The Turning – A high-genre ghost story and psychological thriller

For more than 100 years, a deeply haunting tale has been passed down to terrify audiences. Inspired by Henry James’ landmark novella,  The Turning takes us to a mysterious, decaying estate where a newly appointed nanny discovers that two disturbed orphans and the house are harboring dark secrets and things may not be as they appear. 

The Turning is directed by spellbinding visualist Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale), from a screenplay by Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes (The Conjuring), inspired by James’ The Turn of the Screw.

First published near the end of the 19th century, in 1898, The Turn of the Screw is a story told by an unnamed narrator, who is listening to someone read a manuscript written by a young woman who was employed as a governess to two orphans who came to believe that the children were being haunted by evil spirits. Her belief led her to commit shocking acts in an effort to rescue the children from these dark forces, but the reader is left wondering whether the ghosts were real or were only in the imagination of the young woman. Was the governess a courageous savior or a malevolent mad woman? Was the evil inside the house, or inside the woman? Was it evil at all or just a case of clinical insanity?

What if the person telling you a story can’t be trusted, either because they are intentionally lying or because their perception of reality is distorted? This is the foundation of Henry James’ disturbing novella.

The mysterious and ambiguous nature of the tale, combined with its gothic imagery and masterful storytelling, has fascinated literary academics, psychologists and artists for more than a century and has been adapted into opera, ballet, a Broadway play, television movies and film, most notably the 1961 movie The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr.

Just over a decade ago, screenwriters Chad and Carey W. Hayes, the sibling team who had scripted The Conjuring, saw a creative opportunity to adapt the story for the 21st century.

Prolific screenwriters Chad Hayes And Carey W. Hayes have been professional screenwriters since their early 20s. Since creating and writing the feature franchise The Conjuring for New Line, they have been in high demand, writing the following projects: The Conjuring 2, the sequel to their worldwide hit which brought James Wan back to the horror business; San Andreas (an extensive uncredited rewrite), the tentpole action-thriller which starred Dwayne Johnson; The Fear Inside for Sony/Dark Castle; The Harvest for eOne with Gore Verbinski attached to direct. They are currently writing a thriller based on the LaLaurie Mansion, the most haunted house in New Orleans. In television, they are adapting a remake of the Korean thriller Possessed for ABC with Kapital Entertainment.

Chad Hayes And Carey W. Hayes

With producer Roy Lee, Chad and Carey W. Hayes pitched the idea to Scott Bernstein, Lee’s producing partner on The Grudge and The Ring, who was then an executive at Universal Pictures. At the time, the project didn’t move forward, but then a few years ago, Bernstein, who had since become an independent producer, and Lee decided the time was right to bring it to the screen.

The film centers on a nanny, Kate Mandell, who begins to suspect that the orphans in her care are being haunted by a malevolent male entity, and that their Maine house, Bly estate, holds the secret to an act of horrific violence against the children’s previous governess, Miss Jessel, who vanished without a trace. But Kate’s personal history makes her doubt her own suspicions. Kate’s mother, Darla, suffers from delusions and has been committed to a mental institution for years. Kate can’t be sure that what she is sensing and experiencing at Bly is real, or whether she herself is going mad.

“It’s a high-genre piece, more of a psychological thriller than a straight horror film, which I think audiences will find unusual and engaging,” Bernstein says. “The film also offers something very relevant in its central female character, Kate, who must fight back against this dark and physically threatening masculine force. That makes it very contemporary.”

To tell this story, Bernstein and Lee needed to find a filmmaker who could tackle those contemporary themes and also elevate them with iconic and breathtaking visuals. They found those talents and more in Floria Sigismondi, an artist widely acclaimed for her striking photography and music videos for Rihanna, Lady Gaga, David Bowie and for her film The Runaways and the series The Handmaid’s Tale.

“I’ve been a fan of Floria for many, many years,” Bernstein says. “We met with several potential directors, but Floria brought a very strong visual sensibility to the film—a sense of light, of color, of composition. When we first met, she brought a ‘look book’ that referenced not just other movies, but a wide range of images, photos and paintings that the script inspired in her. She also saw the material in a way that no one else really did, as a strong female story that connected with contemporary gender issues.”

Floria Sigismondi is a multidisciplinary artist working in fine art, photography and film directing. She attended the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Canada. Sigismondi’s trademark cinematic style has made her one of the most acclaimed music video directors in the field’s history. She has worked with luminaries such as David Bowie, Justin Timberlake, Pink, The White Stripes, Katy Perry, Bjork, Sigur Rós, Christina Aguilera and Rihanna. In 2013, her video for Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” swept video awards globally, including winning the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year and Director of the Year. Spectacle, the first museum exhibition to celebrate the art and history of the music video, showcased Sigismondi’s enormous influence, while her video for Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” earned a permanent spot in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 

Previously, Sigismondi wrote and directed the critically acclaimed feature The Runaways. Her television work includes American Gods for Starz and The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu. 

Sigismondi also has published two books of photography, “Redemption”and “Immune.”Her most recent book, “Eat the Sun,” was published by Die Gestalten Verlag in 2019. Her photography and sculpture installations have been exhibited in New York, Toronto, Germany and Italy.

Floria SigismondiA Director’s Vision

“My take on the story is a female one,” Sigismondi says. “I wanted to explore the ideas of the #metoo movement and the idea that if you say something you can be accused of being crazy, and if you don’t say something, that silence grows as a disease inside of you. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”  

Sigismondi saw, in the script’s two central female characters—young nanny Kate and the Bly estate’s longtime housekeeper Mrs. Grose—a modern allegory for how male-dominated culture has historically silenced women, and what happens when women decide to no longer abide by rules designed to maintain the status quo.

As Kate begins to understand what is happening at Bly estate, she also begins to realize that Mrs. Grose either knows, or suspects, what has happened in the house and has chosen to remain quiet.  “At the heart of the story is a violation that has happened in this house,” Sigismondi says. “The women, whether it’s Kate or Mrs. Grose, intuitively sense that something has happened in this house, even if they don’t know what, exactly. What makes this film contemporary is the ability of Kate to voice what she feels, sees and knows. Mrs. Grose is a woman of an older generation who has learned to believe that she should stay silent and everything will be fine.

“Each of the women represent a larger idea,” Sigismondi continues. “Mrs. Grose is a woman who has been able to cope in the world by being the keeper of secrets. She may know things, and feel things, but she has learned to hide it, sweep it under the rug. She’s been able to keep going by operating under this idea that if you don’t talk about something, maybe it’s not real. Kate is this fire that comes into the house, this burst of energy that disrupts everything. She is the one who chooses to say something. But there is a price to pay for that. In terms of what’s happening politically in the world right now, the film is timely but the themes are not new. It’s a contemporary take on a classic story.”

Out of Time: From the 1890s to the 1990s

One of the intriguing creative decisions Sigismondi made was to set the film almost exactly 100 years after the book was published, in 1995, rather than in the 21st century. “Ours is a very deliberately modern interpretation in the way we use the setting, styles and music of the 1990s but also in how we foreground the female perspective, flipping James’ presentation of the heroine into someone far more active,” Sigismondi says.  

“I thought that the 1990s was a really great era to place this film because it was a very guttural time. People just ripped themselves open and showed you what was on the inside. Music—particularly Grunge—was about tearing things apart. The culture was very raw. Society was fascinated by dark imagery. And clothing and fashion was very anti-fashion. All of that is displaced in this classic old-world house that we step into.”

The filmmakers also decided to make a significant departure from the ending of the novella, crafting a climactic scene that no one will see coming.

“We wanted to upend expectations and film an ending that is unexpected and a little trippy,” Sigismondi says. “It’s definitely different from the book and connects to larger themes and ideas in the film. We’re incredibly excited about it. It’s really going to shock people, I think.”  

Psychological Thriller : Fear and Tension Through Character

Sigismondi was also drawn to the psychological elements of the story, and the opportunity to explore ideas of truth and illusion, sanity and delusion.

“Henry James’ novella had this great ability to tell the story between the lines,” Sigismondi says. “There’s a beautiful ambiguity at the end where you don’t necessarily trust the narrator. You’ve been with her the whole time but at the end you question everything that’s happened. For me, it was important to inject that into the film, the psychological horror of it. I’ve always been very interested in the exploring the idea of people operating from their fears. Jacob’s Ladder  is one of my favorite films in terms of how it treads that fine line between sanity and insanity, between what’s real and not real.”

“I’m hoping it’s a film that people can leave the theater and talk about. It will mean different things to different people, and the ending is intentionally ambiguous. It’s designed to create a dialogue. Those are my favorite type of movies.”

Although The Turning is, on one level, both a ghost story and a psychological thriller, the filmmakers wanted the film’s real emotional impact to come from the characters and the tensions both between and within them.

“This is more of a psychological thriller than straight horror,” Sigismondi says. “It’s about what is happening in Kate’s mind and seeing this house and this world through her eyes. It’s a story about how Kate’s fears and experiences are projected into this world. What excites me about a psychological horror film is that you can be in the mind of the character. To navigate through a story in the mind of a character, you find out what’s around the interior corners, the deep wounds of the character, and I think people can relate to that.”

Kate is a young woman plagued by her own mother’s mental illness. Mrs. Grose is the estate’s longtime housekeeper who has become, following the death of Flora and Miles’ parents, the children’s emotional caretaker as well. Seven-year-old Flora Fairchild is a girl traumatized by the death of her parents and the disappearance of her former governess, Miss Jessel, with whom she was very close. Miles is an angry young man, dealing with the normal troubles of adolescence in addition to the death of his parents and the subsequent death of Peter Quint, the kids’ riding instructor, who became a toxic influence on the boy.

Adding to the film’s psychological tension is the relationship between Kate and Miles. “It was very important to me that if you got rid of the ghosts, that the story would still work,” Sigismondi says. “Without the ghosts, the story is about a troubled teenage boy and a woman who thinks she can identify with him because she was abandoned herself at 15. But the boy has problems she can’t fix. Miles is a constant source of antagonism. He just wears her down to a point of no return. The story works on both levels. It’s also unclear whether the ghosts are real because Kate is the only person who sees them.”

All of those elements, both human and supernatural, begin to interact in unexpected, and often in terrifying, ways. “As the story progresses we get little bits of information, which Kate starts to piece together,” Sigismondi says. “Jessel will appear to be an evil ghost haunting Kate but then Kate realizes that Jessel’s actually trying to tell her something, possibly a repressed voice deep within herself. Flora appears to know more than she lets on and may still be talking to Jessel. And we find out that Quint was the father figure and best friend to Miles, and he may still be filling the boy’s head with toxic behavior.”