Thursday, 2 December 2010

Robert Wise's 'The Haunting', 1963

Fig. 1 The Haunting Poster
The Haunting was one of the last horror films to be made that focussed its attentions on what couldn't be seen rather than what could.  There were no visceral thrills and no gory murders to be seen, despite there being many deaths within the narrative.

Fig. 2 Carriage Accident Screenshot
It is what couldn't be seen that became the most fascinating and encompassing feature within the film. As the audience is introduced to Hill House, the building in which the characters stay, they are told the story of the many deaths that followed the founder of the house.  Despite them being gruesome deaths, the way they are presented to the audience is with great subtlety.  Figure 2 shows the shot of how the founders first wife died before she even reached the house, all the audience sees is a gently swinging hand and a broken wheel.  Something that makes this even more effective is the way the bracelet hangs motionless at the top of the shot, on the woman's wrist, but then drops rapidly as the arm begins to slow.  This could be seen to connote the end of her life, the bracelet symbolising her last moments ending abruptly. Rick Worland describes The Haunting as  "one of the last suggestive horror films that depended on careful construction of foreboding mood rather than bloody, violent shocks, attractions the big studios were not quite ready to provide."(Worland, 2007:90). This supports the previous statement that it is the avoidance of these bloody shocks through use of much subtler, but still just as effective, still after images.  One moment that can be seen as more disturbing is the second wife's death.  She died from falling down the stairs but it is the suggested falling through the movement of the camera combined with the sudden stillness of her laying, head first, at the bottom of the stairs that adds a cold eeriness to the scene.  Her eyes staring blankly just to the side of the camera, her body in an unnatural angle on the stairs all adds to the horror that is Hill House.

Fig. 3 Character Screenshot
It is this creation of eerie horror through suggestion that makes this film a powerful psychological horror rather than a traditional physical one.  It is this subtlety that creeps through the characters and out into the audience, making them as uncomfortable as each other.  The audience and characters both know the same information, and that is that they are being stalked by an unseen, unknown horror that bangs and crashes and slams its way around.  Ian Nathan, interpreted it as the film having " so many of those familiar clich├ęs, the prodding suggestions of countless supernatural tales, it should be laughable but there is deeper, subtler creepiness at work here — the shadowy recesses of the human mind." (Nathan, 2006).  The mind is where all of these subtle suggestions and noises become morphed into innumerable possibilities.  Due to the audience never seeing the villainous presence that stalks the characters they can't know exactly what it is, but all of the noises and the unnatural abilities it has to take and move what it wants is all combined in the viewers mind into all the possible horrors that could lurk inside this house.  The house that Eleanor, the lead female character, felt so at home in.

The idea of this haunted 'diseased' house being seen as a home to Eleanor brings up, in the audiences' minds, all those things they used to worry about when they were younger.  The homely and safe being tainted and changed into the 'unheimlich', the unfamiliar and unsettling.  Freud mentions the use of the 'familiar' being turned into the 'unfamiliar' in order to create an unsettling atmosphere for the audience.  This is all seen within his theory of 'The Uncanny', this acknowledges the fear and dread that is evoked when a viewer sees something that was once familiar to them becomes unfamiliar, for example, the door to the bedroom the characters were in, in The Haunting, is dividing them from the presence outside but before while they feel safe it begins to bend and buckle unnaturally under the weight of something.  This door, that was once seen as a solid and safe boundary for them has become unnaturally moulded and bent.  Another example of this is seen when Eleanor first enters the house.  She believes she's alone and as she starts to feel more nervous she frightens herself by unexpectedly glimpsing her own image in a mirror.  Barbara Creed describes her reaction as:"The uncanny gaze is structured in relation to the uncanny object, sensation or event in order to intensify the spectator's inner sense of foreignness, strangeness and doubleness." (Creed, 2005:30)  The use of her seeing her own reflection in a familiar object, such as the mirror, makes the audience feel just as unnerved as she is.  They know it is just a mirror, but in a house that's described as 'diseased' and 'haunted' they feel that even the normal, familiar objects could be dangerous.  Anything showing the image of the viewer can be deemed to threaten them as their likeness could be affected by the house around them.

Fig. 4 Eleanor and Theo Screenshot
The subtleness and suggestion used within the film is very important to portray more than just atmosphere.  Another interesting theme of the film was the inclusion of a lesbian character, called Theo.  Due to Lesbian, gay and Trans-gender groups having no rights in America or England until after the late 1960's, the inclusion of a gay character is incredibly brave, especially one that is intelligent and beautiful. Patricia White, believed The Haunting to be "one of the few Hollywood films that has a lesbian character. Claire Bloom [Theo] appears as what is perhaps the least objectionable of sapphic stereotypes - the beautiful, sophisticated, and above all predatory lesbian."(White, 1991:144)  She is presented in the film as a well dressed, well educated woman, though she's a little spiteful and perhaps insensitive to the overtly sensitive Eleanor.  She is repulsed by the advances of the smarmy male character Luke and describes her worst fear to be "Knowing what I really want".  Though she can be considered to be a little predatory as she wants to stay with Eleanor and share intimacy with her she is no worse than the previously mentioned character Luke when it comes to her advances.  It was refreshing to see a strong female character that wasn't reliant on the men around her and the use of subtle lines of dialogue combined with her smart clothing that showed no flesh that is the only real evidence other than her behaviour that she is a lesbian.

The Haunting is a beautifully shot film where the camera and sound does all the work the CG in the remake couldn't.  The subtle take on a fairly worn haunted house theme is most welcome and appreciated by those fans of the genre.  It is one that includes powerful themes and suggestive shots that need little more than a slight gesture to portray their meaning.  It was refreshing to see something that had such respect for the psychological horror it wanted to be and for upholding the studios want for gore-less film.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Wise, Robert (1963) The Haunting Poster. At: (Accessed on: 02.12.10)

Figure 2. Wise, Robert (1963) Carriage Accident Screenshot. At: (Accessed on: 02.12.10)

Figure 3. Wise, Robert (1963) Character Screenshot. At: (Accessed on: 02.12.10)
Figure 4. Wise, Robert (1963) Eleanor and Theo Screenshot. At: (Accessed on: 02.12.10)


Nathan, Ian (2006) The Haunting. (Accessed on: 02.12.10)

Worland, Rick (2007) The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Creed, Barbara (2005) Phallic Panic: Film, Horror and the Primal Uncanny. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press

Fuss, Diana, White, Patricia (1991) Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge


  1. Barbara Creed!!!!!!! Sometimes Molly, I just want to shout your name from the rooftops - you're so self-directed, and so clear-eyed about the importance and enriching powers of actually researching something and unpeeling a subject for its own sweet sake. This is a great review - and goes far beyond a passing glance; you fold Freud into the mix, and the observation about the door and the use of reflection is the stuff of your written assignment. I would have no problem with you extending this review to form the basis of your assignment - the intellectual ambition and use of supporting evidence is right on the money...

    Just a typo I noticed, however - Though she can be considered to be a little predatory as she wants to stay with Eleanor and share intimacy with er (her?) she is no worse than the previously mentioned character Luke when it comes to her advances.

    Also - the work you do here around the lesbian issue is sensitive and even-handed - yes, she is a gay stereotype (all homosexuals are predatory... yawn), but she is, at least, a complicated one!

    Personally, I find this movie unbearably sad - poor Eleanor - even when she knows she'd going to die, she's happy, at last, because 'something is happening to me'... Tragic. She doesn't annoy me at all - but I know she annoyed just about everyone else!

  2. Oh bugger thanks for that! I'll fix it right away :P

    Thank you for the feedback! I'm glad I'm on the right tracks! It'd be great to use this as a basis for my written assignment, I could also include another examples of similar themes in other films to make it more interesting.

    I didn't find Eleanor annoying at all! I think the only thing people didn't like was that in comparison to the other characters she's the most emotionally invested in the house so I guess she could look a little hysterical sometimes. It's really sad that she has to die to be happy, but I guess at least she got something for herself in the end. She'd just about earned it with the horrible family she'd been left with!