As a (nearly) life-long fan of horror movies, I find that I sometimes feel like I’ve been desensitized to them. Well, at least desensitized to the point where the scares often don’t stick with me after the movie has ended. Sure, any well-made horror movie can be frightening while it’s on, but few movies creep me out to where I think about them days or weeks later and still get a chill. Some of the few exceptions to this rule are movies about ghosts and hauntings. A really good ghost movie can make me a little nervous to turn out the lights at night. There have been a few good ghost movies over the past few years, but for me, The Haunting from 1963 is still the best haunted house movie ever made.
The Haunting was directed by the legendary Robert Wise who is known for many amazing movies including the sci-fi classics The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain. I think it’s his clear vision and subtle approach to the haunted house genre that makes The Haunting work so incredibly well because, given the nature of the story, the movie could have easily felt like a series of cliches in the hands of a less talented director.
The story, based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, is about a paranormal researcher, Dr. Markway, who assembles a team to investigate Hill House, a mansion that is notorious for its dark history and tales of supernatural activity. Most of the people he tries to get to join him at Hill House refuse after they hear where he’ll be doing his research, but two people, Eleanor and Theo, answer his call. Both women have had previous experiences with psychic phenomena, so Markway hopes that their sensitivities will help him in his investigation. Joining them at the request of the owner of Hill House is Luke, the owner’s skeptical nephew. Markway plans to have the four of them stay at Hill House alone to try to prove the existence of the supernatural.
Markway’s investigation at Hill House might be the setting for the story, but The Haunting is primarily about Eleanor. Eleanor is a quiet, nervous woman who has recently lost her invalid mother after years of taking care of her by herself. She has no one left in her life except for her sister and her sister’s family, but their relationship is anything but healthy. Eleanor feels trapped, and her trip to Hill House is her attempt to escape and try to find her place in the world. She wants so desperately to have friends and to feel like she belongs somewhere where she’s appreciated, but she is inexperienced dealing with the outside world and is in a very vulnerable state of mind. The Haunting is really about how Eleanor deals with all of these feelings while being targeted by whatever force resides in Hill House.
The people around Eleanor all have a profound effect on how she feels. She tends to overthink her interactions with other people and worries about doing something wrong, but she is quick to get defensive when she feels like she’s being attacked. Her interactions with Theo tend to be the most complex. Eleanor wants to be friends, but Theo’s attitude shifts from friendly to cold depending on the situation. Theo is very perceptive and occasionally antagonizes Eleanor in order to shield her from some of the more dangerous emotions she might have (such as when she starts to develop a crush on Markway), but it keeps Eleanor, and the audience, off balance. It’s one of the main ways The Haunting uses character interactions to build tension.
In a way, Hill House itself is another character in the movie. The house is large and foreboding and is described as being “born bad.” It is often referred to by the characters as displaying human (or at least sentient) qualities such as watching and waiting. These anthropomorphic qualities are reinforced by the cinematography and editing of the movie. There are statues all over Hill House, of devils and angels and people, and these statues are often conspicuously framed behind or beside the characters, giving a sense of them being watched. There are also plenty of cutaways to the various stone faces to help set an ominous mood. There are eyes everywhere in Hill House.
Wise also uses various techniques to make the audience feel uneasy as the characters explore Hill House. The rooms in the house tend to be large, but there are so many items and pieces of furniture that it often feels claustrophobic. The way certain scenes are shot also give a sense of disorientation. When characters move through a door to the left of the screen, they might enter the next room from the left of the screen as well. It’s a simple but effective technique that causes the audience to feel unclear as to the layout of the rooms, just like the members of Markway’s team have trouble finding their own way around.
All of this mood-building helps to enhance the tension leading up to the supernatural events that take place within Hill House. The experiences that Eleanor and the rest of Markway’s team have at Hill House are subtle, but they are all the more chilling because of it. The scares rely heavily on the fear of the unknown and the unseen. They are accomplished primarily through sound and the reactions of characters to what they are feeling. Eleanor serves as the narrator for The Haunting, and hearing her interpretation and reaction to her experiences is what really drives home the frightening aspects of the movie. The scares are more psychological than physical, which makes them much more insidious in my opinion.
As a psychological horror, The Haunting is extremely effective. Eleanor is a troubled woman and her thoughts on what is happening might not be completely reliable. It is open to debate as to the extent of the supernatural happenings at Hill House, something Luke is often quick to point out, but it is clear that something bad is building up within the house’s walls, just like something bad is building up in Eleanor’s head. The Haunting is one of those movies that is so effective that you feel like you saw a lot more than you really did. The feelings stick with you long after the end credits have faded. Some houses are born bad, but The Haunting is a movie that will live on as one of the best.
9 – Great
I feel that all movie fans, horror and otherwise, should watch The Haunting. It’s truly one of the greats.
RECOMMENDATION FOR FURTHER WATCHING
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A Tale of Two Sisters is probably my second favorite ghost movie ever made. It’s a South Korean movie about a girl and her sister who return home to live with their father and stepmother after a tragedy in the family. To say anything about the plot would spoil it, but it’s a fantastic psychological horror. More is seen in A Tale of Two Sisters than in The Haunting, but it’s similar in how it keeps the audience off balance and how you can’t be completely sure of what is really happening. This was remade in America as The Uninvited, and though it’s similar, the original is far better.
Title: The Haunting
Director: Robert Wise
Writer: Nelson Gidding, Shirley Jackson (novel)
Featured Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn
Run Time: 112 minutes
Availability: Available on DVD and Blu-Ray