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The Haunting

The Haunting

By Patrick Samuel • July 29th, 2014
DECONSTRUCTING CINEMA, here PART 10: THE HAUNTING
MGM

Original release: September 18th, look 1963
Running time: 112 minutes

Director and producer: Robert Wise
Writers: Nelson Gidding, Shirley Jackson

Cast: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, Fay Compton

Whose hand was I holding: 01:09:26 to 01:12:30

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

The Haunting

There are some places you shouldn’t go into. In many cultures around the world it’s believed that when something bad happens there, a stain from that moment remains, especially if it’s a violent death. For that reason, it’s customary to have a holy person bless and cleanse a house before moving into it because sometimes you just don’t know what might have happened there before. Those who have a certain kind of sensitivity can feel it at once, either a chill or intense heat, a wave of nausea or a dark, clouding feeling passes over them. I’ve experienced it before once, terribly, in a hotel in Chenonceau.

The feeling was so intense that something awful had happened there that it’s a wonder we stayed the night, but it was the only hotel for miles and we’d been driving all day. The next morning at breakfast I discovered I wasn’t the only one who had a sleepless night. We didn’t finish our croissants, paid the bill and left.

The experienced reminded me very much of the 1963 film, The Haunting. Directed by Robert Wise, it’s the story of a group of psychics lead by a paranormal investigator, Dr. Makrway (Richard Johnson) who spend a weekend in a haunted mansion. The focus is however on Eleanor (Julie Harris), who seems to be drawn to the house and its ghostly goings-on as she sinks deeper and deeper into it. Filmed at MGM Studios in Borehamwood as well as Ettington Park Hotel, near Stratford-upon Avon, The Haunting is quite simply one of the most effective psychological horror films that have ever been made, not because of what it shows, but because of what it leaves to your imagination.

The Haunting

Having seen it a number of times, both before and after my visit to Chenonceau, the effect has always been the same – pure terror. It’s a film where you can’t escape the Gothic, it’s all around and in every frame of the film. The term usually refers to a type of architecture that was prominent in Western Europe between the 12th and 16th century. Buildings would usually have tall pillars, pointed arches and tall pointed windows with patterns or stained glass and they were usually cathedrals or castles but also mansions very much like the one in The Haunting.

Gothic also refers to a genre of literature that became popular in the late 18th century, most notably with novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Reilly’s Frankenstein. Common features of the Gothic novel would be haunted castles and mansions, a presence that continues to haunt the living, dark and eerie places, graveyards, an uneasy romance or a tragedy of some kind. The Gothic is also closely linked to themes of the fantastic, the uncanny, the marvellous and the horror genre.

Women are also a prominent feature of the Gothic and a lot of the attention is focused on them; usually becoming the victims of a terrible presence, paranormal force or the actions of a mere mortal (but deranged) man. Fred Botting, is his book, The Gothic, tells a little bit about some of the characteristics of the typical Gothic film:

The Haunting

“Early films featured Gothic texts: Frankenstein, The Edison Kinetogram (1910) adapted Shelly’s novel, while scientists and vampires were the focus of German expressionists films like Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) which, with their grotesque villains and stylised sets, played on the gloomy artificiality of Gothic scenes of terror.”

Gothic scenes of terror is exactly what we have with The Haunting rather than Gothic scenes of horror with a grotesque villain. It’s a terror that plagues Eleanor but is entirely unseen as in the following scene described by Alain Silver and James Ursini in The Horror Film Reader:

“The house continues to reach out to Eleanor. That night, after a spat with Theo, Eleanor is awakened by a man’s voice and a woman’s laughter. A face forms in the pattern on the wall and Eleanor, very frightened, speaks up and asks Theo to take hold of her hand. Her grip becomes tighter and tighter, compelling Eleanor to warn “Theo, you’re breaking my hand!” When Eleanor cries out, Theo is immediately awakened. That’s when Eleanor, along with the viewer, realises that somehow Eleanor has moved to the couch across the room and it was not Theo who was holding her hand. “Whose hand was I holding?” asks Eleanor, and once again there is a cutaway to the house itself.”
SOURCES:

  • [1] Botting, F The Gothic, Essays and Studies (2001), D.S.Brewer
  • [2] Silver, A., Ursini, J. Horror Film Reader (2000), Limelight Editions

The story of what’s happening to Eleanor is presented in such a way that you never see the terror but you feel it. What you are left with is a lot of suggestion that something is going on here, but as a viewer you are never given the real proof for it. The vague outline of a face in the wall that glares down at Eleanor, but is it really a face? We hear the children’s voices but maybe it’s all in Eleanor’s mind, as if she is haunted by her own experiences with her mother and possibly her guilt for her death.

A prevailing theme in the gothic is madness and with this scene from The Haunting, I’m back in that hotel room in Chenonceau, feeling the heat of the walls closing in on me and hearing the scratching at the door. Thank heavens I kept my hands tightly gripping the covers around me because I think had I felt anything else on me I might have lost my mind and leapt out the window that night.

The Haunting

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

You can find his music on Soundcloud .

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