Celebrating “The Haunting”: A masterpiece of horror cinema.

the haunting poster

This week is the fifty-second anniversary of the release of The Haunting, Robert Wise’s seminal film that has emerged as one of the scariest and best-loved horror movies of all time. Upon its premiere on September 18, 1963 The Haunting was only a marginal success, with audiences somewhat lukewarm, but the effect the film has had on the horror genre since then is unmistakable. Big directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have praised the film as an important influence on them. Countless pop culture lists have enumerated The Haunting as one of the scariest, or at least spookiest, pictures ever made. In my own experience as a horror writer it’s difficult to find a colleague who doesn’t love it or mark it as a milestone. The film was a major influence on my own work, being one of the inspirations for my recent novel Doppelgänger. It remains one of my all time favorite movies; I watched it not long ago in my hotel room while on my research trip to Boston.

Based on the classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the premise of the film revolves around a gloomy haunted house located in the remotest part of New England imaginable. An opening narration by one of the main characters, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), establishes that the house was “cursed” shortly after its construction in 1873 by the premature death of the wife of the house’s builder, Hugh Crain, just before she sees the house. Years later Hugh’s spinster daughter Abigail lives and grows old in Hill House, and after her caretaker hangs herself on the premises, the place’s reputation for spookiness precedes it. Markway, a parapsychologist, proposes to study the house with a hand-picked crew of assistants. Chief among them are Theo (Claire Bloom), who is rumored to be telepathic, and the shy, psychologically fragile Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris). When Eleanor gets to the house the terrifying manifestations seem to focus on her. But is it really supernatural, or is Eleanor simply going insane?

Shirley Jackson’s novel was a hot property when it came out, earning numerous accolades from the literati set, and it was a natural that it would be made into a movie. It was fortunate that veteran director Robert Wise–who later went on to direct The Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture–was at the helm, and that he took the care he did with the material. It departs considerably from Jackson’s book, but above all Wise wanted a terrifying atmosphere rather than cheap cinematic gags or thrills. One of his first tasks was finding a real house to “star” as Hill House. He chose Ettington Park in Warwickshire, England, a manor dating originally from the 1500s but extensively rebuilt in the late 19th century. The brooding exteriors of Ettington Park, which are among the first things the audience sees in the picture, are absolutely crucial to setting its mood. Ettington Park is supposedly haunted in real life, which I guess is not surprising.

ettington park by richard croft

Ettington Park, an expansive estate in England, was the location of the exterior shots of “Hill House” from The Haunting. It still looks forbidding today.

Like all good stories, the real strength of The Haunting is in its characters. Markway is a shy, caring and inquisitive man, but ultimately unable to control or understand the manifestations that occur to him and his team inside Hill House. Theo comes off as equal parts alluring and arrogant. The movie hints that she’s a lesbian, and that she and Eleanor are attracted to one another. Being 1963 the movie couldn’t do more than hint, but the homoerotic subtext is a major aspect of the relationship between these two characters. Far and away, though, the best performance is Julie Harris as Eleanor. She’s nervous and mousy, and easily startled–at one point she jumps in fright at her own reflection–but Harris imbues the character with a profound sense of longing, mainly for connection with other people. In the story Eleanor, who is in her 20s, has spent 11 years being the primary caregiver for her chronically ill and evidently tyrannical mother. The mother’s recent death has given her the opportunity to join Markway’s team. Eleanor’s raw psychic wounds are deftly exploited by the angry spirits of Hill House. As a storyteller I love this idea. A spirit who reaches into your mind and finds exactly what scares you most is the central theme of Doppelgänger, and it’s portrayed brilliantly here.

And The Haunting is absolutely chilling! Wise’s minimalist approach has the effect of making what happens in the viewers’ minds much more scary than anything he can show on the screen. For me one of the most terrifying scenes is a simple shot of a doorknob turning, when you have no idea who (or what) is on the other side of the door. A ghostly child’s laughing voice, a spectral message written on the wall in chalk, and a wooden door that seems to “breathe” are among the triumphs of the film’s effects. Part of the film’s visual look, and its aura of menace, is due to the phenomenal work of production designer Elliot Scott. He went on to design the incredible Temple of Doom in the second Indiana Jones picture. Here, Scott made sure Hill House’s windowless rooms, all Rococo in decor, are so spatially confusing that you never know where you are. Interestingly, few of them are shown in darkness. Most of the sets are brightly-lit, which is amazing considering how scary the picture is.

This scene from The Haunting illustrates Robert Wise’s approach to horror, and the considerable acting talent of star Julie Harris.

The Haunting is best for what it leaves out rather than tries to put in–a lesson utterly lost on the makers of the truly dreadful 1999 remake, which was roundly and deservedly panned. Wise’s Haunting shows very little blood, no monsters or special-effects apparitions whooshing across the screen. The death of “the second Mrs. Crain,” shown in the film’s opening minutes, is nothing more than a woman tumbling down the stairs and a shot of her ominously still body, but it’s one of the scariest deaths I think I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Minutes later the single shoe slipping off the foot of the hanged woman–of whom we never see more than her feet–is equally chilling. Wise is among the best makers of scary films in that he knew what lurks in a person’s mind is much more potent than an illusion any Hollywood filmmaker can concoct, no matter how many millions of dollars he or she may have to bring those illusions to life. I wish more modern filmmakers understood this.

Simply put, The Haunting is a masterpiece of horror cinema. I chose it as one of my all-time “comfort movies” that I take with me on long trips, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it always manages to terrify me. The last line of the picture will lurk in my nightmares forever: “We who walk here…walk alone!”

The poster for The Haunting is presumably copyright (C) 1963 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the distributor of the film. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use. The photo of Ettington Park is by geograph.org.uk user Richard Croft and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips.
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2 Comments

  1. The book, also, is a masterpiece of terror. I love the part where they arrive at the beginning, and the angles of the rooms were all just a little ‘off.’ The idea that neat and tidy geometry keeps us sane has always intrigued me.

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