“…Whose hand was I holding?” That quote is the kind of campfire story cliché designed to elicit nervous giggles, not haunt the subconscious. And yet, in 1963’s The Haunting, director Robert Wise managed to do just that, and he did so with not much more than some close-ups of a face, a wall, and the kinds of shadows directors paint with when they wish to invade our nightmares.
The Haunting, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, focuses on a rag-tag group assembled by a paranormal investigator to find evidence of the supernatural in Hill House, a brooding gothic nightmare of a mansion that is said to be haunted…perhaps malevolently. Wise comes up with many creative ways to make things go bump in the night without ever being forced to conjure up the image of an actual ghost, a skill he honed under Val Lewton by directing moody horror films that transcended their B-movie budgets with artful use of shadows and sinister intimations rather than gruesome money shots or phantasmagoric effects. You needn’t look any further than the third film Wise directed, The Body Snatcher (1945), to see his capability in the genre. But by the time the 1960s rolled around and Wise had set his sights on The Haunting, he was no longer playing around with B-movie budgets. Nestled almost directly in between West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), Wise made his return to his shadowy origins, but with ten times the budget.
It’s easy to imagine Wise turning The Haunting into some sort of widescreen-spectacular version of House on Haunted Hill (dir. William Castle, 1959), a campy Vincent Price “haunted” house film designed to titillate rather than disturb. At this point in history, the haunted house film hadn’t yet been thoroughly codified yet. There was, however, another lavish, widescreen, gothic, psychosexual, haunted house film that was also a literary adaptation, that beat The Haunting to the punch: 1961’s The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton), based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The Innocents, with a script by the famed Truman Capote, is perhaps even more of a richly layered, and chilling, haunted house story than even The Haunting, but it’s the latter that has become one of the most iconic of its subgenre (and not for nothing, either).
Wise, and set designer Elliot Scott, made the most of their budget by meticulously crafting the cluttered, canted, and all together claustrophobic rooms of the film’s Hill House sets. The Rococo stylings, low ceilings, and emphasis on eerie statuary and mirrors provide so many competing details within any given frame that they become uncomfortable to look at even when brightly lit. The house is so meticulously detailed that it takes on a character of its own: that of a malicious and possessive mind. The Hill House has accrued countless objects, art pieces, and even lives, yet it remains insatiable all the same. The statues are constantly watching, the rooms are always crowding and clawing, and the doors (oh, the doors) play all manner of tricks on the unlucky guests of Hill House.
What is the malignant source of this avaricious and decidedly evil house’s supernatural power? The film makes it clear there was something off about it from its very construction, before it had even claimed a soul. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, as it seems to be suffused with the soul of a man who otherwise has none: its cruel and domineering patriarch, Hugh Crain. So the Hill House is no mere haunted house, patrolled by the denizens of its restless dead, but is the externalized dominion of an evil mind. In life, Hugh Crain was cruel, possessive, and perhaps even abusive, to his wives and daughter, and in death his house simply carried on doing what Crain would have.
Though not spelled out explicitly, there is an undercurrent of sexual domination that pervades the film. The protagonist, the demure and innocent Eleanor, immediately becomes the object of desire of all the guests of Hill House; none more than the house itself, however. At one point in the film they discover a book that Hugh Crain had made for his daughter, Abigail. It’s no sweet childhood memento, as you might glean by this point in the film, but a gruesome, proselytizing, religious artifact that delivers fully illustrated lessons on sin. Crain’s own lustful spirit, with a lifetime spent accruing wives and artifacts alike, and his desire for innocent and sin-free women (Abigail and Eleanor are both deeply repressed), or girls, adds a disturbing layer more chilling than any of the more explicitly ghostly phenomena. However, it’s in the film’s scariest scene, that potential campfire tale, that the text and subtext cohere into its most perfect waking nightmare.
The scene in question begins as nightfall overtakes the Hill House, for when else would an evil house awaken but when its guests begin to sleep? At this stage in the film Eleanor shares a bed with one her compatriot Theo (yes, she is desirous of Eleanor as well) for each other’s well being in the night, but it soon becomes apparent that not even this will protect Eleanor. The scene begins with Eleanor stirring from her sleep, if she was even able to drift off in the first place, as her attention is mysteriously called to one of the walls in her room, glinting with moonlight and ill-intent. As the camera tracks forward on the intricate leaf patterns on the wall’s molding, we see the design create a sort of face among the shadows. Then, the muffled voice of a man rises in the mix, as if coming from within the wall itself. The words are indistinct, but their tone is unmistakable: it is delivering a sermon. Eleanor pleads with Theo not to say anything, so “it” won’t know they are there. As if in response, another voice materializes out of the tenebrous ether; the laughter of a deranged woman is layered over the unbroken sermon of some ill-defined doom. Then, as suddenly as they began, the voices cease. Eleanor wonders aloud if it’s over, and tells Theo that she’s crushing her hand. Then, the crying of a child begins. It starts off quiet, but rises to a shrill squeal of some sort of unimaginable agony. Eleanor’s voice-over tells us she “will not go along with hurting a child” (exactly how this child, spectral or imaginary, is being hurt is left disturbingly vague), and finally brings herself to scream, causing the voices to stop and rouses Theo, who turns on the lights. The bright lights bring no requiem, however, as they reveal that Eleanor has somehow ended up on a divan across the room, and wasn’t on the bed with Theo at all. She voices what we’re all thinking: “whose hand was I holding?”.
It is the commingling of various horror elements that make this scene as chilling as it is: the use of the ornate set design to create subtle and sinister details, the muffled sound design that itself seems as if it’s cloaked in a sort of aural shadow, the camerawork and lighting that both obscures and reveals in exactly the right ways to maximize terror, and of course that dreadful subtext of lust and repression casting an ominous and repulsive specter over the sequence that laces its campfire story structure with a hidden edge. To my tastes this scene is not just the scariest of the film, but one of the greatest of all time. Many haunted house films have come and gone since The Haunting was first set upon its unsuspecting audiences, but, like the denizens of Hill House itself, it walks alone.