Queer and Haunted

By Andreas

[This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon over at Garbo Laughs. Thanks to Caroline for hosting it!]

As I’ve said time and again, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) is one of the greatest horror films of all time. Between its chiaroscuro cinematography, biting dialogue, and Julie Harris’s indelible performance as the neurotic Nell, it’s the haunted house movie. It’s the one to beat. It makes The Amityville Horror look like shit. It makes Poltergeist look like The Amityville Horror.

It’s also highly invested in queer themes, as exemplified by Theo (Claire Bloom), Nell’s aggressive lesbian roommate. Although the cast is rounded out by two men, it’s clearly Nell and Theo’s relationship that dominates the film. It’s a fascinating, fluctuating relationship characterized by seduction, rejection, mind games, and innuendo. Sexual hang-ups clash with troubled pasts and paranormal phenomena as The Haunting rages on.

It’s a remarkably dense film, in both its visuals and its writing, so I’ll unpack just a few salient textual details about Nell’s sexuality. First off, I’m intrigued by Nell’s initial appearance in the film, via her name on a blackboard:

This is Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), preparing his list of potential test subjects. Each one, as he explains to Hill House’s elderly owner, has been “involved, one way or another, with the abnormal.” (“Abnormal,” like much of The Haunting’s language, is left tantalizingly ambiguous.) Most of them get a last name; Theo gets a question mark. In The Haunting, names are filled with power and meaning. So why is Theo’s incomplete?

I see it as an incredibly subtle hint that Theo will be somehow different. Which is to say: she has psychic powers, she’s bitterly sarcastic, and she’s queer. Like the sexually confused and mother-haunted Nell, she’s just as abnormal as any of Hill House’s ghosts.

As you can see, The Haunting hardly takes a progressive view of Theo’s sexuality. She’s implicitly equated with the supernatural evil that infests the house. As Nell screams at her, “You’re a monster, Theo! You’re the monster of Hill House!” (Nell later adds that Theo is one of “nature’s mistakes,” evoking some common homophobic myths.) The Haunting certainly incorporates the prejudices of the era in which it was made.

At the same time, though, the film never invites us to hate or dismiss Theo. She’s its most vital, compelling presence, and she gets many of the best lines. Unlike the whiny, self-pitying Nell, she’s confident, bitchy, and unafraid to speak her mind. When the film ends, she’s the only one who understands what Nell really wanted. (“Maybe not ‘poor Eleanor’…”)

The Haunting may not cast Theo’s sexuality in a positive light, but at least it weaves her queer desire into its checkered matrix of symbols, genre tropes, and mirror images. It’s not just a rare pre-Stonewall representation of an onscreen lesbian; in The Haunting, queer desire helps structure the film itself.

[For more queer cinema, read our takes on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pedro Almodóvar, Swoon, I Love You, Philip Morris, The Ghost Ship, and more…]


Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

7 responses to “Queer and Haunted

  1. Pingback: QUEER FILM BLOGATHON « Garbo Laughs

  2. Thanks for posting this. Fellow bloggfest blogger here.

    It has been years since I have seen this movie so I am going to have to run home tonight and see if it is in my collection. I know I did not see it like this all those years ago. I was young and freaked out over the concept of the haunted house!

    You can see my post here: The Lesbian Vampire: Villain or Victim? Part 1

  3. Great character analysis. I definitely need to see this film, and soon. Thank you so much for your contribution!

  4. Thanks for your terrific post on what I think is one of the greatest horror movies of all. You make an insightful point about Theo’s sexuality structuring the film’s dynamics, especially the use of names in the film and the power they invoke. Bloom’s Theo is really the most fascinating person in the movie; she seems to have the best psychological understanding not only of Nell but of all the other characters also. The Haunting might make an interesting double bill w/The Uninvited (1944), another great ghost-story movie that also has a lesbian subtext (unfortunately, it’s not on DVD, but it appears frequently on TCM).

  5. @Timothy Brannan: Happy I could illuminate the subtext for you! One of the great things about The Haunting is that it works wonders as a totally straightforward horror movie, and again as a complex, perverse discourse about the characters’ tangled sexualities.

    @Caroline: Thanks for hosting the blogathon! I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I do!

    @Grand Old Movies: I saw The Uninvited a long time ago, but all I really remember is Ray Milland being in it. I think that calls for a rewatch!

  6. A strong evaluation of Theo. I never noticed that question mark before -very observant! However, do you really think that her relationship with Eleanor dominates the film? I always saw the film as Eleanor careening from romantic foil to romantic foil. Heck, the climax of the picture focuses on her unrequited emotions for Doctor Markway. If anything Nell’s ultimate suitor is Hill House itself, and the specter of Hugh Crain gives it an unmistakable masculinity. However, I do think that Nell and Theo have an added degree of interest, since the homoerotic angle is daring for its time and suggested rather than spoken, which makes it a more rewarding relationship to dissect.

    Just found the blog, and I’m really enjoying it!

    • Those are some good points! It’s very true that, in terms of plot, the movie’s about Nell moving romantically between the other characters and then her true love, the house. By “dominates the film,” I meant that it really stands out: Dr. Markway is never as compelling a love interest as Theo, and Luke just feels like a sometimes-amusing part of the film’s fabric rather than a major character.

      So for me, the film’s real substance lies in the subtle relationship details, rather than in Nell’s romantic back-and-forth jealousies. In any case, The Haunting‘s just a treasure trove of fascinating psychosexual wrinkles. You can reach into it and come out with a new interpretation every time!

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