The Set-Up: I had a friend who professed to be a psychic. He didn't want the powers. He didn't ask for them. As a matter of fact, until he learned to live with them, they were a bother (and he had extensive psychological and neurological testing to make sure he wasn't going crazy) and had a brief (very brief) tenure where he was a "professional psychic." He mentioned one client who was bothered by the ghost of her mother, and I asked him "what's the thing with ghosts?" "Ah, ghosts are assholes!" he said matter-of-factly. "They're selfish bastards, always hanging around the living, worried about stuff that shouldn't matter to them anymore. Why don't they just move on?"
Indeed. What are they hanging around here for?
There are all sorts of horror movies and subjects for horror (and I've been getting an education about them lately, from the young students in the training I've been taking): slashers, slaughter, "snuff," torture, gore, monster, zombie, thriller, comedy, sci-fi—they cross lines and body-parts, but they all center on the brain, eventually, because that's where horror lives, right up there in the squishy gray matter.
And there are psychological horror movies, too, like Robert Wise's version of The Haunting.* Yes, they involve ghosts and are ghost stories (like The Shining and Poltergeist, modern equivalents), but mostly they are psychological, with the ghosts' main intent being the unnerving of their victims—so, they can be left alone, presumably**—by exploiting the psychological weaknesses of the living. The pattern is assured—ghosts must be fairly lazy, too, or maybe don't know what they're capable of—by first doing the smallest, irritating little things (creaking doors, things that go "bump" in the night), then escalating to ever-grander displays of beastly behavior that are none-too-subtle, and that even the dullest and least psychic characters will see and react to. One wonders why they don't "cut to the chase" and do those things in the first place; they must have a lot of time to kill in the after-life.
Wise's film (which he believed to be one of his best directorial efforts) borrows deep-focus photography and a chiaroscuro production design that recalls Wise's affiliation with Citizen Kane (he was that film's editor) and has a dazzling variety of camera moves that subtley tweak the nerves of audiences—he obviously had a lot of fun with it. It is also in gorgeous wide-screen black and white, a process that, by itself, has always unnerved me.
But, its focus is the very essence of horror. We've all been startled by sounds. We've all seen things "in ther corner of our eyes." But, those things fade and are explained away—figments of our imaginations and perceptions. Shake the head, and it's gone—nothing to worry about—"must have imagined it." It is when the psychological becomes tangible, manifest...against our wills...well, that is some scary stuff. We're no longer, then, in control. And something, other than us, is.
The Story: "It was an evil house from the beginning. A house that was born bad." With the death of the mistress of Hill House, Abigail Crane, at her first glimpse of the house, it has been bedevilled and haunted, the site of many a mysterious death. Now, at the request of the house's inheritor, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) is investigating whether the house is haunted so that Sanderson might be able to financially exploit the property. With Markway and Sanderson are Theadora (Claire Bloom), a psychic, and the fragile Elanor Lance (Julie Harris), who has had a history with poltergeists. They have already been accosted by dropping temperatures in the house (even though it's August) and odd smells. Something's not right in Hill House, and Nell and "Theo" are reluctant room-mates as there is safety in numbers.
THEO: You know what I think? Markway has us all so edgy we're getting the cold sweats. Well, the temperature doesn't have to drop to make us feel like that.
ABIGAIL: That's right. Music gives me goose-bumps. Still, there was that awful smell in library.
THEO: Oh, here we go again. You know very well what you thought you smelled in the library. The sickroom smell.
ABIGAIL: Let's discuss me some other time. I'm tired.
ABIGAIL: Turn out the light.
THEO: I'd like it on. Have you seen this?
ABIGAIL: I told you I just want to go to sleep!
ABIGAIL: Good night!
THEO: Well, why be mad at me? I don't think you killed your mother!
ELANOR: Leave me alone!
ELANOR: Go to sleep!
THEO: Goodnight, Nellie my Nell...
A sepulchral mumbling emerges from the wall, waking Elanor.
A woman's cruel laughter joins the male chanting.
ELANOR: Hold my hand, Theo.
ELANOR: And for God's sake, don't scream.
ELANOR: Is it over? Do you think it's over?
ELANOR: Theo! You're breaking my hand!
Suddenly a child's whimpering crying comes through the wall.
ELANOR: (V.O.) This is monstrous. This is cruel. It is hurting a child and I will not let anyone, anything hurt a child.
ELANOR: (V.O.) I won't endure this. It thinks to scare me. It has, and poor Theo, too.
ELANOR: (V.O.) I will get my mouth to open right now, and I will yell...
ELANOR: (V.O.) I will yell, I will yell, I will yell...
ELANOR: STOP IT!
THEO: What? What, Nell! What?
ELANOR: Oh, God!
ELANOR: Oh, God!
ELANOR: Whose hand was I holding?
* Wise's version is Martin Scorsese's favorite horror film. It was remade in 1999 as an FX-laden Steven Spielberg production directed by Jan de Bont. Although the synopsis and title are similar, the film is not related to the 1973 The Legend of Hell House, which was based on Richard Matheson's lurid 1971 book "Hell House," rather than Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House."
** Topper and Beetlejuice tell their ghost stories from the ghosts' point of view.