This post contains major spoilers for The Turning, in theaters now.
Were the ghosts even real? Was Kate (Mackenzie Davis) imagining the haunting all along? If the ending of The Turning broke your brain, you’re not alone: My theater shared a collective “Huh?” after the movie’s abrupt ending. Perhaps the only way to understand exactly what happened — or, perhaps more accurately, what could have possibly happened — is to go back to the film’s source material, Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw.
The Turning stars Davis as Kate, a teacher who is hired to tutor young orphan Flora (Brooklynn Prince) at sweeping estate Bly Manor. Things go well enough with Flora until her pre-teen brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things) shows up, having been expelled from boarding school. Miles instantly creeps Kate out with his pet tarantula and overtly suggestive comments, but she’s is determined to stick around for Flora: She knows what it’s like to grow up without a real parent, as her mother (Joely Richardson) is a longtime patient of a psychiatric hospital.
It turns out, though, that Bly Manor is a pretty awful place to work outside of super creep Miles — and not just because Kate is assigned a bedroom that features a disturbingly lifelike mannequin of Flora’s great grandmother.
Kate’s haunting begins when she sees the ghostly image of a woman in the window as she’s putting Flora to bed. Soon, the tutor experiences terrible nightmares, usually featuring spiders. It seems someone in the house wants to tell her something, but there’s little explanation for these strange events until Kate discovers a diary kept by Ms. Jessel, the nanny that lived at Bly Manor before her.
Ms. Jessel apparently ran off without even saying goodbye to Flora, and Ms. Grose (Barbara Marten), the woman who keeps Bly Manor in order, claims that Ms. Jessel’s affair with groundskeeper Quint was what sent her packing. However, the diary suggests that Ms. Jessel was afraid of Quint, not in love with him. Quint’s disturbing behavior, described in Ms. Jessel’s journal, is similar to the inappropriate behavior that Miles displays towards Kate, and Kate wonders if maybe Quint’s negative influence rubbed off on the young orphan.
Just when Kate becomes more and more convinced that there’s a deeper story with Ms. Jessel and Quint to uncover, she receives a package from her mother. It’s three charcoal “paintings” — essentially just scribbles of black on a page. Ms. Grose sees the images and snidely remarks that she hopes her mother’s condition isn’t “genetic.”
That night, Kate experiences her most intense ghost sightings yet. She sees the ghost of Quint (Niall Greig Fulton) hold the ghost of Ms. Jessel down on the bed, seemingly killing her. She finds the body of Ms. Jessel, thrown into a pond on the property. When Kate confronts Ms. Grose, she realizes that Ms. Grose knew full well what Quint did to Ms. Jessel, and subsequently murdered him for it. Upon her reveal, the ghost of Quint throws Ms. Grose down the stairs to her death.
Kate decides it’s time to leave Bly Manor (obviously) and goes to collect Flora, now with the ghost of Ms. Jessel. Miles is in his room playing music, and insists to Kate that the ghosts won’t let him leave. Kate’s suspicions, it seems, were correct: Miles is being controlled by Quint in some way. Kate convinces Miles to go — despite the ghost of Quint pitching a fit — and the three of them head out together in the car, away from the manor.
Just when it seems that Kate and the kids will break free of Bly Manor and all its horrors, we return to the moment Kate stared at that painting from her mom, and Ms. Grose snarking about her mother’s condition being potentially genetic. Kate finds the children, and insists that they have to leave. She accuses them of seeing the ghost of Quint in the mirror, which they both deny. In her crazed state, she knocks over Flora’s doll, breaking it. Kate says she’ll fix it, but Miles says there’s no point — it’s broken. She, meaning the doll, can’t be fixed. He then walks away, insisting Kate is “crazy.”
Maybe Kate really is experiencing hallucinations. In the final moment of the film, Kate — now behaving erratically — has a vision of herself in her mother’s hospital. She stares at her mother, who is painting, but when her mom turns her face towards hers, Kate screams. It’s unclear what Kate saw at that moment, but it’s possible that she saw her own face, which would imply that she is unwell, as Miles claims.
Honestly, the ending is so confusing, it’s impossible to really explain what’s real, and what’s a figment of Kate’s imagination. The credit sequence doesn’t help: Though it seems to tease something, all we see is Kate’s hand gliding over a wall, tracing illustrations of birds and flowers.
The ambiguous ending may be a nod to the different interpretations of James’ The Turn of the Screw.
In Turn of the Screw, the governoress is convinced that Flora and Miles are being controlled by ghosts of Ms. Jessel and Quint, though there’s never any solid confirmation that she is correct. At the end of the novella, Miles dies in the governoress’ arms after she attempts to shield him from seeing the ghost of Quint.
Turn of the Screw has long been debated by critics who have different interpretations of what really happened at Bly Manor. Some see the governess as an unreliable narrator, who may have imagined the ghosts of Ms. Jessel and Quint, and possibly even killed Miles herself. The Turning suggests that Kate may also be an unreliable narrator, and that her mother’s mental illness really was genetic. However, the ending also leaves room for the exact opposite explanation: Kate’s mother didn’t have a mental health condition, but was deemed “crazy” because she was capable of seeing the future, or supernatural things other people can’t. Kate, therefore, may have inherited the same genetic gift/curse.
It’s a common horror trope to gaslight characters into believing they’re losing grip with reality when really, they’re being haunted or supernaturally tormented in some way. Typically, though, horror movies tend to give a more definitive answer than The Turning did on what the reality of the situation is.
Essentially, The Turning offers as debatable an ending as its source material did — whether that’s a good or bad thing is up for the audience to decide. For those who want a different interpretation of Turn of the Screw entirely, the 1961 film The Innocents sticks closer to the novella’s ending. The novella will also be adapted for the second season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House franchise, titled The Haunting of Bly Manor.