Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
This November, in honor of Home is Where the Horror Is month here on Nightmare on Film Street, we’ll visit an infamous home that held on to the memories of every tragedy it witnessed, in The Haunting (1963).
A House Born Evil
Can a house itself be evil? Before The Shining, before The Amityville Horror, there was Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. The famously ambiguous but terrifying novel was one of the originators of the concept of an evil house as a lightning rod for supernatural activity — as opposed to the traditional concept of a haunting originating solely from a tragic death at a location. The novel has inspired countless adaptations, from Stephen King’s reimagining Rose Red to Mike Flannigan’s acclaimed series for Netflix. But the first and closest adaptation is possibly the most terrifying. The Haunting (1963) is a masterpiece of ghostly terror, more frightening for what it doesn’t show and leaves unexplained. The power of suggestion is at its most powerful effect in Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation.
By 1963, Robert Wise had won an Oscar for best picture and best director for West Side Story (1961). Wise was a superbly talented filmmaker who in many ways defied the concept of the auteur by disappearing onto a wide variety of disparate genres, with excellence as the only connecting factor. To look at The Haunting in contrast with his triumphs in musical filmmaking is the perfect example of his mutable skills. But in fact, The Haunting was in perfect alignment with the beginning of his career. Robert Wise’s directorial debut was Curse of the Cat People (1943), the stunning sequel to Cat People (1943).
Val Lewton chose Wise to direct his first horror film since the departure of his original collaborator Jacques Tourneur — no small job since Tourneur has previously helmed the films that defined Lewton’s revolutionary elevated B-horror. But Lewton knew he had found something special in Wise. Prior to his work on Curse of the Cat People, Wise worked as assistant director of photography on a little movie called Citizen Kane. That legacy of innovation shown in Curse and The Body Snatcher (1945), the other horror film Wise made with Lewton. And it shines in The Haunting.
After wrapping West Side Story, Wise picked up a copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and was deeply affected by the groundbreaking ghost story. In his recollection, he was so engrossed at one point that an interruption from a colleague caused him to jump from his chair. At that moment, he knew Jackson’s novel must become a film.
For the job of adapting it, Wise chose screenwriter Nelson Gidding, whom he had previously worked with on his 1958 drama I Want to Live! Gidding conceptualized an alternative interpretation of the novel, in which the entire story was in the head of the mentally unstable protagonist. He began to theorize that the characters she perceives as fellow investigators are in fact hospital staff and that the ghostly occurrences are the result of shock therapy.
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Gidding became convinced this was what the novel was really about, but Wise had his doubts. So they went straight to the source. When asked about the theory, Shirley Jackson said it was a good idea, but Gidding was overthinking things. The Haunting of Hill House was actually just about ghosts. She did have a suggestion for Wise and Gidding. They asked her if she had any alternate titles for the story in mind that they might use for the film. Jackson revealed that she had always considered simply calling the novel The Haunting, and the film had its title.
Help Eleanor Come Home
The Haunting takes Shirley Jackson’s atmosphere of subdued, isolated terror and perfectly translates it to the screen. The novel is famous for often unspecified horrors, and Wise was eager to bring that effect to the film. He learned from the best after all. Val Lewton was famous for revolutionizing a less is more approach to horror, always emphasizing that what the audience imagined would always be more frightening than anything they could actually see.
The Haunting tells the story of Hill House, a 19th-century manor somewhere in Massachusetts, that boasts a tragic history of death, suicide, and supernatural activity. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, is intent on studying the house. For the purposes of his experiment, he invites a group of individuals with paranormal experiences or psychic abilities to live in the house with him and study its activity. Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton), the current owner of Hill House, allows the investigation as long as her heir, the skeptical Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), is allowed to join them. Of the invited investigators only two accept. One is the artistic psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom) and the other is the nervous, lonely Eleanor (Julie Harris). Eleanor is traumatized by a life of isolation and mistreatment by her family as the sole caregiver to her invalid mother. She accepts Dr. Markway’s invitation without a second thought, desperate to escape and do something exciting just for herself. Markway has chosen Eleanor because of a spat of poltergeist activity that surrounded her as a child, a past she remains closed off about into adulthood. As the guests settle into the labyrinthine halls of Hill House, a series of disturbing supernatural occurrences test their resolve. All the while, Eleanor becomes slowly convinced that Hill House is inviting her home.
A Home to Unseen Ghosts
Wise used various ingenious techniques to create an atmosphere of claustrophobic terror throughout the film. Scenes from the book that took place outside Hill House were cut in order to heighten the feeling of isolation and entrapment within the house. Exteriors were shot at Ettington Park, a 19th-century manor in Warwickshire, England. Wise found the home while searching England for historical haunted houses that could serve as an appropriately ominous stand in for Hill House. Upon discovering the manor, Wise was struck by its frightening, watchful appearance. To enhance the effect of exterior shots, Wise used infrared film to capture it. In black and white, the shimmering movement of the film gives the house an uncanny quality, with shivering skies behind it and windows that seem to blink like all-seeing eyes.
The interior of Hill House was shot in sets constructed in a lush, Rococo style. The artistic adornments that crowd each frame give the impression of unseen presences watching from each corner. The excess of statues in Hill House contributes to the effect, compelling the viewer to anxiously scan each scene to confirm that those are in fact marble eyes watching from the corner.
The sets were purposely designed by art director Eliot Scott to have ceilings, an almost unheard of aspect in Hollywood sets at the time. Instead of the open space for lighting and cameras that were usually found above sets, the ceilings lend a tangible sense of claustrophobia to every scene. In contrast to the traditional approach to gothic cinema, most of the Hill House sets were well lit. The effect is an upending of expectations that makes the film all the more unnerving. One shouldn’t be afraid of a house where you can see well, and yet…
Shirley Jackson’s novel is already a ghost story that frequently depicts understated scares, but Wise and Gidding chose to have no visible apparitions in the film. Instead, they relied on incredible sound design, the performances of the actors, and ingenious editing and cinematography to conjure ghosts more frightening than anything that could be shown.
“The spirits of Hill House manifest on screen through a series of intense banging sounds, voices, cold spots, and camera work that suggests a knowing gaze.”
The spirits of Hill House manifest on screen through a series of intense banging sounds, voices, cold spots, and camera work that suggests a knowing gaze. In order to get the most authentic reaction from his actors, Wise played recorded versions of the ghostly noises to the actors while filming. This allowed the cast to react in real-time and adjust the intensity of their performances accordingly. The effect is raw and intensely believable.
On the subject of performance, every actor in The Haunting is excellent, but Julie Harris shines as Eleanor. The character was made more clearly the protagonist in the script than she was in the novel, including several scenes accompanied by voiceovers of her internal monologue. Harris was coping with depression during filming, and it impacted her performance for better and worse. She reportedly withdrew from social interactions with the cast and frequently broke down before the day’s filming. But her performance as an isolated and unstable woman feels raw, immediate, and real.
The Haunting is revolutionary in more than its cinematic craft. The character of Theodora marks a groundbreaking moment in the history of queer cinema. Theodora or Theo was implied to be a lesbian in the novel, but the film made it explicitly key to the character. In fact, a love triangle between Theo and Dr. Markway for Eleanor’s affections becomes a subplot of the story. As played by Claire Bloom, Theo challenges the stereotypical roles of lesbians in cinema up to that point. Instead of the older, cold and predatory depictions in films like Rebecca (1940) and The Univited (1944), Theo is young, stylish, and attractive by a conventional 60s era standard. Her queerness is not depicted as negative or a threat, despite Eleanor‘s homophobic outburst during a heated interaction, which is emphasized as deeply hurtful to Theo. In fact, Theo comes away from the film as one of the most sympathetic characters. It’s not a perfect depiction by today’s standards, but as a milestone for queer representation in film, it’s revelatory.
Even to a modern audience, The Haunting is a frightening horror film. Its carefully withheld scares and meticulously designed visuals evoke the moody terror that many of us would most associate with The Shining. If Kubrick didn’t think about The Haunting during the making of his masterpiece, I would be shocked. Even the theme of a possessive, sentient house with a history of death is a clear inspiration for Stephen King’s concept of The Overlook Hotel in his novel. And no wonder, King was enraptured with the book and the ‘63 film. He composed the miniseries Rose Red as a tribute to The Haunting when his bid to pen a write a remake fell through.
As the holidays quickly approach and many of us return to our family homes for feasting, at least we can be grateful that our family home isn’t Hill House. So give The Haunting a watch, and for a moment, feel the call of a powerful home that beckons you to stay…forever.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams! Share your thoughts on The Haunting with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!