn of the Screw:

A good deal of it went into Dark Shadows. I first saw it as The Innocents as a play in some regional theatre in New Jersey, and it scared the hell out of me. I was always fascinated by it. Right after I saw the play, I read James’ Turn of the Screw and was even more fascinated by it.

Then, I saw Jack Clayton’s The Innocents [the 1961 film adaptation], which I thought was absolutely brilliant, and I was still in love with the story. I thought if I ever got the chance, I would love to do my own version of it.

So that’s where we are now, kicking off the Dark Shadows version. David and Amy have fallen under the influence of Quentin Collins, a 19th-century ancestor who’s communicating with the children through a haunted telephone. The Collins family held a seance, and a mysterious spirit named Magda has been issuing cryptic warnings through dreams and mirror writing. David and Amy have followed the sound of spooky gramophone music to a storage room in the abandoned west wing of Collinwood, and now they’re breaking through a wall with a crowbar to find the room where Quentin died.

The interesting thing about this storyline, considered as a daytime television adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, is that absolutely none of that has anything to do with the book. Seriously, the only thing that matches up with the book in any way is that there’s a boy, a girl and two ghosts. Everything else is 100% Dark Shadows, and 0% Henry James.

The Innocents - 1961...No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX (1918514c) Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin The Innocents - 1961

Here’s how the story goes in the book.

A woman who we never manage to learn the name of takes a job as the governess for two children — eight-year-old Flora, and ten-year-old Miles. She instantly and worryingly falls head over heels for them, because of their radiant, angelic beauty and their indescribable air of knowing nothing in the world but love.

But Miles has just been expelled from school, for reasons that are never made clear. When the governess learns this, she asks the cook the crucial question: “Is he really BAD?” The cook says absolutely not, just look at how charming and pure they are, and the defense rests. The governess is satisfied, and decides it must be the school’s fault.

That’s the kind of person we’re dealing with here. In her world, you’re either the most amazing creature that ever walked the earth, or you are irretrievably BAD, and that’s all there is. This is going to lead to trouble down the line.

A BFI Theatrical Release

After a while, the governess starts to see strange figures looking through the windows. When she describes her visions to the cook, she learns about two former staff members — Peter Quint, the master’s valet, and Miss Jessel, the children’s previous governess — who both died of unknown causes in the recent past.

Apparently Quint and Miss Jessel had some kind of connection, but we never learn any details. The cook indicates that they were BAD, and that’s enough. The governess is on high alert.

645 dark shadows innocents flora

And that’s kind of the whole story, actually. The governess sees the ghosts several more times, usually when the children are around. The ghosts don’t do anything but look at the children, and the children never indicate that they’re aware of the ghosts in any way.

Somehow, in the governess’ head, this means that the children are being mind-controlled by demons. She’s convinced that the children are being corrupted — are already corrupted — and it is her job to battle with the spirits for her charges’ souls. She accomplishes this by talking to the cook for page after page. She never mentions any of this to the children, who go on with their lives as usual, because everything is actually fine.

645 dark shadows innocents miles lawn

There are only two moments in the story when one of the children does something that you could possibly classify as BAD.

The first one happens in chapter ten, and it goes like this: Miles gets out of bed in the middle of the night, walks outside, and stands perfectly still on the front lawn. That’s it, that’s the whole incident.

Continuing this dastardly crime wave, we find out in chapter twenty-one that Miles stole a letter that the governess was planning to send to his uncle.

That is the entire extent of the children’s reign of terror. The rest of the book is just the governess being anxious.

645 dark shadows innocents outside

The best moment of the book is when the governess is outside with Flora and the cook, and the governess sees the ghost of Miss Jessel nearby. She shouts, “She’s there, she’s there!” and everybody turns towards her, and says, what the hell are you talking about?

Obviously, the fact that Flora doesn’t register that a specter is nearby means that she is entirely possessed by the devil. The governess screams at her, “She’s there, you little unhappy thing — there, there, THERE, and you see her as well as you see me!”

Here’s how the governess describes Flora’s enitrely reasonable response:

She was literally, she was hideously, hard; she had turned common and almost ugly. “I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never HAVE. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!”

And then the little girl hugs the cook, and sobs, “Take me away, take me away — oh take me away from HER!”

The cook does, and then the governess falls on her face and sobs untl sunset. It’s pretty great.

645 innocents crazy governess

The governess gets increasingly — well, I’d say “hysterical,” but that isn’t strong enough; she goes beyond hysteria to Tea Party chemtrails-truther level paranoia.

Miles tells the governess that he’s tired of her nonsense and he wants to go back to school, which means that he belongs to THEM, and the situation is even worse than we thought.

The governess tells the cook to take Flora and drive away. The governess is left in the house with Miles for about four hours before he’s in her arms, and she’s shouting, and all of a sudden he’s dead, I wonder how that happened. End of book. The police investigation and jail time are left to the reader’s imagination.

645 the innocents governess quint

Much of the literary criticism about The Turn of the Screw is a battle between two camps, the apparitionists and the non-apparitionists.

The apparitionists say that the ghosts are real, while the non-apparitionists interpret the book correctly, as the story of a deeply mentally unbalanced governess who has hallucinations and kills a ten-year-old. People in academia have seriously been arguing about this since 1934.

So I would say that The Turn of the Screw is a legitimately scary book, but only for the writers of Dark Shadows, who have to take this 117-page lunatic rant and turn it into a soap opera storyline.

645 dark shadows david amy hi

Because this, this is just… we can’t do anything with this.

If they’d actually tried to do an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw on Dark Shadows, it would have gone like this: Amy comes to live at Collinwood. Vicki sees Quentin standing outside the window. She talks to Mrs. Johnson about it. Then she sees Beth standing nearby while Amy is playing. More conversations with Mrs. Johnson. And then I guess after a while Vicki kills David, and we move on to doing The Wings of a Dove or The Bostonians, or whatever tedious Henry James book they feel like tackling next.

This storyline is supposed to last us from mid-December through the end of February. A straight adaptation wouldn’t last more than a week, even going at Sproat speed. It’s just not going to happen.

645 dark shadows quentin skeleton

Besides, they don’t even have a ghost-busting governess right now. The current governess is openly and enthusiastically pro-ghost; she even married one.

So they keep Vicki out of it, and they turn Quint into Quentin, and rather than a recent employee, he’s a 19th-century ancestor. They establish a backstory that involves Liz and Roger’s father, and they add a curse, a cradle, a seance, a hit song, and that classic Dark Shadows crowd-pleaser, a skeleton with a wig.

Once again, we see the basic Dark Shadows production dynamic in action. Dan has a great idea, he tells the writers to go do it, the writers roll their eyes, and then they write something crazy. And somehow, it works. It must be magic; that’s the only way to explain it.

Monday: The Turning.

Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

Amy says, “I wish it wasn’t so musty in here. I can hardly breathe.” Then someone in the studio coughs.

Liz tells Barnabas, “Well, you always know, you know how fascinated David’s always been with this house.”

Amy tells David that they should go downstairs. David asks why, and Amy says, “Nobody knows who we are.”

Amy runs to Barnabas for a hug, saying, “It’s so good to see you again!” — but this is the first time we’ve heard that they know each other. Barnabas says that it’s been several weeks since he’s seen her, and he thought she was still at Windcliff. It’s not really a blooper, because it’s not impossible that Barnabas met and befriended Amy at Windcliff sometime when we weren’t looking, but it’s very odd. Did he feel guilty about driving a stake through Amy’s brother’s heart?

The production credits are crooked again today.


The Dan Curtis quote at the top is from Jeff Thompson’s The Television Horrors of Dan Curtis.

Also, if you find the idea of a decades-long scholarly battle between the apparitionists and the non-apparitionists amusing, then there’s an excellent survey of it on www.turnofthescrew.com. Seriously, real website.

Monday: The Turning.

645 innocents light

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

25 thoughts on “Episode 645: Spirited Away

  1. I have a hard time saying what my favorite movie is. It’s sort of a tie between Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) and The Innocents (1961).

    1. I figured the author would take the non-apparitionists’ point of view as soon as he started mocking truthers. Unless you can see beyond what the establishment has conditioned us to see, you won’t be able to see the truth. What that means is, “The Innocents” IS a story about evil entities possessing children. Dan Curtis did a nice version of “The Turn of the Screw” in 1974, and a nice variation of the story in Dark Shadows.

  2. There’s an implication that Barnabas and Amy hung out at Windcliff, because apparently exposing small children, in shock over the deaths of family members, to middle-aged mental patients is part of the healing process. The Barnabas/Amy scene makes me laugh at loud because it’s as if the writers think Windcliff is a vacation resort and Barnabas and Amy met by the pool.

  3. There’s a lot more going on in Turn of the Screw than are the ghosts real/aren’t they – religious oppression, sexual repression, perspective. It’s a great book to study re: first person narration reliability. For the record, I do think the governess is cray-cray. I believe it’s mentioned early on that the governess is recuperating from an unexplained breakdown. That said, I’m pretty sure at one point in the story the housekeeper explicitly states that Quint and Miss Jessel were lovers and that the children were witness to some of their goings-on – which opens up the possibility of sexual molestation.

    The movie, on the other hand – which is fantastic and I highly recommend – I think is pretty explicit that the ghosts are real. But the governess (excellent performance by Deborah Kerr) is still cray-cray.

  4. “I think is pretty explicit that the ghosts are real.”

    Not really. There’s still the scene by the pond where the governess sees the ghost of Miss Jessel, but Mrs. Grose housekeeper doesn’t. (Interestingly, actress Megs Jenkins, who played Mrs. Grose in THE INNOCENTS, goes on to play the same role 13 years later in Dan’s TV version with Lynn Redgrave as the governess… and Kathryn Leigh Scott as the ghost of Miss Jessel!). The only time where we get a stronger hint that they might be real is when 1) a crying Miss Jessell leaves a teardrop and 2) when WE the audience see the ghost of Quint in the window (pictured above) before the governess is even aware he’s there.

    1. Yes, sorry, I meant to say the film was more explicit than the book re: the ghosts. Can’t remember what it was, but last time I saw the film I fell squarely in the “ghosts are real” camp – but as you say, the ambiguity still exists.

      1. I read that Dan’s 1974 version ends with Miles acknowledging the ghosts. Dan was not big with the ambiguity; his characters tend to run around screaming and then turn into fire demons.

        The apparationist/non-apparitionist split is actually pretty interesting, if you like that sort of thing, because partly it’s a question about whether the author’s intention matters. I am a staunch non-apparitionist, in the same stubborn way that I insist that Vicki created Parallel Time.

        1. It’s interesting because it gets to the heart of the reliability of first-person narrative. In 99% of cases we just take for granted that what the narrator is telling us is legitimate. Turn of the Screw was – I think – the first book I studied where that reliability was put into question, so I found it fascinating just for that. Ultimately what matters though is that the narrator believes it to be true, and the consequences that follow as a result. I will have to check out the Curtis version somehow, just out of curiosity.

          For the purposes of DS, the ambiguity is thrown out the window (as it should) and instead we’re left with the corruption of the innocent theme.

          1. I think Edgar Allen Poe’s stories are important in establishing the unreliable narrator — The Telltale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado are both told by insane murderers. Naturally, the DS version of The Telltale Heart also agrees with the crazy narrator — Trask really does see visions sent by Barnabas.

          2. Wuthering Heights has TWO unreliable narrators. 1841PT Dark Shadows pretty much does the same with Wuthering Heights as this period does with The Turn of the Screw, which is to vaguely use the set-up and mostly ignore the story.
            It can be argued that Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, is the villain in The Turn of the Screw, attempting to get rid of anyone who would come between her and her absolute control of the household.

  5. I thought the moment between Amy and Barnabas was a sweet nod to the Barnabas/Sarah relationship. But that’s just me.

    1. I’m sure they had some free time or something at Windcliff. Though I would have thought Barnabas would have been locked up, since he was recovering from the vamping Angélique gave him at the time.

  6. I remember being at a friends house and watching this episode in 1968. He and I were both terrified that Jonathan Frid had left the show. He had been gone for nearly 2 weeks and this was way before social media, Twitter, and soap opera digest were around.

    My friend and I both cheered when we saw Barnabas, although he really was just an accessory in this episode… It could have just as well been Willie Loomis or Harry Johnson helping Elizabeth look for the kids

  7. I doubt anyone is still reading this page, but I have to throw my two cents in for the historical record. Sproat or no Sproat, the Haunting Episodes in the West Wing are my absolute favorites in the entire DS run. (1795 is a very close second). I saw it in the original run when I was a kid, and I’ve watched it several times over the years (including now as I’m reading this newly discovered fantastic blog). I love the creepy, locked-in-attic vibe, the exploring old house nooks and crannies adventure (I had dreams about just such houses well into adulthood), and I think Henesy and Nicholson are fantastic in these episodes. (David’s reaction when he first hears the breathing on the phone, and the camera’s zoom in on his face, is maybe the most effective camera shot in the entire series. So Sproaty, ya done good on your way out the door: Your limitations finally collided with a scenario that could put them to perfect use.

  8. Awww, David has a puppy love crush on Amy!

    That cradle rocking back and forth…EEK! These episodes are so awesome! Especially since I’m watching in Halloween season 2020.

    And what a cliffhanger!! That would’ve been torture to go through a weekend and possibly even more days wondering what meeting Quentin is going to be like.

  9. If anyone is here because they are watching the Amazon Prime compilation of DS called the Haunting of Collinswood which runs over 3 hours it starts with this episode and continues from there. So start reading the episode comments from this page to follow along.

  10. Sometimes a song will pop into my head and I have to figure out why. Today it was “Shall We Dance?” from the King and I. I think all those pictures of Deborah Kerr triggered the song. She starred in The King and I as well as The Innocents. She was also one of Grayson’s costars in Night of the Iguana.

  11. Nobody does it like Deborah Kerr.
    That skeleton needs to start getting screen credit.
    Its played more parts than Lara Parker.

  12. That moment when Amy says “Because nobody knows who we are” is one of those glorious moments of accidental surrealism, which fits in perfectly with the kids’ increasingly odd, are-they-manipulated-or-are-they-possessed performances. Once again this show ends up so much more interesting than it sets out to be…

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