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The Haunting (1963) is the best haunted house movie ever

Today's haunted house movies spend a ton of money on CGI effects to show you everything, but 1963's 'The Haunting' is the best haunted house movie ever ... and there's nary a ghost in sight.

Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in "The Haunting"

Halloween, to me, has always been about vampires, the Frankenstein monster, werewolves, witches and ghosts. Especially ghosts. Serial killers, like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, weren’t even considered Halloween boogeymen until 1978. Kids didn’t dress up like The Boston Strangler or Charles Manson to go trick-or-treating. While these characters make for some scary movies, it’s always been old school horror for me at this time of year.

I am not afraid to say that I do believe in ghosts. I know it’s crazy to some people, but after many unexplained occurances that I’ve experienced since I was a kid — including hearing my name whispered in the dark from a corner of my bedroom when I was the only person in the room — I tend to gravitate to TV shows and movies about ghosts (except I won’t watch them too late at night before bed, because that just gets them all riled up and then I can’t get any sleep). There have been many haunted house movies through the years, some good, some not, but, for my money, the best of the lot is 1963’s The Haunting, based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, directed by the great Robert Wise, starring the magnificent Julie Harris, and filmed in glorious black and white.

If you haven’t seen the film, the story seems fairly simple on the surface. A parapsychologist (or is he?) selects a small group of people, who have reported some sort of paranormal experiences in their lives, to accompany him to investigate the alleged hauntings of a spooky old manor, Hill House. When they arrive, they are informed the housekeepers will not stay past dark and the team has to deal with the things that go bump in the night on their own. But, once the sun goes down, you begin to wonder: is this really a ghost hunting expedition or is Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) actually conducting a psychological experiment on his carefully selected subject?

Harris’ Eleanor, affectionately known as Nell, is the most mentally fragile of the team. Her family treats her like a child and you’re never sure if her own ghostly experiences are real or a product of her over-active imagination. Even as I question Nell’s sanity and the supposed ghostly happenings in Hill House, there is one scene that, to this day, is still one of the most unnerving, hair-raising, spine-tingling haunting sequences ever put on film. In the bedroom that Nell and Theodora (Claire Bloom) share, they hear what sounds like talking in the hallway. The unintelligible voices are scary enough, but the banging sound that accompanies the voices that gets to a deafening level is even more frightening. But what makes the scene work so well is that for almost the entire running time, Wise’s camera focuses on a patch of ornate wallpaper, never moving, and without the aid of any fancy effects (a crime committed by the horrid remake), you swear you can start to see faces in the wallpaper. The second you blink, they’re gone but the more you stare, you start to see them again. It’s a totally freaky experience, and coupled with the ominous banging and disembodied voices, it really makes your skin crawl.

The scene ends with Nell (in close-up), who had been clutching Theo throughout the ordeal, telling Theo that she was squeezing her hand too tightly. The shot then cuts wide to show Theo now across the room in her own bed with no explanation as to how she got there. Was it a supernatural occurance, or another part of Markway’s experiment? That’s the beauty of The Haunting. We never, ever know if there truly are ghosts in the house, or if poor Nell’s fragile and fertile imagination has created all that she’s experienced — unlike the remake which completely dumbs down the story and leaves nothing to the imagination with an over-abundance of ghostly CGI effects. The film works so well not because of what you see on screen, but because of what you don’t see, and let’s you decide for yourself if Hill House is truly haunted. For haunted house movies, The Haunting is tops in my book and essential viewing, especially at this time of year.


Photo Credit: MGM

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