In Kier La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, the author makes a fascinating and cogent observation about the role of women in horror cinema: They’re constantly going nuts. From such prominent classics as Repulsion to more obscure totems like The Mafu Cage, the genre seems preoccupied with depicting the slow mental breakdown of its’ female protagonists. Unfortunately, La Janisse doesn’t do much in the way of developing or exploring a thesis, devoting a disproportionate amount of text to the “autobiographical” part of the title (although her lengthy appendix is perhaps the most comprehensive guide to female-centric exploitation cinema ever published). Nonetheless, a read of the book will make any horror fan acutely aware of just how many films preoccupy themselves with the supposed fragility of female psychology, whereas few male protagonists enjoy the same fetishistic attention to their waning sanity. That said, the ubiquity isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, there is at least one prominent film dedicated to a man going insane, and that one—The Shining—is one of the horror classics. If there’s a feminocentric equivalent to be found to Jack Torrance’s party slide into Hell among all of those crazy lady pictures, then surely it’s The Innocents.
The setup is similar: Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes a job at Bly, the isolated country estate of a nameless aristocrat (Michael Redgrave), who took custody of his niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, after the deaths of their parents. Though Giddens is the first to point out she has little experience in the way of child rearing, The Uncle explains that, being a wealthy hedonist, he’s afraid having two kids around will cramp his style, and he’s more than happy to throw a butt-ton of cash and unfettered access to his lavish mansion to whoever will take full responsibility for the tots, qualifications be damned. As it turns out, though, Giddens will find herself in charge of more than just two school-aged children. Before long, the kids spin a tale for Miss Giddens about her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and her boyfriend, a rake named Quint who, it’s implied, turned Bly into his own giant S&M dungeon before a drunken tumble down the stairs broke his neck. Learning that Miss Jessel killed herself not long after, Miss Giddens slowly becomes convinced that the pair’s damned souls are now haunting Bly and that she’s the only thing standing between the children and unholy possession.
Jack Torrance’s transformation into an axe-wielding killer and Miss Giddens’ descent into pederasty closely mirror one another. Both start their respective films as apparently normal, if not necessarily well adjusted, individuals, although Kerr’s restrained “proper lady” performance earns her a few initial sanity points. Both start out simply wanting to do their jobs, with geographic isolation, their own underlying weaknesses, and suggestive stories of past wrongs working to wear away their grip on reality. Both employ clever visual cues to keep it ambiguous as to whether the ghosts are in the protagonists’ heads (just as Jack only ever sees a ghost in the presence of a mirror, Giddens only ever sees a ghost after viewing that person’s portrait, with the alleged specter of Miss Jessel—whose picture Giddens never sees—remaining distant and out of focus). Both end the film chasing down the other residents of their respective estates, voicing a desire to restore the status quo (Jack to “correct” his family, Miss Giddens to “save” the children) with fatal results. Both, too, are deconstructions of cultural gender expectations, and it’s here where The Innocents shines, unexpectedly, as a piece of feminist horror cinema.
Just as Jack Torrance fails to fulfill the “manly” role of a good provider and defender of his family, so too does Miss Giddens completely drop the ball when it comes to fulfilling cultural expectations of a woman taking care of young children. The idea that all women are gentle, nurturing, and inherently trustworthy by nature of their sex is a patriarchal myth just as damaging as the idea that all women are sex objects. It’s to Kerr’s credit that, as in real life, Giddens is not readily recognizable as someone who, at the very least, has some very deep seated hangups regarding children and sex. The audience is firmly on her side at the outset of the film, and even if we may begin to second guess her sanity when her evidence of a haunting proves circumstantial and flimsy at best, it takes a long while for us to start questioning her weird projection of deviancy and sexuality onto the kids. Miles, especially, seems a bit too mature for his age; so, we tell ourselves, perhaps she’s onto something. As the camera fades to black on one of the most uncomfortable climaxes in classic horror cinema, though, we’re forced to reassess not only our assumptions about Miss Giddens, but our preconceptions of the sanctity of female guardianship.
All of this could have come across as intensely misogynistic and a wholesale attack on womanhood itself. Rather, the script—by Truman Capote—is careful not to condemn women, but culture’s assumptions about them—as well as society’s willingness to turn a blind eye when they break gender norms in uncomfortable ways. Tellingly, it isn’t just anyone who hires on Miss Giddens, it’s the picture of patriarchal society itself—a rich, white, apathetic, and culturally tone deaf aristocrat who assumes that, just because she has a vagina, Miss Giddens will be the perfect person to care for his charges. In a very strange and indirect way, the film even doesn’t entirely put the blame on Miss Giddens for what goes down at Bly—we’re given little insight into what makes her tick, and her slow burn from twitchy ingénue to hysterical boy-lover is treated less as the actions of an evil woman and more as the natural result of a fuse carelessly lit by a society ignorant to the consequences. It’s amazing that a film tackling these ideas could be made in 1961, let alone get nominated for a couple of BAFTAs and actually walk away with a few other awards. It’s even more amazing that, as a society, we haven’t really made a film like it again, and that the gender myths the film so readily dismantles are just as pervasive today as they were half a century ago.