Halloween Movie Club: “The Haunting” (1963)
Haven’t you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away and then you just… catch something out of the corner of your eye?
Every fan of The Haunting has at least one story about seeing it, and often more than one. Here’s one of mine:
Years ago, G (my now husband) and I went to see it on a triple bill at an old movie palace in downtown Los Angeles. The college kids sitting behind us mocked it at first: old-fashioned, black-and-white, Julie Harris’s oddball whispered voiceovers.
But then, as the film went on, they got quieter and quieter. Finally, about half an hour in, one of them turned to the other and whispered, “Is it just me, or is this movie kind of getting to you?” And then they shut up for the rest of the film.
That’s the kind of horror movie The Haunting is. It’s not a slam-bang special effects spectacle, or a gross-out endurance test. It sneaks up behind you and lays a cold hand on your neck, whispering to you, asking if you’re sure you know what that noise in the dark was that you just heard.
A quick technical note before we begin: when you see the film, make sure you get a letterboxed copy and not one of the older pan-and-scans. You will literally miss out on half the movie if you don’t get the full widescreen version.
Director Robert Wise got his start working for Val Lewton‘s B-movie unit at RKO in the 1940s, where Lewton produced (and usually wrote) subtle horror films that are still classics today: Cat People. I Walked With a Zombie. The Seventh Victim. One of my favorites is Wise’s third film as a director, The Body Snatcher, with Boris Karloff as an absolutely chilling remorseless killer. Wise’s films all show a great attention to sound, so it’s not surprising that he’s best known today for his two blockbuster musicals, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
But Wise started as a horror guy with Lewton and, like his former colleague Jacques Tourneur, Wise decided to make a “Lewtonesque” horror film where the horror comes not from what the characters see, but from what they hear. In fact, you never see a single ghost in The Haunting. You hear them, the characters touch them, you see the physical effects of what they can do, but you never see one.
Except, of course, as Theodora (Claire Bloom) says in the quote above, it always seems like you’re about to see one just out of the corner of your eye, but the wandering camera never quite turns in the right direction. Watching it again, I noticed how the mirrors in the rooms are carefully placed so you can often see the actors in them, but only a part of them — their backs, their hands, their shoulders. Seeing the movement in the mirror distracts the viewer, drawing your attention (conscious or unconscious), and making you wonder if you’re finally going to see something. But you never do. I also noticed that the numerous potted palm trees placed in many of the rooms constantly sway in a slight breeze, again drawing the viewer’s attention and making us wonder just what is causing that motion.
As with most ghost stories, the outline of the plot doesn’t sound like much. The film opens with a sequence narrated by a man we will soon discover is Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist and psychic researcher who is trying to convince the current owner of Hill House to allow him to bring a team in to do experiments. He narrates the sequence of events at Hill House that gained it its awful reputation, barely able to conceal his glee at the possibility of being able to investigate a real haunted house. The director shows us three mysterious deaths at Hill House: a woman’s carriage crashing in the driveway, a woman falling down the stairs, a woman hanging herself in the library.
Can we talk about the stairs for a minute? That staircase is, in itself, a sly joke about haunted houses, because it is shot and lit to look almost identical to the staircase in the photograph of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, possibly the most famous ghost photograph of them all. Anyone who is familiar with that image — and probably most people who are interested in haunted house stories are, especially in 1963 — will immediately notice the resemblance, and wonder who (or what) will appear on those stairs.
Eventually, the owner agrees to Markway’s plan, on the condition that her nephew, Luke, joins the group to make sure they don’t damage the house. Markway agrees and heads off to assemble his research team, which includes Eleanor Lance, played by Julie Harris at her twitchy, neurotic best.
The scene that introduces Eleanor is a masterpiece of screenwriting and directing. By the end of it, we know that Eleanor feels oppressed by her family, that she’s currently sleeping on her sister and brother-in-law’s couch even though she doesn’t get along with her sister, that her mother is dead, and that her family is a little afraid of her and what she might do with her “nerves.”
She takes the car even though her sister has forbidden it and drives out of Boston, triggering the first of her dreamy, elliptical voiceovers. They will continue throughout the film, even past … well, you’ll see. As we were told by Markway in the introduction, Hugh Crain, the man who build the house, hated people, so it’s a long drive from Boston.
Her first reaction when she gets past the sullen caretaker at the gates? “It’s staring at me.” Wise places his camera high in the parapets of the house, as though someone is watching from a great height — but, of course, there’s no one in the house except for the housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley), who doesn’t crack a smile until she sees that she’s frightened Eleanor half to death. Every instinct that Eleanor has is telling her to run, to go away, to leave the house, but her logic keeps telling her that she has nowhere else to go, so she stays.
She hears voices in the next room and meets Theodora (Claire Bloom), a fashionable psychic who ignores all of Mrs. Dudley’s gloomy warnings and seems to know far more about Eleanor than she logically should — when Eleanor says that they’ll be great friends, Theo raises an eyebrow and says archly, “Like sisters?”
The two women try to go down for dinner, but they get lost in the dark corridors and start to panic until Markway finally opens the parlor door, which he swears he left wide open. He tries to demonstrate that the door is hung slightly-off balance and will close by itself, but it doesn’t … until they have a conversation, turn back in that direction, and see that the door has silently closed by itself.
Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn, who co-starred in Wise’s West Side Story) enters, stirring a pitcher of martinis. He is the resident skeptic — every ghost story requires one — who’s more interested in how he can sell the house than in any possible ghosts. Theo and Eleanor find out that they are the only two researchers who accepted. The others all dropped out after they researched Hill House. In other words, dear viewer, we know more about the house than Eleanor and Theo do.
Theo is a champion at ESP, but Eleanor doesn’t understand why she’s there since, after all, she’s not psychic. Markway reminds her that she had a poltergeist experience as a child, and it sends Eleanor into a tailspin. This, clearly, is the family’s dirty laundry that her sister alluded to in the first scene, and it sets up an avenue for the audience to wonder about later. There’s another reason why Eleanor gets so upset — her mother died only two months ago, after Eleanor spent 11 years nursing her. Markway makes his first mention of sending Eleanor home, but she refuses.
When strange pounding noises begin later that night, the half-asleep Eleanor’s first instinct is to rap on the wall and say, “All right, Mother, all right. I’m coming.” Something about Hill House reminds Eleanor of her mother, and the story of elderly Abigail Crain and her companion mirrors Eleanor’s own story. Theo screams from the other room and Eleanor goes in to join her as the unnerving noises go on … and on … and on … while the camera peers down at the women from impossible angles and looks at their reflections in the various mirrors in the room. Eventually, whatever seemed to be trying to get in goes away (confirmed by psychic Theo) and Eleanor opens the door to find Markway and Luke in the hallway just returning to the house. They thought they heard a dog, which they chased all over the house before going outside, but never heard what Eleanor and Theo heard.
The next morning, Markway is attentive to Eleanor at breakfast but, again, we know something Eleanor does not — Markway told Hill House’s owner that he is married. Eleanor’s infatuation with Markway deepens, irritating Theo, who clearly would like Eleanor for herself.
The tension of that triangle is broken by a new development: Luke has found literal writing on the wall that says “Help Eleanor Come Home.” Eleanor is hysterical; Theo is scornful, saying that Eleanor probably did it herself to draw attention; Markway and Luke quickly erase the words. No one wants to think about what it might mean.
The group explores the house, discovering a creepy statue group that seems to parallel the former residents of the house, with the “companion” statue resembling Eleanor. At the door to the library where the companion killed herself, Eleanor refuses to enter because it smells like her mother’s sickroom. While Markway, Theo, and Luke explore the library and its rickety spiral staircase, Eleanor leans off the veranda to look up, imagining someone leaping from the window at the top of the spiral staircase and nearly falling off the veranda herself before Markway catches her. He still thinks he should send her home, but she refuses again, even though her thought when outside the house is that the house is “vile, hideous.” Markway instructs Theo to sleep in Eleanor’s room that night despite Eleanor’s protests, with Theo again saying archly that they’ll be “like sisters!”
That night, Theo gets Eleanor a little drunk and convinces her to paint her toenails. Eleanor pretends — for Theo? for herself? — that she has her own apartment that’s she’s fixed up just the way she wants it. Markway calls them out into the hallway in front of the nursery, where he has found a genuine cold spot — so cold that both he and Luke can blow and see their breath. Markway is still concerned about Eleanor, which Eleanor interprets as romantic interest, to Theo’s disgust, and Theo and Eleanor quarrel back in their room until Eleanor tells Theo to shut up and go to sleep.
The strange noises begin again that night, and Eleanor whispers for Theo to hold her hand. Eleanor endures the ghostly murmurs and noises until it turns into a child’s screaming, and her own scream of “STOP!” reveals to both herself and the audience that Eleanor is on the chaise across the room from Theo, who couldn’t possibly have been holding Eleanor’s hand.
Whose hand was she holding?
The next morning, Eleanor has another tete-a-tete with Markway, where she confesses that she’s worried that the hauntings are all in her mind, which we the audience are wondering, too. If she has telekinetic powers, maybe she is causing them. Markway reassures her, and she makes another confession: the night her mother died, she ignored her mother’s knock on the wall for her to come. Markway reassures her that it doesn’t make her an evil person, but she clearly doesn’t believe him, and the noise from a haunted harp interrupts them.
The tension of the house is getting to all of them. Luke reads from a religious book of Hugh Crain’s despite the others’ pleas for him to stop. Theo tries to tell Eleanor that Markway is married, but Eleanor (obliquely) acknowledges that she knows Theo is a lesbian and thinks that Theo is just jealous.
Their quarrel is interrupted by the arrival of Markway’s wife, Grace (Lois Maxwell, best known now as Miss Moneypenny to Sean Connery’s James Bond). Grace says that if Markway won’t leave with her, then she’ll stay, and sleep in the most haunted room of the house to prove there’s nothing going on. Impulsively, Eleanor challenges her to sleep in the nursery even though Markway calls it the “rotten heart” of the house, and Grace accepts. Everyone tries to talk her out of it, especially once they see that the locked door has opened by itself, but Grace insists that she’s going to prove that this “haunted house” business is ridiculous. Markway puts Luke on guard outside the nursery door and has Theo and Eleanor come to the parlor to sleep so he can keep an eye on them.
Eleanor has one thought about Grace that keeps intruding: “She’s taking my place.” It persists all through the next haunting, where an unseen force pushes against the parlor door so hard that the door bulges inward (an effect re-used in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland) and Luke whispers to Markway, “Doc, I’ll let you have the house, cheap.”
While everyone else is occupied by the haunting and by trying to find Grace, who has disappeared from the nursery, Eleanor slips away from the group, convinced that she has killed Grace by using the forces in the house. She dances again with the statue and heads to the library, climbing to the very top of the spiral staircase while the other three search for her. Just as she approaches the top, the other three find her and Markway goes up the dangerous staircase himself to coax her back down. Just as he manages to convince her not to jump, she sees Grace’s terrified face framed by a trap door, and screams.
Now the whole group bands together to force Eleanor to leave despite her desperate pleas: Theo packs her bags for her, and Markway forcibly walks her down the staircase so Luke can drive her away from the house. Eleanor insists that she be allowed to drive her own car, so Luke gets out to get the gate key from Markway as Eleanor suddenly accelerates and drives away.
We saw Eleanor on the library balcony where the companion committed suicide; we saw her teeter on the staircase where the second Mrs. Crain fell to her death; and now the car steers itself into the tree where the first Mrs. Crain died just as Grace darts out from behind it, killing Eleanor. Her limp hand falls from the car just as the first Mrs. Crain’s fell from the carriage in Dr. Markway’s story at the beginning of the film. Grace begs Markway not to go back into the house to get their bags, but he’s not afraid. The house has what it wants — for now.
We get more spooky views of Hill House and then … dead Eleanor speaks to us:
Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here… walk alone.
I am not joking — just copying and pasting those words in gave me the same damn chill they always give me at the end of the movie. Writer Nancy Holder wrote an essay about The Haunting where she said that this final speech opens the movie back up for questions, and I think she’s right.
Most ghost stories are ambiguous to begin with, but The Haunting probably takes the prize. Clearly, some kind of supernatural action is happening — we hear pounding in the hallways, see something powerful pushing on the doors — but the movie initially offers us an alternate explanation with Eleanor’s past poltergeist experience. Perhaps there are no ghosts in this spooky house. Perhaps Eleanor has telekinetic powers and is causing all of the phenomena herself. And, as Holder says, that all makes logical sense until Eleanor speaks to us one last time and opens the movie back up by forcing us to wonder exactly who that “we” is in Hill House, but we have no more time to think about it, because the movie is over.
Now we all get to go home, listen to the creaks and rattles of our own homes, and wonder.