A quest to make sense of it all. Or a sense to make a quest of it all.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the 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. - The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Words from a story that really introduced me to horror as entertainment and changed my life. When I was young, my mother and I watched The Haunting. This would be the 1963 version starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris, not the 1999 CGI travesty. I had seen horror movies already; campy, gory fluff. Nothing that really shook me. This one did it. The one without blood or swearing or chainsaws. It was literally all smoke and mirrors. Sound effects, lighting, clever pacing and narration technique. No scene in a movie had ever scared me before, and then... Eleanor awakens thinking her mother is knocking on the wall, only to to remember she is in a different house and her mother is dead and what is that pounding? She runs, terrified, into Theo's room, where Theo is already calling for her and shivering uncontrollably on the bed. We never see what it is. We never see whats sniffing around the door or banging on the wall or scratching at the woodwork in the hallway. We never see anything throughout the movie. The horror is conveyed by sound and acting. It's successful as a scary movie, but upon further viewing, it is a complex character study. Eleanor is absolutely fascinating. She is a woman completely on the brink. One wonders would she have stayed sane had she not gone to Hill House? Would she have just clung on to some shrub on the slippery slope of her mind the rest of her life had the plotting malice of Hill House not found the cracks and gotten in? I don't know. Was there even that much plotting malice in Hill House? How much of it was indeed in Eleanor's mind? Not everything, certainly. Theo experienced some of it, and there was the terrifying scene where even skeptical Luke can't deny what's in front of him. But as far as her insistence that the house wants her, that Hugh Crane wants her, this could easily be her desperate need for love and acceptance just latching onto the house's history...or the house latching onto her desperation. Theo is certainly more psychically aware and gifted than Eleanor, and would thus be a greater boon to the place, but Theo is self-assured and confident. She has a very clear idea of who she is and her foundation won't be shaken by mental pokes and prods by ghosts.
“It’s Theo who’s wearing velvet, so I must be Eleanor in tweed.”
This line always spoke volumes to me. It wasn't until I watched the movie a few years later and read the novel that I realized Theo is a lesbian, and oh, did that complicate things. How much more interesting it makes the relationship between her and Eleanor, and the hostility she shows over Eleanor's attraction to Dr. Markway. It's this kind of character development that paved the way for future horror stories that would scare me and touch my heart, namely Bag of Bones and The Shining, both by my man Stephen King. My God, The Shining. I don't think any book has ever touched me in as deep a place as that one. Maybe The Red Tent or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. But I digress. I'm just rambling here. Obviously. But that old black and white cinematic dinosaur has been on my mind lately, and I'm thinking it's time to try out my new popcorn maker and whip up some old fashioned cocoa. Snuggle into my beloved couch and let Robert Wise scare the daylights out of me. Mmmhmm.

No comments: