In Retrospect: Robert Wise and Julie Harris Converge on ‘Hill House’

Director Robert Wise on the set of THE HAUNTING. ©MGM.


Front Row Features

Generally acknowledged by movie historians as one of the most scary ghost films ever produced, “The Haunting” was shot in Britain in the autumn of 1962 and has gone on to become a cult classic.

Based on Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Haunting of Hill House, the story is set in New England and revolves around a Gothic mansion that has stood dark, evil and unoccupied for years.  Mrs. Sannerson (Fay Compton), who inherited Hill House, is approached by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), who wishes to investigate the paranormal activity at the mansion. He’s joined by Eleanor (Julie Harris,) who saw ghosts as a child, Theodora (Claire Bloom,) a psychic, and the heir to the mansion, the cynical Luke Sannerson (Russ Tamblyn.)

I spoke with the movie’s director, Robert Wise, and star Julie Harris in 1995, about making this classic horror film. Sadly, Robert Wise passed on in 2005 and Julie Harris in 2013.

Judy Sloane: Robert, I read you picked up a copy of Time Magazine which contained a review of Shirley Jackson’s novel during post-production on your movie “West Side Story.”

Robert Wise: Yes. Usually by the time a book gets to be reviewed in those national magazines, if it has any kind of film potential, it’s been picked up by the major studios. I found out this hadn’t, so I went and got a copy of it.


Judy Sloane: How did the movie get its title?

Robert Wise: Screenwriter Nelson Gidding and I didn’t want to keep The Haunting of Hill House. We asked Shirley, ‘Did you ever have any other title you were thinking of for the book?’ She said, ‘The only other thing I thought one time was just The Haunting. It was right there in front of us.


Judy Sloane: Was it hard to find the location in the UK to represent Hill House?

Robert Wise: Haunted houses are a dime-a-dozen in England. Fay Compton, she plays the old lady who owns the (mansion) in the beginning of the film said, ‘Mr. Wise, I have an old house down in Somerset. I’ve had to have that exorcised twice; it didn’t take the first time!’

We found Ettington Hall, an old mansion that was being used as a hotel. It was kind of an odd looking building with little striations in the stone. I wanted to make the house as much of a character as I could. I went down with the crew to get atmospheric shots just of the house, of the windows. I tried to make those appear like eyes, and tried to bring the house to life. I used infra-red film, and it brought out and exaggerated the striations of the stone and the whole effect made it look more of a monster house, which I was after.


Judy Sloane: Julie, what was it like playing Eleanor?

Julie Harris: It was a challenging role, very complex. I really am fascinated by para-psychology and that sort of thing. The whole history of the house taking over Eleanor’s spirit was fascinating to me.


Judy Sloane: Claire Bloom’s character, Theodora, had subtle indications of lesbianism, which for the Sixties was controversial.

Julie Harris: It wasn’t really overt. There was no mention of her homosexuality. The censors said that Claire must never touch my character because they didn’t want that implied. Then a few years later they made “The Killing of Sister George.”


Judy Sloane: Robert, didn’t Ettington Hall double as Hill House and a hotel that the cast and crew stayed in while filming on location?

Robert Wise: Yes. I saw this big old Princess limousine coming in the driveway, and I knew it was bringing Julie and Claire to the location so I went over to open the door and welcome them. They were huddled together, clutching each other, and they said, ‘Do we have to stay here?’ It was kind of scary looking outside. I said, ‘Yes, but it’s alright. I’ll be with you!’


Judy Sloane: Julie, there was a famous ghost that resided at Ettington Hall, a young woman who threw herself out of an upper window.

Julie Harris: I do remember the possibility of seeing a ghost. The ghost could be seen outside a little prayer house, but I never saw her. I looked!


Judy Sloane: I read that even when you went to Borehamwood Studios to do the interior scenes it still felt a little creepy. Is that true?

Julie Harris: They had five days of what they called in London, the black fog. That sort of heightened the unreality of the whole thing. The first day of the fog, a trip that would generally take me half an hour from my home in London out to the Studio took about three hours because you literally couldn’t see the end of the car.


Judy Sloane: Robert, was “The Haunting” your first horror movie?

Robert Wise: No, in 1942 I was given my first directorial job on the horror film, “The Curse of the Cat People,” by Val Lewton. My doing “The Haunting” was kind of a tribute to Lewton, and a thank you to him. He was my mentor in a sense. I learned so much from Val.


Judy Sloane: Why did you choose to shoot the movie in black and white?

Robert Wise: I never thought about doing it in anything but black and white. With this kind of story, with the low-key heavy, dark lighting even though you can get effect lighting in color, I don’t think it ever has quite the same feeling, the same texture; the same impact for me.


Judy Sloane: The sounds the house made were quite scary – how did you produce them?

Robert Wise: When the girls were in the bed, reacting to that loud sound outside the door, and the sniffing around the door, that was all being sent through a big horn on a playback machine.

Julie Harris: They were terrible noises! The groaning and the thumping, they were very modulated. At first they started small and then became louder and louder and louder.


Judy Sloane: In one of the most famous scenes in the movie, the audience sees in a matter of seconds a child lying in a bed age to an old woman. How did you do that without the modern day special effects?

Robert Wise: We got the set fixed with the camera and then we had three or four different people that had the same kind of look. One would get out of the bed and another would get in. We’d look through the set camera and framed it as closely as we possibly could to the other one and shot it. It was really effective.


Judy Sloane: Why do you feel the movie has become a cult classic?

Robert Wise: People have told me over the years, ‘Mr. Wise, you made the scariest picture I’ve ever seen, and you didn’t show anything. How did you do it?’ That all comes from Val Lewton. Lewton’s theory or thesis was that the greatest fear that people had was the fear of the unknown; that’s what we play on very much in “The Haunting.”


NOTE: Robert Wise had it written into his contract that the movie had to be made in black and white. The only other film with that contract stipulation was Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” edited by Robert Wise.