Watch now on:
They are shapeless, incorporeal, and they never shut up. They follow us everywhere, tending to particularly act up at times when we are vulnerable—alone on a freeway at night, perhaps, or trying to find sleep in a drafty old house. These voices in our head are constant, a relentless chorus of doubt, fear, self-hatred. Who are they, exactly? Why won’t they leave us alone? These voices—alit in the head of Eleanor, a fragile woman who has spent the bulk of her young life caring for a dying mother—are the things that go bump in the night in The Haunting, Robert Wise’s 1963 horror classic and really the only haunted house movie you need to bother with this Halloween. (Plus, you’ve seen The Shining so many times, and it’s hard to be scared of a movie where you can quote all the lines.)
More precisely, it’s those voices that ultimately make those bumping things so damn scary, and The Haunting—bereft of color, not to mention the gore, that has been laden like chicken gravy over the horror genre in the proceeding decades— has long been considered one of the scariest films ever. One reason it retains its lofty perch despite an assault from bloodier pretenders to the throne is its relatability. While not all of us have had the displeasure of running into a poltergeist on the way to the bathroom at night, even the most confident of us still recognize the doubts and terrors that find shelter in Eleanor’s damaged psyche— and we know they are impossible to outrun, no matter where we choose to sleep.
Many of us also sadly know the everyday horror of being inexplicably drawn to a force that will inevitably spell our doom, as is the case of Eleanor and the imposing 90-year-old castle of death known as Hill House. (Whether the title refers to her or the structure is a matter of debate.) Eleanor, played with ethereal brittleness by the late Broadway legend Julie Harris, is part of a group recruited by Richard Johnson’s Dr. Markway to investigate paranormal activity in a house that has only known tragedy, and perhaps feels the need to cause some more.
The group includes a shallow playboy played by West Side Story’s Russ Tamblyn, and Claire Bloom’s caustic, knowing Theodora (no last name, please) a rare-for-its-time lesbian character in a mainstream film. (Apparently, “I don’t think you killed your mother” and “You look like death” were big pickup lines in the early ’60s). Each is the rarest of horror film birds: well-drawn characters with rich internal lives, so rich in fact, that in Eleanor’s case, you don’t know if the baby crying from a further room is her own unmet need or one of the many unfortunate characters to have resided in the home’s dark past.
Like the very best films that freak us out—Psycho and The Shining top that list—The Haunting’s scares are the result of the meticulous planning of a master craftsman. Wise—who won two Oscars for directing and producing West Side Story two years earlier and was nominated for editing Citizen Kane—is firing at all cylinders with this genre piece. (Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have long considered The Haunting tops among horror films). The low-angle shots, the sudden pans and zooms, the muffled yet precise sound design of the spooks—it all combines for that perfectly pitched sense of claustrophobia, the kind we can never escape because the space closing in on us is actually inside of us.
Silence may lay heavily in Hill House, as Dr. Markway intones before the opening credits, but it’s those voices in our head that get us in the end.