Monday, 13 December 2010

The Haunting (1963)

Fig. 1
This classic "haunted house" film (some argue it is the definitive haunted house film (Romance, 2008)) is an excellent example of how suggested horrors can be at least as frightning (if not more so) than any monster conjured up by the special effects department.  The film opens with a creepy exterior shot of the main setting, Hill House (shot using infra red film to increase the contrast), while a suitably creepy narration sets the mood.  There then follows a potted history of Hill House itself, focussing mainly upon the series of deaths linked to it (each death suggested rather than explicitly depicted).
The interior of Hill House, which forms the setting for most of the action, is a beautifully designed series of sets, full of gothic detailing that help the ominous atmosphere (Samuel, 2010).  In particular, the house is full of old mirrors, their strangely distorted reflections of reality helping to convey a feeling of "otherness" to the audience.  Several times, mirrors in unexpected places catch both the viewer and the cast by surprise, giving momentary impressions of mysterious strangers watching from the shadows.
Fig 2.
Many of the rooms are decorated in dark colours, which coupled with the black and white film help to accentuate the atmosphere of gloom.  However, the film refrains from using the traditional "haunted house" cliches of cobwebs and dust; instead the very cleanness of the empty house serves to unsettle the viewer (Taylor, 2004).
A key feature of the film is the way that most of the shocks are derived from nothing more that a combination of sound effects and camera work, for example the loud noises that terrify the two female stars are achived by loud bangs coupled with sudden zooms towards the door of the room.  This technique of unseen horrors continues throughout the film; for example the mysteriously closing doors are never seen to move, but rather shift silently from open to closed when the camera is looking elsewhere.  Until the denoument of the film, the only part of the house that is actually seen to move is a rickety cast iron spiral staircase in the library/belltower, and this is ambiguous as it could simply be an old and dangerous staircase shifting when someone tries to climb it.
Fig. 3
The director Robert Webb also uses cinematic techniques to heighten the atmosphere of tension at key moments in the film, for example by rolling the camera so that horizontal lines become diagonal, mentally throwing the audience off balance for a moment.  Other key scenes are shot with a large depth of field so both nearby and far off objects are in perfect focus, creating an effect that is never found in nature, and as a result can be unsettling for the audience.

Fig. 4

A final theme that runs through the film is the use of light and shadow to turn everyday objects into sinister shapes.  This is at its strongest in the bedroom scene, when the tiles on the wall morph into a sinister face, staring into the camera as eerie screams echo around the house.  However, there are also many lesser examples, for instance the carved faces that decorate many of the door frames "(seem to be)...hybrid of cherubs and gargoyles depending on the angle and lighting when you glance at them" (Samuel, 2010)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1.   MGM (org) (1963) "The Haunting" Theatrical Poster [digital image] At: (accessed on 07/12/10)

Figure 2.  MGM (org) (1963) The Haunting [film still] At: (accessed on 07/12/10)

Figure 3.  MGM (org) (1963) The Haunting [film still] At: (accessed on 13/12/10)

Figure 4  MGM (org) (1963) The Haunting [film still] At: (accessed on 13/12/10)


Romance, V (2008) The Haunting (1963) In: Fatally Yours [Online] At: (accessed on 13/12/10)

Samuel, P (2010) The Haunting (1963) & The Gothic In: Static Mass Emporium [Online] At: (accessed on 13/12/10)

Taylor, R (2004) The Haunting In: Not coming to a theatre near you [Online] At: (accessed on 13/12/10)

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