The Haunted Feminine Part 2

‘I’m coming apart, a little at a time.  A little at a time.  Now I know where I’m going.  I’m disappearing, inch by inch, into this house.’—Eleanor (Julie Harris) in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (MGM, 1963).

In my previous discussion of the variation on the monstrous feminine in haunting films, what I call the haunted feminine, I identified Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting as one of the purest examples of this trope in cinema.  The relationship between Hill House and the character of Eleanor in the film functions on multiple levels.  The haunting becomes a projection of her inward repressions, and an expression of the destructive power located in the mind of the woman.  The film focalizes the narrative through Eleanor, laying bare her psychological state, and opens up an interpretation that views the haunting as a direct manifestation of her repressed psychology.  An examination of several key sequences of the film permits for an expansion of the concept of the haunted feminine, laying open this film in particular, and haunting films in general, to Freudian interpretation and exposition.

The book on which the film is based, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, conceives Hill House itself as a manifestation of insanity:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone (Jackson 3).

The film visualizes this aspect of the novel, with images of the house silhouetted against a dark sky and photographed from low, canted angles.  The initial introduction of the house occurs before the opening credits.  Dr. Markway’s (Richard Johnson) voice speaks the first paragraph of the novel almost verbatim over shots of the imposing house.  The second introduction occurs through Eleanor’s eyes.  A montage of several shots presents her first experience of Hill House: first a panoramic shot of the whole façade of the house; second another angle view of the house, this time a little closer; third a close shot of some of the details of the exterior; and fourth an even closer shot of dark windows.

A few things should be noted about this sequence of shots.  The initial view of the house fails to match Eleanor’s eye line.  She looks to the right of the frame, but the house is shot from a left angle.  The camera cuts back to Eleanor, still looking to the right of the frame.  The frame cuts to the correct angle in reference to Eleanor’s eye line match, but becomes confusing because the angle is lower and the shot closer than the original view.  The last two shots, of the details on the house and the dark windows, are impossible to read as point of view shots, because they are progressively closer, while we know Eleanor has not moved.  This technique causes a uncanny experience in the viewer and emphasizes the house’s insanity.  Eleanor observes the house from these canted, disparate angles and immediately identifies the house as ‘sick.’  That it is impossible that she could look at the house in this way not only typifies the disjointed, disturbing nature of the house itself, but also points out that this is Eleanor’s view of the house.  The final shot of the dark windows matches on the next shot of Eleanor’s eyes, identifying the pair.  The house appears to be literally looking at her, as her voice-over makes clear: ‘it’s staring at me.’  The film expresses Eleanor’s thought processes, and her increasing madness, through use of her voice-over.  It forces the viewer to enter into Eleanor’s mind.  This could be interpreted as overkill, as director Robert Wise mistrusting the strength of the visuals to convey the message.  It does, however, emphasize Eleanor’s subjectivity.  Is it the house that is ‘not sane’ or Eleanor?

The film builds to a sequence of ‘haunting’ scenes, each of them different in their own ways, and each progressively more focalized through Eleanor.  The first haunting scene occurs the first night in the house.  It develops through a complex montage of shots and sounds, beginning with the opening shot of the darkened Hill House.  It then fades to the long main staircase, in the interim superimposing one of the details of the house (a carving of a male face) briefly onto the image of the staircase.  Wise utilizes the technique of brief superimposition numerous times as a way of structuring the film as haunted.  These images haunt the frames of the film and disconcert the viewer.  Over the medium shot of the dark staircase, a banging noise comes over the soundtrack.  The image fades to the corner of a room as a light comes on and Eleanor gets out of bed.  She believes for a moment that the noises come from her dead mother, who used to knock on the wall to get her attention.

Eleanor’s relationship with her mother forms the first indication of her numerous complexes.  The narrative has already identified another sound of beating on the wall with the death of the nurse who failed to respond to an invalid’s knocking for help.  The film proposes multiple identifications for the manifestation of the knocking.  The knocking is associated first with the nurse who engages in sexual activity, resulting in the death of her patient and then her own suicide.  The knocking then relates to the experience of Eleanor, who blames herself for her mother’s death because she failed to respond.  It may be argued that Eleanor internalizes the apparent ‘sexual deviance’ of the nurse, who causes death through illicit sexual activity.  Freud’s discussion of fear and sexual anxiety in ‘Inhibition, Symptom and Fear’ relates to this:

I found that attacks of fear and a generalized state of apprehensiveness are precipitated by certain sexual practices such as coitus interruptus, frustrated arousal, and enforced abstinence—in other words, whenever sexual excitement is inhibited, checked or deflected before it has achieved gratification (Freud 177).

Reading the scene in this light, the knocking becomes a manifestation of an interrupted sexual impulse that locates itself in the relationship between sex and death. Female sexuality as either repressed (Eleanor) or too expressive (the nurse) becomes the site and cause of death and madness.  The film locates Eleanor’s sexual inhibition in her relationship to her mother whose illness and demands preclude her from enjoying normal sexual relationships.  Eleanor, stopped from healthy sexual expression by the necessity of caring for her mother, experiences extreme guilt at her mother’s death.  The knocking becomes a manifestation of Eleanor’s guilt complex.

Eleanor rushes into Theo’s (Claire Bloom) room at her call.

Theo: I thought it was you pounding.

Eleanor: It was.

Theo experiences the noises as something caused by Eleanor.  Eleanor for a moment reinforces this construction.  The apparent misidentification allows the haunting to be read as an outward manifestation of Eleanor’s inhibition.  It becomes a physical expression of her repression in the form of a monstrous Other.  The ‘thing’ that haunts Hill House attempts to get into the room with Eleanor and Theo, but fails.  Eleanor asks if the door is locked, Theo responds negatively and the doorknob begins to turn.

Eleanor: You can’t get in!

As soon as Eleanor denies the ‘thing,’ the pounding ceases.  The haunting ends when Eleanor’s conscious mind represses a manifestation of the unconscious.  As soon as she denies it, it goes away.  The film focalizes the second memorable haunting sequence as solely the experience of Eleanor.  The scene begins with an exterior shot of a single tower of the house, bringing the viewer closer than in the opening of the previous sequence.  The scene cuts to the interior of Eleanor and Theo’s room.  Eleanor watches and listens as first a masculine voice murmurs and a feminine voice giggles.  She watches a single spot in the wall as a face begins to emerge from the ornamentation on the wall.  The entire sequence plays from Eleanor’s point of view, creating ambiguity about whether the voice and the image of the face in the wall are products of Eleanor’s imagination, a projection of her mind into the physical realm, or an actual haunted presence.  As the scene proceeds, the face in the wall becomes more pronounced, developing eyes, nose and an open mouth, the woman’s laughter replaced by the (apparent) sound of a child crying.  Eleanor begins narrating in voice-over at this stage:

Eleanor: This is monstrous.  This is cruel.  It is hurting a child and I will not let anyone or anything hurt a child…I will take a lot from this filthy house for his sake, but I will not go along with hurting a child.

Eleanor ends the sequence by screaming, again denying the presence of the Other.  The lights come on and she discovers that she has moved from her bed to the couch by the wall and that the hand she thought was Theo’s is no hand at all. This scene functions as the beginning of Eleanor’s entrance into a union with the house, as she narrates herself into a position of power.  She says that she ‘will not let anyone or anything hurt a child,’ establishing herself as the figure who will ‘save’ the hurt child.  Her enigmatic statement that she ‘will take a lot from this filthy house for his sake’ (italics mine) bears closer scrutiny.  She may be referring to Dr. Markway, with whom she has developed an infatuation.  She may be referring to the dead Hugh Crain.  She may even be referring to the house itself, which she begins to form an unnatural connection with.  Prior to the sequence, Eleanor has grown more attached to the house, believing that the house ‘wants’ her.  She forms a narcissistic, potentially sexual attachment to the house as her ‘home.’  This second sequence heightens her connection to the house.

The final haunting sequence occurs near the end of the film and visualizes Eleanor’s total breakdown, her passionate desire for union with the house, as the house literally begins to implode upon her.  It is the most physical manifestation of the haunting, claimed as the realization of everything the film has built to.  It also is the one full-fledged haunting sequence that all the main characters participate in.   The sequence actually opens from within the house, realizing the full progression of the establishing shots from the two previous sequences, each of which opens in a closer shot.  Now the camera is in the room with Markway, Eleanor, Theo and Luke (Russ Tamblyn).  The pounding noises from the first sequence occur again, until they stop in front of the sitting room door, where the four characters gather.  The door begins to cave in on itself, as the force on the other side pushes it in.

Each haunting sequence has failed to expose what it is that haunts Hill House.  No actual ghosts or monsters ever appear.  The haunting remains sublimated within the psychic realm, and reinforces that concept of Eleanor’s repression as being part and parcel of the haunting.  At this point, the repressed Other, almost succeeds in breaking through, in crumbling the door and revealing itself to the inhabitants.  Eleanor chooses to go out and face the ‘thing.’  At each point in The Haunting, Eleanor has denied the ‘thing’ entrance and so it remains behind walls and doors.  Finally, she opens the door and runs out to meet it.  She encounters no ghost, no ‘thing.’  She runs through the fast crumbling house as glass breaks, metal scrapes, and the house grows wildly imbalanced. These are all sounds focalized through Eleanor and, other than a single mirror falling, have no visual  reality.  Mirrors abound in this sequence.  Eleanor first encounters her distorted image in a convex mirror above a mantle.  As she runs into the conservatory, a mirror reflects her image, and then falls off the wall.  At each turn, Eleanor encounters a reflection of herself.  She has gone out to meet the haunting Other of Hill House only to discover that the Other is herself.  Her confrontation with the repressed side of herself, the inhibition that has manifested itself in the form of the monstrous Other, causes the house to ‘destroy itself.’

Eleanor: I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house.

Having confronted the repressed Other, Eleanor loses control and wishes to become a part of the house.  She nearly succeeds in committing suicide but is stopped at the last moment by Markway.  This returns to the issues of inhibited sexuality and can be seen as a sort of ‘coitus interruptus.’  The patriarchal representative of scientific materialism stops Eleanor’s sexualized union with the house, the full realization of her repressed psyche.

The conclusion of the film, however, establishes the supremacy of the supernatural manifestation of the female psyche over the masculinist rational paradigm.  The film exposes the medical discourse of Dr. Markway, who functions as a representative of the medical establishment and the need to control and explain the Other, as insufficient.  He seeks to explain the haunting, to locate some scientific proof for the paranormal.  Refusing to fall into the discourse of scientific materialism, Eleanor completes her union with the house and a full recognition of her sublimated desires.  The ending, though it concludes with Eleanor’s death, may be read in a triumphal light, as Eleanor finally discovers her place of belonging in confrontation and final acceptance of the sublimated Other.  Having confronted the haunting only to confront herself, Eleanor drives her car into a tree, killing herself:

Eleanor: So now I’m going.  But I won’t go.  Hill House belongs to me.  I knew it.  I knew it.  Hill House doesn’t want me to go.

She briefly resists, but Eleanor gives in to the ‘will’ of the house and the will of her subconscious.  Her repressed psyche in the form of the haunting takes over the wheel and unites her and the house in a union of sex and death.  Although she ends her life, she becomes incorporated into the house and succeeds in facing and accepting her sublimated desires.  Her inhibitions exposed, she can finally go home.

When The Haunting was remade in 1999, it opened the discourse of the film to new interpretation.  The remake articulated Eleanor’s relationship with the ghosts (and there are actual physical ghosts in the remake) as the role of savior.  Her death becomes unambiguously triumphant when she succeeds in ‘saving the children’ from an evil house that is haunted by the spirit of her past relation.  Aside from the hokier aspects of the film, the remake streamlines the concept of the original into a discourse not about the abject mind of the female, but the motherly ‘savior’ who sacrifices herself to rescue the children from a monstrous masculinity.  This brings to the fore the ambiguous function of the original to form a both sad and possibly triumphant conclusion.  Eleanor, freed from the functions of science and patriarchy, finally unites sexually with the house and in doing so comes ‘home.’  Hill House remains a place where ambiguity reigns, where the things that go bump in the night are never explained, and where successful sexual union only ends in death.  It is also the only site of triumph for the repressed, reviled woman who comes to terms with her sublimated psyche, who confronts her fears and enters into a sense of belonging.  Something finally happens to Eleanor.

Jackson, Shirley.  The Haunting of Hill House, Penguin Books, New York: 1987.

Creed, Barbara.  ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.

Doane, Mary Ann.  The Desire to Desire, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1987.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin Books, New York: 2003.

‘Inhibition, Symptom and Fear’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin, New York: 2003.

‘On the Introduction of Narcissism’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin Books, New York: 2003.

Kristeva, Julia.  Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Pres, New York: 1982.

Lawrence, Amy.  Echo and Narcissus: Women’s Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema, University of California Press, Berkeley: 1991.

Williams, Linda.  ‘When the Woman Looks’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.

De Bont, Jan (dir).  The Haunting, Dreamworks, 1999.

Wise, Robert (dir).  The Haunting, MGM, 1963.

*Paper originally written for Horror and Sci-Fi, Prof. Ed Guerrero.  Copyright Lauren Humphries-Brooks 2009

Bloody October: House On Haunted Hill

LAST NIGHT: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

“A woman was just hung in the stairwell; there was a severed head in a girl’s suitcase, we all have loaded guns and Vincent Price is our host.  Well, good night!”

William Castle’s 1959 schlock-fest House on Haunted Hill is iconic and ridiculous.  If Vincent Price offered you $10,000 to spend a night in a haunted mansion, would you go? No, of course you wouldn’t.  Because he’s VINCENT PRICE.  But apparently the five idiots who accompany him didn’t know that.  Thank God, for otherwise this movie would not exist and we would all be the worse for it.

I have no idea what to do with this movie.  It should be terrible – because it is.  The acting is largely atrocious, the plot nonsensical, the script alternately slow and sudden.  And yet…and yet.  I loved it.  Every second of it.  Why? WHY? Well, one why is Vincent Price, who no matter how many bad films he made always injects an edge of class and camp into his performances that made him the go-to guy for schlocky horror.  The other why is the crazy factor of the whole enterprise.  We have seven people locked in a haunted – high modern mansion, and what does their host do? He gives them loaded guns.  There are severed heads that appear randomly in closets which everyone seems to take in stride.  There’s a fucking vat of acid in the basement and this does not cause any great consternation.  These people are insane.

House on Haunted Hill is the best of bad 50s horror – total fun with a few proper scares.

Bloody October: The Changeling

LAST NIGHT: THE CHANGELING (1980)

I’m a huge fan of haunted house movies, but I had never seen or even heard of this one until some good people over at Man, I Love Films recommended it.  I was pleased to discover that it’s a cut above many scary movies; in fact, it ranks right up there with The Haunting and The Shining.

George C. Scott is John Russell, a composer who recently lost his wife and daughter and is having difficulty getting over it.  So he moves from NYC to Seattle and rents a huge Victorian mansion; because a single man in the throes of grief should definitely live alone in a massive house.  Things begin to go bump in the night, prompting Russell to research into the history of the house, only to discover freaky goings-on, a boarded up attic and a little kid’s wheelchair that moves on its own.  I won’t go into more details, but it gets pretty scary.

The Changeling is very much in the vein of del Toro’s The Orphanage – the haunted house is not exactly malign, but angry, and with good reason. Rather than running screaming into the night, Russell becomes convinced that the ghost is trying to get in touch with him, to solve the mystery of who or what it is and why it isn’t at rest.  The director Peter Medak gives us plenty of scares, but they’re not over the top – a piano playing by itself, an unidentified thumping, that rolling wheelchair.  It’s a sad, affecting film, not just a scary one.  Highly recommended by this first time viewer.

Bloody October: The Howling

LAST NIGHT: THE HOWLING (1981)

I have been informed by reliable and unimpeachable sources (my friend Trey Lawson, who also introduced me to this film) that werewolf fans divide themselves into two camps: American Werewolf in London partisans and The Howling loyalists.  While I love both movies – and I love werewolf movies period – I have to give the edge to The Howling.  Instead of focusing on one snarling lycanthrope, it gives us a whole colony of violent, depraved, campy puppies in heat.

Joe Dante’s low-budget creepfest starts out like a 80s serial killer film, with reporter Karen White (Dee Chamber, breathy) trolling the streets of seedy LA in search of a serial killer who recently contacted her.  She undergoes a very freaky experience in a sex shop in which the killer Eddie (Robert Picardo, terrifying) is apparently shot by cops.  To recover from her traumatic experience, her psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, delicious) sends her up north to the Colony for some rest and relaxation.  Because putting a bunch of paranoid schizophrenics in the same backwoods place is a brilliant idea.

Dante and screenwriter John Sayles throws everything but the kitchen sink into this one.  Half the characters are named after the directors of werewolf movies (George Waggner, Terence Fisher, Sam Newfield, etc.); there are scenes from The Wolf Man playing on various TVs, one character reads Allan Ginsburg’s Howl, and everyone likes Wolf’s brand Chili.  Slim Pickens is the local sheriff  (because even in California the sheriffs are Texans) and John Carradine puts in a cameo as a somewhat grouchy werewolf.  The special effects are spectacular – as they would be, coming from the mind of Rick Baker et al.  Oh, and there’s werewolf sex.  Animated werewolf sex.  Right.

Admittedly, a little of my current love for this film comes from the presence of Patrick Macnee (that’s TVs John Steed) who gives everything he’s in an edge of eminent class.  But the whole film has a marvelous combination of camp and legitimate horror.  The Howling is an indulgent, vitriolic bit of fun.     


Bloody October: Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein

LAST NIGHT: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is my favorite horror-comedy – yes, even before Ghostbusters.  It also scared the crap out of me when I was about seven.  My father decided to show it to me because it was the film that proved to him that monsters were something to laugh at.  And what effect did it have on me? Well, Dracula climbed out of his coffin and I ran screaming from the room.  This was further exacerbated by the fact that we lived in an old Victorian townhouse on 9 acres of woods that was regularly infested by bats.  My father spent the rest of the evening trying to convince me that Dracula wasn’t real and that he was not going to turn into a bat and suck my blood.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein still gives me chills, but that’s mostly a result of that childhood experience.  In the adult world, it’s simply an entertaining film, especially for those who enjoy the original Universal Monsters.  Because they’re all here! The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man – the latter two played by the actors who originated them.  The plot revolves around the resurrection of Dracula (Bela Lugosi) who has plans to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) with the help of Sandra (Lenore Aubert), a crazy doctor who eventually loses some blood to the Count.  The crux? Old Franky needs a new brain and he’ll find it in the head of Wilbur (Lou Costello) a dull-witted baggage clerk.  Opposing the gruesome ghouls is Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who keeps turning into a wolf – that full moon lasts an awfully long time.

The monsters play it fairly straight while Abbott and Costello ham it up around them – but they’re all game.  Lugosi in particular seems to be enjoying the chance to play his most iconic role and spout lines like “What we need today is young blood … and brains.”  I only wish that Karloff would have agreed to reprise his role as the Monster.

I think the reason this kind of freaked me out when I was a kid was the fact that the whole film turns on the notion that monsters really do exist:

Chick (Bud Abbott): I know there’s no search a person as Dracula.  You know there’s no such a person as Dracula.

Wilbur: But does Dracula know it?

The comedy is broad, the plot nonsensical, and the film is deliciously fun.  But honestly, it kept me believing in monsters.

Bloody October: Young Frankenstein

LAST NIGHT: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

Right, so maybe Young Frankenstein isn’t quite a scary movie, but it is a classic in every sense of the word.  Before I ever saw FrankensteinBride of Frankenstein, or Son of Frankenstein, I saw this.

The plot is actually straight from Universal Horror – which is what Brooks is going for, after all.  Frederick von Frankenstein  (It’s pronounced ‘Frahnk-en-steen) (Gene Wilder, insane) goes to Transylvania to take over his family castle.  There he meets Igor (Marty Feldman, hilarious), his lovely assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman, scaring the horses).  Convinced to begin trying to build his own Creature, Frederick steals a corpse and sets about making his own little Monster.  No way this could possibly go wrong.

It’s the plot of every Frankenstein movie, more or less.  But this is a comedy.  And what a comedy! Brooks is at his best when he’s parodying something he truly loves.  His love of Frankenstein films comes through in every frame.  Whole sections are lifted from Bride of Frankenstein and particularly Son of Frankenstein – like Gene Hackman’s Blindman and Kenneth Mars’s Inspector Kemp – but it never goes over into disrespect or derision.  It’s hilarious because it’s so loving.

Not a little of this has to do with the cast.  Gene Wilder is at his best – alternately wild and balanced, likable and pretentious, with hair that Einstein would have envied.  But everyone is not only game for their roles, but also exceptional comedians.  No one can inject humor into a small role like Madeleine Kahn; she’s resplendent and hilarious as Elizabeth, Frederick’s venal, virginal fiancée.  Likewise Teri Garr, in a role that could have fallen into the ‘dumb blonde’ category.  Then Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman, Peter Boyle as the Monster, the villagers … they’re just all so good. Wilder and Brooks wrote the script, which might have something to do with this film being far and away Brooks’s best work.

In any case, if you haven’t seen it, you need to.  You’ll never look at Franky the same way again.

Bloody October: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

LAST NIGHT: THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

I’m really behind on these, ’cause I definitely watched this one last Friday.  Anyways:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  This is one of those films that you either love and indulge in, or you sit there for two hours going: what the fuck is happening? The bare bones of the plot cannot do justice to the supreme campiness of Rocky Horror. Newly engaged young people in Denton, Ohio,  Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) have their car break down on a back road and – of course – wind up in a creepy castle with even creepier inhabitants. Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), a transvestite mad scientist, his lovely assistants Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and Columbia (Little Nell), and butler Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) have come together to throw a party and premiere Frank’s newest (and sexiest) creation Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). Brad and Janet have no idea what they’ve gotten into.

There are simply no words. References to 50s and 60s horror films abound, Meat Loaf makes an appearance to sing a song and get murdered; complicated sexuality reigns supreme.  There’s violence, sex, nudity and rock music. Tim Curry is the sexiest transvestite ever, the music is over the top, the ending beyond bizarre.  At the end of the day, Rocky Horror is what Robin Wood would call an ‘incoherent text’.  It begins to ramble in the second act, and finally explodes in the third.  But in between it is so much fun that you just have to sit back and, well, give yourself over to absolute pleasure.

Watching it again reminded me of some parties I’ve gone to: it all begins with a lot of fun, drinking and dancing and ends with the Apocalypse.  Still, you know that you want to do the Time Warp again.