The Haunting (1963): The Perfect Fright Fest for the Mind

The Haunting is one of those rare movies that still terrifies the living bejesus out of me to this day and I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched it. It is the perfect fright fest for the mind, a psychological head trip that doesn’t rely on flash gimmicks or jump scares to send you cowering behind the nearest pillow. All The Haunting needs is an old house, a stellar cast, some brilliant direction, and a story so dripping in tension that it almost oozes out of your TV screen.

While working on post-production for West Side Story, director Robert Wise picked up a copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and when he put it down was so impressed and scared by the book that he decided he had to make it into a movie. He handed off script writing duties to Nelson Gidding, and after six months—and with a fair few changes made from the original novel—Wise offered The Haunting to MGM, who he still owed one film. MGM accepted but told him they would only offer $1.05 million dollars for production—which actually makes The Haunting a flop because it would only make back $1.02 million at the box office—meaning that Wise had to pack up the entire package and head to England for filming.

On the 21st of August 1963, The Haunting would be released, and though it may not have done gangbusters in ticket sales, none other than Martin Scorsese has called it his favourite film, and I don’t think any of us are in a position to argue with one of the greatest directors to ever sit behind a camera, are we?

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The Haunting starts with narration from Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), who explains that the history of Hill House is one of a house born evil. Hill House was constructed by Hugh Crain for his young wife, though she would never see the inside of it, at least not while alive. While traveling to her new home, her horses got hella spooked by something, went wild, and crashed her carriage into a tree, killing her instantly. Her body was then carried to the godforsaken place, and Hugh Crain made his six-year-old daughter, Abigail, stand vigil with him over her mother’s broken body as he read out text passages from the Bible, because, yeah, that’s f*cking normal and not going to damage her in any way, shape, or form, is it?

Now with a taste for blood, Hill House would strike the Crain family with tragedy a second time when Old Hugh’s follow-up wife—a role I’ve always considered to be a tribute act kind of deal—would mysteriously fall down the stairs and die. This is when Wise starts to sow the tension within The Haunting. The second Mrs. Crain is walking past an upstairs door which she notices is open. Obviously worried about the astronomical cost of energy prices in this country—cutting-edge satire there, take that, Conservative government—she closes it, only for it to open again as she walks away. Approaching it, we see her face contort into an expression of fear as something unseen moves toward her. She backs up, slips, and falls down the stairs, breaking her neck in the process, but it is the look of utter terror etched on her that makes you believe that it wasn’t the plummet that killed her. Instead, it was whatever she saw that scared her to death.

The main cast from The Haunting gather on the stairs to discuss the going on's at Hill House

We also discover that Abigail never moved out of Hill House. In fact, Abigail never moved out of her nursery, choosing to live her life in near utter seclusion with only a different companion through the years to keep her company. It is the last one of these nurses that suffers the most, as while she is outside getting friendly with a local farm hand, Abigail dies while banging on the wall, trying to get her attention. This doesn’t bode well for the unfortunate woman who inherits the house under a cloud of suspicion that she murdered the old lady for it. Suspicion is only laid to rest after the place drives her crazy, she climbs to a balcony atop a spiral staircase, ties a rope around her neck, and steps into the void.

Markway manages to convince the new owner of Hill House, Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton), to allow him to assemble a team for some paranormal investigation, and we’re then introduced to the main character of The Haunting, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris). Wise chose Harris for the role as he was convinced that she was the perfect person to play someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown for the entire 114-minute run time, and he was right. Harris had a lot of problems while shooting The Haunting, and they come across in her portrayal of Eleanor. She suffered crippling depression through filming, convinced that her co-stars weren’t taking the movie anywhere near as seriously as she was, and would lock herself away in her trailer in floods of tears. The other members of the cast said that she was distant and at times difficult to work with. Even though it must’ve been a horrible time for her, it adds layer upon layer to the character of Eleanor as she does seem as if she is about to fall apart at any second, which makes sense when you consider that Harris probably was.

Eleanor hasn’t had an easy life. She played sick nurse to her mother throughout an illness that would eventually kill her, and after she passed, Eleanor was forced to move in with her sister and sleep on her couch. The utter disdain her sister has for her is heartbreaking, as knowing what Eleanor went through—and obviously not lifting a damn finger to help—she treats her as if she is nothing more than an inconvenience at best, and at worst a child who needs to be watched constantly, never allowed to do anything without express permission. When Eleanor explains she has been invited to take a “holiday” (refusing to allow her control freak sister knowledge of where this “holiday” is) and she is told that she can’t go, Eleanor behaves how you’d expect a teenager to when told they can’t go to the latest James Taylor concert. She steals the family car. What? Kids like James Taylor, right?

She arrives at Hill House, and after a run-in with the groundskeeper, Mr. Dudley (Valentine Dyall), who has no time for city folks with their city ways, we get our first real look at Hill House from the outside. It is one of the most intimidating facades you’re ever likely to see. The Haunting used Ettington Park for the external shots and infrared film to make it seem alive, and you can trust me when I say it does. Hill House looks utterly foreboding and is one of those places that if you or I saw, we’d jump back in our car and high tail it out of there, only swerving to knock down Mr. Dudley as we blew through the gates.

The inside is no better either. From the moment she steps into Hill House, you know that things aren’t going to end well for Eleanor. Even though she soon meets up with Theodora (Claire Bloom) and it seems as if she’s finally made a friend—aww—it isn’t long before strange occurrences occur and Eleanor’s life starts to spiral out of control. The first of these is that Theo is a lesbian. Now, in this day and age, that sort of information isn’t a shock (at least, it shouldn’t be, but rednecks gotta redneck) but considering that The Haunting was released at the start of the ’60s, to be so blatant about it when it was only hinted at in the book was a brave move. This brave move is sadly undone as The Haunting progresses and Theo suddenly becomes an incredibly jealous, borderline stalker when it becomes obvious to her that Eleanor only has eyes for Dr. John. Add to that the scene where Eleanor calls her unnatural, and what was a seemingly clever and brave characterization on the part of writer Nelson Gidding, is handled with so much hamfistedness that it’d choke a vegan at 100 paces.

Eleanor and Theo cower on the bed as the noise outside in the hall gets nearer in The Haunting

Eleanor and Theo are joined by Dr. John and Mrs. Sanderson’s nephew Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who hopes to inherit the house when she passes on, and The Haunting finally has its cast in place to give you the frights you richly deserve. And frights you will get. I cannot stress the utter brilliance of the way The Haunting uses your own mind to get the reaction it wants out of you. It is what you don’t see that makes the adrenaline course through your veins, and the two best moments from the film both revolve around Eleanor and Theo.

The first happens when Eleanor is woken by an almighty banging sound that she mistakes for her mother pounding the walls to get her attention. It is only when her sleep fog clears and she hears Theo calling out for her in a panic that she realises something is wrong. Running into Theo’s room, the two huddle together as the noise stalks the hallway, getting louder and louder until it stops outside their door. Both Harris and Bloom sell the horror of what is happening so perfectly that when the spirit finally leaves because Dr. John and Luke have reentered the house after chasing a ghost dog—no, really—the two burst into laughter, and you do as well, as its the perfect release valve to a scene that has just had you watching it through your fingers.

The second occurs after the two have had a fight and Eleanor has gone to sleep. Again she awakes to sounds from somewhere in the house, this time a young child seemingly being hurt, and as she lays there with Theo gripping her hand tighter and tighter, she decides that haunted house or not, she won’t stand by and let it cause a child pain. Eventually mustering up the courage, she screams at the phantasm to stop. Only then do we discover that she was not in her bed next to Theo as she and we initially thought but had been moved across the room to a sofa. Meaning there was no way that Theo could’ve been the one holding her hand. Even writing that, I get chills down my spine. That’s how powerful it is.

As The Haunting gets deeper and deeper into itself, it becomes clear that the house wants Eleanor, and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal and as Eleanor slips further into her own madness she becomes quite content to let it happen. As we enter the endgame, Dr. John’s wife, Grace Markway (Lois Maxwell), turns up and goes missing. This almost offended Eleanor, who doesn’t see it as a case of “Holy crap! The house ate the doctor’s wife!” but instead sees it as if she has been replaced by someone who had no right to replace her. To combat this and get Grace back, she goes into the library, where the last companion hung herself, and she tries to do the same. It’s only with the intervention of Dr. John that she doesn’t succeed in taking a header off the balcony, but it only delays the inevitable.

With everyone now convinced that Eleanor is Captain Cuckoo Banana Brains, they decide to send her away, which she isn’t happy about. In fact, she’s so unhappy with the situation she drives off in her stolen car the first opportunity she gets. While she’s cursing everyone out for trying to deprive her of her rightful home at Hill House, Eleanor’s car is supernaturally taken control of, and as she fights the steering wheel, she sees a flash of Mrs. Markway—who the house had held captive but released back into the wild at just the right moment—which forces her to skid off the road and crash into the same tree that had killed Hugh Crain’s first wife 90 years prior.

With Eleanor dead and the house now satisfied, for the time being, The Haunting ends with Luke uttering the words;

It ought to be burned down…and the ground sowed with salt.

Don’t let the horrible remake of The Haunting put you off. If you’ve never seen this film, then you owe it to yourself to sit down, turn off all the lights, and let it seep into your mind. The Haunting is a ghost story/haunted house movie quite unlike any other. It treats you as an adult and lets your own fears do all the work for it. It is such a clever movie and one that a lot of newer films in this style or genre could learn from.

You don’t need to show me the spooky ass nun to make me jump out of my seat. I don’t need to see another film try and vomit out a hackneyed version of The Exorcist, complete with spinning heads and pea soup bile. Sometimes all I need is for a movie to build the tension, build the suspense, build it into a crescendo so loud in my head that I can feel it in my bones and my own imagination will do the rest.

The Haunting has given me many sleepless nights, and I hope that after reading this that if you haven’t checked it out before you will now, and it’ll do the same for you.

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  1. For me, this was and still is the very best movie dealing with a haunted house. The only other movie that even approached this was ten years later, The Legend of Hell House.

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Written by Neil Gray

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