Elegant Chills: The Haunting

Eleanor becomes dizzy at the foot of the central staircase — exactly where the second wife of Hugh Crain fell to her death. The others quickly realize that Eleanor is overwhelmed by Hill House’s powers.
Creepy, classy and impeccably cinematic, the original screen version of The Haunting can still raise gooseflesh.
This article originally appeared in AC Aug. 1999, which also featured a cover story on the remake of the picture, shot by Karl-Walter Lindenlaub, ASC and directed by Jan De Bont, ASC.

Most great movie directors are specialists whose reputations rest on the ability to make one specific kind of show better than anyone else. There is Hitchcock’s suspense, for example, or Capra’s populism, Lubitsch’s sophistication, Wilder’s wit, Sternberg’s exotica, Whale’s quirkiness, Ford’s heroics and Witney’s action.

Robert Wise’s forte has always been excellence, without regard for genres or fads. His 39 films as a director have encompassed heavy dramas, musicals, Westerns, horror yarns, film noir, comedies, war stories, mysteries, costume spectacles and more — most of them done to the king’s taste. Among these is one of the handful of great ghost movies: The Haunting, released in 1963. 

This exceptional example of modern Gothic drama has none of the grisliness now considered essential to any picture with sheer terror on its agenda. There is no attempt to “gross out” the spectator with loathsome, random butchery or rotting corpses — the picture generates maximum suspense and terror without leaving a queasy aftertaste. 

Shot by Davis Boulton, BSC in Panavision anamorphic widescreen black-and-white, The Haunting hasn’t aged a minute, and can still elicit shivers and the occasional nervous yelp from any audience. Its ghost is neither man nor beast, but a house. A character in the film describes the demonic dwelling as “Diseased, sick, crazy if you like. A deranged house isn’t a bad way of putting it… Such houses were described in the Bible as leprous, [and] before that in Homer… as a House of Hades.”

Eleanor is confronted by a demonic visiage.
Huddled in the spooky nursery, Luke, Markway and Theo realize that Eleanor must leave Hill House at once.

The tale’s basis is the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a New England wife and mother who had a knack for making the most eccentric characters seem as real as one’s neighbors. Her most famous story, The Lottery, deals with an inbred farming community whose inhabitants annually select one of their own to be stoned to death in order to assure a good harvest season. A Time magazine review of Hill House left Wise so intrigued that he checked to see if the novel had been optioned. It had not, so he bought the rights and brought the book to his office at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio. As he was sitting on his couch reading a particularly scary passage, screenwriter Nelson Gidding rushed into the office with a question. “I jumped about three feet off that couch!” Wise told Frank Thompson in a 1995 interview. “I said, ‘Oh boy, if this thing can do on the screen what it just did to me on the page, we’ll have a fine, classy horror picture here.’”

The Mirish Company, for which Wise had recently made West Side Story and was completing Two for the Seesaw, bought the motion picture rights from the director, ostensibly for release under the United Artists banner. Gidding took on the screenplay. On April 11, 1961, Wise and Gidding made a weekend visit to Shirley Jackson in Bennington, Vermont, to discuss ideas for a screen version of her book. 

In one of the film's striking compositions, Nell listens in as Markway and Theo discuss her plight. The deep-focus image was created as a two-part optical effect, though Wise would frequently employ split diopters for such compositions on such subsequent films as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Andromeda Strain.

Many film industry producers tend to take a condescending view of horror pictures, which some designate as “freak attractions.” Wise, however, was very enthusiastic about the project. As he said in 1990, “This kind of film is generally a lot of fun for directors; you can do so much with sets, photography, lighting, lenses, music and sound effects.” 

Walter Mirish soon began to have second thoughts about the project, however, and decided to put it in turnaround. Wise’s agent, Phil Gersh, offered it to MGM as the picture Wise still owed them after severing his contract with the studio in 1957. MGM agreed, but only if the project could be done on a firm budget of $1 million. After the production department made a budget breakdown from the script and came up with a minimum figure of $1,400,000, the studio nixed the deal. Someone suggested that it might be less expensive to make the picture at MGM’s British Studio, an opulent facility with seven soundstages located near London at Elstree, Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire.

Having finished principal photography on Two for the Seesaw, Wise was scheduled to go to London for a command performance of West Side Story. While there, he left The Haunting script with the management at MGM British. By May 12, he was back doing postproduction work on Seesaw. After several weeks, Wise received the new breakdown from England, which allowed a less restrictive schedule and a budget of $1,050,000. MGM greenlit the project. 

Color had become obligatory for major productions, but Wise insisted on filming The Haunting in Panavision black-and-white, and had this condition written into his contract. As he later noted, “I felt that the subject lent itself to the wide format [2.40:1 ratio,] and that it had to be in black-and-white.” (Years later, that contract clause made it possible for Wise to head off a move by Turner Entertainment to colorize the video release.)

The film's anamorphic widescreen frame was frequently used to add subtle distortion and unease to a scene.

Although the picture would be filmed entirely in Britain, Wise was adamant about keeping the novel’s New England setting. He felt that a haunted house in America would be “a bit fresher” because “there’s one around every corner in England.”

Ettington Hall, a centuries-old country manor house about 10 miles south of Stratford-on-Avon, became the exterior of Hill House. The huge mansion was decorated with turrets and spires, surrounded by dense woods, and had an evil look in certain lighting conditions. The house’s rooms were surprisingly cheerful, so the film’s baleful interiors had to be created elsewhere. Six sound technicians took over the house for a week, working around the clock in shifts to record all of the ancient structure’s creaks and groans.

All of the film’s interiors were designed by British artist Elliot Scott and built on Boreham Wood stages. There’s a heavy atmosphere in these sets, thanks to the house’s oppressive lineaments, as well as the bulky, dark furniture, the massive doors and the overwhelming denseness of props and details. Scott had previously designed several artistic productions, including I Accuse (1958) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), and he and Wise saw eye-to-eye on matters concerning the picture’s visual style.

The quartet of ghost chasers are confronted by a statue of Hugh Crain in the greenhouse — one of the few Hill House sets that featured any hint of daylight.

Scott was the one who recommended that the picture be shot by Davis Boulton, a virtually unknown cinematographer. A young former still photographer, Boulton had only recently graduated to the position of lighting cameraman, but Scott had been impressed with the work he’d done on his first two productions, Children of the Damned and The Password is Courage. Wise took Scott’s advice and hired Boulton, whose lighting became one of The Haunting’s strongest visual assets.

The actors thrust into this eerie ambience were chosen more for experience and suitability than for box-office appeal. As Dr. Markway, the leader of the ghost-hunters, British star Richard Johnson does a capital job of setting aside his more familiar screen persona as a romantic lead. A professor of anthropology, Markway has leased Hill House as an ideal site to research psychic phenomena. Johnson effectively projects the personality of a dedicated scientist, affecting the bent shoulders and intense concentration of the bemused scholar. Dressed mainly in corduroys and V-necked sweaters, the actor makes Dr. Markway both likable and convincing.

Other fine thespians were cast as the members of Markway’s research team. The brilliant stage and screen actress Claire Bloom — who had performed Shakespeare and modern romance with equal success — is forceful in her portrayal of Theodora, a glamorous New York lesbian who possesses strong extrasensory perception. Shots of her somber, dark eyes are among the film’s dominant images. She is dressed throughout in avant garde clothes fashioned by London’s so-called “beatnik designer,” Mary Quant, and makes her entrance in a giraffe-skin coat with an uncombed Mongolian lambskin collar.

Julie Harris, who also boasted a strong theater background, took on the role of Eleanor, a fragile young woman who was tormented by a poltergeist during her childhood. Eleanor’s adult life has centered on the demands of an invalid mother and a vicious sister. In an attempt to find a meaningful life in a place where she feels she belongs, Eleanor joins Markway’s group and soon becomes the center of the ghostly power’s attentions. Harris imbues the role with a sense of reality that is immediately felt by anyone who has ever known someone like Eleanor.

Russ Tamblyn, one of the stars from Wise’s great 1961 musical West Side Story, is convincingly down-to-earth as Luke, the cynical playboy who will inherit Hill House when his elderly aunt dies. Initially perceived as a greedy, self-indulgent wise-guy, he gradually becomes more human as the story progresses. After Eleanor’s death, he says of the mansion he is destined to own, “It ought to be burned down and the ground sowed with salt.”

Before the film’s main title, we see some nighttime views of Hill House, a complex, rambling structure reminiscent of Xanadu at the opening of Citizen Kane.The voice of Dr. Markway intones, “An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there walked alone.”

Narrated flashbacks reveal the four deaths that have already occurred at Hill House, which was built by a wealthy religious zealot named Hugh Crain. His wife died upon her arrival to her new home, when her carriage mysteriously crashed into a tree; his second bride, backing away from something frightening, died after  tumbling down the mansion’s steep central staircase. After Crain himself drowned during a journey, his little daughter, Abigail, lived in her spooky Hill House nursery for the rest of her life. She died sick and alone while her paid companion engaged in a love tryst. Finally, the companion, who inherited the house, hanged herself from a spiral staircase in the library. “Scandal, insanity, murder and suicide,”Markway exults. “The history of Hill House was ideal. It had everything I wanted… It was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad.”

The picture originally opened with a scene featuring Theo yelling angrily from the window of her Greenwich Village apartment as her female companion speeds away. Theo then uses a lipstick to write a message on a mirror: “I hate you.” Wise says that “when we viewed the first cut, we realized that this scene labeled [the film’s lesbian angle] too heavily, so we dropped it.” The theme is suggested more subtly via Theo’s hovering possessiveness and thinly veiled hints, and becomes explicit late in the story when Eleanor turns on Theo angrily, saying, “The world is full of inconsistencies, unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes, they call them. You, for instance.” Notably, Theo is not depicted as villainous. Although sometimes confrontational, she proves to be a strong and courageous ally.

After Markway and his team take up residence in Hill House, we soon learn more about Theo and Eleanor’s emotional baggage. Theo wants a new lover, while Eleanor, who has spent her adult life tending to her invalid mother, has fled an overbearing family situation. On their first night in the house, the women are terrorized by loud noises emanating from outside their heavy bedroom door — including the sound of something rooting around in hoglike fashion, and finally a pounding that threatens to smash in the door itself.

Eleanor quickly develops a schoolgirl crush on Markway, and convinces herself that Hill House wants her and that she should remain there forever. Worried for her sanity, the others realize that she must leave. Markway’s wife, Grace (played by Lois Maxwell, who would later become the ever-pining Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond film series), who has no patience with his research, arrives and tries to convince him to abandon the project. To prove her point, Grace elects to spend the night alone in the nursery, the supposed haunted heart of Hill House. During the night she is heard screaming, but cannot be found. Eleanor goes into the library and climbs the unsafe spiral staircase from which the nurse hanged herself. Markway rescues her and demands that she leave. Eleanor tells herself, “I’m coming apart a little at a time… Now I know where I’m going. I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house.” As she drives away, the disheveled and terrified Grace appears on the road ahead. An invisible force grapples for the steering wheel, and Eleanor is killed when her car crashes into the exact spot where Hugh Crain’s first wife was killed.

A brief epilogue displays the brooding exterior of Hill House as Eleanor’s voice concludes, “Hill House has stood for 90 years, and it might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the walls of stone somehow, and we who walk here walk alone.”

Wise found the British camera crew system much to his liking. Boulton, the picture’s nominal director of photography, served as what the English term a “lighting cameraman.” Wise recalls, “He worked exclusively with the lighting and did a marvelous job of it. All handling of the camera was left to the operator, Alan McCabe, who worked with me on the setups. I was very pleased with their work.” 

Much of the lighting bears a strong resemblance to the style that Nicholas Musuraca, ASC contributed so unforgettably to Wise’s first credited directorial effort, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and the superb work of Robert De Grasse, ASC in the director’s subsequent film, The Body Snatcher (1945). These pictures were produced under the supervision of Val Lewton, an RKO Radio unit producer who made excellent, artistic horror films under budgets of $150,000. As it was Lewton who had Wise promoted from film editor to director, Wise always speaks of him as his mentor. “I loved doing those films, and I learned a lot from him,” Wise says. “One reason I wanted to do The Haunting was a need to return to that kind of thriller.”

In a 1944 press release, Lewton said that his pictures were “based on three fundamental theories. First is that audiences will people any patch of prepared darkness with more horror, suspense and frightfulness than the most imaginative writer could ever dream up. Second… is the fact that extraordinary things can happen to very ordinary people. And third is to use beauty of setting and camerawork to ward off audience laughter at situations which, when less beautifully photographed, might seem ludicrous.”

Pursued by unseen ghosts, Eleanor makes a frantic run through Hill House’s unending corridors. The use of sound in these sequences conjures unparalleled eerieness.

The Haunting fully exploits these theories except that the people are not at all “ordinary.” (The characters in Lewton’s later pictures had also become increasingly colorful). Hill House has dark patches sufficient to conceal any number of spirits or monsters. It is quickly noted that “there isn’t a right angle in the house,” and the doors open and close by themselves. Boulton and McCabe maintained their use of shadowplay throughout the story, and also contributed some weird camera tilts (very unusual at that time in wide-format photography) and even lens distortion without compromising Claire Bloom’s glamour or Julie Harris’ childlike aura.

“The widest-angle Panavision anamorphic lens available at that time was 35mm or 40mm,” Wise recalls. “I wanted the hallways to look long and dark, so I asked [Panavision president] Bob Gottschalk if he didn’t have a wider lens. He said they had a 28mm, but that it had a lot of distortion. I told him that was exactly what I wanted for certain places. He didn’t want me to use it, but I kept insisting until he gave in — on the condition that I would sign a paper saying that I knew the lens was in an experimental state and I wouldn’t complain about the distortion. We used it most effectively for certain shots.”

The house’s already eerie appearance was enhanced by filming some of the night exteriors with Eastman’s black-and-white infrared film. Infrared emulsion is not sensitive to visible colors of the spectrum, but instead registers longer waves that lie invisibly beyond these colors. Solid objects reflect and absorb infrared light differently from ordinary light. Green grass and foliage are reproduced as almost white, skies come across very dark grey to black, and other everyday objects usually yield unexpected results. When used with a small aperture and a deep orange or red filter such as Wratten 25, 88A or 89B, infrared produces a strong night effect in daylight, with strange tone variations appropriate to an “evil” house. Although the emulsion had been vastly improved in the years leading up to The Haunting (with an arbitrary 50 ASA rating), high filter factors considerably slowed down the stock.

One of the film’s most disturbing and ingenious scenes shows six-year-old Abigail (Janet Mansell), in close-up, progressing by degrees into an 80-year-invalid (Amy Dalby). The effective shot has the appearance of a modern “morphing” effect, but it was accomplished very smoothly via gradual dissolves.

A scary aspect of Hill House — and, indeed, of most reputedly haunted houses — is the presence of “cold spots,” small areas in a perpetual icy cold state. Wise realized that merely having the actors shiver and complain would not convey the fear engendered by a sudden, inexplicable chill. Boulton and makeup artist Tom Smith came up with an ingenious solution for the problem. A special makeup was applied to the players’ faces and hands, and as they stepped into the “cold spot,” colored filters were placed over the lights, effectively draining the life from the actors’ flesh to create a clammy pallor.

In another terrifying nighttime sequence, Eleanor awakens to the indistinct cries of a brutal man and a terrorized little girl coming from beyond a wall covered with bas-relief carvings. The camera holds on the wall as the moonlight slowly shifts, revealing a scowling face hidden within the decor. In the semi-darkness, Eleanor grasps a cold hand she assumes to be that of Theo. The ghostly voices become more terrifying and the grip excruciatingly painful, forcing Eleanor to cry out in fear and pain. When the lights suddenly come on, Eleanor realizes that Theo had been asleep on the other side of the room — and that the phantom hand could not have been hers.

Another scene offers a dizzying bit of visual magic as the camera moves smoothly and swiftly from the bottom to the top of the high and rickety spiral staircase in the library. The balustrade was designed to function as a track substantial enough to accommodate a small dolly and a 35mm camera. A control wire ran the full length of the railing. The camera was taken to the top of the staircase and allowed to slide backwards down to the bottom. The footage was later reversed.

This page: Eleanor is defiant atop the deadly spiral staircase in the library.

In the film’s most frightening sequence, a monstrous, unseen presence attempts to smash through the bedroom door to reach Eleanor and Theo. To the accompaniment of loud, uncouth noises, the door buckles and bulges almost to the point of bursting. The actual door comprised several layers of laminated wood. “All that was on the other side was a very strong prop man,” Wise explains, “and it scared the hell out of everybody.”

Wise has commented that there are several “busses” in the picture, meaning sudden startling intrusions of sights and sounds timed to jar the spectator. The term originated during Val Lewton’s first production, The Cat People (1942), in which a young woman on a Central Park concourse is being stalked through the dark by a panther woman. When she stops under a tree, she realizes that something is up there, ready to spring. Suddenly, a loud hissing sound is heard as a shape lunges into the scene: it is a bus applying its air brakes. The scene proved so adept at shattering audience complacency that Lewton and his associates — including film editor Robert Wise — continued to use what they called “busses” to enhance moments of tension in their later suspense films (e.g., a cat turning over a trash can as a woman is being stalked in a dark alley; a horse snorting noisily as a man stealthily enters a dark stable; a train rumbling over a trestle just as a frightened girl passes underneath).

A dramatic orchestral score by Humphrey Searle adds to The Hauntingsense of unease. The music is in the modern mode, sometimes dissonant and occasionally strident, with an angularity appropriate to the macabre mood and drab decor. It is surprisingly listenable and has the grace to go silent whenever the house’s weird sounds hold forth.

At first look, many spectators hardly knew what to make of The Haunting — they either loved it or hated it. The picture wears well and has long since acquired classic status as an intelligent, elegant and influential example of motion picture art. It has remained one of Robert Wise’s favorites. “I loved the look of it,” he says. “The style took me back to my roots with Val. Regrettably, it was my last black-and-white film.”            

The writer is much obliged to Robert Wise and DeWitt Bodeen.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents an Argyle Enterprises picture; produced and directed by Robert Wise; associate producer, Dennis Johnson; screenplay by Nelson Gidding; based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; photographed in Panavision; director of photography, Davis Boulton; music composed and conducted by Humphrey Searle; production designer, Elliott Scott; film editor, Ernest Walter; camera operator, Allan McCabe; special effects, Tom Howard, FRPS; sketch artist, Ivor Beddoes; set decorator, John Jarvis; wardrobe supervisor, Maude Churchill; Claire Bloom’s clothes by Mary Quant; makeup artist, Tom Smith; hairdresser, Joan Johnstone; assistant director, David Tomblin; casting director, Irene Howard; continuity, Hazel Swift; sound recordist, Gerry Turner; dubbing mixer, J. B. Smith; recording supervisor, A. W. Watkins; dubbing editor, Allan Sones; produced at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios, Boreham Wood, Herts. Western Electric sound. Running time 112 minutes.

Eleanor Lance, Julie Harris; Theo, Claire Bloom; Dr. John Markway, Richard Johnson; Luke Sannerson, Russ Tamblyn; Grace Markway, Lois Maxwell; Mrs. Dudley, Rosalie Crutchley; Mrs. Sannerson, Fay Compton; Mr. Dudley, Valentine Dyall; Carrie Fredericks, Diane Clare; Eldridge Harper, Ronald Adam; Second Mrs. Crain, Freda Knorr; Abigail, age six, Janet Mansell; First Mrs. Crain, Pamela Buckley; Hugh Crain, Howard Lang; Landlady, Mavis Villiers; Dora, Verina Greenlaw; Bud, Paul Maxwell; Nurse, Susan Richards; Abigail, age 80, Amy Dalby; Fat Man, Claud Jones; Abigail’s Companion, Rosemary Dorkin.

If you enjoy archival and retrospective articles on classic and influential films, you'll find more AC historical coverage here.  


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