For this Halloween’s Book Versus Film, we’re visiting one of fiction’s premier haunted houses. It has stood for sixty years, and might stand for sixty more. Within, walls meet at odd angles, floors don’t lead where they should, and doors shut by themselves; and whatever walks there… well, if you’re brave enough to step inside Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, we shall see…
Four people choose to spend their summer in Hill House, hoping to prove the supernatural exists. But one of their number is soon marked out by the house, and over the course of several days it isolates her from the others, determined to make her a permanent resident.
Aside from introductions to our four houseguests, the book is told from Eleanor Vance’s viewpoint. She’s spent 11 years looking after her recently departed mother, and now finds herself, at 32, painfully shy and living with her married sister. Life was filled with summer days until her father died 20 years ago; since then, Eleanor counts each summer as another year wasted – so it’s no coincidence she makes her bid for freedom on 21st June: the summer solstice (a Thursday, setting the book in 1956). Eleanor’s inner monologue brims with wonder at her escape, but as Hill House exerts its influence her thoughts take a darker turn. When she begins her journey, her car is “a little contained world all her own” – a telling insight, as the ending will reveal.
Theodora – just Theodora – earns her place by an uncanny knack for predicting cards. A bohemian artist, Theo’s attraction to Eleanor is hinted at, though Jackson is careful not to ‘out’ her (she wrote this shortly after the start of the Lavender Scare: the McCarthy-era homosexual witch-hunt). Theo embodies everything Eleanor lacks, a duality that Jackson has used elsewhere, so it’s natural these two are paired together throughout.
Luke Sanderson, nephew of the house’s owner, is there to keep an eye on proceedings (and himself out of mischief). He arrives with the certainty ghosts don’t exist, unlike the group’s final member, the person running the experiment, Dr John Montague. He yearns to add a sheen of respectability to the supernatural, but for all his research he is ill-prepared for what the house has in store for them…
When Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House, she was best known for her short story The Lottery. Much of what bedevils Eleanor comes from Jackson’s own experience. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, suffered from anxiety throughout her life, and felt ostracised by her community (Eleanor’s mom claimed the neighbours were against them). But these parallels are not what inspired her to write it. No, that’s down to the Society for Psychic Research.
Having long been interested in the paranormal – quite wonderfully, the author bio for the first edition describes her as “perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch” – Jackson read the Society’s reports on a haunted house investigation, and wanted to invent her own. Whilst researching, she found pictures of a haunted-looking house in California… only to discover her great-great grandfather built it.
From the first paragraph, Jackson takes care to present Hill House as a living thing. In her celebrated opening she writes “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills…”; windows are watchful, cornices are described as eyebrows, and no opportunity is missed to remind us this house is different. It is variously described as vile, diseased, and leprous – something the film alludes to, by including a statue of St Francis curing the lepers.
The history of Hill House is not revealed until we’re almost a third of the way through, but the hints beforehand, along with Montague’s claim it’s better to hear it in daylight, deftly builds expectation. The film gives us this at the very beginning, and whilst it makes sense – unsettling the audience before the main cast are introduced, and avoiding intrusive flashbacks – the book’s use of anticipation is more effective.
There are also several scenes set in the grounds. Eleanor and Theo discover a brook, only to be frightened by movement on the far side. Theo claims it was a rabbit, but we’re not certain she’s being honest. A few nights later they return there, and experience the story’s most visible supernatural activity, culminating in a ghostly family having a picnic. Eleanor has a final scene there, witnessing invisible footsteps crush grass before wading through water to the other side – possibly the ‘rabbit’ from before – but by now she isn’t afraid; her fears have transformed into neuroses at what the others think of her. Hill House is no longer the enemy.
If the book has one weakness, it’s the introduction of Mrs Montague towards the end. She’s also obsessed with the supernatural, but has little time for her husband’s scientific pursuits; her preference is for automatic writing, for making wild assumptions, for constantly chastising John’s methods. This does create one terrific scene – when the ghost ‘reveals’ its name – but her repeated claims of nuns walled up alive releases too much of the tension.
Published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House received glowing reviews. It was a finalist for 1960’s National Book Award, and is often called literature’s greatest haunted-house story – not bad for a novel that eschews shocks for drip-fed atmosphere. It is cited as the scariest book by many, including Neil Gaiman, and lauded for its elegant writing, with Stephen King describing the opening paragraph as possibly the finest ever written.
For such a highly regarded story, it’s no surprise there are several adaptations. It has been translated to the stage, film (twice) and television, but for this I will concentrate on the first film, 1963’s The Haunting, as it stays closest to Jackson’s story.
When Superman: The Movie opened in 1978, its tagline proclaimed: “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Practical special-effects were in their hay-day, and seeing really was believing. But with that came a downside – what if the thing onscreen does not meet your expectations? As audacious as HR Giger’s Alien designs were, that final metamorphosis cannot escape being a man in a suit. Then, seeing becomes disbelieving.
But seeing is only one of the five senses (six, if you’re Haley Joel Osment), and stories – especially scary stories – were being told long before films existed. It’s something Robert Wise, in post-production on West Side Story (for which he won his first Best Director Oscar), understood. He saw a Time magazine review of Jackson’s book, read it, and knew he had to make it into a film.
If he seemed an odd choice for director, Wise had that rare knack of mastering any genre. He’d already made The Day The Earth Stood Still and would go on to make The Sound of Music (and that second Best Director Oscar), but Wise started out directing low budget horrors for Val Lewton – from whom he learned audiences are more afraid of the unknown than what they can see – shortly after editing Citizen Kane.
Screenwriter Nelson Gidding suggested the story takes place inside Eleanor’s head, with the other characters being staff and patients at the hospital where she is staying – an idea that possibly originated from this comment by Eleanor: “All three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real”. Jackson liked his idea but confirmed the house and its ghosts were real. However, the script remains as much an exploration of Eleanor’s psyche as of Hill House itself; their symbiosis exemplified by an unsafe spiral staircase, the perfect mirror (in a house full of them) for Eleanor’s deteriorating mental state.
Wise brought the film to Britain, where MGM in London funded the million-plus budget. The house exteriors were filmed at Ettington Park (now a hotel), and several shots emphasised a pair of windows as eyes; coupled with statues, busts, and cherubic door-handles throughout the superb sets, the feeling Hill House is always watching becomes pervasive.
Julie Harris plays Eleanor, with the right amount of vulnerability to offset her character’s neuroses. Harris struggled with depression at the time, but used it in her performance, although it did lead to her feeling isolated. Claire Bloom is equally good as Theo, bringing a joie de vivre to the role, as well as a more protective side towards Eleanor.
Russ Tamblyn initially turned down the part of Luke, but was persuaded by the studio to reconsider, and would later admit The Haunting was one of his favourite jobs (so much so, he cameos in Netflix’s recent version). Richard Johnson plays a more confident Dr John Markway (changed from Montague), filming during the day whilst appearing on stage each evening in The Devils. Johnson was considered for James Bond, but turned it down – although if he hadn’t, there might have been an interesting dynamic with his on-screen wife here, played by Miss Moneypenny herself, Lois Maxwell. Rounding off a uniformly excellent cast is Rosalie Crutchley as housekeeper Mrs Dudley. She’s only got a few lines, but her delivery does a lot to set the mood.
The most obvious change is the title. Wise asked Jackson if she’d considered any other titles for her book, and there had been one – The Haunting – which he used for the film.
Though largely faithful to Jackson’s story, most scenes set in the grounds are dropped in favour of confining everyone indoors. The whole tale is condensed into three nights too, rather than the eleven nights in the book, but never feels rushed. One reason why is we lose a second occurrence where “Help Eleanor Come Home” appears on the walls, this time in Theo’s bedroom, written in blood. If this was to avoid repetition, and the audience getting restless, the addition of a perfectly executed scare involving a trapdoor is clearly aimed at making us jump out of our collective skins. But if the plot survives largely unscathed, what about the characters?
The first significant divergence is Theodora, whose lesbianism in the book was muted (her ex-partner is never identified by gender) but in the film Theo’s attraction to “my Nell” is obvious – as is her jealousy at Eleanor’s infatuation for Markway, another film addition. Also, whilst Eleanor in the book declares she will go home with Theo only to be told she isn’t wanted, the film’s Theo still plans to take Eleanor and flee Hill House, despite how much their relationship has soured.
The second major change is Grace Markway (formerly Mrs Montague). The film reigns in her excesses – and completely excises her friend, Arthur Parker. She arrives at Hill House not to find ghostly nuns where they aren’t any, but to save her husband’s reputation from a nosy reporter. This Grace suffers John’s obsession with the supernatural rather than shares it, and insists on sleeping in the most haunted room to prove to him that ghosts don’t exist…
The ending is the same, though the film plays it at night, but arriving there is different. The book’s Eleanor intends to crash her car (her little contained world, remember?) into a tree, so desperate is she to remain at Hill House, and only at the last second comes to her senses – too late to save herself. In the film, unseen forces take control of the car as Eleanor drives away, and she resists – initially – but the appearance of Grace on the road makes her swerve, into that tree, implying her death was an accident, more palatable to filmgoers perhaps. The book is ambiguous as to whether she gets what she desired, but the film is less coy; in a haunting recap of Markway’s opening soliloquy, Eleanor’s voice tells us that “we who walk there, walk alone.”
The initial reviews were mixed, and only in later years has its reputation grown. Nowadays, The Haunting is considered the scariest film ever made by many, including Martin Scorsese. Stephen King and Steven Spielberg once talked about remaking it; their collaboration never got produced, though King’s version became the miniseries Rose Red, and Spielberg exec-produced the 1999 remake. That film did the one thing the original deliberately avoided: it showed the ghosts. But, as Robert Wise knew, the things in our imagination are scarier – and 1963’s The Haunting proves, possibly more than any other horror film, that sometimes not-seeing is believing.
The book is beautifully written, with long sentences generously sprinkled with commas and semi-colons; just as well, because some passages take your breath away. Likewise, the film is beautifully shot, and has its own methods for making you breathless.
As a horror story, the film wins. The book is un-nerving, but the film is terrifying, and thirty years after I first saw it, nothing has scared me as much. As a character piece, though, the book wins. The film gives a good telling of this aspect, but despite a terrific performance from Harris, Eleanor’s collapse into insanity works better on the page.
So, both book and film play to their strengths. What we have is a story that works just as well on page and screen – therefore, I’m happy to call this one a draw.
BIO: Nick Jackson has had several short stories published, featuring ghosts, bleak future dystopias, and The Great Gatsby. He’s also written several Book V Film comparisons for Lucy, including the last two Halloween specials.