Haunted houses have always intrigued me. I’m a skeptic of the supernatural, but I sometimes wonder about the catalysts that make people believe it. You hear stories about why a house gets haunted, but is it haunted by a premature and unjust death, or is it haunted because we perceive it that way due to hearing the stories? Is it the house, or is it just you? Is there a difference? Perhaps, but if there’s one thing to take away from a movie like The Haunting, it’s that the terror is real and inescapable.
Based on the horror novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting concerns a 90-year-old house in Massachusetts called Hill House, a baroque style abode that “was born bad.” The house owner and constructor made it for his wife to live in, but she died when her carriage crashed headlong into a tree before she got a chance to see it. Mysterious deaths in the house would then occur one after another over the years. The house owners’ second wife died by falling down the stairs, and the twice-widowed husband later died in a drowning accident. His daughter Abigail, who lived in the nursery for the rest of her life, died in the night, calling her nurse for help. The nurse inherited the estate but promptly hung herself as the house had driven her insane. The current estate owner, Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton), wisely decides not to live in the house. She’s approached by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a supernatural enthusiast who wishes to study and observe the house’s rumored paranormal occurrences. He brings with him Mrs. Sanderson’s nephew, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a supposed psychic named Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), an emotionally and mentally sensitive woman who witnessed poltergeist activity as a child. Of course, this being a haunted house movie, spooky events occur during their stay, and it hits everybody pretty hard, especially Eleanor. And Eleanor’s place in the story is where the story gets really scary.
The acting from the main cast is superb, especially Harris, as Eleanor, who manages to perfectly encapsulate the process of a woman gradually having a mental breakdown. Eleanor’s faulty state of mind, her skewed perspectives on her life, the house, as well as her distinct relationships with the other characters are what make this movie stand out from the traditional haunted house flick. Eleanor and her ghost-hunting peers are not the typical archetypes you would generally see in a horror movie. Some of them I wouldn’t even qualify as likable people, but they’re interesting and feel like people who live in the real world. If you’re ever working on something with, say, four or five people, isn’t it typically the case that at least one of them is a weirdo or a jerk? Then there’s the question of whose perspective we’re viewing these characters from, and once that idea sinks in, a whole lot of interesting psychological questions start brewing. I cannot praise this movie enough for thinking outside the horror movie box and presenting us with a fascinating character study.
However, the film’s best actor is the titular Hill House, which has so strong a presence; it practically counts as a character. There are many tricks that the director, Robert Wise, and the cinematographer, Davis Boulton, used to get their desired creepiness effect. Many sequences involve constant camera movement, strange panning, and tracking shots, and brilliantly implemented low angles of the house, making it look like it’s leering at you. The inside of the house is meticulously designed to make you feel uncomfortable, with interior ceilings that feel a little too close, and a rococo style that inexplicably tickles the part of your brain that senses fear. It always feels like you’re being watched, whether by creepy statues or a design on a wall that vaguely looks like a face. Nowhere in the house feels safe. There’s so much that The Haunting brings to the table that makes it a horror classic in my eyes: It’s creative cinematography, beautiful sets, the atmosphere, its nuanced approach to the haunted house genre, and it’s very flawed but realistic characters. All of it culminates into the perfect ghost story that doesn’t show a single ghost. Feel them, yes. But never see them. Because if there’s one thing that this movie understands perfectly, it’s that the ghosts of the mind are the most horrifying thing of all.