Having dragged out some old horror-movie favorites for Halloween, I was inspired to revisit a classic of the genre that I’ll confess to having seen only once before: Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), based on the well-known Shirley Jackson novel. The Haunting is generally seen as one of the great, if not the greatest, haunted house films—a horror movie that works by suggestion, subtlety and indirection. But I remembered being somewhat underwhelmed by the film when I first saw it roughly fourteen years ago. I figured now was a good time to take another look at it.
I’m now inclined to say that The Haunting is a mediocre realization of a truly great plot. Like many other horror classics—Carrie, for instance, or the similarly flavored but vastly superior The Innocents, based on Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”—it centers around a woman whose quiet exterior is revealed to hide a surprising capacity for violence and self-destruction. Here, that figure is the queer spinster Eleanor (Julie Harris), dominated by her bedridden mother and treated like a child by her patronizing sister and brother-in-law. Eleanor wants nothing more than to have a home of her own. And in a perversely ironic twist, that’s exactly what she finds upon coming to the haunted mansion Hill House. A ghostly hand writes “Eleanor come home” on its wallpaper, and, sure enough, Eleanor insists on staying in the house, even when it’s clear that she’s in danger there, because she realizes that, as someone thoroughly, fatally queer—doomed to be shut outside of any kind of normative space, community, or social organization—her place is here, with its haunted spirits, beyond the laws of reason, logic, or science. The film ends with her ecstatically crashing her car into a tree at the end of the driveway.
Eleanor’s queerness, the notion of the haunted house as a queer home, the notion of Eleanor as perpetual child (and the house’s nursery as its twisted “heart”)—all of this is sufficiently fascinating on a thematic level. But it’s the execution of the film that fails. Several critics have taken issue with Wise’s directorial style, which often gets in the way of the film’s attempt to convey a sense of terror or dread. That sense of dread is really necessary if The Haunting is going to be scary in addition to being interesting. While I admire the film’s restraint—ghosts in this film are heard but never seen, and it attempts to utilize mood rather than explicit shocks—the film can’t help but feel slightly stuck in the classical Hollywood mode, reliant on shrill music and hampered by stilted acting. It’s ultimately too middling a film, neither cheap and stark enough in the Night of the Living Dead style nor lushly, glossily scary like the horror masterpieces of the late 70s and early 80s (Carrie, Halloween, The Shining, The Howling). The Haunting is a case of truly disturbing and rich concept thwarted by a production that’s ultimately not committed to doing it justice.