A long, long time ago, people used to THINK. In those forgotten times, an IDEA was enough to scare folks because they hadn’t yet become desensitized by violent images or buckets of blood or other disgusting fair, nor did a storyteller (or film director) have to rely on JUMP SCARES to get an audience to feel a creeping tingle at the back of their necks. I would argue that jump scares don’t actually SCARE anyone, they STARTLE them, which isn’t the same thing. A startle gets your heart racing, but once the initial moment is over, you’ll never be quite as scared by that scene again because you know it’s coming. Same thing with gore effects. Once you’ve seen a knife slice a neck or a hatchet in a head or whatever, you’ve SEEN it, and you have to UP THE ANTE and make something even MORE extreme next time for the same THRILL to be achieved.
In contrast to these “gross-out” or “startle” horror techniques, we have CONCEPTUAL terrors, which are developed by proposing an IDEA that is horrific and allowing the viewer (or reader) to mull the idea over and grow more uncomfortable and more uneasy as the ramifications of that concept unfold throughout the film or story. A terrifying concept sticks with the viewer, even after the scene is over, perhaps after the FILM is over, and it continues to work on you each time the concept is brought up. The BEST storytellers and filmmakers will exploit BOTH conceptual and rush/thrill horrors in their works (like Hitchcock in Psycho or The Birds, or Kubrick in The Shining or Romero in his original Night of the Living Dead.) The tension builds as the concept sinks in, and the HORROR can last long after the movie or novel are done. (When I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was horrified for weeks. A killer who attacks while you SLEEP! Everyone has to sleep—so everyone is a potential victim…) Conceptual horror is hard to get right, MUCH harder than jump scares or gross-out effects, but when it’s done well, the experience is enjoyable, memorable, and can even transform the way the viewer thinks about the world. (Whether that’s good or bad is a discussion for another day…)
With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at the 1963 film, The Haunting. This movie was directed by Robert Wise and based on the very creepy novel, The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. Robert Wise, in the commentary track of the DVD that I have, says that he chose to shoot the film in black and white because he felt that the contrasts that you could achieve with black and white better suited the subject matter than filming in color would. I think he made a good decision, and the gothic feel of the movie is magnified by the deep contrasts between dark and light that you can only get in black and white. The light sources Wise used for the shots are always slightly off kilter, as well, creating weird, leaning shadows or patches and splashes of light running across floors and walls. And, again according to Wise’s commentary, he shot many of the exterior scenes of the creepy, old house using infrared lenses, which gave the interplay between the building itself and the clouds and sky an unearthly and unsettling tone. You aren’t sure WHY it looks so weird (because being in black and white you can’t see that the colors are out of the ordinary, just that the shadows, lines, and clouds look very unnatural.) Wise uses subtle tricks and techniques like this throughout the film to create tension and add to the “haunted” atmosphere.
The PLOT of the film is fairly simple. A professor of anthropology, Dr. John Markway, wants to investigate an old, supposedly haunted house where a number of tragic deaths have occurred over the years, and he hires a team of researchers (most of whom have psychic abilities or experiences with the paranormal) to come and investigate Hill House with him. The current owner of the house, who refuses to LIVE in the old mansion, allows Markway and his team to investigate, but sends her nephew, Luke (who will inherit the house from his aunt when she dies), to make sure that nothing is damaged during the investigation (and that no hanky-panky is going on.) Luke (played by Russ Tamblyn) is a skeptic but agrees to participate in the experiment for economic reasons. He wants to make sure his PROPERTY is protected, so that he can get a ton of money from the house when he inherits it, and promptly SELLS it—or, at one point, he muses about turning the house into a NIGHT CLUB! (He’s a bit of a playboy and a card-shark…or so we’re led to believe.)
Of the team of psychics and investigators that Dr. Markway invites to Hill House, all but TWO are so frightened by the history and reputation of the house that they refuse to participate. The two who do show are Theodora (played by Claire Bloom), a psychic who dresses in high fashion attire and has a snarky and sometimes mean-spirited sense of humor, and Eleanor Lance, a meek, guilt-ridden woman who lives with her overbearing and controlling sister, and who really only agreed to come so that she could get away from her unhappy home life. Markway chose Eleanor because she had been involved in a poltergeist experience when she was younger, but Eleanor has repressed and rationalized the event away, so when Markway tells her that her previous ghost experience is why she was invited to the experiment, she has a mini-breakdown, saying that she WAS NOT involved in a supernatural event, that she is a NORMAL person, that the rocks that fell on her house for weeks were thrown by the neighbors, and so on… It becomes clear, rather quickly, that Eleanor isn’t very stable.
So with this dynamic established, a group consisting of a clinical minded professor, a skeptic, a snarky psychic, and an unstable “sensitive,” the “EXPERIMENT” begins—although this isn’t a Ghost Hunters style investigation. Basically, all the group does is hang out in the house and wait for weird things to happen. There are no cameras or tape-recorders or EMF detectors or any of the standard equipment that we might associate with a modern paranormal investigation. Dr. Markway makes notes: a door closed by itself, there is a cold spot outside the nursery, a harp plays by itself, etc… He notices these things and writes them down, and he asks that the others write down their observations and impressions as well. However, where Markway is noticing minor, slightly hinky occurrences, for the women, things escalate much more quickly. Each night, the house comes alive, and Theodora and Eleanor hear banging and knocking, ghostly voices, and what appears to be an unseen force seems to be targeting Eleanor, specifically, trying to wear her mind down—calling to her—telling her to “come home” and join them…
Interestingly, the viewer doesn’t SEE much that could be considered supernatural in this film, and it could easily be argued that the house itself isn’t even haunted, but that ELEANOR is simply having a mental breakdown, and that her panic and hysteria infects the others into imagining the terrors that she believes she’s experiencing. The HORRORS are implied, not seen. We, the viewers, have to put a face to the ghosts in our minds. We have to imagine the FORM of the otherworldly force that is terrorizing the investigators, whether that is a supernatural force attacking from some other world or, possibly, just Eleanor’s mind breaking down and her projecting that collapse onto the house. Either way, we don’t need to SEE the horror directly to be affected by it. We see enough in the terror expressed by the investigators, and the uncertainty of what exactly is going on adds to the tension.
In 1999, director Jan de Bont released a remake of The Haunting (starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luke Wilson,) which FLOPPED, because de Bont decided to include CGI ghosts throughout the film, instead of allowing the supernatural elements to remain an implied threat. Giving the “ghosts” visible, PHYSICAL forms took them out of the conceptual, IMPLIED realm, and made them less effective and less threatening. Wise’s ghosts are ethereal and unknown—and subsequently quite a bit more frightening.
In Wise’s version of the film, although there are never any “ghosts” that “manifest,” Ghostbusters style (no “full-torsoed vaporous apparitions,”) there are some subtle SUGGESTIONS of ghostly presences, particularly in the décor of the house. Almost every shot has a statue or a piece of sculpture or a bit of ornate molding with a face on it. Lots of little blank eyed cherubs and marble faces with white eyes. Even some of the doorknobs have faces on them! But you never see any of these pieces MOVE of their own accord, and I argue that the TENSION created by these lifeless, immobile faces, which look out at you from almost every shot in the film, is substantial. We EXPECT the statues to move—but they don’t. In one brilliant scene, where Eleanor is laying in bed looking at the sculpted patterns on the walls, she starts to hear voices and ghostly cries, and the camera focuses on a section of the wall that ALMOST looks like a face. It’s clearly NOT a face, just some ornately sculpted spackling, but the camera rests for an uncomfortably long period of time on this face-like area, while we hear these ghostly sounds, and then it cuts to Eleanor’s terrified expression, and then back to the not-a-face, on so on for several minutes… It’s a very effective scene, with a clever payoff at the end (which I’m not going to spoil…) This SUGGESTION of ghostly activity (maybe it’s all in Eleanor’s head), can be contrasted with the CGI spooks in the 1999 version of the film, which are occasionally a bit eerie, but mostly just silly, and it’s pretty clear why a clever filmmaker will often let the audience scare themselves.
For my money—and I should say that I usually don’t enjoy gore or jump-scare films—a good, psychological horror story is always going to be more interesting to me than a splatter film, and I would argue that, for people who are willing to pay attention and really consider the concepts put forward in a film like The Haunting, the rewards are more substantial and more long lasting that a jump scare or a stomach-turning thrill. (I’d heard the phrase “stomach-turning” before, but I’d thought it was just a metaphorical phrase—until I watched Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1972 film, The Gore Gore Girls, and my stomach actually LURCHED during one of the more disgusting murder scenes… Ick… If it says anything, I’ve only seen The Gore Gore Girls ONCE. I’ve watched The Haunting dozens of times.)
Though The Haunting is 55 years old at this point, it’s still a great film. It’s brilliantly shot, extremely well acted, and very tense, in a “slow build” sort of way. Watching Eleanor’s fragile psyche, which is already damaged before she comes to Hill House, shatter and disintegrate under the relentless pressures from the “experiment,” while Dr. Markway watches with his clinical detachment and professional curiosity, is a remarkable experience, even without any gore or nudity or cuss words or “monsters” showing up to “enhance” the scenes. The pacing is slower than your average, modern-day horror film, and the movie requires some effort from the audience in order for the full effects of the horror to hit you—you have to PAY ATTENTION to the details, to the relationships between the characters, to the complex effects of the events on each of the characters in various scenes, but if you DO pay attention, the cumulative effects of the experience pay off. It’s WORK to catch everything that Wise is doing with this film, but it’s worth the effort, and it’s one of those movies that REWARDS multiple viewings. You spot a new detail and a double meaning in a line of dialog each time you see the film.
This movie scared the crap out of me as a kid, as the night-time visitations are quite well shot and remarkably tense, and I STILL find the movie to be enjoyable to this day. It probably won’t appeal to viewers who want to be hit over the head with obvious jump scares or who are just looking for pointless splatter-gore effects, but if you want a good, psychological thriller that TEASES the existence of the paranormal without drowning the viewer in ridiculous special effects, then there are few films that can match The Haunting at building tension and giving the viewer a lot to be worried about! Let me know what you think!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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