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Based on Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed 1959 gothic horror The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Wise’s film, simply titled The Haunting, is a relatively faithful adaptation that still holds an eerie and frightening tone to this day. We open with a prologue of the history of Hill House, its inhabitants, and a series of awful, unexplained events before jumping to the present, where Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson) is investigating paranormal activity in the long-abandoned building. It is here that he gathers a small group of people: Theo (Claire Bloom), a psychic; Eleanor (Julie Harris), who experienced poltergeist activity as a child; and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the heir of the current owner.
Wise positions Eleanor as the main character due to her ability to feel and react to unseen evil forces through her increasing paranoia and delusion. But, before the narrative is overtaken by supernatural elements that cannot be rationally explained, Wise’s movie takes an unusual turn as Markway’s wife, Grace (Lois Maxwell), unexpectedly turns up. Grace contrasts the group as she refuses to believe that supernatural forces are at work in the house. To prove her point, she decides to spend the night in the nursery – the room that is likely the centre of the disturbances. However, it is during this night that Grace vanishes, pushing Eleanor over the edge. Eleanor climbs the decaying spiral staircase in the library and is startled by Grace’s face looking back at her through a ceiling trap door. The two women “face off” once again in the finale when Eleanor – as she is driving away from the mansion – is suddenly alarmed by an eerie, ghost-like figure which results in her crashing the car into a tree.
While the film is full of scenes beyond scientific explanation, the contrast of Grace as a defiantly sceptical character amid a nightmarish, supposedly haunted mansion feels like a breath of fresh air. Is Hill House objectively evil? Or are Eleanor’s delusions manifesting? Wise cleverly plays with our perceptions, judgements and beliefs throughout with a film that, on the surface, wants us to believe the supernatural events. Yet, I have always been intrigued by seeing the same story from Grace’s perspective. Here Wise leaves his supernatural questions open and never attempts to conclude whether “spirits” torment the protagonists or they slowly drive each other mad.
The beauty of The Haunting is held in these unanswered questions and Wise’s ability to dovetail a detailed character study with a far more generic haunted house horror. Visually the film feels like a tribute to both Orson Welles and Val Lewton by using their trademark cinematography to elevate the film’s unsettling atmosphere to another level. Meanwhile, the distorted interiors, crooked doors and slanted walls immediately create a nightmare of no escape, taking a cue from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). Like many of the groundbreaking horrors of the 1940s, The Haunting isn’t interested in cheap frights, jump scares or the unveiling of a monster; instead, it’s interested in atmosphere and character development. But it wasn’t just within its visual style that The Haunting broke new ground; it is also one of the most important slices of queer horror of the past seventy years as it introduced us to an openly lesbian character, Theo.
Theo’s sexuality is only subtly hinted at in the novel, but Wise makes it explicit during a time when censorship still shaped Hollywood films. The Haunting was a pioneer in its rebuttal of 60s stereotypes; Theo’s sexuality never suffers from the predatory undertones often found in early Lesbian portrayals. However, censors would also demand that her attraction to Eleanor was never visually depicted; according to various sources, the script included a scene early in the film showing Theo in her apartment following a recent break-up with a female lover. According to Wise, he cut the scene due to “believing it to be too explicit for a film that worked hard to make things implicit”. Celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, The Haunting remains one of the most remarkable and terrifying films of the 1960s, redefining the haunted house genre for a new generation. In Wise’s adaptation, Hill House becomes a living-breathing metaphor for the characters’ own repression and neurosis, thus creating an intricately layered horror that can be analysed through many different lenses.
Sources: Wise, Robert; Leemann, Sergio (1995). Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Director’s Chair. Los Angeles: Silman-James. Szebin, Frederick C. “The Sound of Screaming”. Cinefantastique. 29:4/5 (October 1997), p. 140.