Monday, 5 February 2018

The Haunting (1963)

Spøgeriet på Hill House
I remember that one of the scariest things you could do as a child was to enter a “haunted” house. A house that we children would talk about as being haunted. There were the remains of an ancient mill that I could not look at for fear of the ghosts who were supposed to rest there and when we went to explore the crypt of an old church I was stiff from fear at the thought of the ghosts down there.

I also had a very hard time with horror movies back then, something I have only overcome in later years and frankly I was worried if “The Haunting” would challenge that old fear. The answer to that question is both yes and no. I am fortunately jaded enough and, yes, mature enough that I can digest a haunted house. Indeed watching this movie gave those delightful shivers that I assume is what is the general attraction of horror movies. In fact this movie worked a lot better than I had hoped.

The story is about an old (well, as old as they get in New England), gothic house, Hill House, that is reputed to be haunted. A number of women has died there under mysterious circumstances and it is certainly mysterious enough to make such stories believable. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) investigates supernatural phenomena and intends to prove or disprove their existence by running an experiment. He invites a number of very susceptible guests to stay on Hill House and to monitor them for any contact with supernatural phenomena. Only two guests show up: Eleanor “Nell” (Julie Harris) and Theodora “Theo”.

Theo is equipped with an uncanny ability to know what other people are thinking. She is also a modern, elegant and self-contained woman. Nell on the other hand is a bit of a mystery. There is some mumbling that she has been exposed to a poltergeist, but she does not recognize that story herself. Even though we frequently are witnesses to her thoughts her mind is so confused that it is difficult to make sense of. It is clear that she is escaping from her relatives, that she feels guilty for her mother’s death and that she has a crush on Dr. Markway. The rest, well, let’s just say she is very unstable.

The fourth person is Luke, the young heir to Hill House who is accompanying this little expedition.

It is clear right from their arrival that something is very off with this house. There are banging sounds at night, doors that open and close and weird cold spots and soon the two women are utterly terrified. Dr. Markway is getting exactly what he came for and more. Yet I cannot escape the thought that the real mystery is not with this house but with these four people. Something is very off about all of them. Maybe it is just the influence of the house, but there are nasty secrets here. Whether this is intentional or not I do not know. In the end the movie decides to focus on the house itself, so it may just be my wild imagination, but there is definitely a plotline there that could have been pursued.

In any case, things spin out of control as they typically do in this sort of movie, leading up to a finale that may come as a surprise, so no spoilers here.

This kind of movie can go two ways. One is to reveal or at least hint that there is a perfectly natural explanation. Another is for the movie to accept that supernatural things are real and as such let the supernatural run amok. The later is the more difficult because we also have to be led to accept this criteria. “The Haunting” does this rather elegantly. Theo is obviously a psychic. She literally plucks the thoughts out of Nell’s head and that means that the door is open, if people can be psychics, ghosts can be real, anything may happen and there is plenty reason to be afraid.     

Somehow “The Haunting” felt a lot older than it is, like something out of the thirties. It is the way they look and talk and the shadowy black and white photography, as if the cinematographers were inspired by Val Lewton movies or Frankenstein. I suppose it is part of the magic of this house.

“The Haunting” was very entertaining and a lot better than I thought it would be. It goes interesting places, but perhaps misses the chance to go to even more interesting places. Still, I am happy with what I got.



  1. Robert Wise actually directed Curse of the Cat People for Val Lewton. I think Lewton's influence can be felt throughout The Haunting. I liked the movie more the second time I saw it.

    1. I did not know that, but it makes perfect sense. I can see Val Lewton here. There is worse heritage than that.

  2. I'm with Marie on this--I like this movie more and more every time I watch it. This is my favorite sort of horror--one that relies entirely on atmosphere and suggestion rather than jump scares and gore.

    This is horror of the mind, and that's what makes it work for me. While it's not in the Book, I'd recommend The Innocents when you get a little further into the 1960s--it's very different, but the mood and atmosphere is similar.

    1. Yes, The Haunting does not use cheap jump scares, but takes its time to set up a mood where you are ready to expect the worst. Except that you never really see anything. Even the inside of Nell's mind is obscure. This is also my favourite sort of horror.
      I will keep your recommendation in mind.