The Turn of the Screw is easily one of the most influential ghost stories of all time. Not only does it appeal to those of us who like a good thrill, it is also a model for any aspiring writer of suspense. Henry James's text is famous for its lasting mysterious qualities; though the story originally appeared over a hundred years ago in 1898, it still stumps readers everywhere to this day. Its many confusing twists and turns have sparked debates between critics since its publication, and the story has been examined from all kinds of different angles – from psychoanalysis to literary criticism. Part of what's so fascinating about it is the fact that James himself never clearly came out and told readers what he intended them to believe, and it's this ambiguity that makes it one of this prolific author's most famous, talked about short stories.
Alas – if only Henry James knew what he did for the future of horror movies when he sat down to write The Turn of the Screw. If only he'd known that generation upon generation of "creepy child" movies would take inspiration from his influential story and inflict themselves upon viewers everywhere. Would he still have written it if he knew how many celluloid descendants it would spawn?
Think about it: the legacy of The Turn of the Screw can be seen in practically every horror movie that involves children – and that, friends, is a lot of horror movies. Many of the classics of the genre focus not on adults tormented by evil spirits, but children – think Linda Blair and her spinning head in The Exorcist, the horrifying/adorable anti-Christ of The Omen, or the ghost-whispering son in The Shining. And don't even get us started on the seemingly endless Children of the Corn series (a whole town of scary children – armed!). The list goes on and on.
When you strip away all of the extra stuff Hollywood has added on to the original freaky child concept – take away the magic powers and the propensity for violence – what you're really left with is the idea that James presents to us so horrifyingly in his original story: what's truly scary about children is their illusion of innocence, and the idea that underneath those adorable masks, they could know more than we do. James gets right at this terrifying heart of the matter, and to this day, no matter how desensitized we are to the images of white-faced children crawling out of wells and whatnot, reading The Turn of the Screw is still a good, old-fashioned, genuinely terrifying experience.