tagReviews & EssaysHaunting -- of the Daughter

Haunting -- of the Daughter


The Haunting -- of the Daughter by the Mother

Released in 1963, the original version of The Haunting lives up to its name. Directed by Robert Wise, the black and white film opens with a shot of a large old mansion in shadow. A narrator tells the audience, "Hill House had stood for ninety years and might stand for ninety more . . . Whatever walked there, walked alone." The narrator continues that a man named Hugh Crain built Hill House "in the most remote part of New England he could find." We see horses leading a carriage on a dirt road and the horses rearing up suddenly and inexplicably, causing an accident that kills Crain's wife. The widower and his small daughter, Abigail, move into the house. The narrator relates that Hugh Crain remarried and we see the second Mrs. Crain walking through the house. For no reason that we can see, she becomes terrified and then falls to her death down a flight of stairs. We are told that Hugh Crain leaves for England where he is killed in a drowning accident. He leaves his daughter behind in the care of a servant. Abigail Crain grows up and grows old in the house. As an elderly woman, she hires a young woman to act as her caregiver and companion. One evening, Abigail dozes off and the young caregiver sneaks off for a tryst with a man. The elderly Abigail awakens and tries to call her caregiver by banging a cane against the wall. Abigail dies, leaving Hill House to the caregiver. Awhile after inheriting it, the former caregiver hangs herself.

The Haunting then brings us into its version of the present, which appears to be in the early 1960s when the film was made. Hill House has passed into the possession of a distant relative of the deceased caregiver, an elderly but alert and spry woman named Mrs. Sanderson (Fay Compton). We see that our narrator is Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist and researcher into psychic phenomenon. He believes Hill House is the perfect place to conduct an experiment into the reality of the supernatural. He plans to spend time there along with other people, people who have been chosen to accompany him because they have had previous experiences with the supernatural. Mrs. Sanderson gives Markway permission to occupy the house providing he takes along her nephew Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) who is likely to inherit Hill House.

Soon we meet one of the individuals Dr. Markway has invited to stay at Hill House. She is Eleanor "Nell" Lance (Julie Harris) who lives in the home of her sister and her sister's husband, paying rent to occupy part of the house. The sister and brother-in-law appear to have a "normal" marriage, complete with a child.

By contrast, the unmarried and childless Eleanor appears to have no job, much less a "career." She also does not seem to have had a romantic life. Rather, the audience is given to understand that Eleanor has devoted her entire adult life to caring for her ailing mother during the many years of the mother's illness. The brother-in-law comments, "Talk about mean old ladies" and we know that Eleanor has indeed had it rough in caring for someone irritable as well as infirm.

Eleanor appears to have lived a colorless life and, with her mother's death, she feels at loose ends. She has devoted herself to her mother and her mother is now dead. Her life's burden has been lifted but she has also lost her anchor. Cut adrift, she looks to Hill House to give her fresh purpose and meaning.

Hill House seems to beckon to her, promising adventure for the first time in her life. Finally she will be able to do something both exciting and important.

It is significant that the audience hears only the thoughts of Eleanor. We are drawn into her perceptions, hopes, and fears, and we know that the movie to a large extent centers around her.

Eleanor is the first of the special guests to arrive at Hill House. Chic, self-possessed professional psychic Theo (Claire Bloom) soon joins Eleanor as do Dr. Markway and Luke.

The professor mentions choosing Theo and Eleanor as guests because previous experiences with the supernatural mean they have a special sensitivity to it. Eleanor denies that she has ever had any experience of the supernatural.

Dr. Markway reminds her of the time when she was a child and a poltergeist, an attack of rocks, hit her house. Eleanor declares, somewhat unconvincingly, that she has no memory of any such incident. The conversation moves on until a tense Eleanor suddenly blurts out, "Mother said the neighbors threw the rocks because we wouldn't mix with them." Her outburst gives us a picture of a solitary mother who isolates her daughter from the outside world.

Eleanor's mother may well have sought to protect her daughter from the temptations and consequent dangers of social contacts. Such is the virtuous motivation of many a smother mother. But the result is frequently a child who grows into a socially awkward and lonely individual as it seems Eleanor has done.

I believe this movie's title could easily be The Haunting of the Daughter by the Mother and that this underlying theme gives its horror a special power.

It is significant that all of the people who mysteriously died at or around Hill House were women. The first was a mother and the second a stepmother. Abigail Crain was not a mother but she can reasonably be viewed as a mother figure to her younger paid companion and caregiver. The scenario that led to Abigail's death can be seen as that of the young woman leaving a chaste female-centric environment for the pleasures and dangers of heterosexuality. The caregiver's own suicide may symbolize a kind of punishment for heterosexual activity much as women are "punished" in real life by carrying out-of-wedlock pregnancies to term or through the horrors of abortion whether legal or illegal.

Eleanor and Theo are thrown together during their stay at Hill House, Theo may represent a different sort of temptation than the one to which Abigail Crain's caregiver succumbed. A question hovers over her. She talks about how "we" do things at home and Eleanor asks if she is married. Theo replies, "no," and the audience is left to wonder if she lives with a man, a bohemian lifestyle at the time, or if she could be a . . . lesbian, something spoken of only in hushed tones.

The possibility of Theo's lesbianism reinforces the theme of The Haunting of the Daughter by the Mother as lesbianism has been seen by some people as a kind of displaced mother-daughter love.

Heterosexuality has a unique life-creating power. Because of its life-creating, it is also inevitably associated with death: miscarriages, stillbirths, and abortions. It also has the power to put a girl or women through the ordeal of a pregnancy that disgraces her and the pain of having a baby she must give up for adoption.

Lesbianism is detached from all of these real life horrors. However, like male homosexuality, it has traditionally aroused fear in society as a whole because of the possibility that too many would choose it and fail to reproduce so that the population would not be replenished. Because lesbianism offers intimacy and sensual pleasure without pregnancy, it may easily be seen as more attractive than heterosexuality from an individual woman's perspective, at least if she does not want to get pregnant, even as it is seen as threatening from a societal perspective. In contrast to male homosexuality, lesbianism is even less likely that heterosexuality to expose its practitioners to sexually transmitted diseases. One woman wrote in a letter to the editor to (yes) Ms. magazine, "Sapph sex is the only safe sex."

That last statement that lesbianism is "safe sex" overlooks the truth that sexual relationships are inevitably booby-trapped with emotional landmines such as jealousy and that such powerful negative feelings can lead to physical dangers through violence. However, it remains true that lesbianism is free of the specific horrors associated with problem pregnancies.

Thus, to offset lesbianism's biologically based personal advantages and distance from real-life horrors, it has historically been overlaid with a sense of psychological horror and that sense adds tension to the uneasy friendship between Eleanor and Theo, as when Eleanor uses the word "unnatural" to refer to the psychic. There is a hint that Theo is attracted to Nell who appears to reject her.

There is also more than a hint that Eleanor is attracted to Dr. Markway, seeing in him the possibility of "being cherished" but her hopes for a heterosexual connection are soon shattered.

Throughout most of the film, Eleanor appears extremely nervous and high-strung. She seems an odd candidate for an inherently frightening experiment like that Dr. Markway is doing in Hill House. Indeed, she at one point calls the subject of the investigation "a dirty house" and at another shouts, "This house! This house! You've got to watch it ever minute." Eleanor walks into a room that has long been locked and is instantly sickened because "that smell!" reminds her of the odor of her own mother's sick room.

However, she does not want to leave Hill House. She feels an inexplicably powerful connection to it. Theo senses that, "The house wants you, Nell." The words "Eleanor, come home," appear mysteriously on a wall.

Yet Eleanor is certain that she belongs in Hill House and that she must stay here. The mysterious mansion appears to represent the womb of the mother who oppressed Eleanor and stifled her but to whom Eleanor feels duty bound to return.

The peculiar power of The Haunting lies in its dramatization of the horror inherent in an overly tight and suffocating mother-daughter bond.

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