It was reprint time again, as I'd just uncovered another of my favorite columns - the story of how Shirley Jackson's immortal "Haunting of Hill House" came to be written.

Unfortunately I no longer know where that column came from. There is a missing newsletter, July - October 1990, that we strongly suspect housed the original article.

At any rate, this is another column that at the time (whenever that was) was somewhat frustrating to write, as there was so much I wanted to say.

Now we were online, and now I could say it all.

I had recently met Robert Wise by this time (mid '98), and he'd remarked that many people cited "The Haunting" as their favorite film of his. As I was writing this column a rumor was circulating that Spielberg was going to direct a remake - I could hardly wait, and indeed leaked the news at the end of this column.

As we know, the remake was indeed made, Spielberg had nothing to do with it, and the results were, well, not quite what we'd hoped for.

As a matter of fact the results were laughable enough to warrant its inclusion in a little Halloween parody I would produce the following year (1999).

(A final note: Though I would promise a "special Halloween edition", we elected to leave this one up through October - it was far more Halloween appropriate than anything else was likely to be.)

This month marks the thirty fifth anniversary of one of my favorite films. It was directed by Robert Wise, who would go from there to direct "The Sound of Music," and featured among others actor Russ Tamblyn, fresh from his roles in "The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm" and "Tom Thumb."
You may imagine, therefore, that any such pairing would have to be in pursuit of filming another delightful, family oriented bit of whimsical fun.

Heh heh heh . . .

No, my friends, for Robert Wise had also worked on several Val Lewton horror pics in the forties, and Russ Tamblyn is probably most remembered today for his prominent role as the psychiatrist on "Twin Peaks." There was a darker side to both of them, and the film they produced in September of 1963 was one of the darkest, eeriest, and certainly one of the finest Haunted House films ever made.

I refer, of course, to "The Haunting."

The film was based on a novel called "The Haunting of Hill House," which was published in 1959, and written by the brilliant Shirley Jackson, who unfortunately died less than two years after the film was released, at the age of 48. The book is arguably even better than the film, and the film is the most remarkably subtle specimen of sheer terror I can ever recall seeing on the silver screen.

What does this have to do with things folklorish? Well, let's just say that one or two odd things happened during the creation of both the book and the film, and even beyond . . .

I give you:

Shirley Jackson & the Haunting of Hill House


Shirley Jackson became interested in the idea of writing a Haunted House novel in the mid-50's, after reading an article about psychic researchers.

Shortly thereafter, while traveling by train in New York, she saw a "building so disagreeable that (she) could not stop looking at it." It was tall, black, and foreboding, and that night Jackson was so troubled by nightmares that she had to turn on every light in the hotel room and walk around for a few minutes to convince herself that she'd only been dreaming.

She later learned that she had seen the place from the only angle it was still visible - most of it had burned to the ground some months before, killing nine people.

Soon after that, she came across a photo of an old house in a magazine which gave her similar feelings of dread. Realizing it was the perfect model for the house she wanted to write about, and noting that it was identified only by the name of a town in California, she wrote to her mother - a life-long resident of California.

Her mother's reply sent chills down her back - the house had been built by Shirley's own great-grandfather, and had burned down recently after standing empty for years.

A few weeks later, Jackson awoke one morning and went downstairs to find a sheet of paper with the words "dead dead" written on it. The paper had not been there when she retired, and yet the words were in her own handwriting! She began writing the novel with no further delay.

The book was released, and was something of a hit, and eventually the inevitable film version was planned. I ran into the director, Robert Wise, a couple of years ago, and he assured me that I was not alone in considering "The Haunting" one of his finest works. Russ Tamblyn, however, didn't think such would be the case at the time. He and Wise had previously joined forces for "West Side Story," and Russ felt his role in "The Haunting" wasn't a suitable followup. He agreed to do the film only after the studio threatened to suspend him. Afterwards, of course, he loved the result.

The interiors of Hill House were sets, filmed in Hollywood, but for the exterior director Wise found an incredibly creepy old manor house in the north of England. Tamblyn found himself with nothing to do on one such occasion when they were filming exteriors, and decided to walk around. He found himself in the house's private family cemetery, and recalled that there was indeed supposedly a legend of a headless female ghost who would walk those hallowed grounds.

Suddenly, he felt a cold, icy touch upon his neck. He very quickly vacated the premises, and told no one for years of his experience.

Let us move from exterior to interior, now, and focus our gaze upon Hollywood, or more specifically Beverly Hills. Actress Elke Sommer and her husband Joe Hyams had a nice little house there, nice except for a couple of minor distractions - such as a mysterious man who would appear out of nowhere and vanish before one's eyes when confronted, and strange noises in the dead of night, as of many chairs being pushed back at the close of a dinner party.

As with "The Haunting," (no more plot hints - read the book & see the movie!) the couple brought in a team of paranormal investigators. While the team of eight came to independent agreement as to the nature of the "visitor" (a middle aged, heavy set man), nothing much happened.

Sommers and Hyams were traveling a lot at this time, and rented the house out - although Mrs. Red Buttons, one potential tenant, refused to set foot in the place, saying it had an "evil aura."

The people that eventually rented it for three months, however, had no experiences whatsoever, and somewhat foolishly decided to celebrate with a "Goodbye Ghost" party.

That night, in the middle of the festivities, all the lights went out, and a heavy candelabra came crashing down to the floor.

After the couple returned to the house, the noises resumed, and they made up their minds to sell the place. They found a new home, and prepared to move.

It was April of 1967, and "The Haunting" was making its television debut. They stayed up to watch it, musing aloud about whether their resident ghost was aware of their moving.

Later that night, a loud knocking on their bedroom door startled them out of their sleep. Hyams opened the door, saw no one, but heard an eerie laughter in the distance. And saw smoke. Lots of smoke. The house was on fire!

At any rate, they escaped, and left the place for good. I wonder who got it next?

We began and ended this little lark with a burning house. One is reminded of Russ Tamblyn's closing remarks in the film: "It oughtta be burned down, and the ground sowed with salt."

As I write this, I've just gotten word that Dreamworks has purchased the rights to "The Haunting of Hill House," and plans a remake - possibly with Spielberg directing. Perhaps someone should warn them . . .

Heh heh heh . . .

Don't forget to tune in next month for our special Halloween edition!

Pleasant nightmares!