Haunting, The (1963): Robert Wise’s Striking Supernatural Horror, Starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom

Robert Wise’s supernatural psychological horror was adapted by Nelson Gidding from the poplar novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Its all-star ensemble include: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn, all in top form.

The film, about a team of paranormal researchers at a spooky haunted house, within which they spend several days and nights, is consistently scary and frightening, because the viewers have no idea where the narrative is going.

Screenwriter Nelson Gidding, who had worked with Wise on the 1958 film I Want to Live!, perceived the book to be more about mental breakdown than just ghosts, and thus he constructed more multi-nuanced characters (each with background story) than is the norm in the horror thriller genre.

The film was shot at MGM-British Studios, with exteriors at Ettington Hall (now the Ettington Park Hotel) in the village of Ettington, Warwickshire.   The striking interior sets, by Elliot Scott, were harshly and brightly lit, and decorated in a Rococo style. And Wise’s idea to for all the rooms to have doors and ceilings helped create a claustrophobic atmosphere.

With the excetion of few scenes—most notably the great ending–most of the narrative is set inside the house, in rooms and corridors, and staircases.

Wise used a 30mm anamorphic, wide-angle lens Panavision camera which caused distortions. Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton planned sequences that kept the camera moving, utilizing low-angle takes, unusual pans, long tracking shots sudden cuts.  (Visually, it’s one of Wise’s most impressive films).

The Haunting is also notable for including a lesbian character, Theodora (subtlely played by Claire Bloom). Although the character’s lesbianism is mentioned in the novel, the film makes it explicit, and it is one of the few pictures to depict a lesbian as feminine and in positive manner.

Initially, the The Haunting received mixed critical resonse and had hard time finding appreciative audiences.  However, over the years, the movie has achieved cult status due to its revisiting by a new generation of critics, who were impressed with the characterization, high-caliber acting, unsettling ambience and striking visuals.

Stay away from the film’s remake, in 1999, starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Owen Wilson, which was dismissed by critics.

The tale begins with voice-over by the rotagonist, Dr. John Markway (Johnson). Hill House was constructed by Hugh Crain for his wife, who died in an accident as she approached the house for the first time.

Crain remarried, but his second wife died after falling down the stairs. Crain’s daughter, Abigail, lived in the house the rest of her life, never moving out of the nursery.

She died while calling for her nurse-companion, who later inherited the house, but hanged herself in the library. Mrs. Sannerson inherited Hill House, but the mansion has stood empty for some time.

Dr. Markway, who is investigating paranormal activity, gets permission from Mrs. Sannerson to occupy the house, on condition that he must take Luke Sannerson, her heir, with him.

Markway chooses two individuals to accompany him, the psychic, Theodora, also known as “Theo,” and the meek Eleanor “Nell” Lance. Eleanor spent her adult life caring for her invalid mother, whose recent death left her feeling guilty.

Mr. Dudley and his wife are the caretakers of the large, maze-like mansion, in which doors move by themselves. There is a library with a spiral staircase and a conservatory with eerie statues.

At night, Eleanor and Theo are terrified by ghosts outside Theo’s bedroom door. Supernatural forces bang loudly on the door as if trying to gain entry.

In their exploration, the team encounters all kind of supernatural phenomena.  Gradually, Dr. Markway reveals more about the hauntings at Hill House.

Upon discovery of the words “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” on a wall, Eleanor becomes mentally unstable.

Grace Markway arrives at Hill House to warn her husband that a reporter has learned of his investigation.  His wife then announces that she plans to join the group. She demands a bed in the nursery despite her husband’s protests that it is unsafe.

That night, Grace disappears, and Eleanor’s mental instability worsens as she falls under the spell of Hill House. She goes into the library where she climbs the rickety metal spiral staircase. When Grace appears unexpectedly from a trapdoor at the top of the staircase, Eleanor almost falls to her death, but she is rescued by Dr. Markway.

The team becomes frightened as Eleanor becomes separated from the group and Grace cannot be found. When they locate Eleanor, Dr. Markway insists that she leaves Hill House. As she speeds down the road to the front gates, something takes control of the steering wheel and the car starts driving erratically. Eleanor pleads with the supernatural entity to stop. Suddenly, Grace steps out and appears in front of Eleanor’s car. Eleanor swerves to avoid her, hits a tree, and dies.

Dr. Markway asserts that that the tree that claimed Eleanor’s life was the same one that had killed the first Mrs. Crain.


Julie Harris as Eleanor “Nell” Lance

Claire Bloom as Theodora “Theo”

Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway

Russ Tamblyn as Luke Sannerson

Fay Compton as Mrs. Sannerson

Rosalie Crutchley as Mrs. Dudley

Lois Maxwell as Grace Markway