Bright Lights Film Journal

Spider Eats Butterfly: Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961)

The film makes a far more subtle statement about childhood’s inevitable, metaphorical death: All innocent children must eventually grow into corrupted adults, and adults will only suffer for trying to cling to this innocence.

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The “evil child” horror subgenre has long been a Hollywood staple. Films like The Bad Seed (1956), The Omen (1976, 2006), and Orphan (2009) derive their chills from subverting the universal image of children as uncorrupted, innocent creatures. In all of these films, the children are ultimately revealed (at least to the audience, if not to all of the characters) as the monsters they are: Rhoda Penmark is indeed a serial killer; Damien is indeed Satan’s offspring; and Esther is indeed a psychotic adult masquerading as a child, respectively. These unambiguous reveals are nowhere to be seen in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), perhaps the best of all “evil child” films, precisely because it refuses to placate viewers with such concrete answers. Sure, siblings Miles and Flora may be possessed by ghosts, but it is equally possible that the film’s supernatural elements are merely a delusional fantasy concocted by Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the child-like, unstable governess assigned to watch over the children and their sprawling, English estate. In addition to teasing both possibilities, the film also makes a far more subtle statement about childhood’s inevitable, metaphorical death: All innocent children must eventually grow into corrupted adults, and adults will only suffer for trying to cling to this innocence.

Aesthetically, The Innocents is a testament to insinuation and mood over cheap shocks. Shot in CinemaScope, the film takes advantage of its wide canvas to create some eerily beautiful images, most of which concern the ghostly apparitions of Peter Quint, the former master of the house, and Miss Jessel, the former governess, both of whom Giddens comes to believe have possessed the children. By visually associating Quint with Miles and Jessel with Flora, Clayton slyly manipulates the viewer into drawing the same conclusions as the paranoid governess. In order to further trap the viewer inside Giddens’ mind, Clayton also eliminates all natural sounds (chirping birds, wind) during these supernatural encounters, an otherworldly effect that was imitated the following year in Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). I would be shocked if Harvey had not known of these scenes before preparing his first and only film.

Clayton and director of photography Freddie Francis clearly enjoyed experimenting with the widescreen format to produce maximum chills. In one of the film’s few “jump scares,” one which would surely fill John Carpenter with envy, Giddens’ head, in the foreground and slightly off-center, is juxtaposed with Quint’s darkened visage which floats, phantom-like, toward her.

Giddens’ reliability as a witness to these supernatural appearances, however, is constantly put into question. Early in the film, before she even arrives at the country estate and meets the children, she hears a disembodied voice calling out Flora’s name. When she offhandedly mentions the encounter to Mrs. Grose, the estate’s maid, she learns it was not the maid who was calling out. Though the children’s claims to have not seen the ghosts are suspect, it’s a lot harder to explain how Grose fails to encounter anything paranormal, especially after a scene in which she stares right at an apparition of Jessel. In fact, Giddens is the only character who claims to see or hear the ghosts throughout the entire film.

Like many films, from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), The Innocents uses pseudo-psychoanalytic references to capture its protagonist’s questionable mental health, most notably in an extended dream sequence around the film’s midpoint. This sequence, presented as a montage, is a feat of editing: A cracked headshot of Quint fades into Giddens’ face; the children’s heads loom over her; and Quint watches her from atop a tower, like a prison guard. In addition to effectively conveying Giddens’ paranoia (the children’s ominous whispers provide much of the audio in this scene), the sequence, through its constantly shifting sounds and images, allows the viewer to explore her subconscious mind and make connections among the people, places, and things troubling her.

Indeed, Giddens’ suspicions toward the children’s odd behavior can be explained rationally. “Look at them,” she nearly hisses in one scene, while watching Miles and Flora whispering to one another. “What do you think they’re saying?” Grose’s response should be a wake-up call to both the governess and the viewer: “Well, I don’t know, Miss. Just children’s talk.” Fair enough, one might say, but what of the unsettling scene in which Miles roughly chokes Giddens during a game of hide-and-seek? While the scene is undeniably creepy, it could be viewed as a child taking a game a little too far just as easily as it could be interpreted as homicidal behavior.

Despite these perceived attacks against her, Giddens does not want to defeat the children as much as she wants to cast out the wickedness that has seized their innocent bodies; the children, therefore, are simultaneously predators and victims, existing in a moral gray area that contrasts deeply with the cartoonish, purely evil children populating lesser horror films. This wickedness goes deeper than the idea of ghostly possession, which operates as a metaphor for the taint of adulthood. The film’s opening lines, spoken by Giddens, capture her fervent desire to protect children: “All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them. More than anything, I love children. More than anything, they need affection, love, someone who will belong to them and to whom they will belong.” Her love of children borders on worship; these opening lines, spoken in voiceover, accompany images of her rapturously praying, her face covered in sweat.

Later in the film, Miles echoes her sentiments: “There’s nothing I want to be [when I grow up], except what I am: a boy living at Bly. Oh, if only everything could go on just as it is now.” Giddens, who smiles on approvingly, should know better; it is only a matter of time before adulthood and all of its “impurities” show themselves. In many ways, the children are more attuned to adult life than their governess is. It is later insinuated, for example, that Miles and Flora used to watch Quint and Jessel having sex. Grose, picking up on Giddens’ naïvete, asks her, “Miss, are you afraid he [Miles] will corrupt you?” This line’s obvious sexual implications, along with Miles’ shameless flirtatiousness with Giddens, help paint the governess as childishly gullible and Miles as dangerously precocious. Unsurprisingly, the children pick up on their new governess’ immaturity, and it is not long before they cry their way into having their school lessons turn into costume parties.

Inspired by Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and co-written by the great Truman Capote, The Innocents also earns some scares through its superior, literary dialogue. In one scene, Flora (an apt name, since she is often shown wandering the estate’s grounds and examining its animals) notes the following while watching a spider web: “Oh, look! It’s a lovely spider, and it’s eating a butterfly.” This small, disquieting observation is a perfect metaphor for one of the film’s most important messages: Childhood must eventually be “eaten up” by adulthood and the maturation that accompanies it.

While Flora is delighted by this sight, Giddens is visibly disturbed, and this is because the child embraces something that the adult is unwilling to accept. Yes, the butterfly is beautiful, but the spider always wins in the end. Trying to fight adulthood’s inevitability only ends in ruin, an idea exemplified in the film’s final images of Giddens cradling Miles’ dead body. So, does the child die as a result of Quint’s ghost violently leaving his body, or is his death somehow the result of his governess’ psychological abuse? Wisely, Clayton keeps the answers to these questions, and many others, ambiguous. One thing remains clear, though: Perhaps it was Giddens, the supposed protector, in need of the saving.

Note: All images are screenshots.