Friday, 5 September 2014

Halloween Horror: The Haunting

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.


  1. I saw the remake years ago and I was definitely disappointed. Just never got around to seeing the original. Good review.

    1. The remake has a lot of problems, the CGI being the least of them. The original has some really good atmosphere, though. It is definitely worth your time if you get the chance.

  2. I love, love, love this film! I saw it when I was a teenager and it scared the Bejeebies out of me:) When the door seems to pulsate-that was it! Julie Harris was great as the neurotic lady who never seems to 'fit in" and Claire Bloom is a delight. The remake was ok at the beginning especially with the cherub faces moving but then it all goes downhill into a horrible, funny (not intentional) mess. I find the best ghost stories are often the ones where one doesn't see the ghost but actually senses it. I am also happy to say I introduced a friend of mine to this film 20 years ago and now found out this is his favourite film:)

  3. LOVE this movie. One of my favorite horror films of all time. It captures the best element of horror that many films seem to completely forget about - Dread. This movie is filled with dread, and it build and builds as the movie goes along. The first time I saw this movie watched it by myself and late at night. It scared the crap out of me. Probably the first movie to really get under my skin in that way.

    Watching it now, and seeing how Wise constructed the film, you can see how all the elements work together. it is really an amazing construction. His angles, the way he uses light and especially shadow. The sound effects and editing - just amazing. A real course on how to build dread.

    And Elenore is a really interesting character (and she is extremely close to her version in the novel, her dialogue is nearly identical in places). Because we see so many of the events through her eyes, it really becomes difficult to determine if her mental breakdown (which becomes more obvious as the film progresses) is adding to her horror (and ours) or if the house is really doing all of this.

    Very nice review, glad to see people appreciating this one. And yeah, that remake - oh boy. I remember hearing about a remake in the early 90s with Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson attached to the concept. Now that could have been something. But what we got... ugh. I think they felt the first one was subtle, and considered a classic. So the best way to not be directly compared was to go COMPLETELY OVER THE TOP. Didn't work out so well. :) Two things I like about the remake: the production design and the score by Jerry Goldsmith. That's it.

  4. another big fan of this one chiming in, it's terrifying, so well done and the scares never get old, mainly as your commenters here say, the dread and what isn't seen just gets you.

    1. It's certainly one of those movies that show how powerful fear of the unknown can be.