The Haunting

The Haunting (1963)


The Haunting is available to rent, buy or stream.

As we near Halloween and the end of the spooky season, there is no better recommendation I can make than a classic haunted house tale. 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. Then we jump to the present, where Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson) investigates paranormal activity in the long-abandoned building. Here 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.


The film positions Eleanor as the main character, as she is the one who seems to react to the unseen evil forces while also slowly succumbing to her own paranoia and delusions. But, before the narrative is about to be entirely overtaken by supernatural elements that cannot be rationally explained, the film takes an unusual turn as Markway’s wife, Grace (Lois Maxwell), unexpectedly turns up.

Her character vastly contrasts with anyone we might be familiar with from an average horror film, as she completely refuses to believe 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. During the night, the team hears loud banging accompanied by sounds of destruction coming from the nursery, only to find Grace missing.

This pushes Eleanor over the edge – her mental stability declining. She climbs the decaying spiral staircase in the library and is startled by Grace’s face looking 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. The “ghost” is soon revealed to be a lost Grace, wandering in the woods around the house.


While the film is undoubtedly filled with 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 that offers an unconventional viewpoint. Is Hill House objectively evil? Or is it just Eleanor’s delusions manifesting, whose guilty conscience over her mother’s recent death left her more receptive to the paranormal?

Having her as the clear main character does alter the audience’s perception, and the way the film is framed clearly wants us to believe the supernatural events have all happened within the film’s world. Yet, I have always been intrigued by the thought of seeing the exact same story told from Grace’s perspective. Interestingly enough, the film leaves the question open and never actually determines whether these are really “spirits” tormenting the protagonists or if it is just a group of people slowly driving each other mad at a remote mansion.


It doesn’t matter how often I rewatch the film; it is still unclear whether I, along with the characters, have witnessed something supernatural or just experienced their subjective delusions based on a series of coincidences.

The beauty of The Haunting is its duality of a detailed character study and 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 Lewton produced, The Haunting also refrains from cheap frights, jump scares or the unveiling of a monster. Here the film manages to create an unforgettable atmosphere solely with the help of its stylistic elements; there’s no need for gore, horrific acts or transgressive topics.


But it wasn’t just its visual style that was groundbreaking, as The Haunting also introduced us to an openly lesbian character, Theo. While the character’s sexuality is only subtly hinted at in the novel, the film makes it explicit. At 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 through touch. According to various sources, the script had initially included a scene early in the film showing Theo’s apartment and her 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 while also permanently 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 and symbolism-heavy 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.

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