Upon release on 18 September 1963, the film performed moderately at the box office and was well received, although the plot was widely criticized for being incoherent. Today it has achieved cult status and is considered by many to be one of the best horror films in cinematic history, and one of the most unsettling. In 2010, The Guardian newspaper ranked it as the 13th best horror film of all time. Director Martin Scorsese has placed The Haunting first on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time. The Haunting was released on DVD in its original screen format with commentary in 2003, and was released on Blu-ray on 15 October 2013. The film was remade in 1999 by director Jan de Bont, starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson, but this version was heavily panned by critics and audiences alike.
Dr. John Markway narrates the history of the 90-year-old Hill House, which was constructed by Hugh Crain as a home for his wife. She died when her carriage crashed against a tree as she approached the house for the first time. Crain remarried, but his second wife died in the house from a fall down the stairs. Crain's daughter Abigail lived in the house for the rest of her life, never moving out of the nursery. She died calling for her nurse-companion. The companion inherited the house, but later hanged herself from a spiral staircase in the library. Hill House was eventually inherited by a Mrs. Sanderson, although it has stood empty for some time.
Markway wishes to study the reported paranormal activity at Hill House. He secures a lease from Mrs. Sanderson to occupy the mansion for the duration of his investigation; conditional to his acceptance is that he take Luke Sanderson, her heir, with him. Markway has chosen two individuals to accompany him—a psychic, Theodora, also known as Theo, and the meek Eleanor Lance, who experienced poltergeist activity as a child. Eleanor spent her adult life caring for her invalid mother, whose recent death has left Eleanor with severe guilt.
The large, maze-like mansion's walls were constructed with angles slightly askew, resulting in off-center perspectives and doors that open and close by themselves. The immense library contains the ramshackle spiral staircase from which the previous owner hanged herself; the vast conservatory is adorned with eerie statues. During their first night in the house, Eleanor and Theo are terrified by supernatural occurrences outside Theo's bedroom door. Deafening banging is heard against the door and the voice of a young girl is heard echoing with laughter. Despite the turbulence, Eleanor feels a tentative affinity to Hill House.
The team explores the house the next day, discovering a cold spot outside the nursery and encountering other supernatural phenomena. Markway reveals more about the hauntings that have allegedly occurred. Following another night of loud disturbances the team discovers the words "HELP ELEANOR COME HOME" on a wall, which causes Eleanor severe distress.
That night, Theo moves into Eleanor's room and they fall asleep in the same bed. Eleanor is awakened by the sounds of a man speaking indistinctly and a woman laughing. Fearful, Eleanor asks Theo to hold her hand and she feels it being crushed. As Eleanor hears the sound of a young girl crying, she shouts at whoever is causing the child pain. Theo awakens with a start and turns on the light. Eleanor then sees that she has moved from the bed to the couch, and realizes that Theo was not the one she felt holding her hand.
The following day Dr. Markway's wife Grace arrives at Hill House to warn her husband that a reporter has learned of Markway's investigation of Hill House. Markway is concerned when Grace announces that she plans to join the group for the duration of the investigation. She demands a bed in the nursery despite her husband's warning that it is likely the center of the disturbances. That night the group experiences loud banging and an unseen force attempting to force its way through the living room in which they are staying. The banging then proceeds to move its way up towards the nursery, where the sounds of it destroying the room are heard. This prompts Eleanor to run towards the source; however Grace is nowhere to be found. Her disappearance is then confirmed the following morning. Eleanor's mental instability worsens as she falls further under the spell of Hill House. She enters the library and climbs the dilapidated spiral staircase. Once she reaches the top, Grace appears unexpectedly at a trap door and the startled Eleanor nearly falls to her death. Markway rescues Eleanor but just misses seeing Grace, who has disappeared back into the house.
Markway becomes alarmed at Eleanor's obsession with Hill House in spite of the dangers it poses for her. Despite Eleanor's pleas to stay, Markway insists that she leave at once and asks Luke to accompany her home. Before he can join her in the car, Eleanor drives off and speeds down the road toward the front gates. She soon feels the steering wheel move by itself and the car advances erratically. At first she struggles to regain control but then surrenders to the unseen force. Suddenly Grace appears from behind a tree and steps in front of the car. Eleanor crashes into the tree and is killed. Luke observes it seemed that Eleanor deliberately aimed the car at the tree, but Markway asserts that something was in the car with her. He notes that the tree that claimed Eleanor's life is the same one that killed the first Mrs. Crain. Theo remarks that Eleanor got what she wanted—to remain with the house.
Robert Wise was in post-production on West Side Story when he read a review in Time magazine of author Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Wise read the book and found it frightening; he passed it to screenwriter friend Nelson Gidding, whom he had worked with on the 1958 film I Want to Live!. Gidding did a full story treatment for Wise before proceeding to work on the adaptation. As Gidding crafted the screenplay, he came to believe that the novel was not a ghost story at all, but rather a compilation of the insane thoughts of the lead character, Eleanor Vance. He theorised that Vance was having a nervous breakdown, envisaging a scenario in which Hill House is the hospital where she is held, Markway is her psychiatrist, the cold, banging, and violence are the results of shock treatment, and the opening and closing of doors reflected the opening and closing of hospital doors. Wise and Gidding traveled to Bennington, Vermont to meet Shirley Jackson who told them that it was a good idea, but the novel was definitely about the supernatural. Nonetheless, elements of the insanity concept remained in the script, so that the audience was left wondering whether the supernatural events in the film were in Eleanor's mind or whether they were real. It was also during their visit with Jackson that Wise and Gidding chose the title for the film. As they did not want to keep the book title, they asked Jackson if she had considered an alternative title. She suggested The Haunting, which Wise and Gidding immediately adopted.
Writing the screenplay took about six months. During this period, Gidding worked alone, and although he passed some of his work to Wise to show him that work on the screenplay was progressing well, he and Wise did not otherwise collaborate on the screenplay. The screenplay made other changes to the story. The number of characters was cut down, the back story was significantly shortened, most of the supernatural events depicted in the novel were kept off-screen, and the greater part of the action was set inside the house to heighten the audience's feeling of claustrophobia. Eleanor's role as an outcast was also emphasized. The character of Theodora was given a sharper, slightly more cruel sense of humor in order to make her a foil for Eleanor but also to heighten Eleanor's outsider status. The role of Luke was made more flippant, and Dr. Markway (Montague in the novel) was made a more confident character. The screenplay was finished just after Wise completed work on West Side Story.
Wise approached United Artists with the project, but after much delay they turned him down. Wise's agent then suggested that, since Wise owed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) a film under an old contract, Wise should take the project there. MGM agreed, but would only give Wise a $1 million budget. Wise knew he could not do the film at MGM's Culver City Studios (now the Sony Pictures Studios), so took it to England, as the Eady Levy gave tax breaks and financing to films made there as a way of subsidizing and promoting the British film industry. Someone suggested to Wise that he approach MGM's Borehamwood Studios subsidiary. Wise had been asked to come to the United Kingdom for a Royal Command Performance of West Side Story, and during the trip made the financing pitch to MGM Borehamwood. They offered a budget of $1.050 million. With the Eady Levy support, this allowed the film to go forward with production in the United Kingdom.
Although Susan Hayward was reported to be in the running for one of the two female leads, Julie Harris was chosen for the role of Eleanor Lance. Wise had seen Harris on stage, and felt she was right for the part of the psychologically fragile Eleanor. Harris agreed to do the film in part because the role was complex and the idea of the house taking over Eleanor's mind was interesting. But she also chose it because she had a long-standing interest in parapsychology. English actress Claire Bloom was cast as Theo. In part, however, the decision to cast Bloom and Johnson was because of Eady Levy requirements that the cast be partly British. To make Bloom's character appear more bohemian, beatnik clothing designer Mary Quant was hired to design mod clothing specifically for the Theodora character.
Richard Johnson, under contract to MGM, was cast as Dr. Markway. Wise saw Johnson in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Devils. Impressed with his acting, he offered him the role. Johnson later said he received invaluable film acting advice from Wise. Wise told him to keep his eyes steady, to blink less, and to try not to time his acting (Wise said he would take care of that in the editing room). Johnson also credited Wise with helping him to craft a much more natural acting performance. Russ Tamblyn, also under contract with MGM, initially turned down the role as Luke because he felt that the character was "a jerk", although he thought that the script was very good. The studio forced him to reconsider, threatening him with suspension. Tamblyn told the British cinema magazine Film Review in 1995 that while reading the script a second time, he realised the character was much more interesting. "This is the ironic part," he said, "it turned out to be one of my favourite films that I've been in!"
Stunt performer Connie Tilton appears twice in the film. She portrays the death of the "Second Mrs. Crain" by flinging herself backward down a flight of stairs. Uncredited actress Freda Knorr is seen in shots before and after the fall; it is her face audiences associate with the "Second Mrs. Crain". Tilton also appears when Abigail Crain's Nurse-Companion hangs herself at the top of the spiral staircase in the library. Although uncredited actress Rosemary Dorken is seen climbing the stairs and going past the camera, it is Tilton's body that suddenly appears in shot again as the Nurse-Companion hangs herself.
Wise called The Haunting one of his top ten or twelve favorites among the films he made, commenting that it was his favorite filmmaking experience. Ettington Park, (now the Ettington Park Hotel), with its grounds near the village of Ettington, Warwickshire, was used for exterior shots of Hill House. According to actor Russ Tamblyn, Wise approached a society that kept track of British haunted houses, and they gave him a list of such places. Production designer Elliot Scott was sent around the country to look at each house, and Wise personally selected Ettington Park. Some of the cast and crew were housed in Ettington Park during exterior shooting. However, the location did not sit well with Harris and Bloom who upon arriving at Ettington Park thought it was "scary looking outside", and Wise had to reassure them. Interior sets were constructed and shot at the MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The interior sets were designed by Elliot Scott, credited by Wise as a "major contributor" to The Haunting. The sets were designed to be brightly lit, with no dark corners or recesses, and decorated in a Rococo style. All rooms had ceilings to create a claustrophobic effect on film. Actor Richard Johnson said that the sets created a subdued feeling among the cast and crew.
Wise says that his contract with MGM specified that the picture could only be shot in black-and-white, which Wise preferred for this genre of film. He attempted to make Ettington Park look more sinister through various lighting effects and camera settings, but this failed. Wise and Boulton then hit on the idea of using infrared film for establishing shots of the house. Infrared film stocks were quickly rushed to the location shoot from Belgium. The new film worked. Wise felt the infrared film brought out the "striations of the stone" and made the mansion look like "more of a monster house". Wise very much wanted to make The Haunting a tribute to Val Lewton, the producer and writer under whom Wise had directed his first film (the supernatural horror picture Curse of the Cat People). Wise says that Lewton's theory of horror was that people were more afraid of the unknown than things they could see. The decision to show little that was supernatural was made very early in the picture's pre-production. Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton also wanted to make distances in the film (such as hallways) look longer and darker than the audience would anticipate. Wise approached the Panavision company, and wanted an anamorphic, wide-angle lens. The only lens Panavision had was a 40mm. Wise learned that the company was working on a 30mm lens, but it contained distortions and was not ready. Wise kept pressing, and eventually Panavision turned over the 30mm lens on the condition that Wise signed a memorandum in which he acknowledged it was imperfect. Wise and Boulton also planned shots that kept the camera moving, utilised low-angle shots, and incorporated unusual pans and tracking shots. This led to some of the most active camera movements in Wise's film career. To accentuate the feeling that the house was alive, exterior shots were filmed so that the windows appeared to be eyes.
During the shoot, Harris suffered from depression, and believed that her co-stars did not take the film as seriously as she did. At times, she would cry in her makeup chair prior to the day's shoot. Bloom did not speak to Harris while filming continued, which worsened her depression. Afterward, Bloom told Harris that the lack of interaction had helped her build her own performance and the two women reconciled. Harris incorporated her own depression into her performance. Wise heightened the sense of character conflict by having the characters "step on one another's lines", allowing one character to begin talking before the other had finished. On occasion, the characters simply talk at the same time.
To enhance the actors' performances during scenes in which they react to off-stage voices or sounds, Wise and his sound editors created a "pre-scored" soundtrack of voices and noises. These were played back during filming, and Wise says they greatly enhanced the acting performances. Although some sounds were replaced during post-production, the "pre-scored" sounds were left on the soundtrack just as the actors heard them. Sound editors collected and created sounds in an empty manor house for a week to create the pre-score. Some of the sounds are very low in the bass range, which can cause physical sensations at high volume.
Some effects were achieved in ways that are not immediately obvious. In one scene, a supernatural force pushes against the parlor door and bends it inward repeatedly. Though the door appears to some viewers to have been made of latex, it was in fact made of laminated wood (with a strong crew member pushing a piece of timber hard against the door). Two physical effects were used to make the spiral staircase in the library appear frightening. In one scene, the camera appears to ascend the staircase at a rapid rate. However, the point of view is backward, looking down the staircase, as the camera used the staircase's handrail as a dolly track, being lowered slowly by means of a wire. When the sequence was run in reverse at high speed, the effect was frightening. In another scene, the staircase appears to become unstable and give way as Luke Sanderson ascends it. Later, Eleanor goes up the staircase in a trance-like state. She is rescued by Dr. Markway, even as the staircase seems ready to collapse. The collapsing staircase effect was designed by a metalworker at the Borehamwood studios. The effect was created by tying portions of the steps and railing to a cable that ran inside the staircase's central pole. When the cable was slackened, these elements moved freely. When tightened, the staircase appeared solid and stable. The effect was so disturbing to the cast that Robert Wise had to ascend the staircase while it was shaking in order to prove it was safe. Other effects also relied on simple cinema tricks. Early in the film, the audience sees Abigail Crain lying in bed, aging from a young child to an old woman. A camera was fixed over the bed, and four different actresses (each a different age) posed in the bed beneath the camera. Dissolves were used to show the aging process. In another scene, the characters come across a "cold spot" in the haunted mansion. To show the physical effect on the characters, the makeup department applied special makeup to the characters that appeared invisible in normal light. To show the effect of cold on the skin, filters were gradually drawn over the lights on the set, revealing the "cold effect" makeup.
The camera work and editing work together to further heighten the frightening qualities of the film. Eleanor is often viewed from above, and in one scene the camera closes in so tightly on her that she is forced backward over a railing. Eleanor's viewpoint is often juxtaposed with eerie views of the house, as if both viewpoints were the same. Many of the editing choices in the film are also used to heighten the audience's discomfort. There are a number of rapid cuts in the film that throw off the viewer's sense of spatial orientation, and Dutch angles are used to imply that reality is off-kilter. Cutting on action—showing the characters exiting a room to the right, only to show them entering the next room from the left—is often violated, so that the viewer cannot get a clear sense of which rooms and hallways are connected to one another. The audience also lacks temporal clues. There are few shots in which they can see out a window to determine whether it's night or day. When Eleanor is rescued by Dr. Markway on the unstable spiral staircase, some of the windows nearby show strong sunlight streaming in, while others show darkness outside.
The Haunting is notable for its lesbian character, Theodora. Although the character's lesbianism is subtly mentioned in the novel, the film makes it explicit. The film is also one of the few Hollywood motion pictures to depict a lesbian as feminine and not predatory. Theodora's lesbianism helps to create conflict in the picture. Had Theodora been heterosexual, Eleanor's growing attraction to Markway would not have threatened her. But with Theodora a clear lesbian, Markway becomes a threat that causes conflict between the psychic and the investigator. Originally, Gidding's script had contained a scene early in the film in which Theodora is shown in her apartment in the city. It is clear from the context that she has just broken off with her female lover: "I hate you" is written on the mirror in lipstick. Theodora is yelling curses at her out the window and more. However, Wise decided to cut the scene, believing it to be too explicit for a film that worked hard to make things implicit. According to Harris, film censors demanded that Theo never be shown to touch Eleanor, in order to keep the lesbianism less obvious.
The Haunting was released on 18 September 1963. Audiences were frightened by it. Film critic Dora Jane Hamblin related how four of her female friends, expecting a ho-hum film, took out make-up during the film's first few minutes with the intention of fixing their faces. The film proved so frightening, she said, that the women were jumping out of their seats and losing their items. In Houston, Texas, a local cinema promoted the film as so chilling that it held a contest to see which of four patrons could sit all the way through a midnight screening; the prize was $100. Despite these stunts, The Haunting was only an average success at the box office.
The Haunting opened to mixed reception, the consensus generally being that it was a stylish film but had major flaws in the plot and lacked excitement. Variety called the acting effective, Davis Boulton's cinematography extraordinarily dexterous and visually exciting, and Elliott Scott's production design of the "monstrous" house most decidedly the star of the film. However, the unnamed reviewer felt Gidding's screenplay had "major shortcomings" in that the plot was incomprehensible at points, and the motivation for the characters was poor. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times cited The Haunting as "one of the most highly regarded haunted house films ever produced" but surmised that "there is really no point to it". Writing in The Atlantic magazine, critic Pauline Kael called the film "moderately elegant and literate and expensive", but criticised Russ Tamblyn for being "feeble [and] cowardly-comic". She considered the film to be superior to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, also released in 1963, yet didn't consider it to be a great film. Kael said of it, "It wasn't a great movie but I certainly wouldn't have thought that it could offend anyone. Yet part of the audience at The Haunting wasn't merely bored, it was hostile- as if the movie, by assuming interests they didn't have, made them feel resentful or inferior. I've never felt this in an audience toward crude, bad movies... But the few scattered people at The Haunting were restless and talkative, the couple sitting near me arguing-the man threatening to leave, the woman assuring him that something would happen. In their terms, they were cheated: nothing happened. And, of course, they missed what was happening all along, perhaps because of nervous impatience or a primitive notion that the real things are physical."
The film's stature and following has grown steadily since its original release, and it now has cult movie status. Director Martin Scorsese placed The Haunting first on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time. Richard Johnson says that Steven Spielberg considers The Haunting one of the "seminal films" of his youth, and Robert Wise says that Spielberg told him The Haunting was "the scariest film ever made!" Richard Armstrong in Rough Guide to Film (2007) called it "one of the most frightening films ever made", and said Julie Harris' performance is played "with an intensity that is frightening in itself". In 2010, The Guardian newspaper ranked it as the 13th best horror film of all time. However, not all critics think so highly of the film; Yoram Allon and Neil Labute have stated that they believe the film is "frankly overrated", and professional filmmaker Russell Evans has argued that few people truly find the film shocking or disturbing. As of October 2014, review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes scores the film with an 86% rating based on 36 reviews. The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Director (Robert Wise).
In 2010, Cinema Retro magazine hosted a screening of the film at Ettington Park. Richard Johnson was a special guest at the event and participated in a Q&A prior to the screening. Johnson said that he had never actually stepped foot in the hall during filming, and that this was the first occasion he had actually been inside the premises. The movie was mentioned in Dan Simmons' 2002 novel A Winter Haunting.
A remake of the film was attempted in the early 1990s by noted horror author Stephen King. King pitched the project under the name Rose Red to Steven Spielberg. The project went into turnaround and a complete script was written, but Spielberg demanded more thrills and action sequences while King wanted more horror. King and Spielberg mutually agreed to shelve the project after several years of work, and King bought back the rights to the script. King returned to the project in 1999, completed a revised script, and successfully pitched the script to producer Mark Carliner. King's revised script aired as a miniseries titled Rose Red in 2002, but bears only superficial resemblance to The Haunting.
The Haunting was formally remade in 1999 under the same title. Legendary horror director Wes Craven initially worked on the project, but abandoned it. This adaptation, directed by Jan de Bont and starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor in the roles of Markway (now named Marrow), Theo, Luke, and Eleanor, was widely panned.
In 1990, media mogul Ted Turner announced he would begin colorizing black-and-white motion pictures to make them more pleasing to audiences watching his cable networks. The announcement generated extensive controversy. Touring Turner's colorization facilities as a member of the Directors Guild, Wise learned that Turner was colorizing The Haunting. Wise was able to prevent the colorization by pointing to his contract, which stated the picture could only be in black-and-white.
Warner Home Video released the film on VHS in pan-and-scan format in 1998. It was released on DVD in its original screen format in 2003. The DVD release included voice-over commentary from Wise, Gidding, Bloom, Harris, Johnson, and Tamblyn. The film was released on Blu-ray with the same commentary track on 15 October 2013.