Text © Robert
Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet
“What Walks There Walks Alone”: A
Comparison of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Robert
Wise’s The Haunting
While going for my advanced degree in Media Ecology at New York University, I took a class with Professor Joy Boyum, “Fiction into Film,” and wrote this as a report. It matches one of my favorite books with one of my best-loved films. The paper is dated May 5, 1993. Please note for those who have neither read the book or viewed the film, there are spoilers.
“O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear, your true-love’s coming.
That can sing both high and low
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting.
Every wise man’s song doth know.”
– Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 1
Robert Wise’s direction of The Haunting (1963), an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1) (1959), remains one of the more memorable psychological supernatural thrillers brought to the screen. The film’s success has much to do with the cinematic elements brought to the story as the tale itself.
Wise’s choice to not show the apparition(s), with one brief exception a heartbeat long, is an effective tool for presenting a stronger psychological narrative edge to the story that perhaps might have been lost if he had chosen the easier “fright” route of wraith effects. The doorknob jiggling and mysterious hand-holding is all the more convincing because of the riddle of who or what is roaming the halls of Hill House.
Wise also emphasizes an element of claustrophobia that is sometimes lacking in the novel. Jackson places much of the action during the day on the grounds and hills surrounding the house; invisible footfalls in the grass appear less horrific. Wise, however, used the darkness of mahogany interiors, earth tones and shadows to give the viewer a sense of entrapment and depraved evil. Once the lead protagonist, Eleanor, arrives at Hill House, the only outdoor scenes are two on the terrace (first in daylight, then at night) and two on the grounds, by the front door, when Mrs. Markway arrives (day) and Eleanor’s final departure from the house (night).
One of the perplexities of Hill House is the way the house is designed. Eighty years earlier than the story is set, the house’s architect, the overbearing Hugh Crain, build a structure that was as distorted and enigmatic as its contriver. Wise sets a somber tone through the use of quick, jerky editing and especially irregular camera angles to reveal the skewed house design and a conundrum of doors that shut themselves (by design, not spirit).
The key theme of the film, as well as the novel, is loneliness. Both are introduced by a prologue (narrated on film), “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within… and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Entering into this dark isolation are four characters, each lonely in his or her individual way. Eleanor Lance (Vance, in the novel), played by Julie Harris, arrives after years of isolation spent taking care of her domineering and sickly mother. Eleanor views her stay at Hill House as a chance to flower, to belong. In the novel, she repeatedly utters a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Journey’s end in lovers meeting.” Though this is only quoted once in the film, the theme remains the same: there is a sense of love’s absence, of a desire to find a place in the universe where she is her own person, accepted by others for who she is. Eleanor has no real home (she lives with her sister’s family), no one to love, and no one to love her.
There is an almost claustrophobic feel of dread and naivete about the world within her, as she created a dream life of an apartment of her own with matching stone lions on the mantlepiece. Eleanor is desperate to fit in and gain back what she believes she had lost through many years of solitude.
The future owner of Hill House, Luke Sanderson (Sannerson in the film, played by Russ Tamblyn), is also rejected by his family. His lonely past has produced a “liar…also a thief.” The novel presents Luke as an in-depth character who is a scalawag, but also has a heart, and is merely acting out of his sadness and need to be accepted. He is presented as the first possibly lover at “journey’s end” for Eleanor. In the film, however, he remains undefined, reduced to comic relief.
Whereas in the novel, Dr. John Montague (Markway in the film, Richard Johnson), who leads the supernatural “expedition” into the house, is known by Eleanor to be married from his first introduction; this fact is hidden from her in the film, setting up a possible liaison between them. Is John the lover at “journey’s end”? Many of the romantic actions taken by Luke in the book are given to John in the film, such as offering a steadying hand to Eleanor as she looks up at the tower (nearly toppling over a balcony), or rescuing her from the shaky ladder in the library. The novel presents John as lonely, due to the shrewish nature of his wife, unnamed except as Mrs. Montague. She is presented as a person who has no regard for her husband’s methods, dismissive of Montague as a person, self-promoting, and a supernatural “expert.” The film merely hints that John is lonely, and might end up in the company of Eleanor.
A subplot of possible lesbian romance is then presented by the last of the four main characters, introduced by Theodora (Claire Bloom). This theme is interjected in the novel as Theo arrives at Hill House after a painful fight with her “roommate,” feeling dejected and somewhat bitter. In the film, Theo’s orientation is broached through dialogue, presented more as the reason for her loneliness: “By the time I’m through with you Nell, you’ll be a different person”; elsewhere asked what she is afraid of, Theo responds, “Of knowing what I really want.” Her sarcastic manner is treated as rooted in the sexual orientation, as well. Though Eleanor is repulsed by Theodora’s sexuality in the film (“The world is full of inconsistencies. Unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes, they’re called. You, for instance.”), in both the film and the novel, Eleanor eventually wants to go off and live with Theodora. The author posits this as another possibility of “journey’s end where lovers meet”.
A third theme of the story is that of parental/daughter relationships. Although Hugh Crain designed the house, he barely resided there, and eventually died in Europe. It is his warped vision that dominates the house, however, with a malevolent (male-violent) influence. His evil is that of control. Even in designing the house, he materialized his own vision rather than relying on others, with skewered angles and unmatched lines, going against architectural conformity to express his will. It was with this will that he ran his house while occupying it with his daughter(s). His religious fanaticism, which evolved from his bitterness over his wife’s/wives’ demise led him to warn his daughter, “Honor thy father and thy mother, daughter, authors of your being, upon whom a heavy charge has been laid, that they lead their child in innocence and righteousness, along the fearful narrow path of everlasting bliss…” Though his physical presence in the house was minimal, his influence remains, and it is this warped domination which seems to affect the weakest of those who enter the house, subduing them to the power of his control.
Hugh Crain’s malevolence is directed at women. All who die at Hill House are women: first the wife of Crain, who is killed in an accident on the grounds before even viewing the house; second, their eldest daughter (only daughter in the film), Abigail (Sophia in the novel), who dies of pneumonia at an elderly age in her bedroom, the nursery (“the heart of Hill House”), while her young servant/companion “dallied in the garden with some village lout”; third is the companion, who inherits Hill House, who hangs herself in the library. The last woman to die is Eleanor herself, a possible suicide who seeks to remain at Hill House, under the influence of the evil will of Hugh (2) Crain.
There are overlapping images in the context of the story. An example is that both Eleanor’s mother and Hugh Crain’s daughter die while banging on the walls for help. This “mother/daughter” parallel is further mirrored by Eleanor’s guilt over presumed negligence in having slept through her mother’s knocking, as did the companion, who “dallied” while her mistress died in distress. Both Eleanor and the companion become obsessed with the house and the staircase in the library. Both eventually commit suicide. Similarly, Hugh Crain’s wife died without ever having entered the house, whereas Eleanor dies driving into a tree at the same spot on the grounds so she does not have to leave.
In Wise’s vision even more than Jackson’s, Eleanor is treated by all as a woman-child, though she is in her early 30s, because of her innocent and cloistered life. In a scene where she is seeking permission to use what is essentially her half-owned car from her sister’s family, the relatives reject her request because they view her as childlike and consequently irresponsible. This scene is dramatized while a child’s melody is played in the background. Also, throughout the film, again more than the novel, Theo often calls her by the nickname “Baby,” sometimes in a patronizing tone. This, of course, reflects back to the nursery, the heart of Hill House, which has been collecting victims for years. The inflection is present in the novel, but in a more subtle, sardonic way.
The characterization that is most changed from novel to film is that of Mrs. Montague (named Grace for the film, played by Lois Maxwell). Whereas she is a totally disagreeable character in the book owing to her obnoxious ego and dismissal of concern for nearly all others, the cinematic version lives up to her first name, presenting her as a strong and decent person who is unintentionally triangled between John and Eleanor. In the movie, Eleanor suggests Grace sleep in the “evil” nursery in a pique of jealous spite, while in the novel, John makes this suggestion because he is acquiescing to his wife.
Two other characterizations that are altered from the original source are those of Dr. Montague/Markway and Luke Sannerson/Sanderson. In the book, Montague, while the leader of the psychic exploration to Hill House, is seen as a three-dimensional character who is sometimes flawed and always human. In the film, perhaps because he is presented as a potential love-interest for Eleanor, Markway becomes a near-swaggering Petruchio-type hero; one can almost her him slap his knee in self-righteousness. Luke, on the other hand, is treated the opposite: whereas Montague to Markway comes from human to hero, Luke Sanderson to Sannerson goes from possible love-interest to practical joking comic chorus.
An obvious problem in adapting the novel to the film would be similar that of any phycological drama, the inner narrative voice. Thought processes are the crux of psychological drama, as the protagonist struggles with distressing events, and the consequences that are faced become more severe. Wise takes the most direct approach, and has Eleanor’s thoughts presented via voice-overs. Though this may be a potentially overbearing and distracting technique, Wise uses it to optimum effect, holding back and letting the actor’s expressions tell us of her own inner turmoil in particular scenes, while voice-overs detail the trauma in others.
In the novel form, the horror story, be it temporal, spiritual or psychological, has its work before it. Unless the subject matter touches on the personal fear of the reader, such as something/someone hiding in a closet or a phobia, like fear of heights (e.g., Vertigo, 1958), the printed word needs to be worked harder to be shocking, especially to those who grew up watching film. Historical horror novels such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), were written when there were no moving images that could shock with a sudden “Boo!”, so the imagination of the reader of the stories is needed to be able to horrify. Present-day writers such as Clive Barker and sometimes even Stephen King manage to frighten, but their shocks come from the gross and the gory. The Haunting of Hill House was published during a period when the horror novel was based more on the psychological than “visual” manifestations, therefore crating a timeless horror that does not need to go “boo” or bleed.
Film has a great potential for frightening the viewer. Whereas the novel can horrify by leaving the terror “unnameable” (as H.P. Lovecraft was fond of doing) and inviting the reader to realize his or her worst fear. A film can frighten by presenting a haunting image or a sudden shock. For example, while the echoing, pounding on walls and jiggling of the doorknob as “whatever walked there” searches for Eleanor and Theodora in the Haunting of Hill House creates fear, in The Haunting, the dimension of fear is heightened by watching the door bend under the weight of the spirits, the wall- and door-pounding becomes deafening (especially as the cadence gets perceptually louder, faster and more menacing), and the dissonant disembodied voices of the mysterious forces (such as what sounds like hard fire and brimstone preaching by Hugh Crain to his daughter) fill the senses by filling the screen. Add to this the cinematic touches of shadow and light, juxtaposing camera angles, eerie music (3) by Humphrey Searle, and dissonant editing (4).
Through cinematic devices, Wise hold back on visual information about the antagonistic spirits, to heighten the sense of mystery and fear through the unknown. He uses the occasional lack of music to make the terror feel more imminent and tangible, and skewed closeups to place a fearful image immediately before the viewer in arresting perspective. While Jackson has Eleanor see spirits in one form or another (spying invisible foots falls in the grass or viewing ghostly picnics), Wise chooses not to rely as much on the visual to frighten, but by way of a literary perspective, employing the imagination, all the while using the cinematic process to make the viewer’s imagination hold one in terror. The fear of the unknown usually tends to be less challenging to accept on film because of the temptation to show precisely what is there for which to be afraid. By choosing not to display some blatantly showy special effects (other than an occasional breathing door, for example), and relying on cinematic techniques, wise raises the stakes from cheap thrills to high horror, without gore and without hackneyed effects (5).
By viewing the film before reading the novel, I was able to grasp some concepts that may not have been so obvious from using the book as the primary source. Details in print are usually more thorough in pointing out specifics, consequently more information is passed to the reader. Due to the time in literary history the book was published, however, less emphasis was placed on the homosexual aspects of the characters of Theodora and, more subtly, Eleanor (6). The subtlety of this aspect may have been lost on the reader, but to the viewer, these themes were clearer and more straightforward.
Another interesting aspect of the film that Wise added is having the final prologue spoken by Eleanor, after her death. The closing line was changed from “Whatever walked there, walked alone, to “We who walk there, walk alone.” By adding this change, Wise solidifies the realization that the main character and antagonist in both the film and the novel is Hill House itself. It is the neediest and most demanding. It is the most appalling, and yet seductive. It is Hill House that is the lover Eleanor meets at “journey’s end.”
1. Screenplay by Nelson Gidding.
2. “Hugh” is Old German for “Will”.
3. Music by Humphrey Searle.
4. Editing by Ernest Walter.
5. For the opposite school of thought, see the Roger Corman films of the same period.
6. Though novels such as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) and Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour (1934) had already been published with the themes, mainstream fiction still apparently considered the subject a taboo.