"The Haunting" scares us silly

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For movie buffs, the month of October means one thing: 31 days of horror movies. With tons of horror flicks to choose from, The Daily Texan is going to be providing a daily horror recommendation. Whether you prefer ghosts, zombies or stark explorations of the human condition, we’ll be featuring horror films of all flavors. Check back every evening for the movie of the day. Today, we go all the way back to 1963 for “The Haunting.” 

One has to wonder about extracurricular activities in the afterlife. Don’t ghosts have better things to do with their time than spook the living? Is there a spectral version of Doodle Jump that they can play on their non-corporeal iPhones or ghastly lakes where they can spend their weekends with their post-life friends?

My theory? Haunted houses are like the apparition version of Sixth Street. It’s not that these poltergeists want to scare us, it’s just that that’s how they get when they’re drunk — off of spirits, naturally. Stumbling around, making loud noises while people try to sleep, knocking things over, slamming doors and mumbling things that don’t make a whole lot of sense — as far as I can tell, the only difference between them and my freshman year roommate is that the latter was still around in the morning.

Hill House, the focus of Robert Wise’s “The Haunting,” would occupy a prime spot on the Dirty Sixth of the ghostly world, but none of the characters in the movie bother to entertain my hypothesis. Then again, they aren’t particularly good scientists. 

Devoid of any tools to collect data, the primary investigator (Richard Johnson) enlists the help of two attractive young women — a not-so-subtly-sapphic psychic (Claire Bloom) and our mentally unstable protagonist (Julie Harris) — and the man set to inherit the estate (Russ Tamblyn) to look into the mysterious goings-on. It goes without saying that whatever skepticism the characters express at the beginning of the movie disappears before the curtain closes.

This is silly stuff, often bordering on very silly, especially with Harris’ overdramatic performance, but it’s also often effective, largely because of the movie’s ability to take it seriously. Wise’s use of the camera is restrained for the most part, but tends toward crazy angles and unusual lenses in the scary moments. Even during the terrifying bits, though, the focus is always on what we don’t see rather than what we do, and the black and white cinematography adds atmosphere to a movie that would look very dated if it had been filmed in color.

The scariest moments in horror movies are never those when the killer finally strikes, but are instead the moments leading up to the inevitable explosion of terror. “The Haunting” knows this. Objectively, not a whole lot happens during the movie, and the plot never departs from the traditional haunted house storyline, but this is less about story than it is about individual moments, such as one involving a closed door looking like it’s about to burst open or another where a character ascends a staircase that’s on the verge of toppling over.

When the movie ends, it’s easy to laugh it off. We say we knew who was going to survive and who wasn’t, but that’s not really the point, is it? When we first sit down on a roller coaster, we know we’re going to make it through the ride okay, but during that first drop, we have our doubts.

And it’s fun to be scared, especially when it’s safe, and none of these ghosts meant any harm. They were just trying to have a good time, had a little too much to drink and things went a little crazy. In other words, “The Haunting” isn’t just an effective horror movie; it’s also a powerful reminder to drink responsibly, in this life or any other you may find yourself in.