Originally posted at The Alternative Chronicle
I love haunted house and ghost stories. Even though I don’t believe in them, ghosts are pretty much the only thing that can scare me these days (that and heights… and misandrists). I enjoy being scared but good ghost stories are few and far between. So when a great one comes around, it’s a real treat. Not only is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House one of the best ghost stories in all of literature, it’s also the source of two film adaptations. One in 1963, one in 1999. One fantastically great, one fantastically awful. Don’t look behind you, but book and movie spoilers are coming!
(that was the spoilers)
History – Ghost Story
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality[…]. 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.
So begins the most frightening book I’ve ever read. Jackson wrote the novel in 1959 and just four years later it was made into a film by Academy Award winning director Robert Wise. His credits include classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Its title shortened to just The Haunting (possibly to avoid confusion with William Castle’s 1959 film House on Haunted Hill), the film stayed close to the book and starred actors Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tablyn. While its box office run wasn’t strong, it received positive reviews at the time, a Golden Globe nomination, and its reputation has only grown since then. In 1999, Jan de Bont, director of Speed, Twister, and Speed 2: Cruise Control directed a second version of the book which strayed away from the source material. Featuring bombastic special effects and actors Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor, the film’s resulting success was flipped from the original: a box office success, but critically panned, and nominated for five Razzies.
Story – Two Haunted Houses
The story (at least in both the book and the original film) is a tragedy. It is about Eleanor: a shy, broken woman who had, until recently, been caring for her demanding, invalid mother. She can’t seem to fit in anywhere… until she comes to Hill House. She and another woman, Theodora, along with the young heir to the house, Luke, are invited to stay at the house by Dr. Markway, who hopes to conduct a scientific investigation into the allegedly haunted house. Almost immediately, they begin to experience paranormal activity. Banging on doors, writing on the walls, unseen hands gripping people in the dark. Most of it seems centered around Eleanor, and as she becomes more mentally unstable, she also feels more at home. The others start to worry about Eleanor and when her condition causes her to nearly fall to her death, they decide to send her home. She initially resists but as she’s driving away, an unseen force causes her to run the car into a tree, killing her and making her a permanent resident of Hill House.
In the 1999 version, Eleanor has a similar background as in the original, and a group of four gather at Hill House; but this time Dr. Marrow makes them believe they are there for a study on insomnia. What he’s really doing is a study on fear. He doesn’t know that the house is actually haunted, he just thinks the stories about it will provide good fodder for the subjects. Soon enough, things do start going bump in the night, and Eleanor begins to feel like she belongs here. And before you can say “special effects extravaganza”, ghosts are pouring out of the walls and the house itself starts attacking the people within. Eleanor discovers that the first owner of the house, Hugh Crain, was a horribly cruel man who killed scores of children, and their spirits are still trapped inside the house. Not only that, but she’s actually a descendant of the family and only she can free the innocent spirits. Owen Wilson gets decapitated by the house and Eleanor is killed by Crain so that he can be dragged into Hell. For her noble sacrifice, she is carried into Heaven by the ghostly children.
Style – Subtlety and Spectacle
In my opinion, the most effective ghost stories are the ones where the paranormal entities are largely unseen. The unknown is much scarier than anything the filmmakers could put onscreen. As humans, we rely most on our sense of sight, so when that is stripped away our imaginations go crazy trying to picture what it is that’s causing those disembodied moans. One of the reasons The Blair Witch Project is so effective is that we are left to imagine the person or thing that is stalking these people. The other aspect of this is that you can’t fight what you can’t see. Freddy Krueger might look scary but because we can see him, there’s at least a glimmer of hope that we can understand him and figure out how to fight back. How do you fight a ghost?*
This is what makes the original film great. We hear the ghosts plenty but we never actually see one. It means that we can’t predict what they will do next or just how much danger these characters are in. It also calls Eleanor’s sanity into question. How much of her experiences are truly paranormal and how much is it merely her fragile mind snapping under pressure? Did the house kill Eleanor or did she kill herself? There are no definitive answers. We leave Hill House knowing little more than when we first entered it, the evil within still unresolved and not fully understood.
Alas, the ghosts in Jan de Bont’s version are paraded before us, treated more like special effects set pieces than anything really scary. There is but one moment in which ghosts make noise but don’t appear. Every other time, they are fully rendered in horrible CGI. By the end of the movie we understand Eleanor, the house, and the evil within completely. Everything gets wrapped up in a tidy little bow.
It seems as though de Bont doesn’t understand what makes ghosts scary. He also doesn’t seem to know what makes a haunted house scary. In the original film, Robert Wise… erm… wisely kept the inside of the house dark and cramped. The hallways are a confusing labyrinth with little to distinguish one room from another and no windows to the outside. Even before the ghosts start knocking on walls, the house feels oppressive, like it’s pressing in on the characters. Going the complete opposite direction, de Bont made everything in the house enormous. Footsteps echo, giant hallways stretch on forever, and huge statues sneer down at the puny humans. The grandeur of the architecture draws too much attention to itself. It’s nice to look at but it’s not scary. Where in the original, Hill House looked like a place people would actually live in, the 1999 version feels more like The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. I mean, there’s a giant, revolving, mirrored, merry-go-round room for God’s sake!
Results – What Goes Bump in the Night?
Basically what it comes down to is subtlety vs spectacle. Wise’s Haunting is dark, mysterious and tragic where de Bont’s Haunting is overblown, obvious, and schmaltzy. Wise wants to scare you while de Bont wants to impress you. Do you watch a horror movie to be scared or impressed? Your answer to that question will tell you which version you might like better. Very few movies successfully blend the seen and the unseen. 1982’s Poltergeist and 2010’s Insidious are some of the best but, for the reasons explained above, it is the subtler parts of these films that work more effectively. It’s too bad that 1999’s Haunting isn’t a better movie because the sets really are impressive, but the only thing that might actually scare you is the horrible acting.
What movies should I watch and compare next? Let me know in the comments.
*For argument’s sake, let’s just assume the Ghostbusters aren’t picking up the phone.