Sunday, October 21, 2012

Haunting Memories

“Scream . . . no one will hear you! Run . . . and the silent footsteps will follow! . . . for at Hill House the dead are restless!”
Poster copy for The Haunting (1963)

Halloween is right around the corner, and we’re sure to see the predictable lists containing the most frightening movies of all time. In most cases, the titles will also be predictable – The Shining, The Exorcist, Jaws. Less likely to be included, though probably as predictable as the others, is my own choice for the scariest movie: The Haunting, the 1963 original (a more gruesome and less imaginative remake appeared in 1999) based on Shirley Jackson’s novel. Movies about things that go bump in the night rarely remain scary on repeat viewings since you can anticipate where those bumps will be, but though The Haunting holds few surprises for me now, it remains the best ghost story ever put on film. From a journal entry dated July 17, 1990, here are some rather persoanl memories of that film:

When paging through Stephen King’s Dance Macabre, I was pleased to find so much space devoted to Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson also wrote “The Lottery,” the classic short story that has probably been anthologized more than any other horror tale. The Haunting of Hill House is a great book, and few films are as frightening as the 1963 black-and-white classic released under the abbreviated title, The Haunting.

Directed by Robert Wise following his Oscar win for 1961's West Side Story, this adaptation of Jackson’s story puts most subsequent ghost stories to shame. There are no white sheets floating through the hallways, no monsters, and no rotting corpses rising from the floorboards as there were in 1982's Poltergeist, but that later film can’t hold a candle to The Haunting which relies on subtlety and suggestion for its horror and does so more effectively than any other film I’ve seen.

Director Wise, best known for putting the Jets and Sharks through their paces and for bringing the hills alive to The Sound of Music, was no newcomer to the horror genre. His debut as a director came with Val Lewton’s 1944 production, The Curse of the Cat People. A year later, he led Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi through the mayhem of The Body Snatcher. In 1951, he directed the science-fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The Haunting concerns a group of people, all of whom have had a brush with the supernatural, meeting in a brooding century’s old house that is said to be haunted. At least one of the guests, Eleanor, played by Julie Harris, may be haunted herself. There are strange occurrences, including loud noises in the night and a crashing chandelier, and no one is sure whether these events have to do with the house or the sensitive, neurotic Eleanor. After all, both are a little strange. Still, the mansion in which the story unfolds is a frightening, unusual place where “whatever walked there, walked alone.”

I first saw The Haunting in its entirety in the mid-‘60s when it aired on ABC-TV, but I saw the first ten minutes on Sunday November 24, 1963 at the now demolished Garden Theater, a second run movie house on West 25th Street in Cleveland, Ohio where it played on a double bill with Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire. My mother had promised to take me on Friday night (the Garden was only open on weekends), but President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated earlier in the day, and the theater, like the whole country, was closed for business. I was disappointed that our Commander-In-Chief’s death interfered with my movie going plans (I was only six years old, and the death of a president was beyond my intellectual grasp at the time), but my cousin agreed to be my escort the following Sunday afternoon. Since I was mainly interested in seeing the full color vampire film, we didn’t stay to see all of The Haunting. That was fine with me. Based on those first ten minutes, The Haunting looked a bit too scary, even a little depressing. At the time, I preferred decidedly more ghoulish thrills, the kind that a colorful Hammer horror could provide.

When I finally caught up with The Haunting on television, I realized my original hunch was correct. This movie was too scary. It remains scary now. It’s the rare film that can truly give me goose bumps and make me turn around to see if a ghost is lurking over my shoulder when I watch it.

All these years later, The Haunting haunts me still. Whereas Poltergeist leaves me repulsed, The Haunting continues to work on my imagination. It is, after all, a film that one experiences in one’s own mind. Director Wise doesn’t show us the horrors. Instead, he does something much more frightening: he lets you imagine them yourself.

July 17, 1990

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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