House / Home Screening Series No. 4: The Haunting (1963)

USA/UK • 112 minutes. 

Some Incidents in the Rational Investigation into the Paranormal

“A deranged house is a pretty conceit […] People are always so anxious to get things out in the open where they can put a name to them, even a meaningless name, so long as it has something of a scientific ring.’”
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Harry Houdini’s mournful search for his mother

Starting in the 1920s, Harry Houdini began his quest for the supernatural routed in pure sceptical reason. According to novelist E.L. Doctorow, Houdini was ‘one of the last great mother lovers, before Freud pulled the rug out from under him. Distraught by her death in 1913, Houdini began a ceaseless search for a legitimate medium in order to ease his grief. His friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was irreparably damaged when Houdini published his expose of psychic charlatans and hacks, A Magician Among the Spirits. Conan Doyle, dedicated public head of the Spiritualist movement, chose to believe that Houdini’s magician’s eye for a uncovering a sophisticated ruse was in fact the work of an advanced medium. Houdini and his wife agreed they would use the codeword ‘Rosabelle believe,’ to prove that she was communicating with his spirit on yearly séances. These séances continue to this day, though the phrase has yet to appear.

Karl Zener’s cards

The Haunting’s Theodora is lauded as having correctly guessed 19 out of 20 playing cards in a remote viewing exercise. In the years preceding the film’s release, psychologist Karl Zener had been conducting a series of experiments into the possibility of extra-sensory perception using a card deck of his own devising. The Zener cards depicted a wave, a star, a circle, a cross and a square. Although Zener’s test provides fair scientific parameters for ascertaining psychic abilities (null hypothesis, reproducible conditions, control studies), proof of psychic ability has yet to be proved using this method.[1]

The possible origin of the haunted house

The American Journal of Ophthalmology of 1921 describes a haunted house of archetypal purity. Their contact Mrs H. reports, ‘Some nights after I have been in bed for a while, I have felt as if the bed clothes were jerked off me, and I have also felt as if I had been struck on the shoulder. One night I woke up and saw sitting on the foot of my bed a man and a woman… Sometimes, after I have gone to bed, the noises from the storeroom are tremendous…. G told me that in the middle of the night he woke up, feeling as if someone had grabbed him by the throat and was trying to strangle him. G Jr. did not wake up all night but the muscles of his face kept twitching, as if someone was continually pinching him.” The end of these apparitions and disturbances comes with the discovery of an unserviced furnace that is spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere and causing asphyxiated hallucinations. [2]

Jackson certainly knew of such explanations (‘“There are people who will tell you that the disturbances I am calling psychic are actually the result of subterranean waters, or electric currents, or hallucinations caused be polluted air.”’), but the novel and the film amplify the concept of the return of the repressed that is implicit in the idea of haunting by making it not only the past that is haunting the inhabitants but also irrationality. The characters behave in a reasonable fashion – no mindless splitting up or needless creeping along deserted hallways here. Dr Markham assumes both the scientist role and the horror fans’ position: jaded but ready for confirmation if it is there. Without cheap tricks or superficial explanations, the viewer is forced to confront the reality of the supernatural. ‘You may not believe in ghosts, but you cannot deny terror!’


[1] An online version of the test is available at Your correspondent showed himself to be 16% poorer than could be expected by chance alone at guessing the selected card.

[2] An audio version of this story is at


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