The Haunting (1963) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 6

by Jovial Jay

A-haunting we will go, heigh-ho, the derry-o, a-haunting we will go.

There’s nothing overtly graphic about The Haunting, yet it’s a chilling ghost story that will leave you cowering under your covers at any little bump in the night.

Before Viewing

The trailer for this film looks like a scary ghost story. Four people attempt to stay in a haunted house, with varying beliefs in the supernatural. Strange things happen that they cannot explain and whatever is spooking them is getting more violent. Is this a truly supernatural ghost story like The Legend of Hell House, or more of a fake out like House on Haunted Hill? Let’s spend the night with the ghosts and find out!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Haunting

The Haunting title card.

After Viewing

A voice-over depicts the auspicious beginnings of Hill House, which was built 90 years ago by Hugh Crain for his wife, while the stories the voice relates are shown to the audience. His wife died on the way to the house for the first time when her carriage crashed into a tree. Hugh took a second wife, but she had a fall down the stairs so the house was inherited by his daughter Abigail, who lived out the rest of her days in the house. She passed, as an old woman, when her caretaker and companion didn’t come when she was called. The caretaker then inherited the house, but hung herself a short time later from a small balcony above the library.

The voice reciting the history belongs to Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson). He is interested in investigating paranormal activity in the house and seeks consent from Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton), the current owner. She suggests her nephew should go along and learn something about the property he hopes to inherit. Markway has a further list of six people to join him and record their observations, but slowly–after investigating the property on their own–drop out and he is left with just three others.

The first helper is Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris) who lives on the couch at her sister’s apartment in Boston. She is mistreated by her sisters family stemming over an incident with her mother recently. Eleanor decides to take the shared car and drive to Hill House, certain that she will be more welcome there. She is the first to arrive and is greeted by the surly caretaker (Valentine Dyall) and his ill-tempered wife (Rosalie Crutchley). She is soon met by Theodora aka “Theo” (Claire Bloom) who is a psychic and can read Eleanor quite well. After a brief, frightening episode where Theo thinks the house is calling to Eleanor the two are startled by the arrival of Markway, who could have sworn he left the door to the parlor open.

The Haunting

Eleanor is perpetually on-edge in the haunted house, while Theo is more serene and calm, at least on the outside.

Inside they are joined by Mrs. Sanderson’s nephew, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), who is young and spunky, ready to start selling off parts of the house for profit. He certainly doesn’t believe anything about the stories he’s heard. Markway recounts Eleanor’s credentials for others, who had an experience with a poltergeist attacking her house for three days when she was young. She scoffs and denies these allegations, hoping that these people really like her, but also very awkward in this social situation. She has become smitten with Dr. Markway, and is happy to have been asked to come and take part in the study.

That night, the women are tormented by strange noises. At breakfast the next morning a mysterious message appears on the wall outside the parlor, “Help Eleanor Come Home.” The women bunk together after Markway’s suggestion which is fine for Theo who has taken a real interest in Eleanor. Meanwhile Eleanor is oblivious to Theo’s advances wishing to stay in Hill House forever. The group discovers a cold spot outside the nursery (Abigail’s room) and Markway believes it’s the evil heart of Hill House. Feeling this manifestation Luke starts to change his mind about the mysterious goings on, while Theo continues to tease Eleanor which makes her obviously upset.

It comes out that Eleanor had been her mother’s soul caretaker for all her adult life–never having friends or a social life–up until a couple months ago when her mother died when Eleanor didn’t come when she was called, just like Abigail Crain. Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) shows up to warn him that reporters have gotten wind of his “stunt.” She doesn’t believe in the supernatural and insists on staying in the nursery. Eleanor is distraught realizing that Markway is married. Maybe she’s not as sought after as she thought! Several more haunting events, including a breathing door makes everyone realize that there is definitely something tangible in the house.

As the haunting sounds head toward the nursery, Eleanor decides to “sacrifice” herself to the ghost and runs for the library. In a fugue state, she heads up the rickety, circular staircase to the small balcony. Markway follows and saves her from falling, but Eleanor faints when she sees a vision that looks like Grace in a trap door in the roof. When she awakens Markway says he can’t risk her safety and puts her in her car with Luke to send her home. She is embarrassed and doesn’t want to leave. She drives off, leaving Luke behind when some unseen force takes control of the steering wheel. Grace leaps out from behind a tree, and the car swerves, crashing into the same tree that killed the first Mrs. Crain. Eleanor dies in the crash, sacrificed to Hill House. Her voice-over repeats much of the introductory dialogue–as she becomes a new permanent resident–just as she wished.

It was an evil house from the beginning – a house that was born bad.” – Dr. Markway

The Haunting

Luke, Dr. Markway, Theo and Eleanor discuss the unseen events of the evening.

The Haunting is a truly chilling film! As with other films of this era it must make use of relatively benign visuals in order to provide its frights. The film has no overt or graphic elements that would prevent it from being shown under the Hayes code–the ratings system of the time–and like Psycho, provides the scares and shocks through the use of editing and sound effects. Director Robert Wise was no stranger to quality film techniques, having directed some of the best films over the previous decade including The Day The Earth Stood Still and West Side Story. His future films would include the ever-popular The Sound of Music, the virulent Andromeda Strain, the creep Audrey Rose, and the film that revitalized the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

However, unlike Psycho, The Haunting doesn’t have any violence depicted in a manner close to what Hitchcock had done. Sure, there is the suggestion of violence with the buggy crash and the hanging in the prologue, and the final car crash with Eleanor at the end, but these scenes happen for the most part off-screen. It does what another classic film from 1961 did, it suggests the violence, and many other frights. The Innocents, which is an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” provided a good template for The Haunting to work from (whether it was directly inspired by it or not). Both films make use of fleeting glimpses of movement (much like was mentioned in the article about Phantasm earlier this month). They also allow the camera to linger on shots longer than might be comfortable, while the soundtrack plays eerie and scary sounds. And finally the acting of the leads provides the believability that something is really happening to them.

Both Claire Bloom and especially Julie Harris go to great lengths to make the horror of this house seem real. Their agitation and anxiety of being in the house, and hearing the strange sounds off-screen puts the audience on-edge and plays up the aspects of terror. Take for example the events of the first evening. The two women wander the house looking for the parlor while unseen things make noises. Theo, who has psychic abilities, feels the presence of the ghosts, but being the cool and aloof mod that she is, she tries to not let it affect her. Eleanor on the other hand is always constantly on edge (unhinged?) and any little thing seems to set her off like a bottle rocket. Together they play into the fear each other feels until the jump-scare of Dr. Markway opening the door relieves the entire moment, allowing the audience to relax as well. These moments are generated entirely with camera movement, editing and the sound effects track.

The Haunting

Eleanor, terrified that the house is getting to her, runs wildly through the hallways trying to make it stop.

The other interesting characterization that sets this film apart from other similar ghost stories is the inclusion of Theo as a lesbian character. Films of the 60s started pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of LGBT characters, but only in the most thinly veiled sorts of ways. This was still a taboo subject, and one that the characters of The Haunting recognize as socially unacceptable. When Eleanor finally sees that Theo is attracted to her, she refers to her as an “unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes, they’re called.” But the film’s usage of Theo as a foil for Eleanor’s attraction to Markway makes for an interesting love triangle (or larger since the house itself is also interested in Nell). This places The Haunting in the pantheon of early movies helping to define inclusion and depictions of gay and lesbian characters.

The Haunting also functions like many other horror films of the era. Other ghost films from the time share things in common with this film, like the aforementioned The Innocents, as well as 13 Ghosts, House of Usher, and The House on Haunted Hill. All have haunted or problematic houses that provide for frights of small groups of people. The House on Haunted Hill even has an opening narration that is similar to the on here in The Haunting. The biggest difference there, is that the ghosts here are real!

The Haunting provides real quality filmmaking, a well-written script, and great performances in a package that will be sure to send shivers up your spine. Of ghost story films reviewed for 31 Days of Horror this ranks up there The Changeling for spine-tingling moments. Stay tuned for more horrific films, every night throughout the rest of the month.

The Haunting

Hill House, a haunted house like no other!

Assorted Musings

  • The Legend of Hell House is based on a similar premise, derived from the same book. A group of four individuals enter into a reportedly haunted house to scientifically study the phenomenon. Due to this film being made in the 70s, the horror is more overt and blatant.
  • The film was also remade in 1999 by director Jan de Bont and starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was nearly universally panned, and nowhere near as good as the original.
  • A remake (of sorts) that has received much acclaim is The Haunting of Hill House mini-series on Netflix, which premiered two years ago this month. It is based on the original book, and tells the story of Hill House in the present as well as flashbacks to Hugh Crain and his family.
  • Lois Maxwell may be better known to audiences as Ms. Moneypenny from the James Bond films (1962-1985).

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