One of the scariest films I have ever seen is the 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. It’s based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and it’s the story of a paranormal investigator, Dr Markway, who persuades Mrs Sanderson, the owner of the empty Hill House, to allow him to rent it for a while to investigate its strange happenings and history of unusual phenomena. He invites several observers to accompany him, but only two actually arrive – the psychologically fragile Eleanor, who feels acute guilt at the recent loss of her mother (the death may have been due to Eleanor’s negligence), and who experienced poltergeist activity as a child; and Theodora, a self-regarding young lady who is apparently a psychic. The fourth member of the party is Luke, the nephew of the owner and at the house to keep at eye on things at her request.
The four settle into the house and begin to experience mysterious and disquieting events. But although the film is called The Haunting, there are no ‘ghosts’ to be seen. Instead, it works by the power of suggestion and our fear of the unknown.
One way into dissecting the effects of the film is through the work of the film theorist Barry Curtis, whose book Dark Places The Haunted House in Film brings together a study of the film techniques and special effects use in haunted house films with a study of the construction of the architectural spaces within which the haunting resides.
Curtis brings attention to the role of marginal spaces and doors within the house. There’s a fearful anticipation of something indistinct and misunderstood that occupies the margins of vision in the dark transitional places at the end of corridors, at the foot of stairs, behind doors and walls and under surfaces.” Further “the suggestion that a house might be haunted is often confirmed by … an acute anxiety regarding what can be seen and what is concealed from view.” It’s the doors that cause such anxiety. In haunted houses, they refuse to stay open or stay closed, they conceal things which we fear or reveal that which should have remained hidden.
And it’s the doors in The Haunting that provoke the feeling of uncanniness in watching the film. There’s so many of them, and they have a life of their own.
Eleanor arrives at Hill House and before she can knock, the door is opened by Mrs Dudley, the housekeeper – an uncanny automaton herself, intoning her timetable mechanically whenever she is given the opportunity, and sometimes when not. “I set dinner on the dining-room sideboard at six sharp,” she says, before helpfully declaring that she leaves before dark, she lives over six miles away, and that she won’t be able to hear or help if there’s a need in the night.
The entrance hall is decorated in Gothic style, “overfull of dark wood and weighty carving, dim under the heaviness of the staircase, which lay back from the farther end. Above there seemed to be another hallway, going the width of the house; (Eleanor) could see a wide landing and then, across the staircase well, doors closed along the upper hall. On either side of her now were great double doors, carved with fruit and grain and living things; all the doors she could see in the house were closed.” Upstairs, “nothing broke the straightness of the hall except the series of doors, all closed.” But it’s not going to be what the doors are hiding in the rooms behind them that’s going to be the problem – it’s what they’re keeping out.
The party get to know each other in a small sitting room, and then decide to find the dining room for dinner. But it’s not easy to find the way around. Theo has lost her bearings, but the Doctor, who has studied the house, believes that “we only have to go through the door here, down the passage, into the front hall, and across the hall and through the billiard room to find the dining room”. When they do, Theo says they ought to leave all the doors open. They will need propping, says Eleanor – “every door in this house swings shut then you let go of it.” They retire, each to their own huge, overly-decorated room. Eleanor is in bed, but gets up to lock the door. She gets back into bed and looks “compulsively, at the window, and then again at the door, and thought, Is it moving? But I locked it; is it moving?”.
The first morning, Eleanor and Theo set off to find the dining room and breakfast. Once again, they can’t find it, and at last shout for Luke and the Doctor. A door opens, and the Doctor is there. “You will never believe this now, of course … but three minutes ago these doors were wide open. We left them open so you could find your way. We sat here and watched them swing shut just before you called.”
Later, Theo and Eleanor are exploring the house and find their way from the veranda which into the kitchen. “Look Eleanor. There’s the door onto the veranda, and another that opens onto steps going down – to the cellar I guess – and another over there going to to the veranda again, and the one she used to go upstairs, and another one over there.” “To the veranda again,” Eleanor said, opening it. “Three doors going onto the veranda from one kitchen.” “And the door to the butler’s pantry and on into the dining room. Our good Mrs Dudley likes doors doesn’t she? She can certainly” – and here their eyes met – “get out fast in any direction if she wants to .”
The second night. Eleanor and Theo are asleep in their separate bedrooms, but are awoken by a banging on the doors further down the corridor. Theo shouts for Eleanor and she joins her, wrapping Theo’s quilt around them both to protect against the deadly cold. The banging is a hollow noise, “as through something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove.” Eventually, it reaches their door, and “both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door” – too high for a person to reach. Then “little pattings came from around the door frame, small seeking sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in. The doorknob was fondled … the little sticky sounds moving on around the door frame, and then, as though a fury caught whatever was outside, the crashing came again, and Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake and the door move against its hinges.”
But worse is to come. Grace Markway, the Doctor’s wife, and a companion, arrive at the house – in the book, they are determined to interact with the spirit of the house, armed with Ouija board and planchette, while the film has them ready to treat any strange occurrences as nonsense. Grace insists on sleeping in the nursery, previously identified as possibly the source of the disturbances. The newcomers retire for the night, and the Doctor, Luke, Eleanor and Theo gather in the sitting room .
Suddenly, the door swings wide and crashes shut. The pounding begins again, and then quiet, and a “secret, creeping silence”. “The door was attacked, without sound, seeming almost to be pulling away from its hinges, almost ready to buckle and go down, leaving them exposed … The shaking stopped, the door was quite, and a little caressing touch began on the doorknob, feeing intimately and softly and then, because the door was locked, patting and fondling the doorframe, as though wheedling to be let in.”
See this for yourself, here. And then try to sleep tonight!