In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, writer H.P. Lovecraft opened with one of his most famous quotes: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown". You don't have to be reading one of his cosmic horror stories for that saying to be relevant. It is practically human nature to be afraid of things we do not understand. Such is the theme of Robert Wise's 1963 horror film The Haunting.
As it's name implies, The Haunting in its simplest form, is really just a very well-executed ghost story about the experiences of a small group of characters in a house that is apparently haunted. What separates The Haunting from other ghost stories is the reliance on fear of the unknown. We feel the presence of something, but we never really find out who or what it is or even if the characters are actually facing ghosts in the strictest sense.
Also interesting is the approach taken towards its material. The whole movie plays out as a scientific investigation of the supernatural, conducted by the character of Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson). He goes into the house because it is said to be haunted and he wants to observe the things that go on there. As he himself notes, the only real reason we are afraid of the supernatural is because we do not understand it.
Along for the ride is Eleanor "Nell" Lance, a troubled woman who may or may not be mentally ill; Theo, an apparent psychic who may or may not be a lesbian with a crush on Nell; and Luke, a skeptic convinced that the supernatural occurrences can be explained rationally. These four characters spend time living in this haunted house, finding strange things occurring.
The thing is while it seems that there is something here, we can't really tell to what extent. It becomes hard to determine for sure what is really supernatural and what can be explained. Doors seem to open or close on their own, statues seemingly move when nobody is looking, and Eleanor gradually becomes increasingly obsessed with the house. Is she really the victim of a malevolent presence or are her beliefs merely delusions brought about by mental illness. It is this uncertainty that makes the movie so unsettling.
The house in itself is especially interesting, given the way it essentially becomes a character in its own right. The whole place has this strange vibe in every area the characters visit, even when there isn't any creepy stuff going on. Markway himself notes that the house was built by an eccentric in a very non-conventional way that makes it seem very much like a maze. At times it even feels as though the house itself is alive and malevolent, although given the nature of the movie it is hard to be completely sure.
A lot of horror movies have a tendency to have a lesser impact with age. Often given enough time as technology advances, the effects start to look fake and the movie itself may seem weaker as a result. The Haunting is a horror film that still holds up astonishingly well today, something probably helped by the strong absence of visual effects. Unlike many horror stories, it is not seeing the monster that makes it scary, but in fact quite the opposite.
I would strongly recommend The Haunting to any horror fan. It is especially fitting for Halloween seeing as the holiday is often associated with ghosts and haunted houses anyway (Markway even remarks that they should be prepared for every night to seem like Halloween). Even if you are not normally interested in ghost stories I guarantee that this particular movie will not disappoint.
Just do yourself a favor and make sure you see the 1963 Robert Wise version, and not the 1999 remake. That one will disappoint. If you want to know why you can take a look at The Nostalgia Critic's review and it will give you a pretty good idea. Avoid that one if you can, but do check out the 1963 film for a simplistic but clever little ghost story that will leave you on the edge of your seat.