“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Danny Horn