Given that Haunted House stories descend from Gothic literature, it’s appropriate to begin with a great American artwork, Grant Wood’s 1930 masterpiece “American Gothic.” It’s the ubiquitous image of a farmer and his daughter, or possibly his wife, standing before an Iowa house built in the Carpenter Gothic style. The farmer looks dour and holds a pitchfork. The woman looks at him with reproach or disapproval. One curl escapes the tightly bound bun of her hair, suggesting things may not be as orderly as they seem. We can only speculate as to why.
Wood’s painting has always been something of a Rorschach Blot Test. You can see anything in it, from stalwart “real Americans” of conservative imaginings to a satirical depiction of those fantasies who, the woman’s gaze suggests, have some unsavory secrets hiding behind their prim façade. Its subjective quality is only exacerbated by the knowledge that only the house is real. The man is Wood’s dentist. The woman is his sister, Nan. The two never met, nor did they pose before the house.
American Gothic, then, is a story just like any motion picture, with actors playing the part. Let us posit that the story does not end there, but has another chapter: Wood painted another picture of his sister. Gone is the old-fashioned apron, high collar, and severe hair. She has a modern hairstyle now, a sleeveless polka-dot blouse which shows off her neck and a bit of chest, a bracelet and a wide leather belt. In her hands she holds a chick and a plum, suggesting, perhaps, fertility. The Gothic girl has been liberated.
What changed her? If not the farmer, perhaps it was something about the house. Maybe something angry dwells there, something lascivious. In the darkness of night, it whispered in her ear and aroused her lust. The only route to slaking it was to take that puritanical farmer’s pitchfork and run it through his heart. Then she went to town.
If you find the story of that transformation interesting, then the next complexity to absorb is that neither component—Nan’s change and the agent of that change—is as compelling without the other. That is the nature of haunted house stories and why so many of them fail: Most are satisfied with situation rather than character. That is, they settle for the scares without considering their impact upon the scared. Ironically, in the best haunted house stories, The Haunting (1963, directed by Robert Wise), The Legend of Hell House (1973, John Hough), and The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) among them, that impact is one of liberation. Rather than being scared straight, the characters are scared sensual.
It is not a coincidence that all three films are based on books by some of the best writers ever to work in the horror genre: Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King. In classifying stories, it’s important to distinguish between haunted houses and houses that are haunted. In the former, the house and the ghost are intertwined to the point that the house is the ghost. The latter is the setting of ghost stories. Films like The Uninvited (1944), The Innocents (1961), The Changeling (1980), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and The Others (2001), are more about unrestful ghosts than the houses in which they reside. Stories in the former category are careful to focus not on the mover but the moved, the mover being what King defined in his book-length study of horror fiction, Danse Macabre (1981), as The Bad Place. “The real problem with the house next door,” he says, “is that it changes people into the very things they most abhor. The real secret of the house next door is that it is a dressing-room for werewolves.” In this context, “werewolves” stands for any perversion or psychosis residing within a person that said person would very much like to keep suppressed. King put the thematic statement well in the novel on which Kubrick’s The Shining is—loosely—based: “This inhuman place makes human monsters.”
To underscore the emphasis on transformation in these films, it’s worth noting a film that doesn’t, the 1982 Tobe Hooper (with some on-set help from co-writer/producer Steven Spielberg) hit Poltergeist. In that film, whose story would seem to have been heavily influenced by Matheson’s 1962 Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost,” the Freeling family experiences disquieting and ultimately violent phenomena in their house because their subdivision was built on an old cemetery. The twist here is the developers relocated the headstones but not the bodies, leading to disgruntled spirits. This is hardly unheard of—in the 1880s, the British shipped 19 tons of mummified cats from Egypt to Liverpool and turned them into fertilizer, but we have precious few stories about embittered spectral tabbies—but the characters must escape their home and its hot-and-cold-running special effects as one would exit a runaway dark ride. In doing so, they don’t evolve in any sense. Thus, a key moment, when the house appears to have a letch, telepathically raising mom Diane’s (JoBeth Williams, 33 and playing mother to an actress, Dominique Dunn, she would have had to give birth to at 11—la plus ça change, Hollywood) oversized football jersey to reveal her panties, is played for comedy rather than as an attempted rape or seduction, either of which would have forced the character into a psychologically complex situation that reflected an all-too-frequent real-life situation.
As Noel Murray showed recently on this site, the film is less interested in exploring such implications of haunting than in presenting an amped-up satire on how tidy suburban living is just the thin veneer we throw over the chaos and corruption of daily life. In this it’s successful, at least early on, but it doesn’t leave the viewer anyone with whom to hold onto or empathize. “Poltergeist doesn’t have a structure; it has only a situation, and a bunch of flapping loose ends,” Pauline Kael wrote in her review of the film. “[Spielberg] is just throwing ideas and effects at us.” It’s a lost opportunity; the haunted house allows for the exploration of so much more, because in stories that truly embrace its possibilities, The Bad Place serves the same function that capricious fate or an angry and irrational god serves in other fiction, wreaking changes on its captives through twisted whimsy. In short, haunted houses are just like life, only more so.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has one of the best opening paragraphs in all of American literature, bar none:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
It’s important to keep this passage in mind when viewing The Haunting, and not just for the pleasure of enjoying quality wordsmithing. Jackson’s authorial voice created a predicament for Robert Wise and his screenwriter, Nelson Gidding, that they couldn’t quite solve. Wise won two Academy Awards for Best Director for doing gigantic, ocean-liner versions of West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). He could build a behemoth film, but he couldn’t steer one—these brontosauri survived on the strength of source material that was good enough to carry the weight the films placed on their backs. (See also: Wise’s Star!, the film that proved “Julie Andrews + Musical + Three-hour running time ≠ Hit,” and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in which a beloved one-hour television series is turned into 2:12 of pure tedium.) Wise was better on smaller, B-ish pictures like The Set-Up, the 1949 noir boxing picture with Robert Ryan, and, in theory, The Haunting. Yet he had never come up against a problem of adaptation like Jackson’s novel.
Book and film retain the same basic structure. As explained in a Cliffs Notes opening sequence, Hill House, an intensely ugly and baroque mansion, was built in the late 19th century by Hugh Crain to house his wife and daughter. Immediately upon its completion, it was the site of the wife’s death. A second wife died of “a fall” under undisclosed circumstances. Nonetheless, the daughter, Miss Crain, was raised in the house and eventually lived there on her own, never marrying but eventually taking “a girl from the village to live with her, as a kind of companion.” Given the themes of the film, the qualifier kind of is open-ended. The aging Miss Crain died, possibly after being neglected by the companion. She inherited the house, but later hung herself from a towering spiral staircase in the library. Since then, anyone who has tried to stay in Hill House hasn’t lasted more than a few days. “The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”
Naturally, that’s just the kind of place anthropologist turned paranormal investigator Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) has been looking for. He arranges to rent Hill House in the name of science and invites two supernaturally sensitive types who he thinks might stimulate the house into action, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), who has had a “poltergeist experience”—showers of stone fell on her house for three days when she was 10 years old—and Theodora (Claire Bloom), who has a touch of ESP. They’re joined by the rakish Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), who is there to represent the owners, make sure Dr. Markham isn’t shacking up with the girls, and provide comedy relief.
The mousy, closed-off, desperately needy Eleanor is the main character, and everything that happens in The Haunting is filtered through her point of view. With a few exceptions, including a climactic climb up the aforementioned staircase, not a lot that’s visual happens in Hill House or The Haunting. The forward plot movement is provided by the way Eleanor experiences the house and the people around her. A 32-year-old who has spent her entire adult life caring for her domineering invalid mother, Eleanor boards with her older sister, brother-in-law, and niece, sleeping on their couch and being treated like a child. Everything about her is latent, possibly including the cause of those falling stones, and she’s anxious to leave for Hill House without even knowing the purpose of the trip or the mansion’s history. She wants to go somewhere, do something, be desired by somebody. The novel is a third-person narrative, but its sine qua non is Eleanor’s obsessive thoughts about herself.
Thus Eleanor was simultaneously the novel’s greatest asset and the film’s greatest liability. Wise and Gidding showed the book great respect in the sheer amount of Jackson’s internal narration that is imported to the film, but their method of doing so, giving Eleanor echoing voiceover monologues, is hardly cinematic. Julie Harris is very good in the role, but she’s also hamstrung by having to provide an in-film commentary track. Not allowed to act what she’s feeling, she simply tells us. Harris is sometimes left with little to do but stare while allowing time for these auditory thought bubbles to play out, coming off like Jennifer Elise Cox doing her paranoid-schizophrenic Jan in The Brady Bunch Movie or the woman in the 1970s television commercial who is shaken when Jim has an unprecedented second cup of coffee.
It’s possible to read Eleanor’s tug of war with the house, a place she initially fears and then decides she belongs, as an extrusion of Jackson’s own psychological struggle between a yearning for independence and a dominated domesticity that included both a hypercritical mother and a patronizing husband, but Wise fills that space in the story by taking Theodora’s implied lesbianism from the book and running with it. It was 1963, so a lot was laid between the lines, but the sexual choice offered to Eleanor is still hard to miss. So is more than a hint of disapproval. Markway denies that Hill House is haunted, but concedes it’s “diseased, sick, crazy… a deranged house isn’t a bad way of putting it.”
So does a deranged house object to a woman finding happiness in a member of her own sex? It’s hard to tell because of the sidelong way the movie approaches the then-controversial subject. Theo’s attempted seduction is never close to overt, confined to sidelong glances and passive-aggressively sardonic comments that make her desires clear. At one point Eleanor asks Theo what she’s afraid of. “Of knowing what I really want,” she replies. Shortly thereafter, Theo tells her, “By the time I’m through with you, Nell, you’ll be a different person.”
After Eleanor and Theo’s first night together—spent in separate bedrooms with a connecting bath, though eventually they move into together, pushing twin beds together—something or someone scrawls the words, “Help Eleanor come home” on one of the house’s interior walls. The possibility that Eleanor wrote it herself just makes interpretation more complicated. With no real home to go to, the choice of final destination would seem to be either Hill House or Theo. Theodora, so cool she goes just by that one name, beautiful, witty, and clad in then-hip designer clothes, would captivate anyone; Eleanor wants Theo’s attention, but not necessarily in that way. She’s also so repressed she can barely bring herself to wear slacks, let alone articulate a mature sexual thought, so it’s possible a further opening, an acceptance of home, is just an epiphany away. On yet another hand, Eleanor also tells herself that “journeys end in lovers meeting,” and Theo is the first character of significance she meets.
It may be that Hill House is in competition with Theo for Eleanor’s affection. The film’s supernatural events tend to occur whenever the women are alone together. As Patricia White wrote in her essay, “Female Spectator, Lesbian Specter” (in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, Diana Fuss, ed.), “In The Haunting we never see the ghost, but we do see the lesbian.” After the beds are pushed together and Eleanor thinks she is clutching Theo’s hand against the house (“Don’t let it know you’re in my room,” she whispers), she suddenly finds herself clear across the room as if the two were forcibly separated. Conversely, there’s this strange tease: Hill House’s conservatory contains a statuary grouping depicting St. Francis curing the lepers, including two women standing close together. Theo observes that the statues could represent the four exploring the house. She assigns herself the role of the deceased Miss Crain and Eleanor the role of her “kind of” companion. At this point Luke goes to touch her and she snaps, “Keep your hands to yourself!” Unfazed, he looks at her appraisingly and says, “Ooh, more than meets the eye”—he has belatedly taken note of Theo’s sexual orientation. As the characters depart the room, the camera doesn’t follow them. Instead, it rises up over the statues, revealing another perspective in which one of the female statues appears to be caressing the other’s breasts.
All of this confusion culminates in a shockingly candid, but in today’s more liberal climate highly bigoted, confrontation between the two women. It begins when Theo calls Eleanor an innocent:
“I’d rather be innocent than like you.”
“You know perfectly well what I mean.”
“The world is full of inconsistencies, unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes they’re called—you, for instance.”
When Dr. Markway’s wife (Lois Maxwell of James Bond fame) appears unexpectedly and then vanishes within the house, Eleanor is driven mad by jealousy; the only choice left is Theo, and that’s not a choice. The film gently implies that perhaps suicide is preferable to lesbianism. At film’s end, Jackson’s beginning narration is repeated by Eleanor, with one alteration: “And we who walk here, walk alone.” It’s a contradiction in terms, but in some ways it’s an appropriate summing up of a character who, having been prevented from being someone, can’t figure out how to be anyone.
Richard Matheson, the author of the novel Hell House as well as the screenwriter for the film adaptation, had a long and fruitful relationship with Hollywood, including (but not limited to) adaptations of novels and stories I Am Legend (filmed three times to date), The Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes, Bid Time Return (filmed in 1980 as Somewhere in Time), “Duel” (Spielberg’s first film), and “Steel” (2011’s Real Steel) as well as 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Unlike many of these visualizations, The Legend of Hell House seems to have come and gone in the summer of 1973 without attracting much notice, and no doubt the release of The Exorcist later that same year consigned most other horror films released that year to the memory hole (the exceptions were Don’t Look Now and, after a long, slow build, The Wicker Man). Nevertheless, it’s more effective than most in depicting the haunted house as the object and the characters as the subject.
The basic setup of Hell House in both its incarnations is similar to that of Hill House right down to the alliterative title, and proceeds as if Matheson wanted to tell an earthier, more direct version of the same story. Four investigators—Dr. Lionel Barrett, a skeptical physicist (Clive Revill); Ann, his clinging wife (Gayle Hunnicutt); Florence Tanner, a devoutly Christian medium (Pamela Franklin); and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a former psychic prodigy, now middle-aged and suffering from PTSD (Roddy McDowall), will spend a week in Belasco House, “The Mount Everest of haunted houses” in the hope of proving or disproving the existence of life after death.
Belasco House was the domain of 6-foot-5 munitions heir Emeric Belasco, “The Roaring Giant,” who was kind of a combination of an omnisexual version of Hugh Hefner and Aleister Crowley. Gathering a cult of personality around himself and sealing them into the house, Belasco’s circle eventually descended into, as Fischer puts it, “Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” Belasco was not always a participant, but moved unseen among his guests, observing their debauchery. When the house was finally opened, his body was not found among the dead. Since then, anyone who was attempted to explore Belasco House has either been killed or driven insane by what seems like a whole army of evil spirits.
Belasco House is depicted as dark, stifling, and obsessed with sex. Every room has an erotic artwork on the wall or a dirty book on the shelf. There claustrophobic interiors provoke the same closed-in feeling one gets watching the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of The Earth—once you’re in it’s a long hopeless climb back to the surface. The difference is that James Mason and Pat Boone weren’t being bombarded with pictures of people fingering themselves the entire time.
Belasco House divides and conquers its explorers by preying on their weaknesses. For the two women, that means exploring their sexuality. Dr. Barrett’s struggle with the house is the clichéd one of skeptic against inexplicably flying furniture. Revill, perhaps best remembered today for being the original Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back, plays him as annoyed with the whole project from the outset, even though it’s ostensibly his field of study. Fischer, the sole survivor of a previous expedition, is determined not to challenge the house at all. The men know who they are, and their sexual identities are not tested.
Not so the women, who become the film’s monsters. In adapting his novel to film, Matheson pruned almost all of the characters’ back stories and veils sexual interactions he dealt with explicitly in the book, so the viewer is left to wonder about the why of the women’s sexual vulnerabilities and must also infer just what has happened in certain scenes key to the plot. It’s an oddly prim posture for a film released in 1973, the same year a 14-year-old Linda Blair would be masturbating with a crucifix in cinemas nationwide and Marlon Brando had (simulated) anal sex with Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris. This decision leaves a little too much room for Revill to say things like, “Premature retraction of ectoplasm causing brief systemic shock,” a line that sounds as if it might have been cut from Ghostbusters, but there’s still enough left to see the transformation theme at work.
Ann, the physicist’s wife, is sexually unmoored under the house’s influence. The book has her struggling with a nagging attraction to Florence, her husband’s bouts of impotence, and a history of sexual abuse, but 10 years after The Haunting played it coy with such matters Hell House is still too shy to include any motivation, so in the film she’s just indiscriminately horny. Late at night, when Fischer is alone brooding, she slinks into view in a semitransparent robe, caressing the breasts on a statue as she appears. Without preamble she throws her arms around Fischer, panting, and moans, with rising intensity, “You… me… that girl… Lionel… all together… naked… drunk… clutching… sweating… biting!” then throws off her robe. Fischer, as played by McDowall, both recognizes what is happening and is distinctly uninterested. He slaps her.
Later she makes a second approach to Fischer, telling him they are where “all that debauchery and vice” happened. She forces Fischer’s hand to her breast. When he yanks it away, she pulls her robe open and yells angrily, “Touch me! Touch me or I’ll find somebody who will!” (In the novel it’s, “Suck them, you fairy bastard, or I’ll get myself a woman who will!”) At this point, they are interrupted, which they have to be to maintain the film’s weird sense of discretion. Ann ineptly begs Lionel’s forgiveness. “I just don’t know why I went down those stairs. I knew what I was doing. I knew, but at the same time, I… Please, please don’t hate me. I need you. I love you.” Lionel’s half-hearted, “I love you, too,” suggests that he has heard the internal conflict to which she is confessing. “It’ll pass after we’ve left this house,” he says, but it’s clear they both think he’s lying.
Pamela Franklin, who back in 1969 nearly stole The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from Maggie Smith as a sexually precocious student here plays a medium who is almost nun-like in her religiosity. Cloaked in chaste black dresses and big crosses, Florence Tanner believes in grace and redemption. Her initial response to the ghosts seem to be that of a teenage girl bored by pigtail-pulling boys. This is true even after one of them savagely bites chunks out of her breasts. She interprets this as a misguided expression of loneliness, and comes to accept that she can free one of what she believes to be one of many ghosts imprisoned in the house if she consents to have sex with it. This results in rape, degradation, possession, and a final obscene rebuke of her faith, but really this is all just piling on—Florence’s character arc concludes the moment she says yes.
In The Shining, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) a former schoolteacher and frustrated writer who is also a recovering alcoholic with anger-management problems, is hired to be the winter caretaker for the grand Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado. An institution since 1907, the Hotel closes for five months of the year due to snow closing the roads, and Torrance will move in with his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and five-year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) and watch over the boiler, heat the building’s various wings, and repair weather damage as it happens. The job comes with a warning: The Hotel’s isolation can be brutal, and a previous caretaker, Charles Grady (or is it Delbert? One of the film’s many disorienting effects is that names change) went mad, killing his wife and two daughters with an axe. “Stacked them neatly in one of the rooms in the west wing,” says Hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), and then “he put both barrels of a shot gun in his mouth.” Jack insists that won’t be a problem for him as he’s outlining a new book and isolation is what he desires.
In actuality, the Overlook is too crowded to provide much peace, filled by a malevolent entity that plays head games with an increasingly susceptible Jack. It shows him scenes from the Hotel’s long, bloody past, which exist in a timeless overlay in which every death, party, and deadly party are happening at once. He all too easily gives himself over to the Hotel’s milieu, where he can pretend he’s a carefree bon vivant instead of a blocked writer in a dead-end job. By this willing surrender a troubled man struggling to be good is replaced by a homicidal maniac.
Unlike the 1977 novel on which it is based, Kubrick’s film is full of jagged edges that don’t quite align. Despite its elegant photographic compositions and graceful use of Steadicam tracking shots, the latter of which still have the power to entrance today, it’s a jigsaw puzzle without a solution. Much ink has been spilled (not to mention a two-hour documentary made) over its symbols, odd chronology, unresolved ending, underdeveloped relationships, and barely touched-upon mythology. At least some of it was willful on the part of the tightly controlling writer-director (Kubrick coscripted with the novelist Diane Johnson), who flips off any audience member who might be anticipating explanations for the films actions by devoting an extravagant amount of screen time to the cross-country journey from Miami to Colorado of the one character (Scatman Crothers’ telepathic chef, Dick Hallorann) who might be able to decode the events, only to kill him off the moment he arrives.
It’s beyond our purpose to relitigate those controversies here, nor the film’s many departures from King’s book. Rather, let’s stick with what is certain: Jack has a drinking problem and a surfeit of barely-controlled rage and resentment. This combination of attributes imbues him with the potential to do great evil. Late in the film, a version—ghost or hallucination, and with a slightly altered name—of the previous caretaker, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), denies his identity, telling Jack, “I’m sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker.” The simplest explanation of that impossibility (the hotel has been around since 1907, the story is set in contemporary times) is that the essential qualities of the Overlook Hotel’s caretaker are madness and murder. The ember of these qualities existed in Jack and has been fanned into flame by the Hotel. Thus, for all practical purposes, he has always been the caretaker, even if he wasn’t the caretaker until now. Jack has not been wholly altered by the Overlook so much as tweaked.
The Overlook Hotel, then, whatever the origins of its malevolence—an allusion to having been built on a Indian burial ground goes by so quickly a viewer might fail to note it, and it is never referred to again though the sets are suffused with Native American iconography—is merely catalytic, its purposes as unknowable and irrelevant as that of a virus. In the novel, King devotes much time to the Hotel’s history of murder and debaucherous parties as a source of its sentience and evil, finally settling for an answer very similar to the one Matheson provided in Hell House. Does the hotel have ghosts, Jack Torrance is asked. He answers:
“I don’t know. Not in the Algernon Blackwood sense, that’s for sure. More like the residues of the feelings of the people who have stayed here. Good things and bad things. In that sense, I suppose that every big hotel has got its ghosts.”
In short, it doesn’t matter. The story isn’t about that. It’s about Jack coming undone. The Overlook Hotel is merely the agent of his final decompensation. Attempts by later viewers to knit a greater theme out of bits imported from the novel, Kubrickian stylistic quirks, intentional and not (as Freud’s cigar was sometimes just a cigar, sometimes a continuity error is just a continuity error), and a certain lassitude created by the director’s studio-bound British exile and the film’s elephantine gestation, result in readings that miss the forest for the hexagonal orange carpeting. While the film is still effective, it’s not necessarily coherent, a weakness that allows for the superimposition of themes from the slaughter of the Native Americans or an evocation of the Holocaust. Whereas in the novel’s Jack fights his transformation, the Kubrick/Nicholson Torrance leans into it. The family relationship hardly articulated, Duvall’s character reduced to a fluting lightweight at the best of times and a screaming victim at the worst, Kubrick neuters the emotional impact of the story which is, among many things, about the transition of a child into adult awareness prompted by the realization that mommy and daddy are flawed, fallible beings who will disappoint him. The Overlook Hotel is the catalyst, not the reaction.
There are high entertainments and low. Some haunted house stories are content to have a man in a sheet jump out from behind a wall and shout, “Boo!” Others are vehicles for more complex explorations of the human mind. The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland begins this way: “When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls, whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still, that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight…” It’s a promising start, but what the ghosts will do is just the beginning. It’s how you respond that is truly frightening.