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Film / The Haunting (1963)

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Theo (left) and Nell (right).

"Oh, God. Oh, God. Whose hand was I holding?"
Eleanor "Nell" Lance

Directed by Robert Wise and adapted from Shirley Jackson's classic novel The Haunting of Hill House, the 1963 film The Haunting is perhaps the ultimate example of less-is-more in horror cinema and one of the signature examples of the Haunted House genre in film.

Eleanor "Nell" Lance (Julie Harris) — still wracked with guilt over the recent death of her invalid mother, for whom she'd been the caretaker — volunteers for a study on paranormal activity conducted by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), along with two other participants: Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), who stands to inherit Hill House, the empty, decrepit New England manse where the study is being held; and Theodora aka "Theo" (Claire Bloom), a supposed psychic. It soon turns out that Markway's suspicions regarding the existence of ghosts are correct: there's something in the house with them. But what?

Remade in 1999 with Jan de Bont (Speed) directing and Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead roles, and reimagined in the form of a tv mini-series in 2018. There has also been a stage adaptation.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • After his wife died, Crain was incredibly harsh with Abigail. He made her stand and look at her mother's fresh corpse as he read scripture over it, and his idea of bedtime stories was a book detailing how she'd be tortured in hell for her sins. Further implied in a scene where Nell and Theo hear the ghostly sounds of a child being tortured by a man and a woman - possibly an echo of Abigail's abuse by her father and stepmother, since Abigail was the only child to tie into the house's history.
    • Nell's mother. Every time she recounts her care of her, she speaks as if it was a horrible experience. Her brother-in-law even refers to her as a horrible old woman. Her sister doesn't contradict him, she simply reminds him not to speak ill of the dead. Nell's strong reaction to the ghostly sound described above suggests that her own treatment was pretty bad.
  • Adapted Out: Abigail Crain's sister (dropped to simplify the house's backstory) and Mrs. Markway's pompous friend, Norman.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Dr. Markway, suaver and younger than he was in the book, becomes the object of Nell's affections. (In the book she had a crush on Luke instead.)
    • Mrs Dudley, described in the book as a "sour old beldame with a face of curds", is played in this version by the rather young and attractive (though inordinately creepy) Rosalie Crutchley.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: While it is hard to gauge Theo's character too reliably in the book (as we see her almost entirely though Nell's POV, and her feelings towards her change from scene to scene), and while she definitely retains her book counterpart's catty side, the extra touches of motivation given to her in the film make most of her actions decidedly sympathetic. This is particularly emphasised when it is revealed that she knew beforehand that Dr. Markway was married (and hence her apparent jealousy towards Nell and Markway was actually a combination of concern for the former, and disapproval of the latter's gallantry towards a vulnerable single woman). She is also quick to suggest Nell leaves Hill House (which Nell reacts to as "picking on" her, but comes across as sincere concern), and after the climactic paranormal disturbance and Mrs Markway's disappearance, she determines to leave Hill House herself and take Nell with her - she makes no such offer in the book. The fact that she remains so concerned for Nell after having encountered a level of malice from her (including overt homophobia) that the novel's Theo never endured is also much to her credit.
  • Adaptational Personality Change: Luke and Theo are more overtly harsh to Eleanor than they were in the book in order to highlight Eleanor's isolation. Also, in the book Mrs. Markway was a spiritualism enthusiast determined to reach the spirits in the house, while in the film she's a hard-headed skeptic.
  • Age Cut: In the opening, a shot of Abigail in bed as a child fades to her in the same bed as an old woman. Especially for its time, it's an amazing effect.
  • Agent Scully: In one of the biggest changes from the original text, Mrs. Markway sees no validity in her husband's work, and is constantly trying to get him to give it up for the sake of his career, going so far as to be downright insulting to him and everyone in the house. Then she decides to sleep in the nursery...
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Theo is implied to be attracted to Nell who isn't interested (and is repulsed by the very idea of homosexuality). Nell is attracted to Dr. Markway who is committed to his wife, however incompatible they may be. Luke is attracted (albeit casually) to Theo who orders him to keep his hands to himself.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: Theo can't seem to help tormenting Eleanor by reminding her she knows her innermost thoughts.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The film never confirms whether the house is haunted or not. Throughout the whole film, one never even sees a ghost. Subsequently, a lot of tropes listed on this page are more implied or suggested as happening rather than outright confirmed.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Theo, who Eleanor rather pointedly calls one of "nature's mistakes" at one point.
    Eleanor: What scares you, Theodora?
    Theo: Knowing what I really want.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Was everything Nell went through really just her being crazy with no true supernatural elements involved, or is the house truly haunted?
  • Attention Whore: Theo suggests more than once that Nell is one. Since the haunting is never confirmed, and her background certainly justifies it, it may or may not be true.
  • Big Brother Bully: Gender Flipped. Nell's sister is absolutely rotten to her - giving her only a couch in her living room, making her pay expenses and never allowing her to take the car out (despite Nell legally owning half of it).
  • Big Fancy House: Hill House is certainly big. And it's certainly fancy. Also creepy as hell.
  • Birds of a Feather: A lot of parallels are drawn between Nell and the companion for Abigail. Both allowed their charges to die by not hearing a call for help. Both benefited from the deaths but felt immense guilt over them. Both also commit suicide in the house.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nell crashes into a tree and dies, but the characters surmise that this was probably best for her, as she now belongs to the house. Grace Markway is found unharmed but the ordeal has stunned her into believing in the supernatural.
  • Book Ends: "Hill House had stood for ninety years and might stand for ninety more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there... walked alone."
  • Break the Haughty: Grace Markway mocks the idea of the supernatural, and stays in the nursery on a dare. The next time we see her, she's been scared into believing.
  • Brick Joke: Two jokes for the price of one punchline: Markway is warned not to play Gin with Luke as he's a card shark. Theo's psychic powers were tested by having her identify playing cards she couldn't see (scoring 19 out of 20). On their first evening in the house, Luke loses spectacularly to Theo and angrily insists that she was cheating as she gloats and tells him to pay up.
  • Cerebus Call-Back: When discovering the statues in the conservatory, Eleanor makes a joke out of dancing with the one that looks like Hugh Crain. Then later when her sanity has gone very downhill, she dances again as if she's serious.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted. Attention is drawn to the rickety staircase in the library, and the audience is led to believe Nell climbing it (or John climbing it to help her) will result in it collapsing. But ultimately they're both fine.
  • Closed Circle: The gates are locked every night when the Dudleys leave and, as in the book, they stay in town since "no one will come any closer than that" and "they couldn't even hear" if they needed help.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Mrs. Dudley, who makes sure to remind the guests that she and her husband live miles away from the house, that there won't be anyone around if they need help, no one to hear them if they scream...and then unsmiles.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Mr. Dudley.
    "You'll be sorry I ever opened the gate."
  • Died Happily Ever After: Nell willingly dies because all she wants is to stay in Hill House, because she's finally wanted somewhere.
  • Driven to Suicide: One of the past owners of the house hanged herself. Nell may qualify too. She drives her car into a tree, although her inner thoughts suggest the ghosts are making her do that.
  • Dutch Angle: Used to damn near perfection, both to emphasize the bizarre architecture of Hill House and the slowly unraveling sanity of the characters, and it works really well in keeping the audience off-balance and never allowing them to get comfortable.
  • Dysfunction Junction: As noted, it's not clear if the haunting is genuine or the product of nerves. Everyone is convinced it's real by the end, and many of them experience terrifying things together (though notably no one ever corroborates their experiences on screen, they just both agree something happened), but even then, it's not entirely clear if they were just feeding off each other, since none of them were entirely stable to begin with...
    • Prof. Markway began his pursuit in the supernatural specifically because he wanted to tick off his practical-minded father, seems open-minded to a fault, and despite his thorough belief in the supernatural, decided the best way to study it was to bring in psychically sensitive people as bait to the Haunted House and then antagonize it.
    • Luke, conversely, is so skeptical of the supernatural (despite believing a few folk beliefs himself) that he refuses to take even basic precautions, and is extremely disrespectful to the dead, loudly proclaiming repeatedly how he's going to sell off the house piecemeal, or rip apart his ancestors' home-made Bible for Christmas cards.
    • Eleanor... even before the house started taking its toll, she expressed a morbid self-destructive streak and had a rambling, repetitious inner monologue full of flights of fancy.
    • Theo acts more aloof than the others, but gets just as panicky as Nell over the night terrors, and cannot seem to help herself from antagonizing everyone else in the house, even as tensions fray. Also, she's a lesbian, which back in the 60's would have been enough to qualify her, no matter how sympathetic the filmmakers made her.
    • Mrs. Markway is basically as Luke, but turned up to eleven.
  • Eldritch Location: After disappearing from the nursery, Mrs. Markway shows up outside the house, causing Nell to drive into a tree. When she recounts where she has been, she tells the other that she somehow wound up in the attic trying to find her husband, and that she has no idea how she found herself outside. Like the other odd happenings in the film, whether this was supernatural forces or just her getting lost in the mansion is up to interpretation.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold:
    • The air around the nursery is terribly cold, Dr. Markway says it's the heart of the house.
    • Psychic Theo always feels extremely cold whenever the evil spirits manifest themselves.
  • Expository Hair Style Change: On her first morning at Hill House, Nell styles her hair in a more flattering way as part of her plan to remake her personality (and catch Dr. Markway's attention.)
  • Extreme Doormat: Nell's place in her family. She took care of her invalid mother for eleven years while her sister was off having a life and started a family. Now that her mother is gone, her sister treats her as a burden. Even though she pays half of the family's expenses, she has no privacy, sleeps on a sofa in the living room, isn't allowed to use the car without permission, and her niece openly mocks her.
  • The Fashionista: Theo. The well-known '60s British fashion designer Mary Quant was brought on specifically to design the character's stylish, mod wardrobe for the film.
  • The Film of the Book: Which has become much better known than its source material. (In the niche circles of horror literature fandom, the novel still has a reputation as something of a classic, though many are still introduced to it via the works inspired by it.)
  • First-Name Basis: Dr Markway has to keep insisting that Eleanor call him by his first name John.
  • Foreshadowing: Nell asks to borrow her sister's car, to which her sister replies: "How do I know you'll bring back my car in good condition?" Nell is killed when she crashes the car into a tree.
  • Fright Beside Them: An example taken directly from the source material. In bed, Eleanor clings tightly to Theodora's hand as sinister sounds emerge from the darkness in their room. Suddenly, the lights go on, and Eleanor sees Theodora sitting up in her own bed. She has clearly not been anywhere near Eleanor for some time. For Eleanor's reaction, see the quote at the top of the page.
  • Genius Loci: If you take into consideration what Eleanor says about the house, it certainly is one.
  • Ghostly Animals: There's a ghostly dog sneaking around the house, although its backstory — like a lot of the ghosts' — is never completely clear. There's a statue of a dog in the conservatory, but Markway says he was unaware of any dog featuring into the house's history.
  • Ghostly Chill: One of the most common phenomena in Hill House. It usually denotes that the activity is going to start.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Mildly. After Grace's arrival puts the skids on Nell's attraction to John, she lets her know that the nursery is the most haunted room in the house - and Grace insists on staying there. Nell also realises quickly and begs her not to.
  • Haunted Heroine: Nell. Most of the haunting centers around her.
  • Haunted House: Hill House, which is specifically why Dr. Markway chose it.
  • Haunted House Historian: Dr Markway, who's an expert on the history of Hill House. The movie opens with him giving us a rundown of that history.
  • Hell Is That Noise: Every night Eleanor and sometimes the other characters are tormented by strange bangs, creaks, moans, laughs and cries.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Nell is overjoyed to be part of the study because it simply means she's wanted somewhere. When the house wants to keep her permanently, she gladly dies just so she can belong somewhere.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Nell is wracked with guilt over her mother's death. From the sound of it, she eventually snapped from the strain of caring for said mother and one day simply refused to answer her call for aid, not realizing how serious the call really was.
  • I Never Told You My Name: Eleanor is startled that Theo knows her nickname is Nell without having been told.
  • Jump Scare: The figure that jumps in front of the car that Nell is driving near the end. It's not a ghost, it's actually Mrs Markway who stumbled blindly outside, with no idea how she got out after being trapped in the attic
  • Kill It with Fire: At the end of the movie, Luke - no longer a skeptic - suggests that the house should be burnt down.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Theo's nicer moments towards Eleanor happen whenever her hair is down.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Optimistic yet slightly deranged Eleanor is the Light, more cynical and aloof Theo is the Dark.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Theo is all but stated to prefer women — and she's always dressed fashionably, with her hair done and some jewelry. She also shows Nell how to paint her nails (and in pink!)
  • Lovecraft Country: The film takes place in an unspecified, isolated part of New England, and has the requisite spooky woods, creepy Puritan background, and unfriendly country folk. Shirley Jackson, the author of the original book, lived in Vermont.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: By playing up the psychological element — specifically, Nell's dubious sanity — the film leaves open the possibility that nothing supernatural was happening. We never saw anything, after all. Which makes it much scarier.
  • Meaningful Echo: Nell reveals that she ignored her mother's tapping on the wall on the night she died, exactly as the Companion did the night Abigail died.
  • Mirror Scare: The house is filled with mirrors hung at creepy and disorienting angles. Nell and the others frighten themselves with them multiple times.
  • Mundane Utility: In a comparatively light-hearted scene, Theo uses her purported psychic powers to beat Luke at cards.
  • My Beloved Smother: Eleanor's late mother.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Part of the movie's reputation as a horror classic is because it doesn't show you anything. This needs to be repeated, the movie doesn't show anything. All the scares come from the oppressing feel of the house, the bizarre angles, and what we imagine that the characters see, which we never see, and might not exist at all.
  • Only One Name: Theo
    I'm Theodora, just Theodora.
  • The Ophelia: Nell as the house slowly drives her insane. She even starts twirling and humming to herself. This is perhaps foreshadowed earlier: her first night, Nell comments that everything here is strange, yet comfortable, "like drowning". At the same moment, she lies down against the William Morris floral bedspread in a way that echoes Millais's painting of Ophelia.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The ghosts are either completely invisible and only exist as disembodied voices, or aren't real at all.
  • Poltergeist: Nell is recruited because Markway believes she'd been the focal point of poltergeist activity as a child. Nell remembers the incident as vandals throwing rocks at her home, but her mother may have given her that idea.
  • Prelude to Suicide: There's a scene where Nell is on a balcony of the house and her inner monologue starts describing an unspecified "she", who leaped to her doom from an upper window. This doesn't match anything we've been told about in the house's history, so the most logical explanation is that Nell is imagining her own death, and how she'd be remembered as part of that history.
  • Psychic Powers: Theo is supposedly psychic. She is uncannily good at telling what people (especially Eleanor or Luke when he's at cards) are thinking or discerning details about their lives, but the few times she's called on it, she explains it away as a Sherlock Scan.
  • Raising the Steaks: There is apparently a ghostly dog sneaking around the house, although its backstory - like a lot of the ghosts - is never completely clear. There's a statue of a dog in the conservatory, but Markway says he was unaware of any dog featuring into the house's history
  • Room 101: The Nursery. Abigail Crain's resting place and said to be the "heart" of the house and the most haunted room. Its was deliberately kept locked, until it mysteriously opens by itself...
  • Skeptic No Longer:
    • Luke, just before the final credits.
    • Grace Markway too.
  • Screaming Woman: Played with. Nell certainly spends most of the film in various states of mental distress, but she does fairly little actual screaming.
  • Scenery Porn: Hill House's' incredibly lavish interiors are absolutely gorgeous, and Robert Wise's cinematography loves to show it off in the most elegant and creative ways. It's part of what makes the house so creepily seductive to Nell.
  • Supernatural-Proof Father: Luke. He is not a father (not even fatherly), but he certainly is very skeptic about all the hauntings. Mrs. Markway is even more skeptical, and dangerously so. Both are quite convinced by the end.
  • Title Drop: Eleanor refers to "the haunting" in her conversation with John right before his wife arrives.
  • The Titling
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Theo and Nell.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Mrs. Markway bribes her way into the house and refuses to leave, and purposefully demands to sleep alone in the most haunted room. Unsurprisingly, she disappears in the night. She comes out of it all right, but the house confuses her into wandering around covered in dirt, eventually frightening Nell to her death.
    • Eleanor can also come across as this. While yes, she is a victim of the house's influence (probably), she doesn't seem to fight it very hard, and at times seems almost eager to give herself up to the madness. She's not as lucky as Mrs. Markway, in the end.
  • Wham Shot:
    • The open nursery door, which Markway had specifically suggested should be left closed earlier...and which no one had a key to.
    • Eleanor feels Theo hold her hand as they're both frightened by mysterious noises and considers that Theo must be completely terrified with how tightly she's holding on. Then the lights come on and reveal Theo is actually clear across the room, with no sign of what was actually holding Eleanor's hand.
  • Womanchild: Eleanor, somewhat has been stunted emotionally after eleven years of taking care of her mother. She's prone to childish outbursts and crying fits.
  • Wicked Stepmother: There are hints that the second Mrs. Crain was one to Abigail. See Abusive Parents above. If this is true, it was probably Abigail who pushed her down the stairs to her death.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The ghosts, apparently. Or at least, that's what it sounds like they're doing in one key scene.