While I’m still on the subject of scary stuff, there’s one particular movie that really creeps me out pretty much every time I watch it. And, no, it’s not The Ring. It’s not Paranormal Activity. It’s certainly not The Blair Witch Project. And it isn’t The Exorcist (although it used to be). The Shining would be close, but still not quite.
What I’m referring to is a much older horror movie, made back in the 1960s. In black and white. You might recall, from the previous post, that I have an affinity for classic ghost stories and classic ghost movies. Not things that rely on cheap gore or jump scares. But real, genuine fear. Suspenseful fear. Like something tingling slowly in the darkness, creeping up on you from someplace you can’t even see or smell.
The movie I’m referring to is The Haunting (1963) directed by Robert Wise. Not that train wreck of a remake. The original one. It’s about four guests (Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Marquay) who stay together in a real haunted house for several nights in order to observe paranormal activity.
As the movie opens we see the large, black silhouette of a house framed against a cloudy sky. Then a narration proceeds into the dark history of Hill House and its inhabitants, the Crain family. Many of them die in bizarre ways. But that’s just the beginning. Something still lingers there won’t rest.
The genius of the movie lies in its ambiguity. We never know who the ghost is, or what monstrous force is terrorizing Hill House. We only know it exists there. And that’s the scary part. The main protagonist of the story, Eleanor, is a somewhat unstable woman with a history of paranormal occurrences. Most of the guests, in fact, have had one paranormal experience at one point of another. And that is why Dr. Marquay recruits them for his investigation.
Director Robert Wise chose the perfect house to film in to create the terror of The Haunting. There are mazes of hallways, strange corners, and rooms richly decorated with paintings, statues, and elegant curtains that almost seem to belie the monstrosity that lies underneath it.
It’s an invisible monstrosity for most of the movie. You never once see a ghost. All of the horror is painted in sounds and silences. And the monochromatic texture of the film serves perfectly to illustrate it’s dark and ghostly tone. The camera makes constant use of shadows and lighting in a way that almost makes you feel just as trapped as the characters. And the camera angles are brilliant: inverted in such an artful, almost nauseating way that makes the house really feel as if it’s alive and breathing.
On the first night there are knockings on the door. Loud knockings. And screams. The next day the guests awaken to find ghostly writing on the walls. On the second night there are voices coming through the walls. And evil faces there, looking in. And the scariest part: Eleanor, hearing the voices, asks Theo to hold her hand. When she does, it feels like something incredibly strong is squeezing it. Then she wakes up and finds Theo lying all the way across the room. So, who was holding her hand all that time? And who moved the beds apart?
On the third, and final night, there’s more crazy noises. One of the doors starts breathing. No, really, you can actually see it breathing. The woodwork inhales slowly and then exhales. And, if you’ve got headphones plugged in, you can actually hear the breathing. That’s some scary shit. But the movie’s not over yet.
Eleanor, finally succumbing to the Haunting of Hill House (that’s actually the name of the book the movie was based on) goes nearly insane and climbs to the top of a spiral staircase, where one of the house’s previous inhabitants, a caretaker, hanged herself. Eleanor is rescued there by Dr. Marquay. She’s then sent home. Happy ending, you think: hellllll nawwww! As she’s riding away, something takes control of the wheel. And crashes her against a tree, almost RIGHT next to the spot where the first victim of Hill House (Hugh Crain’s wife) was killed in a horse accident, some 80 or 90 years ago.
And the house goes silent. Because, according to Dr. Marquay, it finally has what it wants: Eleanor. At least, for a while, he adds. We know that, as long as Hill House still stands, its unseen demon will always be waiting to claim its next victim. Behind walls of brick and stone.
And, once again, there lies the true terror of The Haunting: unseen. Some of the scariest things, according to Dr. Marquay, are the things we can’t understand: the unknown. Robert Wise captures that terror perfectly in the form of the supernatural. He teases us with it, without fully revealing the ghost behind the curtain. Or maybe it’s apparent who the ghost is the entire time: the house.
You can’t watch The Haunting without feeling the slightest note of a chill. Unless you have nerves of steel. Or are just immune to horror movies in general. Either way it is undeniably a work of artistic achievement. And, at the same time, a horror film. A pretty damn good one. And pretty damn scary, to boot.