Creating a Character: Hill House

Shortly after filming The West Side Story, director Robert Wise found a new gripping tale: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. And as coincidence would have it, Wise was reading the tale when screenwriter Nelson Gidding entered.

“I jumped about three feet off that couch!” Wise said, and he knew that if the book could do that, a film could too.

Wise’s time with producer Val Lewton, especially during The Body Snatcher, was instrumental in creating the film’s feel. Lewton had taught that the young talent that the driving force for suspense is the fear of the unknown, and this was used as the foundation of 1963’s horror masterpiece – what Wise called a sort of tribute to his mentor and a return to his roots. 

After securing the budget overseas, Wise chose Ettington Park Hotel in Britain as the exterior for Hill House. Interestingly, the 60 room mansion-turned-hotel was already considered haunted by the locals and contained a tunnel that went underneath the home into the grounds.

“I thought [Ettington Park] was a wonderful house,” Gidding said. “[And] the way Bob Wise shot it was great. He made the house a character.”

In fact, when Julie Harris and Claire Bloom arrived in a limousine at the imposing house, Wise opened the door to see them huddled together. “You can’t stay there,” he joked.

The Haunting’s “supernatural” special effects were often produced by simple means. The budging door, for instance, was simply a prop man pushing from the other side.

“When you’re at the front, [it] looked pretty horrible [but] round the back it was really quite amusing,” Wise said.

Another particularly memorable sequence is the quick ascent the loose staircase in the mansion. To achieve this, the railing was used as a dolly track, and a camera rolled down it. The film was later reversed. The staircase itself could be made to wobble more or less by tightening or loosening its bearings.

Russ Tamblyn said, “There was no blood in the movie at all. It was all based strictly on fear. I thought it was a brilliant concept.”

To help set the mood for his actors, sounds effects would be played in key scenes, allowing them to react off the spooky noises.

Wise also shot several scenes with infrared film so that the clouds would be punctuated when shown in black-and-white.

Each small detail added another layer to what became one of cinema’s creepiest houses and a favorite among fans.

“I have had so many people say to me about The Haunting that it is the scariest film I have ever seen. But I didn’t show anything. It was just suggestions,” said Wise.