Ghosts, haunted houses, and things that go “bump” in the night. They always make for a good scary story. Although recent film franchises such as Paranormal Activity have tried to recapture the terror of a lot of old ghost stories, it’s the classic ones that are still the best. Recently, I sat down with Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting. It had been a long time since I had seen it last. I was amazed at how well it still manages to hold up, as one of the best ghost stories of all time.
The film is based on the novel The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Contained within this film we have one of the most underrated American authors of all time, and one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. If Jackson’s work is unfamiliar to you, I recommend her short story The Lottery. It’s very short, yet remains one of the pest pieces of dystopian literature to date. It caused quite a controversy upon its publication, and still stirs the pot. As for Robert Wise, the name might not be familiar, but his films certainly will be. His credits include Sound Of Music, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, he even directed the very first Star Trek movie: Star Trek:The Motion Picture.
Which brings us to this film, and why it stands out in the crowd. At first the plot seems quite basic. A doctor investigating paranormal activity, brings a group of 4 to a house that is allegedly haunted. A young troubled woman named Eleanor, a psychic named Theodora, as well as the houses future owner–a young skeptic named Luke. Throughout the course of the film, we hear Eleanor’s thoughts as an inner monologue. Much of which is straight from the book. This sets up one of the central themes of the film, her slow journey into dementia and madness. Somewhat similar to a great deal of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Telltale Heart.
One of the major questions the film now poses to us is this: “What is real, and what is a delusion?” It’s established early on in the film that the house is allegedly haunted. Events such as sounds with no explanations, and “cold spots” are experienced by the other characters throughout the film. They’re often given a logical explanation, such as a draft of cold air. The great deal of the more baffling events occur to Eleanor.
Events such as these that occur to a someone who’s plummeting further into dementia, we’re not sure if what’s happening is real. We’re left to wonder if it’s just a product of her diseased mind. This is a central theme, that would be present in later films such as Bug. An example of where nothing is told directly to the viewer, and one is left to draw there own conclusions.
I know I have stated this many times before: real horror is what you don’t see. That phrase has become my focal point, on separating the good horror films, from the bad ones. Here, that phrase has never been more relevant. Much of the plot isn’t shown, it’s implied. Anyone watching it is left to come to their own conclusions. With the lines of fantasy, and reality consistently blurred, the terror of not knowing is always present.
Unlike a good amount of modern horror films, this one thrives on psychology and suspense. Playing on your inner-most fears and twisting your thoughts and perceptions. There’s an old saying for effective filmmaking : “Feel it first, think about it second.” This film captures that, as well as let’s your mind wander for its entire duration.
I recommend sitting down with this one. If you’ve seen it before, experience the terror, all over again. If you’ve never watched it, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t make the mistake of watching the remake. No really, it’s quite possibly the worst remake in history.