THE HAUNTING is an undeniably classic horror film. Even to this day, the black and white film can still scare audiences without the crutch of over-the-top special effects or gore. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House (a beautifully written, and equally terrifying haunted house story), the film sets itself apart from its source material. It is, instead, an exploration of a woman’s descent into hysteria, and the consequences of taking her far out of her regular surroundings.
In the film, Nell (Julie Harris) is invited to spend some time at Hill House by a mysterious Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson). The house is reportedly haunted and Dr. Markway invites both Nell and Theo (Claire Bloom) to use their psychic abilities to research the possible presence of ghosts. Also, at the house is the heir to the Hill House estate Luke (Russ Tamblyn from both WEST SIDE STORY and TWIN PEAKS fame). This motley crew investigates the house room by room, trying to contact ghosts and learn the gruesome history of the place.
Nell is the character who the audience is coerced into identifying with. The film begins with her fighting with her sister and brother-in-law. Nell has spent most of her adult life caring for her recently deceased, and regrettably quite abusive mother, and she is more out of place than ever. She sleeps in her sister’s living room, and subsequently, is treated like a dependent child. Inconveniently, she also acts like a child, throwing tantrums and whining. Nell is weak and emotionally infantile, but she tries to exert herself as an adult for once by joining Dr. Markway. She resorts to stealing the jointly owned car from the garage while her sister is sleeping to make her getaway to Hill House.
At first, you admire Nell for going against her sister’s wishes. The good old-fashioned American independence and, more superficially, her grumpy New Englander perseverance, are celebrated. But as the film progresses, and you realize exactly how unbalanced Nell really is, you begin to think of her sister’s overbearing ways as more protective than selfish.
For example, when Nell rolls up to Hill House in her “borrowed” car, the groundskeeper is hesitant to let her into the estate. Rather than calmly explaining that she was summoned to the house, or showing the man the letter from Dr. Markway, she becomes instantly enraged and screams for him to open the gates at once. She was in no danger outside of the gate—most of the dangers are to be found inside—but when faced with a slight setback, her instinctual reaction was fight or flight. Her emotional hairpin turn shows us that she is not nearly as composed as she wants us to believe.
She also develops feelings for Dr. Markway almost instantly. He is the first person to treat her psychic powers with any sort of respect, and to treat her as an adult. Nell’s affection is crushed when she discovers that Dr. Markway is married. She seems personally hurt that he is attached to someone without her consent. We can see the warmth the doctor shows to Nell is fatherly, and protective. Nell is not mature enough to handle these interactions, and though she is a grown woman, she cannot muster any reaction other than a schoolgirl’s crush.
The novel takes place largely in Nell’s head. The reader gets insight into her thought process and history she brings to each outburst and overreaction. In the film, voice-overs aid in the audience’s understanding of Nell’s psychology. I would argue Harris’s performance alone is enough to communicate what is said in these asides, and thankfully they do not detract from the terror in each scene.
Hill House is haunted; there is no doubt about that. The keen approach THE HAUNTING takes is that you identify with the least reliable participant in Dr. Markway’s experiment. It keeps you guessing about where the line between psychosis and the paranormal lies. In the end, the effect on Nell is the same. The terror she feels is real, whether it is coming from her head or from the house. As the audience follows Nell through her decline, we are left caring less and less about the source of her fear. These forces, internal or external, are trying to kill her.
The film constructs a thick and heavy atmosphere, establishing a sense of terror throughout. This almost visible tension combined with the set, score, and Harris’s possessed performance, make this a film not to be missed on the big screen.