The Haunting is spooky without a doubt. But thinking back on the scares, it’s quite the revelation that the spine-tingling sequences are all missing something – a visible shock.
As Director Robert Wise said, “You see nothing. You can’t see a cold spot.”
Wise’s masterpiece expertly relies on suggestions to create the feel that one sees more than there actually is.
When adapting the story, screenwriter Nelson Gidding had his own a-ha moment after noticing the lead character’s narrative arc.
“This isn’t a ghost story at all. It’s about a woman who is having a nervous breakdown.”
Thus, the haunted house was a manifestation of the sanitarium, the paranormal investigator was really the doctor, and Theo was actually a nurse.
“I understand that, when you undergo shock treatment, you feel very cold afterwards,” Gidding said. “And of course the violence of the shock treatment itself is the noise and the banging of the haunted house.”
To accentuate this, Gidding removed any moments that took the action away from the home (such as a proposed picnic scene) in order to create a claustrophobic feeling.
Of course, to ensure his interpretation was right, Gidding and Wise went to the source: author Shirley Jackson.
“She was wonderful, a very smart woman,” Gidding recalled. “She was very gracious.”
Jackson was no stranger to mystery and horror and is perhaps best remembered for her short story “The Lottery” along with The Haunting of Hill House. Approximately four years before her haunted house tale, Jackson wrote The Bird’s Nest about a woman with multiple personalities – so Gidding’s theory of a mental breakdown wasn’t out of left field.
Still that didn’t make it the author’s intention, though she did compliment him on his inventive idea. In the end, Gidding decided to leave the interpretation up to the viewer. Of course, he has his own view as well.
“I believe that this house was haunted, and I believe there could be such a thing as a haunted house. But it could [also] be paranormal, and that the things that happen will be explained someday.”