[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.