Regarded as the definitive haunted house novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a mainstay in classic horror fiction and is beloved by fans of all ages and generations; Stephen King calls it one of the most frightening books he’s ever read. Given that great works of literature have a tough time becoming great works of film as well, it would not have been a surprise if the first cinematic adaptation of Jackson’s seminal work was a flop; but in the careful hands of director Robert Wise, flop status was happily avoided (until the Jan de Bont 1999 remake, of course) and we were left with one of the all-time greatest haunted house movies ever. Assuming, of course, that the house is actually haunted…
Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a lonely, shut-in spinster who has spent the majority of her adult life caring for her recently deceased mother, takes a chance on an adventure at Hill House, an old Victorian mansion with a sordid past, where she will take part in a psychic experiment led by Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), who hopes to prove the existence of the supernatural. They are joined by Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), playboy heir to Hill House, and Theodora (Claire Bloom), a mysterious bohemian woman with purported telekinetic abilities. As soon as the four are settled and left to their devices by the caretakers, strange things begin happening at Hill House, things that seem to revolve around Eleanor — but are they paranormal phenomenon or the fantasies of a young woman coming undone? Both the characters and the viewer are tasked to find out, but the film is resolute in its detail of clarity.
It can be said that The Haunting set the standard for great haunted house movies, perhaps even the rulebook. One such rule that usually proves particularly beneficial is that the haunted house film must be psychologically driven, and so character is everything. Certainly we question the sanity of Eleanor, our focal point, but can we trust stability and motives of the other characters any better? Upon closer inspection, none of them can be entirely trustworthy witnesses. Dr. Markway gave up an aristocratic lifestyle to prove the supernatural to the academic world, and so he very much wants, if not needs, to discover a ghost or two. Theodora exhibits jealousy at the attention given to Nell and is an admitted psychic, a dubious profession in the public eye, and there’s always a lingering question of whether or not she’s making a game out of the whole experience. It’s the beauty of the film to have crafted characters and placed them in such an unsure situation that we can never ground ourselves as a viewer to a point of trust. We’re left drifting about the house, much like Eleanor in the midst of one of her musings.
Eleanor is the soul and star of the story, however, and is played brilliantly by Julie Harris, whose performance elevates Nell above the histrionic women we might expect from a William Castle film of the same era. Her character is matched only by the presence of the house itself, brought to life by an exceptional production value full of misshapen rooms, flock wallpaper, sinister cherubs, angled mirrors, and suffocating Victorian clutter. From the set dressings alone we feel the sinister sense of this house that was born bad, and that’s before unseen presences pound their way down a corridor and on a bedroom door, which is still today one of the most chilling sequences in horror cinema.
Of course, the brilliance of The Haunting is that it never confirms the origin of that horrendous knocking. It certainly seems and sounds like a malevolent spirit, but perhaps it’s rooted in Nell, somewhere deep and subconscious. She’s come to Hill House to escape the drudgery of her everyday life and sees an opportunity to finally “belong,” both to the group and to the House. Is she somehow causing the noises in the old manor? Is she unstable and hallucinating? Or, and perhaps most disturbing of all, is she pretending that all the experiences are real? Wise, like Jackson with the source material, provides many hallways which we might walk down to find the truth and so the tension in The Haunting comes as much from the interpersonal dynamics of the strangers locked inside as it does from the stressful environment or the possible actions of the house itself. As Dr. Markway says, the house’s occupation by spirits can only be suspected, not confirmed. And that is perhaps the most haunting thing of all.
5 – Totally Terrifying
- 4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening 2 – Slightly Scary 1 – Hardly Horror