Why do we love terrifying ourselves? I am sure we’ve all experienced those spine-tingling moments as a child telling the most frightening stories late at night when parents are asleep: Friends invited for a special sleep over, reciprocal storytelling, each yarn topping the next, each with its own blend of verbal special effects. Scared witless, one finds the prospect of sleep itself becomes an evil ogre.
As a child, I remember being sent to bed before the weekly showing of the famous TV series The Twilight Zone, which was deemed too scary for this 8 year-old.
Then there was Alfred Hitchcock Presents with the great director personally introducing his 30-minute stories of the macabre. Those are deeply imbedded too, particularly the one about a small boy called “Anthony” for obvious reasons.
The novella has had many adaptations on screen and perhaps the best version is the 1961 movie, re-titled The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and starring as the Governess the great Deborah Kerr. Although she is similarly hoop-skirted, this is a very different Deborah Kerr from the governess in “The King and I.” She is febrile, almost twitchy, her eyes moving with the intuitive fear of a fox, and her breathing, which Kerr makes so arrhythmic, a curious and potent part of the drama.
My most alarmingly scary bit in the whole movie — which is shot in that most magical of all film color, black and white — has the governess playing hide and seek with the children late at night. The governess hides behind heavy curtains and in catching her breath finds herself looking out into the garden made luminous by the moon. There she sees the figure of a man walking towards her. It is the ghost of Peter Quint and he comes right up to her hiding place and stares straight through her into the room. This counts as one of the most heart-stopping moments of terror my fervid little imagination has ever encountered.
Soooooo… why do we like to have these terrifying stories in our lives? Carla Kihlstedt, the violinist singer and composer, launched a new music project last year, called Necessary Monsters and her thought was that we need to have monsters and demons in our lives. It’s part of the structure and an essential expectation of humankind. And after all, we are good at demonizing the nicest of people!!
My thought goes back to childhood. Children have a connection to the otherworldly that is at once magical and alarming. Very young children usually go through the same phases of being fixated on certain things and the most usual “monster” in their lives at some point is dinosaurs. Now why dinosaurs?? Why all the books?? The models?
For those of you in the Boston area, you can take in NEC’s upcoming production of Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ February 2-6 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. Click here for more information.