Girl Meets Context: This October is going to be dedicated to classic haunted house movies. We wrap things up with a close look at Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. The film introduces us to Eleanor (Julie Harris), a disturbed woman who has spent the last 11 years caring for her invalid mother. Upon her mother’s death, Eleanor accepts an invitation from Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist who has developed an obsession with the occult, to join a small team of paranormal researchers at Hill House, a remote New England manor with a dark history. Eleanor and Markway are joined by lesbian clairvoyant Theo (Claire Bloom) and Luke Sannerson (Russ Tamblyn), a relative of Hill House’s current owner. The four of them move in to Hill House and very soon strange occurrences begin – ghostly knocking late into the night, the sounds of someone or something scratching and sniffling at closed doors, strange cold spots. As the days and nights pass, Eleanor’s obsession with and terror of Hill House begin to grow, as she develops an awkward crush on Markway and a contentious relationship with Theo. The group is later joined by Markway’s skeptical wife Grace (Lois Maxwell, a.ka. Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond films), whose arrival brings things to a bizarre and violent conclusion. Considered one of THE classic horror films of the 20th century, The Haunting established many of the now-familiar cinematic tropes of the haunted house genre. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie. If you haven’t seen The Haunting, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: I don’t know why, but it stunned me that Russ Tamblyn – a.k.a. Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks, a.k.a. David Cross’ father-in-law – is in this movie. I have weird feelings about him.
Kristine: I don’t know the origin of my feelings, all I know is that I find him very watchable and yet his face is so incredible punchable. I love him, but I want to smash his pug-nosed face. Do you have any feelings about him?
Sean: None. He is the least important part of the movie though, wouldn’t you say?
Kristine: At first I thought both Luke and Markway were totally unimportant, except to showcase things about Eleanor. Like, Luke is the perfect foil for Eleanor because he is spoiled and entitled and confident and superficial. But now I am thinking that, while Eleanor is the star of the movie along with Theo (ummm, holy dyke stereotyping with the male nickname!), the male characters actually are important… but I can get into my theory of why later. Can I ask a question?
Kristine: I read that there is a 1999 remake of this movie (that I had never heard of). I am assuming it is wretched, but I have to say that the casting seems pretty fucking spot-on. Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor? Kind of perfect. Have you seen it? Do you agree that, at least on paper, the cast seems well-suited to reinterpret these roles?
Sean: It’s really tough for me to think about the casting context-free because the remake is such an utter and complete abomination.
Sean: I definitely disagree that the casting of Zeta-Jones is inspired. She is no Claire Bloom.
Kristine: Okay, fair enough. My boyfriend and I were joking about how there needs to be a remake with Angelina Jolie as Theo and Jennifer Aniston as Eleanor. Does the 1963 movie have personal significance for you? Did you see it as a young boy?
Sean: I think I saw it when I was like 18.
Kristine: Which The Innocents was based on, right?
Sean: Right. So, to really get things started, I’m just wondering what you think the movie is “about,” because obviously it is meant to be read on many different levels (as is the source novel). In revisiting it, I was struck by how the movie’s title is named-checked in the dialogue, which I hadn’t remembered. Eleanor says, “Supposing it is in my imagination. The knocking, the voices. Everything. Every cursed bit of the haunting. Suppose the haunting is all in my mind…” In that moment, it seems clear that the movie is suggesting it’s more interested in Eleanor’s psychology than any actual supernatural activity. That the supernatural is meant, for the most part, to be a gigantic metaphor for Eleanor’s psychological state. I was wondering if that was your basic take on the movie as well.
Kristine: That is definitely my take, though I was more interested in the undercurrent of Jean-Paul Sartre-esque existentialism in the film (though I think it’s a less important theme than Eleanor’s psychology). The movie has a premise that’s very reminiscent of No Exit: a group of people who are fundamentally wired to irritate and provoke one another, who are stuck with one another in an isolated setting for a mysterious/unimportant reason and wind up driving each other absolutely crazy. You know, “hell is other people” blah blah blah. I wonder if that theme was stronger in the novel? I definitely read Eleanor as a character living in an existential nightmare – not having a home, constantly trying to belong and be “nice” and “good” and “cooperative” but constantly being shunned because of her inability to curb her neurosis and basically extremely unattractive personality.
Sean: Yes. Agreed.
Kristine: Speaking of people driving each other crazy, I really loved Theo and Eleanor’s interplay, specifically when Theo is fucking with Eleanor. Loved!
Sean: Ha! Theo is amazing.
Kristine: I am obsessed with Theo’s Mary Quant wardrobe. Love love love.
Sean: My favorite Theo line: “Okay, Isolde. Tristan wants you inside.”
Sean: Right? Total ha! Poor Eleanor. She’s just no match for Theo.
Kristine: Eleanor’s character as a whole is pretty closely tied in to the existentialist elements of the movie. I am going to betray myself as a total intellectual lightweight by doing this, but I am going to cut’n’paste a few lines from Wikipedia “Existentialism” entry: “In existentialism, the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has been called ‘the existential attitude,’ or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world… Each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely (‘authentically’).” Is this not a perfect description of Eleanor’s character? She perfectly embodies “disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world,” right? Eleanor is tragic figure who wants to live an authentic life, wants to live “passionately and sincerely,” but lacks the tools to do so.
Sean: Yes, right. That’s perfect.
Kristine: I found myself loving to hate Eleanor, even while recognizing her as a tragic figure. God, she just gets more and more pathetic and awful throughout the movie. Flirting with Markway? When she says she sleeps on her left side so she can die faster? Her nihilism is part of the existentialism. And her sad, grimy striving for a bourgeois existence (as symbolized by the stone lions she fetishizes as possible lawn décor for her own imaginary private manor) that she thinks will be more “authentic.” Oh, man. I went from feeling real sympathy and empathy for her in the beginning – when she is struggling to be confident and assertive and “normal” to her sister and brother-in-law – to just shaking my head about midway through. What do you do with a problem like Eleanor?
Sean: How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
Kristine: Also, whoever the batshit crazy crystal-meth-smoking set designer was… Holy balls. That house! Mirrors on top of upholstered walls! Demon pig gargoyles!
Sean: What about Markway’s deliciously diva-ish wife arriving and going, “Now I know who your fiend in Hill House is. The interior decorator.”
Kristine: Ha!!!!! She was good, too.
Sean: Loved her.
Kristine: Yes. I loved that for once it was the lady being all, “You are silly and hysterical. I am here to be the voice of reason.”
Sean: Oh I loved that too. I want to talk about Markway as an example of the RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] later… and the reversal that his wife is the pragmatic skeptic. But let’s get back to Eleanor for a second. You called her out as having a terrible personality, and you’re absolutely right. But despite how unlikable she is, I found myself really loving her for extremely brief moments.
Kristine: Tell me which moments, if you can.
Sean: For example, how pissed off she gets about Hugh Crain’s grossly patriarchal book of shame that he dedicated to his daughter. Eleanor goes, “I can see him now, spitting out the words so they take root in her little mind. Hugh Crain, you were a dirty man and you made a dirty house, and if you can hear me from anywhere I’m telling you to your face I hope you spend eternity in that foul, rotten book and never stop burning for a minute.” Just her being like, ‘Rot in hell, patriarch.’
Kristine: Yes! “You were a dirty man and you made a dirty house” is great. I want to reiterate that I totally related to Eleanor’s struggles with her family, her righteous indignation and frustration at the unfairness of it all (at the film’s start when her beyotch sister is refusing her the car), and the horrible treadmill effect that when you try to convince someone you are not crazy you just end up looking crazier and crazier by the moment. I have experienced all of that, like, a lot. Also, the feeling of “This is when my life is going to start! Finally!” All that felt real and true to me. Also what you pointed out: her utter rage against …well, the world and how it works.
Sean: Yes. And also, Eleanor’s actually very brave. During the first big haunting, Theo is curled up in terror and Eleanor is the one who stands up to the ghost.
Kristine: For sure! But she also sees this as her last shot for a life, right?
Sean: Yes, though I have to admit that I had a hard time understanding what she meant when she kept saying “The only thing that kept me going was that someday I knew something would happen, something truly extraordinary, like Hill House” and shit like that.
Kristine: Oh, I related to that.
Sean: But what does the house represent to her, exactly? Or is the house a total prop meant to stand in for her erotic desire for Markway?
Kristine: Well, I didn’t get how exactly she related to the house, but I did understand her need to believe that she was going to live an authentic life someday, some way, and then projecting that desire onto the house and Markway. I have lots to say about that dynamic. Did you think Markway was authentically interested in Eleanor (as a person, not as a ladything), or do you think he was playing her a bit? And what did you make of Eleanor then turning her desires onto the “dirty man” Hugh Crain in the final sequence where she goes batshit crazy? Remember when she is dancing with his statue and talking to it, all coquettish?
Sean: When they originally find those statues, Theo claims that they could be “a family portrait of us,” with the statue of Crain being the Markway figure, Theo as Abigail, Eleanor as her companion (more lezbo subtext with the way the word ‘companion’ gets thrown around). But I think once Grace arrives and sends Eleanor into a tizzy, she shifts her erotic attachment off of Markway and onto his surrogate: the statue of Crain.
Kristine: I forgot about the family portrait stuff, you’re right.
Sean: I still, after having watched this movie five or six times and read the novel, don’t understand exactly what Eleanor gets out of Hill House and why she “never wants to leave ever, ever, ever.” Especially because I actually think the novel and the movie have a very anti-patriarchal attitude and both of them set up the house itself as a kind of asylum for women. Like “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” but an entire house. At the beginning we’re told, “The house was built as a house for Crain’s wife and daughter, in the most remote part of New England he could find.” So he means to lock up these women away from the world, trapping them in this hellish domestic space.
Kristine: Right, to “keep” them there.
Sean: I felt like the movie was anti-domesticity through and through. So I don’t get how Eleanor’s attachment to the house figures into that.
Kristine: Right. Oh God, how awful was the life of Abigail Crain? Going from childhood to old age to death in that house, in that room, in that bed?
Sean: Oh I know, in the nursery (which both infantalizes her and also makes the whole thing a big metaphor for woman-as-womb). Also remember that Markway says, “I’ve found it. The heart of Hill House” and it’s the nursery where Abigail Crain lived and Theo says, “It’s like the doorway to a tomb.” One of the sounds that terrorizes Eleanor at night is the sound of an unseen baby crying.
Kristine: I loved the bit about the “heart” of Hill House being the cold spot. It was just a cool, creepy detail. I’m with you, I don’t know how Eleanor’s attachment to the house figures in either, but I did like all the bits with her obsessively saying how she was “expected” to be there. This segues into the class stuff in the movie… Eleanor is clearly mid-to-lower-middle class and she feels the need to pull rank on the caretakers, Mr and Mrs. Dudley. (I loved Mrs. Dudley and her creepy-ass grinning over the plight of the guests, stuck there with no one to hear them!) Markway comes from a more esteemed and moneyed background, and he gets into the supernatural stuff because it isn’t practical – that’s a luxurious life choice that Eleanor never had. She needs the house, and while I read Markway as mostly benevolent and sincere, he is still investigating the supernatural for kicks and curiosity, right? Yet he has the power to send Eleanor away, cast her out, and that’s when she dies. Did you have an answer to whether you thought Markway was being 100% sincere in his caring for Eleanor or if you thought he was playing her at all?
Sean: I think Markway is basically a player, but I also got some serious queer vibes off of him.
Kristine: Ah! Interesting! I was like, ‘Umm, why aren’t he and his wife sharing a room? That didn’t even seem like a possibility!
Sean: Oh my god remember when he keeps hassling Luke about the supernatural and Luke is like, “Look, Doc, we’re buddies, okay? But don’t try to convert me”?
Kristine: Ah yes!
Sean: And then Luke even expresses some gay panic later when he says, to Markway, “Oh about this ghost that I can expect in my room tonight, tell me is it male or female?”
Kristine: Oh, Luke. “Show me your ESP, baby.”
Sean: All his ’60s slang? “Far out.”
Kristine: And his nightclub plans for the house? LOL.
Sean: Hahaha! Hilare.
Kristine: I have another piece of evidence for Markley being a total queer. Remember when he calls the sitting room the “Purple Parlor”? Then tries to butch it up by switching to “Center of Operations”? LOL!!
Sean: Purple Parlor of Snowballing Dudes ‘till Sunrise!
Kristine: Yep. I have a question about Eleanor/Markway.
Kristine: Okay, Markway picked Eleanor for the experiment because she had some supernatural experience as a child, something about stones falling from the sky or something, right? I didn’t really get all that or necessarily think it was crucial to the story. Am I missing something? It felt a bit tacked on to me. Like, a reason was needed for Markway to pick her, and if she has some kind of supernatural powers it explains her connection to the house… But I don’t think it was very effective.
Sean: Ah! I think the story about Eleanor’s childhood experience with the supernatural is very important for two reasons.
Kristine: Okay, good, enlighten me!
Sean: 1) Remember when Markway is like, “I believe that the very presence of people like yourselves in this house will help to stimulate the strange forces at work here” and it is disgusting?
Kristine: Oh yes. Okay, so he is using her witchy woman ways to get the response his boring man self can’t elicit.
Sean: Sure, and also there’s some sense that Eleanor is Other, queer, weird, a misfit, an outsider, something that the house will respond to. And 2) It’s important that Eleanor denies the story about the childhood poltergeist incident and tells lies about it, because she is all about repression and one of the big ideas in this movie, I think, is about repression and what psychological repression means/does/how it functions.
Kristine: Repression and also wanting to fit in, be normal, be liked, not be a freak.
Sean: Did you pick up on all the crazy, weird similarities between Eleanor and Norman Bates (which I only realized watching it this time)?
Kristine: I didn’t, but now that you say it, hell yes!
Sean: The invalid mother? That she might have offed herself?
Kristine: The way she is weirdly ingratiating to people and seemingly candid about herself (“I crack my knuckles,” “I hate lobster”), while keeping big secrets. Her rage!
Sean: Yes yes yes yes. And her arrested development/infantile sexuality.
Kristine: And total horniness.
Sean: I also couldn’t believe how similar the opening sequence was to Marion Crane‘s flight from Phoenix with Eleanor “stealing” the car, and driving along with all these paranoid monologues in her head until she reaches the Gothic Place that will be the end of her.
Kristine: Oh, God, how could I have missed that! Of course!
Sean: This did come out three years after Psycho.
Kristine: By the by, I think Eleanor was in the throes of some bizarre masturbation ritual the night her mother died, when her mother called for her that final time and she did not respond!
Sean: Oh she was so touching herself.
Kristine: Right? I think she was doing something unholy with a stone lion from the mantle. I loved Theo’s super-mean takedown of Eleanor’s bourgeois fantasies.
Sean: Yes, but the suggestion that Theo herself is attracted to Eleanor is gross.
Kristine: So gross. As if! I guess lesbians = predators = want to fuck all ladies?
Sean: Was it even a question that Theo was a raging dykess when this came out in 1963?
Kristine: No question. She was a hot dyke with great clothes and good one-liners.
Sean: I mean, when Eleanor is like “I’d rather be innocent than like you… The world is full of inconsistencies, unnatural things. ‘Nature’s mistakes,’ they’re called. You, for instance.”
Sean: I was like, ‘That’s pretty overt for 1963.’
Kristine: Can I make an aside about Theo’s wardrobe?
Kristine: Okay, well, the first thing I noticed was in the opening credits was “Claire Bloom’s wardrobe designed by Mary Quant.” I was all, “Oooooh!” And I do feel that her clothes really helped quickly define her character as bohemian, savvy, hip, and not bourgeois or conventional. But it made me think about other movies where a famous designer provided character- enriching wardrobe. The most obvious example is Armani dressing Richard Gere for American Gigolo, but there are tons more. I did find this list, but it is far from complete. Anyway, I just had to say that I love it when designers contribute to a film or character, and I think it should be done more often. That’s all.
Sean: Agreed. Love it.
Kristine: What next?
Sean: So, is Markway a RIMA?
Kristine: Not truly, no. He is too reckless.
Sean: I mean his name itself suggest navigation, discovery, authority, demarcation…
Kristine: Yes, his name stood out to me, also.
Sean: Also, Eleanor Lance’s name also feels heavily symbolic: a long, sharp object, a weapon, a phallic symbol, something that sticks, protrudes, pierces. Why isn’t Markway a true RIMA?
Kristine: I think it all goes back to my point about the differences between him and Eleanor. He chose a life of impracticality, she never could; he chases the supernatural, she fears it. He is essentially a hobbyist and doesn’t know what he is messing with. All that seems un-RIMA-like to me, though his method – scientific experiment, daily journaling and reporting – is very RIMA. What do you think?
Sean: I am divided He has an un-RIMA-like faith in the unseen and unknown, right?
Sean: I thought it was really interesting that he kept putting everything on this timeline that ran from primitive man all the way into a future of people with superpowers. He says, “If ghosts, which are pure spirits, come from man then perhaps its possible someday to have individuals whose spiritual caliber far surpasses anything humanity has yet known.” Which is basically the X-Men.
Kristine: Ha! Yeah, and that itself is such a male way of looking at things. Instead of the murky, misty world of female witchiness, it’s all about superpowers.
Sean: Right. When he’s all, “Primitive man died of fright during the eclipse.” I just thought he was awfully fruity and into the occult for a RIMA.
Sean: I like the idea that a man can investigate and believe in the ‘unnatural.’ It’s totally kinky. Luke being like “Isn’t it sunspots?” is super homophobic.
Kristine: Ha! So, remember our discussion of The Changeling when we talked about how when a haunted house story has a male protagonist, he ends up fleeing/destroying the house? And when there’s a female protagonist, the house embraces/traps her there forever? In this case, a male forced our female away and she died! But the house also “killed” other female inhabitants (Crain’s two wives, Abigail’s treacherous companion). Only Abigail “lives” (if you can call it that) in the house. What do you make of it all?
Sean: The house eats ladies, for sure. This is why I was saying that the movie is anti-domesticity! I feel like the whole haunted house metaphor is being used to comment on the domestic space being a trap for women, á la The Feminine Mystique and “the problem that has no name.” Which is why I was surprised by the ending in which Eleanor winds up confined to Hill House for all eternity. “We who walk here, walk alone.”
Kristine: Yeah, me too.
Sean: Is the point that Eleanor’s fate is horrible and that’s what makes this a feminist horror story, like “The Yellow Wall-Paper”? Remember what Theo says to Eleanor before she drives away?
Sean: Just basically, “Go live, be happy Eleanor, please be happy.” Which is what a good sistah wants for her other sistahs, no?
Sean: But Eleanor just dies – patriarchy wins. Markway says early in the movie “The man who built it was a mystic, who hated people and their conventional ideas. He built this house to suit his mind.” The house is male.
Kristine: Yes! Hill House is antithetical to most lady-centric haunted houses because it was built by that “dirty man.” Hill House is totally male. I think we just stumbled upon why Eleanor is so infatuated with it!
Sean: Eleanor says, “No wonder it’s impossible to find your way around. Add up all these wrong angles and you get one big distortion in the house as a whole.” Eleanor gets the “wrong angles” of the mad patriarch.
Kristine: It is her “chance” – much like a husband would seem to be for a another woman of the time period.
Sean: Eleanor is so cock hungry, that slut.
Kristine: She is indeed. EVIL MAN HOUSE. I love this!
Sean: Just fyi, in the book all the erotic tension is between Theo and Eleanor. She doesn’t have a crush on Markway
Kristine: Does our theory of evil man house still apply to the book?
Sean: Well, I think so. The history of the house is the same in both, I’m pretty sure. Markway describes that house as “Diseased, sick, crazy, if you like. A deranged house is not a bad way of putting it. Your aunt thinks that maybe Hill House was born bad. Such houses are described in the Bible as leprous.” Remember that the statues they find are of St. Francis curing the lepers.
Kristine: The other “haunted” space I feel is “male” is the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, right?
Sean: Oh god, right. But in both, and in The Innocents, the “supernatural” is never really identified or named. It’s this bizarre metaphysical mystery. Like you were saying earlier about the existentialism in the movie… I think that connects to the movie’s use of the occult in general. That the “world” beyond our own is impossible to name or know or even conceive of. You can’t see “the angles,” right? But Eleanor can. Markway thinks he can, but he can’t because he’s not a she-witch vagina owner. Existential = occult = the feminine. Unlike The Others or The Orphanage, where the occult is clearly delineated and defined.
Kristine: Yes to all that. Okay, I googled “The Haunting 1963 film evil male energy” and I found a great piece on Bright Wall, Dark Room that relates to my point about Markway being careless and unknowingly exploiting his privilege. Let me share: “There’s a parallel in The Haunting with a more recent ghost story: Paranormal Activity. And I’m not just saying that because both involve some very loud bumps in the night. Both revolve around the exploitation of distressed, sensitive young women by male figures of authority. In fact, the latter is far more interesting when considered as a film about domestic abuse than anything supernatural. The main difference between the two is that in The Haunting, the energy in and around Eleanor finally becomes self-destructive, but in Paranormal Activity, repressed rage is turned back upon the haunter, and ultimately on the audience themselves.” I love that!
Sean: Oh, that’s great.
Kristine: Yeah. Both Markway and Micah from Paranormal Activity are ghost hunters who are using these ladies to conjure up the spirits… They just don’t get it.
Sean: I agree that in The Haunting the “feminine” is ultimately portrayed as masochistic and self-injuring. I mean, remember when Markway says to Eleanor, “You’re human. Stop trying to be either a saint or a martyr.” And that’s exactly what she does become at the end of the movie.
Kristine: As much as I admired about this movie, there was also a bunch of things that didn’t work for me. For example, I wanted more of the No Exit, hell-is-other-people interplay between the characters, more about the twisted family portrait they make up. But instead there was too much standing around listening to ghostly banging. I also didn’t like Eleanor’s death, and how Markway blamed it on Grace, his wife (thought it is interesting how Grace becomes “part” of the house – literally popping out of the structure – in a way Markway never does). That whole spiral staircase setpiece fell flat for me. With all the cray-cray set design, it just seemed…weak.
Sean: Interesting. What do you rate the movie then, given these concerns?
Kristine: Daddy dramz! and A worthy film, but won’t keep me up at night. You?
Sean: I think you’re crazy! If this isn’t a Masterpiece! I don’t know what is. The filmmaking? The performances? It’s pure cinema. The way Wise’s camera will dislodge and move through space in order to create subjective experience?
Kristine: I must speak my truth, Sean.
Sean: That may be, but you are no aesthete, that is clear.
Kristine: Oh really????? Hmmmm….
Sean: These concerns are hogwash!
Kristine: Wow, I love how open minded and give-and-take and respectful our discussions are. You are a troll, but fine.
Sean: I guess I agree that more snappy conversations would have been welcome. But I don’t think we’re supposed to “like” Eleanor’s death. I think the point is that the house used Grace as a weapon against Eleanor, and its sexist. But maybe I’m wrong. But yes, her springing out of the trapdoor at Eleanor was awesome. I don;’ understand your Daddy dramz! rating for a daddy-less movie.
Kristine: Ummm! Daddy Hugh Crain! Sean, he emblazoned “Suffer the Children” on the walls of a nursery. I think Eleanor was another one of his doomed children.
Sean: Off-screen daddies don’t count.
Kristine: Sure they do.
Sean: You’re right, they do.
Kristine: Hell yes, they do!
Sean: I concede the point.
The Girl’s Rating: Daddy dramz! AND A worthy film but won’t keep me up at night.
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Stylistic triumph