screen gems

Welcome Halloween season with an overlooked gay romance in a terrifying classic

The Haunting

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch..

The Screamer: The Haunting

Legendary director Robert Wise helmed this iconic horror classic, based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by queer author Shirley Jackson.  It also happens to feature one of the earliest–and most respectful–depictions of lesbianism in Hollywood history.

The Haunting follows the experiences of a small group of supernatural enthusiasts that spend a weekend together in a supposedly haunted house. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) believes he can use the house to prove the existence of an afterlife and assembles a team of misfits to investigate. They include: his wife Grace (Lois Maxwell); Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), heir to the Hill fortune; the psychic Theo (Claire Bloom); and Nell Lance (Julie Harris), a shy, guilt-ridden woman that has shown clairvoyant abilities. Tension mounts in the house as strange events transpire around the house, and as Nell’s sanity begins to waver. Is the house really haunted? Or is someone perpetrating an elaborate hoax?

The Haunting ratchets up suspense over the course of its runtime, relying more on character tensions and atmosphere than vulgar special effects. Director Wise knows to trust his actors to sell the material, starting with stage legend Harris, who gives a spectacular performance both heartbreaking and thrilling. In an even more unexpected twist, the movie also leans into the developing lesbian love affair between Nell and Theo. At one point, Theo even professes her lesbianism, and the movie makes her into a heroine of sorts–something almost unimaginable in 1963. Audiences and censors may not have even noticed at the time because the rest of the movie had them scared out of their minds. Even the 1999 remake couldn’t get away with featuring lesbianism, with Theo (played there by Catherine Zeta-Jones) only mentioning her bisexuality in passing (she also shows more interest in men, natch), and the movie eliminating hints of a gay romance.

The Haunting endures as a horror classic, albeit one that doesn’t quite the credit it deserves as an unusual queer love story. Cinematic lions Martin Scorsese and Steven Speilberg have both named The Haunting as one of the scariest movies ever made, while we praise it for its depiction of gay love. We recommend it for the queerness, for the performances led by Harris’, and for its master class level use of psychological terror. Here’s a movie both scary and romantic as Hell.

Streams on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes & VUDU.