Horror, Ghost Stories and Haunted Houses
In the genre of movies broadly called horror there is a subclass often misleadingly placed under the “horror” label. These are ghost stories.
It’s misleading because horror generally depends on spectacle.
It’s one of the big pay-offs in a horror film – the monster or the horrific events.
The best ghost stories work in the opposite way. The best of these depend on what you don’t see – no big spectacle here.
Within the subclass called ghost stories there is yet another class (a sub-subclass of horror).
This is the haunted house story.
Now that may seem a little too much of a “library sciences” approach but it’s worth noting, at least for me.
Generally, most horror movies don’t do much for me – they’re too simplistic, too bloody and generally far too predictable.
But the ghost story … now that’s another thing all together. The best of these (like The Sixth Sense) are about suspense. They’re about anxiously anticipating … well, you just don’t know what and that’s the point. Your imagination is as much involved as the director’s. In fact, he or she is counting on it.
The Legend of Hell House
Directed by John Hough
Some of the best ghost stories are about haunted houses. Two of the very best of these are Robert Wise’s 1964 movie The Haunting and, from 1973, John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House.
Both of these give me the willies. The two movies have similar set ups to get the engine of the story going.
A group of people go to spend a few days in an old house to uncover the mystery of its so-called haunting.
In both cases, the group of people is split between those who believe in ghosts and those who do not – the scientists.
In the case of The Legend of Hell House the scientist, Mr. Barrett (Clive Revill) is a believer of sorts.
He’s a kind of para-psychologist who is determined to use his science to prove it is not ghosts the house contains but human psychic energy trapped in the house following a death.
The reason Barrett and the others are in the house to begin with is because a rich old man has bought it and is paying each of them £100,000 to uncover what is going on in Hell House.
Barrett is accompanied by his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and a young woman with psychic abilities (“a mental medium”) named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin).
There is also a physical psychic, Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall).
He happens to be the only surviving member of the last party to visit Hell House.
(The others either died, were crippled or went mad.)
The mystery and frights quickly get underway with young Florence appearing to be the focus of the house’s attention.
But there is uncertainty about who or what is actually causing the spooky manifestations – is it Florence, Fischer or the house?
What makes The Legend of Hell House work is what makes most good ghost stories work on film – the restraint it uses in what it shows.
Beyond some rattling tables and bumps and eerie voices, the film shows very little.
But in its set ups and the playing out of scenes it uses the audience’s tension and imagination to keep the goosebumps everpresent.
In a movie like this, what the film is about is far less important than the how. It’s probably fortunate movies like this didn’t have huge budgets (and in 1973, didn’t have CGI for effects).
As we’ve seen over the last few decades, the urge to throw spectacle up on the screen is almost irresistible but in a movie such as this that would have ruined what makes it work.
What you don’t see is what is frightening. And in The Legend of Hell House what you don’t see makes your hair stand on end.
Three stars out of four.
(Originally posted 2004.)