Greatest Film Scenes
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The Haunting (1963)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Haunting (1963, US/UK)

In director/producer Robert Wise's and MGM's classic, effective, low-key haunted-house cult film, based upon Shirley Ann Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House - it featured low-key, atmospheric, suggestive horror through clever editing and camerawork, similar to Val Lewton's horror masterpieces and The Innocents (1961, UK); it was about paranormal (ESP and supernatural) research conducted in New England's 90 year-old Hill House mansion, with many disturbing scenes ("The dead are not quiet in Hill House").

[Note: A remake was also made, director Jan de Bont's The Haunting (1999), starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luke Wilson. Later, Burnt Offerings (1976) was a similar film. The film techniques with rapid editing cuts, strange angular shots, and fast zooms were later employed in films such as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy.]

  • in the film's spooky opening narrated prologue (pre- and post-title credits), the haunted history of Hill House was explained (in voice-over) by paranormal researcher Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson). He told how New Englander Hugh Crain (Howard Lang) had originally built the Hill House mansion for his young wife, the first Mrs. Crain (Pamela Buckley). Just seconds before she arrived at the house, however, she was killed in an accident with a crashed wagon. There continued to be a history of death within the house for generations to come. "An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there walked alone. Scandal, murder, insanity, suicide. The history of Hill House was ideal. It had everything I wanted. It was built 90-odd, very odd, years ago by a man named Hugh Crain, as a home for his wife and daughter in the most remote part of New England he could find. It was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad. Hugh Crain's young wife died seconds before she was to set eyes on the house. She was killed when for no apparent reason, the horses bolted, crashing her carriage against a big tree. Mrs. Crain was carried, uh, lifeless is the word I think, into the home her husband had built for her. Hugh Crain was left an embittered man, with a small daughter Abigail (Janet Mansell), to bring up. Fortunately, for me that is, Hugh Crain did not leave Hill House. He married again. The second Mrs. Crain's (Frieda Knorr) death was even more interesting than her predecessors. I've been unable to find out how or why she fell, although I have my suspicions. Hugh Crain left Abigail with a nurse and went to England where he died in a drowning accident. Marvelous, I mean, the way the history of Hill House follows a classic path. For some reason, Abigail always kept that same nursery room in Hill House where she grew up - and grew old. In later years, she became a bed-ridden invalid (Amy Dalby). She took a girl from the village to live with her as a paid care-taker companion (Rosemary Dorken). It's with this young companion the evil reputation of Hill House really begins. The story goes that the old lady died calling for help in the nursery upstairs, while her companion fooled around with a farm-hand on the veranda. The companion inherited Hill House and occupied it for many years. The local people believe that, one way or another, she had murdered her benefactor. She lived a life of complete solitude in the empty house, though some say that the house was not empty and never has been since the night old Miss Abby died. They say that whatever there was and still is in the house, eventually drove the companion mad. We do know she hanged herself. After her death, the house passed legally into the hands of a distant relative in Boston, an old lady Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton), who I very much wanted to see"
Voice-Over Prologue: The Haunted History of Hill House

Mrs. Crain's Death

2nd Mrs. Crain's Death

Young Abigail Crain

Older Bedridden Abigail (Amy Dalby)
Abigail's Evil Care-taker Companion (Rosemary Dorken)
  • in the story, anthropologist and psychic investigator Dr. John Markway was leading a research team investigating New England's infamous 90 year old Hill House ("It was an evil house from the beginning, a house that was born bad") with a history of violent 'accidents.' Over a weekend visit to the house, his scientific experimental study was designed to stir up or "stimulate" any occult forces that resided there, and to discover the presence of the supernatural. The strange and unfriendly caretakers of the house, the sinister Dudleys (Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley), were a married couple who lived in town and would never spend an overnight at Hill House
  • there were frightening scenes of terror in the rented Victorian New England Hill House during a weekend research study conducted by Dr. Markway - with three participants:
    • Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a skeptical, cynical, materialistic, and brash American - and a playboyish nephew of the house's owners, and the next in line to inherit the house
    • Eleanor "Nell" Lance (Julie Harris), 32 years old, an unstable, timid, insecure, unloved, psychically-gifted woman; experienced with poltergeists; she continually had disturbing inner monologues throughout the film, and was still recovering (and guilt-ridden) from her mother's recent death
    • Theodora "Theo" (Claire Bloom), beautiful and bright, uninhibited, a modern-day 'witch' with clairvoyance and ESP skills, and lesbian-leaning with a predatory sexual interest in Nell
    • [Note: Grace Markway (Lois Maxwell), Markway's disbelieving and hard-headed wife, joined the group later.]
  • there were many scenes of the discovery of the imposing house's spooky noises and strange supernatural and alive nature, with loud hammerings and poundings, high-pitched laughter, bangings, the many opening and closing doors, cold spots and drafts, a 'breathing' doorway (and turning doorknob), sounds of glass breaking, and other noises; Nell almost fell off the veranda early in the film and was saved by Dr. Markway, and she wrongly interpreted his attentiveness as romantic

"Nell" Scared in Room in Middle of Night

Nell: "Hold my hand, Theo. And for God's sake, don't scream"

Adjacent Wall in Room (With a Leaf Pattern and the Shape of a Face)
  • in the film's scariest scene - the film's most memorable set-piece, after awakening from sleep, Eleanor "Nell" looked across her dark room at a moonlit wall on the other side of the room (with intricate leaf patterns that formed a face); she began to hear mysterious and strange sounds including unintelligible, muffled mumblings of a man and deranged female laughter; she asked her nearby roommate Theodora "Theo" in the adjacent bed: "Are you awake? Don't say a word, Theo. Not a word. Don't let it know you're in my room"; then she asked to hold Theo's hand for comfort: "Hold my hand, Theo. And for God's sake, don't scream"; when the man's threatening sermonizing and the female's laughter stopped, Nell asked: "Is it over? Do you think it's over?"; she asked Theodora to stop squeezing her hand: ("Theo. You're breaking my hand")
  • the sounds commenced again, however, this time with the shrill crying of an agonized young child being hurt in some unexplained way; Nell (in voice-over) reacted to the pain suffered by the child: ("This is monstrous. This is cruel. It is hurting a Child, and I will not let anyone, anything, hurt a child. I won't endure this. It thinks to scare me. Well, it has, and poor Theo too. Honestly, it feels like she's breaking my hand. I will take a lot from this filthy house for his sake, but I will not go along with hurting a child. No, I will not. I will get my mouth to open right now, and I will yell, I will yell, I will yell")

"Nell's" Scream

"Nell" Sitting Up in Fright in a Divan

Theo Across the Room Next to an Empty Bed

"Nell's" Outstretched Hand Gripping Nothing

"Nell" Looking Down at Her Hand

"God, oh God! Whose hand was I holding?"
  • Nell finally managed to scream, sat up in bed, and turned on the lights, causing the voices to stop; and then she realized that somehow, she had ended up on a divan next to the wall, and that Theo was sleeping in one of two adjacent beds completely across the room and nowhere near her; she had the mistaken belief that their beds were next to each other; she exclaimed: "God, oh God! Whose hand was I holding?" It became clear that the unseen and invisible presence had squeezed her hand and wanted to claim Nell - the 'haunting' horror had selected her and that she had finally found a "home"; at times, however, she did suspect her own state of mind ("Maybe I am insane")
  • in the climactic scary ending, Mrs. Grace Markway (Lois Maxwell), John's wife who had unexpectedly arrived to spend the night, inexplicably disappeared while sleeping in the much-feared, most-haunted room - the dreaded nursery; during a search for her, "Nell" ascended the rickety, corkscrew-spiraling iron staircase in the library (with a round tower) - a sexual symbol. Dr. Markway followed her up to its top platform to rescue her; when they both reached the platform at the top of the nearly-collapsed, unsafe, risky and swaying structure, the distraught "Nell" saw Grace's face peering down at her from a trap-door in the ceiling at them, and fainted. Dr. Markway feared for Nell's safety and ordered her to leave Hill House immediately, although Nell was resistant
  • in the inevitable ending-conclusion, Nell felt that the house was haunted, wanted to possess her and take advantage of her, was speaking to her, and that she belonged to it; Dr. Markway forced her to drive away immediately; she sped away in a car in the driveway toward the gate. Taking an erratic course as the car became possessed, she saw Grace racing across her path. Struggling with the steering wheel, Nell crashed her car into an old oak tree - and instantly died in exactly the same spot that the first Mrs. Crain did; whether her death was intentional suicide or not was left up to the viewer
  • Dr. Markway declared that Hill House was definitely haunted. Nell's soul was claimed and now condemned (or invited) to join the other ghostly forces roaming the dark corridors of Hill House
  • Nell's voice-over ended the film, similar to the film's prologue: "Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here...walk alone."

Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson)

Markway's Invitation of Guests

Hill House

Hill House's Winding, Spiral Staircase

Eleanor "Nell" Lance (Julie Harris)

Theodora "Theo" (Claire Bloom)

Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn)

Unseen Force Causing the Wooden Door to Bow or Breathe Inward and Outward

(l to r): "Theo" and "Nell" Cowering Together Because of the "Breathing" Door and Other Thundering Noises

Nell Climbing Staircase

Grace's Sudden Appearance in Trap-Door

Nell's Jump-Scare Reaction to Grace's Face

Nell's Death: Crash into Tree


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