And here we go kids! 31 days of crazy ghost stories, evil houses, and things hiding under your bed. I’m starting here on day 1 with the movie I was actually going to end this whole month with. Unlike last year, I actually have a list of the movies I plan to watch and the order that I plan to post them in.
But as I’ve started watching things and writing things, I realized that The Haunting is actually a great place to start. Rather than building up to the best, if I start with the best you’ll know where I’m coming from when I get into rest of this October.
I love ghost stories and I’m decidedly old school in my preferences. I love the black & white. I’m a huge fan of the gothic. I really like it when we don’t see the ghosts and ghouls. The Haunting is like my baseline that I’m comparing all of the others to.
But don’t worry, there are a ton of great movies still to come. Including some of the ones you guys voted for in my poll last month.
Anyways, here we go. Let’s start it all off right…
The Haunting – USA, 1963. Dir. Robert Wise, Screenplay Nelson Gidding. Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn.
I was going to save this one for last, Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting. An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting is still regarded as one of the best, if not the best, of the genre. Atmospheric, eery, and unbelievably frightening, The Haunting is truly what this genre is about.
The story begins with Dr. Markway, a scientist with a dubious reputation set on researching and proving the existence of the paranormal. He convinces the reluctant owner of the notorious Hill House to allow him to rent the property for the summer if he’ll agree to take her nephew with him. He invites people with various experiences in the paranormal, psychics and the like, to join him. Only two agree.
So the group comes together – the enthusiastic Dr. Marway, the rakish heir to Hill House Luke Sanderson, the tempestuous psychically gifted Theo, and the homely and awkward Eleanor Lance.
Eleanor, known by her family as Nell, is the first to arrive. Nell is our heroine, she is our protagonist. It’s through her that we experience this story. While at first she seems a little stiff and strange, she soon becomes the darling of everyone. She’s sweet, innocent, and yearning for love. She feels like she’s never been wanted anywhere or by anyone, she’s never had a place where she belongs.
And remarkably, unexpectedly, that’s what she finds in Hill House. A place where she truly belongs. Coming to Hill House is like coming home for Nell. This could be her paradise.
Except, that it’s not. There’s something wrong with Hill House. Something terribly wrong. The house was built in tragedy, its history bleeds with it. Something walks there, and it walks alone.
At the very first sight of Hill House, it’s easy to see something is wrong. It’s a looming, gothic monstrosity. Nothing is right about this house. The angles are wrong, the light is wrong, the doorways are wrong, the very walls themselves are wrong.
It watches. And it waits.
The Haunting is all waiting, it’s all tension and atmosphere, light and dark. Something terrifying will happen and in the midst of that terror, we’re still waiting for whatever is coming next. Because something is always coming next.
We want our Nell to be happy. We want her to be loved and cherished. But mostly, we want her to get away from that house. Because we can see what it does. We can see how it poisons them. We can see how its greatest weapon, and the greatest threat, isn’t death but madness. Death may still come at the end, but your sanity will be lost first.
The beauty of this movie is in its simplicity. There are no dead bodies, no gruesome ghosts, no outlandish effects. There is the way the light hits the windows, the shadows in the halls, the way the camera moves as some unseen, terrible force bangs at the doors. There is Nell’s reaction after they find her name written in chalk high on a wall one evening after dinner.
“It knows my name,” she cries, “It knows MY NAME.”
What knows her name? The house itself. Is there a ghost in Hill House? Is Hugh Crain responsible for the hauntings? Or maybe his poor daughter who died an old woman, alone and mad in the nursery. Or is it any of them?
Is it maybe just that Hill House itself is insane.
Whatever walks there, walks alone.
Now some of you may have seen the 1999 remake. I’m not watching that one this month but I have seen it. And it’s terrible. Rather than the beautiful subtlety of Robert Wise’s original, Jan De Bont’s update is a dumbed down adaptation that relies heavily on special effects (okay, shocking, the director behind Twister and Speed can’t make a subtle movie). It has this whole backstory about Eleanor and something about Hugh Crain hurting the children. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it so all of that is a bit blurry.
But anyway, while I had seen both versions of the movie, I’d never actually read the book. I’d read some Shirley Jackson previously, like the Lottery, but not The Haunting of Hill House. So as a part of this 31 days I decided to give the book a read as well.
And let me tell you, reading the book gave me a whole new appreciation for Robert Wise’s film. While there are several changes from the book, and a couple of scenes are left out, for the most part I felt like I wasn’t reading the original work. I felt like I was reading a novelization of the movie.
I think the movie is so successful, works so well, because they took such great care to adapt the book well. They don’t just tell Shirley Jackson’s story, they capture the heart of it.
And here we are, back to the heart of it. Where is the Heart of Hill House?
Why, it’s in the nursery of course. Where the little children play.