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By Ben Larned · March 24, 2017
Haunted house stories are a dime a dozen, and have been since film became a medium (one of the earliest meta-horror offerings is 1927’s The Cat and the Canary ). They have an undeniable power, however, which causes storytellers to return to them again and again. The most effective of these also tend to be the ones with a psychological slant. Think of Turn of the Screw, The Shining, or The Fall of the House of Usher – all of which take place in cursed dwellings, but spend their length focusing on a character’s crumbling mind. When Shirley Jackson followed this pattern brilliantly in her The Haunting of Hill House, Hollywood took notice.
The Haunting is helmed by Robert Wise, and starts Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn. Its screenplay, written by Nelson Gidding, follows the book with astonishing faith – even paying close attention to its more subliminal aspects. Jackson’s protagonist, Eleanor, is an isolated young woman who agrees to participate in an experiment: to live in a haunted house and prove its hauntings as fact. But when the house begins to play tricks on her fragile psyche, reality becomes the least of her worries. This slow-paced, atmospheric classic is a masterwork of psychological horror – with essential lessons that modern writers can glean.
FOREBODE, FORESHADOW, FOREWARN:
Foreshadowing in horror may seem overused – most of the time, it’s just not used well. Not all hints of doom come in the form of Friday the 13th’ s crazy old man. We also have the level-headed Dr. Markway of this film, the anthropologist of haunted houses, who calmly takes the time to explain that “some houses are born bad” – and warns skeptical Luke that, if he continues making light of the supernatural, “that closed door in your mind will be ripped right off its hinges.” His clinical study of haunted houses plays into the film’s following scenes because it misses the mark. Hauntings may not be dangerous, but people are – what happens when two bad influences combine? The light introduction of danger that Markway puts forth turns out to be the opposite of a warning, which makes the film that much scarier on a second watch.
This rule is so often forgotten in genre cinema, where characters are added only to allow for higher body counts. In a slow-build like The Haunting, there is ample time to establish character, and Gidding does so just as Jackson does – by showing how people interact. Theo and Eleanor create a rapport that soon turns sour; Markway acts as a proud teacher, leading his flock into the gates of Hell; and Luke serves as the dry comic relief, even if his sense of humor is sapped by the end. Gidding’s dialogue follows Jackson’s witty, quick style incredibly well, with lines lifted
verbatim from the book. It’s clever and precise, almost like a play in its dramatic flair, but it works. We are given human beings to hang onto, and fear for, so the supernatural scenes aren’t just flashy set-pieces. In fact, the humanity accounts for most of the terror. You may not believe in ghosts, after all, but you can’t deny insanity.
FRAMEWORK OF THE HAUNTINGS:
Many horror films lose power in their first act because they try so hard to frighten through imagery and noise, rather than context. The Haunting takes an immense amount of time developing its environment – a 7-minute introduction explaining the house’s history, for example,done with great macabre humor – and its characters, as mentioned above. The first “scare” occurs about 45 minutes into the film. The construction of this scare is impeccable: Gidding builds tension slowly, then unleashes utter chaos, and returns to quiet, before starting the cycle over again. His scenes of horror (taken almost play-by-play from Jackson’s novel, which is equally patient and terrifying) are strange, unexplained, and never reveal their tricks – no specters are shown on screen, only behind doors and walls. This also allows for audience doubt; are the characters experiencing this in reality, or have they lost their minds?
MONSTERS OF THE MIND, NOT THE BODY:
As noted above, the real terrors of Hill House are the inhabitants – the supernatural elements only act as aggravators. We see Theo become possessive and destructive, Markway almost loses his wife, and Eleanor loses her mind; the already-fragile psyche shatters under the house’s pressure, an easy target compared to hard-headed Luke or confident Theo. Eleanor also solves one of the biggest problems in a haunted house story: why don’t they just leave? Well, Eleanor doesn’t want to leave. She has found the place where she belongs. More so, the supernatural elements are left ambiguous – because the ghosts never materialize, it is made clear that they might not exist at all. Threads of doubt run through the entire plot, and they are never resolved. At the film’s conclusion, the audience has witnessed a nightmare in which reality disintegrates, and never materializes again. Gidding lets his questions linger, and the chills as well.
Character, insanity, and patience – these are all elements that Gidding built upon to make The Haunting a classic. While the film’s pacing and unusual characters may be off-putting to some, its importance in horror history is clear, in many ways due to both Gidding and Jackson – for crafting such a strange, psychological, and unsettling tale of haunted people.