Things Terrible and Unguessable: The Turn of the Screw and the Visual Vocabulary of Gothic Horror

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Special Collections

D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library


In the late 19th and early 20th century, printing technology rapidly evolved and created a surge of periodical publications and magazines for consumption. Growing audiences of readers had a growing availability and appetite for written and illustrated material to consume. With the sudden opportunity to provide written and visual arts on a previously unachievable scale, alongside the rise of gothic fiction narratives, illustrators of these stories were presented with a unique challenge: how do you represent the intangible and ethereal concepts that scare us? These early gothic horror illustrations developed visual solutions to address the deeper social and cultural anxieties and taboos that the stories explored, through monstrous and grotesque imagery, dread, and atmosphere.

This exhibition examines the original illustrations of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, serialized in 1898 by Collier’s Weekly, and the story’s subsequent film adaptation The Innocents directed by Jack Clayton in 1961. The conversation between the images in these works demonstrate the visual impact of early gothic horror on the vocabulary of the genre as a whole as it evolved and entered the film medium. The image problem solving of the original work created the framework by which the later film adaptation—as well as other horror work and films—could build from, allowing them to explore taboo themes of sexuality, innocence and corruption, domestic violence, and rape in more depth and nuance.