The Haunting – A Seminal Classic That Proves the Power of Subtle, Psychological Horror
Can a house be evil? Or can a person slip so deeply into insanity as to think that they are wanted by an unseen supernatural force? That is the true question that is behind ‘The Haunting’. Four people spend a weekend at Hill House to determine whether it is, indeed, haunted. There’s the professor, the one determined to find out that there are such things as ghosts. Then there’s the skeptic, the heir to Hill House who only sees an opportunity to make money. What about Theodora, the clairvoyant? Why is she at Hill House? Better yet, why is sweet, sheltered Eleanor there? As the saying goes; Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more… and we who walk here …walk alone.
Legendary director Robert Wise’s 1963 Gothic thriller ‘The Haunting’ endures as one of the most subtly terrifying haunting films, proving suggestion and restraint can be far more chilling than flashy effects and gore. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ this seminal work laid the blueprint for psychological supernatural horror.
When an anthropologist invites three strangers to study Hill House, a legendarily haunted mansion, the group slowly unravels as increasingly frightening phenomena test their notions of reality. Wise keeps the ambiguous ghosts firmly off-screen, instead using ingenious sound design and off-kilter camera angles to create disorientation and unease.
At the core is Julie Harris’ standout performance as the shy, emotionally fragile Eleanor, who finds herself consumed by the paranormal activity and history of Hill House. As her obsession grows, the line between exterior and interior hauntings blur. Is the house truly evil, or is it simply drawing out the instability always lurking within Eleanor?
By leaving the ghosts undefined, Wise taps into the viewer’s imagination, letting it summon the most personally terrifying scenarios. Suggestion and ambiguity prove far more unnerving than relying on special effects and jump scares. This masterclass in restraint underscores why ‘The Haunting’ remains one of horror’s most psychologically potent experiences.
Watching this film I found it very easy to see the influence it might have on films like Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project. The Haunting is a film that proves that what you can’t see is much more terrifying than what you can. Strange and frightening things happen at Hill House ‘in the night, in the dark.’ The walls are pounded upon by unseen hands; there are disembodied voices and walls that move as if an unseen force is pushing against them. There is also the haunting by physical contact, such as with dear, sweet Eleanor (“My God, whose hand was I holding!?!”)
Today, in this age of ‘found footage’ films like PA and TBWP, a film like The Haunting may not seem all that scary. But these are different times we live in. The world is more violent and people have become jaded to the old frights such as ghosts and haunted houses. It takes more to scare us and that task is getting harder and harder. One could easily say that The Haunting was the Paranormal Activity of its time.
Though today’s flashy CGI spectacles have their place, ‘The Haunting’ proves eerie tales of the mind can be just as vividly nightmarish. For connoisseurs of psychological horror, this landmark film set the standard few have matched in evoking trauma’s lingering, intangible presence.
Claire Bloom was intrigued to the play the role of a woman who was attracted to another woman. She said she got along with everyone on the set, except for Julie Harris, who tried everything to avoid her and not talk to her. At the end of the shoot, Harris went over to Bloom’s house with a present and explained that the reason she had kept to herself was to stay in character, because Harris’ role in the film was that of an outsider that none of the others understand or will listen to. Bloom was happy to hear the real reason behind Harris’ behavior, since Bloom stated that she really liked Harris and could not understand what she herself had done wrong to be treated like that by her co-star.
Director Martin Scorsese named this his favorite horror film.
Director Robert Wise read a review of Shirley Jackson‘s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” in Time Magazine and decided to get the rights to the novel. He later met the writer herself to talk about ideas for the film. He asked her if she had thought of other titles for the novel, because the title would not work for the film. She told him that the only other title she had considered was simply “The Haunting”, so Wise decided to use it for the film.