The Haunting Book/Movie Beat Sheet Comparison – The Movie
Based on the 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting was released on September 18, 1963. Director Robert Wise was looking for his new project and found Jackson’s book. It made him so jumpy that he hired screenwriter Nelson Gidding to pen a script over the next six months. Wise used distortive lenses, extremely high and low angles, and infrared film to bring The Haunting to life. In fact, Wise’s use of the widescreen frame, as well as light and shadow, is a textbook for any filmmaker.
The film was only modestly received; however, it became a cult classic on home video and is often ranked as one of the best haunted house and ghost films ever made. The film was remade in 1999 and was critically panned and commercially unsuccessful. More recently, Netflix released The Haunting of Hill House mini-series, created by Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil). The series is a less faithful adaptation of Jackson’s novel, using only minor scenes and some character names, but has been well-received by audiences and critics. For comparison to the 1963 adapted film, you can read the novel’s beat sheet.
Screenplay by: Nelson Gidding
From the novel by Shirley Jackson
Directed by: Robert Wise
MITH Type: Supra-Natural Monster
MITH Cousins: The Shining, Burnt Offerings, The Legend of Hell House, The Amityville Horror, The Changeling, The Innocents, The Woman in Black, A Stir of Echoes, Ghost Story, The Others, Poltergeist, The House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts
How does The Haunting hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the film:
Opening Image: The silhouette of the foreboding Hill House stands against a moody, monochromatic sky looking like mountain peaks of doom. The somber narrator states: “An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Set-Up: After the credits of the prologue, we learn the history of Hill House, narrated by Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson). Built in the 1860s, the house has a history of scandal, insanity, murder, and suicide. But that is all the result—Hill House, down to its stone foundations, was born bad. Hugh Crain, an aristocrat, had the sprawling mansion built in the remote reaches of Massachusetts for his wife and daughter.
Tragedy immediately strikes when Hugh Crain’s wife, just before setting eyes on Hill House, dies. The horses bolt and the carriage she’s riding in crashes into a tree, killing her instantly. (Another similar incident will pay off in the Finale.) Hugh Crain, now alone with his young daughter, Abigail, marries again. His new wife dies shortly afterward inside the house, falling down the stairs under mysterious circumstances.
Embittered, Crain leaves his young daughter with a nurse and heads for England. He dies in a drowning accident. Abigail never leaves the nursery, growing up there and staying until she’s old and frail. As she starts to expire, Abigail calls for her nurse-companion, a girl from town, who was out with a local farmhand. Abigail died in her bed, neglected and alone, and the companion soon inherited the house. That was short-lived, however, as the companion hanged herself from the library’s spiral staircase. The house has remained relatively empty since.
Catalyst: We meet Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson). He’s conducting a meeting with Mrs. Sanderson, the owner of Hill House (related to the companion who committed suicide). Markway wants to lease Hill House over the summer with some assistants “in the interest of psychic research” within its stone walls. The old woman tells the doctor that people cannot stay more than a few days in the place: “The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”
Set-Up/Debate: To make sure that things stay on the up-and-up, it’s decided that Luke Sanderson, a devilish cardsharp who’s one of Hill House’s benefactors, will accompany the doctor and his assistants. The doctor hopes not to find loose floorboards but the key to another world in the haunted house. One could say that his eagerness to investigate the much-reputed Hill House is his transgression that will bring the monster. Like many “Monster in the House” stories, the warnings are ignored.
Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris) has spent most of her life living for others, in this case, caring for her sickly mother. Though this is a four-hander story (meaning it follows four main characters), Eleanor is essentially the main character as she will change the most through the story. This is her Opening Image, quarrelling with her sister and husband about the use of the car to take to Hill House (following Dr. Markway’s catalytic invitation).
They try to guilt trip Eleanor into not leaving, taking advantage of the woman’s obvious childlike vulnerabilities. In true stasis = death form, Eleanor will perish here if she doesn’t make a change. Later, in true heroine form, she sneaks her sister’s car out of the paid garage in Boston and drives it down Route 238 to the remote reaches of Hill House.
Theme Stated: As she’s beginning to leave, Eleanor, in voice over, states her hopes and dreams. She hopes that she will find meaning in her Hill House excursion. She’s been waiting for something like this to happen her entire life. Will she find a home and acceptance there? That’s the theme, and through the course of the story, Eleanor will try to find her place in this new world.
Debate (cont’d): Eleanor is essentially an orphan and homeless in a stolen car. She has no place to go but forward, and that’s to the haunted house that she was invited to stay at during the summer. In true Debate form, as she drives, Eleanor wonders, via voiceover, what her future at Hill House will be like.
At minute 14, Eleanor arrives at the chained gates of Hill House. Mr. Dudley (Valentine Dyall), in true Threshold Guardian form, gives Eleanor trouble, not wanting to open the gates for the lone visitor. The gatekeeper/caretaker warns her that she’ll be sorry for ever wanting to step into the mansion. Eleanor drives up the wooded country lane and sees the monstrous house—it has an overwhelming effect on her psychologically. Eleanor debates with herself in the driveway. She recognizes this as a sentient place full of evil. Should she run away? Where would she go? She’s just run away from an undesirable place. Out of the frying pan and into the fiery pit of Hell.
Break into Two: Eleanor drives on, as she cannot go back to the way things were. Eleanor makes her choice to move forward, crossing over into the upside-down world (and it’s taking all her will to do so).
Fun and Games: Arriving at the door, Eleanor finds that Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) is as unpleasant as her husband. The dour-faced woman takes Eleanor to her room and gives her a pitch about how she won’t wait on the visitor and how she won’t be able to help her in the evening after she leaves… “in the night, in the dark.”
B Story: At 22 minutes, Eleanor meets Theodora (Claire Bloom) or simply “Theo.” She’s the opposite of Eleanor: outgoing, confident, urbane, and a flashy dresser. She’s the other of the two assistants with previous psychic experiences that Dr. Markway asked to volunteer. Theo, with her insight and cutting remarks, will act much like an older sibling to Eleanor and help her grow the most and learn the theme of finding her place and who she really is.
Fun and Games (cont’d): Wandering the maze of the mansion filled with shadowy corners and locked doors, Eleanor and Theo become disoriented and lost. Eleanor feels a chill and hears whispers — being a “sensitive,” she can do those things. Theo cannot and becomes startled when they can’t find their way around. Hill House is showing its true colors… midnight black. Theo tells her companion that the house wants her. Eleanor becomes completely freaked out, yelling and screaming in the dark.
They’re “rescued” by Dr. Markway, who was waiting in the adjacent parlor. Doors do not stay open in Hill House — all are designed to shut after a few moments, which disorients those unfamiliar with its sinister layout. The strangers all make their introductions. The doctor explains that the man who constructed the house was a misanthrope who built the house to “suit his mind.” There is no conventionality or right corners in the house (that explains the closing doors). The place is one giant distortion of a house.
Searching for the dining room, even Dr. Markway, who claims to know the layout of the house, becomes lost. They meet Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) in the dining room, who, of course, is already mixing up martinis. He’s the cynic of the group, cocksure that there’s a scientific, rational explanation for all of it.
We learn over dinner that Dr. Markway brought Eleanor and Theo here because they each had brushes with the supernatural. Eleanor experienced poltergeist activity at age 10 when showers of stones rained on her parent’s house. Theo came to the doctor’s attention for having used ESP, naming 19 out of 20 Zener cards (like the kind Bill Murray was torturing an angry young “psychic” with at the beginning of Ghostbusters with electric shocks).
Despite the haunted surroundings, Eleanor starts to feel at home in Hill House with her companions, who she thinks of as family. Perhaps she does belong here?
At 40 minutes, we settle into the promise of the premise with a deep, low thumping that seems to come from down the hallway. At first, Eleanor thinks it’s her late mother banging on the wall, but then she’s terrified when it’s something outside her door. Eleanor joins Theo in the adjacent room and they huddle together like sisters.
Whatever it is “knocked on the door with a cannonball” as Eleanor describes later. And then disembodied female maniacal laughter. An intense cold shows up, chills the women, and then leaves (signs of paranormal activity indeed). Dr. Markway and Luke come in afterwards. Seems they were chasing a phantom dog that ran down the hall and outside. It’s as if Hill House is trying to separate them for some sinister reason. Despite all this, Eleanor feels a special bond with the spooky old house.
Midpoint: The next morning at breakfast, Luke, coming in late, discovers something written in the hallway in tall, ghostly letters out of a chalklike substance: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. This, of course, freaks Eleanor out as she’s been singled out by the house. She’s worried about being sent away. She has no place to go. All her adult life was spent caring for her ailing mother. She’s had nothing special for herself. Hill House is that special thing, and if she’s sent away, she feels like she has nothing. And now something in the house knows her name—and wants her to stay forever, tying into the theme of home and crossing A and B stories.
Bad Guys Close In: Later, the group takes a tour of the house. In the conservatory, there’s a statue that resembles Eleanor, maybe a little too much so. Eleanor dances with an imaginary Hugh Crain. Is she being called by the house to stay forever?
In the library, Luke clowns around on the iron spiral staircase (the one the companion hanged herself on). The iron case sways and nearly comes down on him. It seems like the house is now playing for keeps.
On the veranda, Eleanor becomes so entranced with the house, she nearly falls. Dr. Markway thinks the house is too much for Eleanor and considers sending her home; he’s worried she’s breaking down. Theo tells her she “looks like death,” which is foreshadowing to the fateful finale.
Eleanor and Theo bond over brandy. Eleanor, who confides to her new friend about her late mother, says she never wants to leave Hill House. She’s been waiting her entire life for something like this (a big, lifechanging event) to happen. Eleanor, who’s essentially a child trapped in a woman’s body, is slowly growing up. There’s more A and B story crossing here.
Dr. Markway finds “the heart of Hill House,” an arctic cold spot right outside the door of the nursery. This is where Abigail Crain grew up and died. Luke, who doesn’t accept it as a supernatural phenomenon, wants to explore the nursery, but the doctor says no. He needs to keep the lid on the “pressure cooker” a while longer.
All Is Lost: Voices emanating through the wall awaken Eleanor. It sounds like the voice of Hugh Crain, the original owner of Hill House, and then a woman’s laughter. Following that, the wailing of a child, presumably Abigail as a girl. This upsets Eleanor, who screams in the darkness for the girl to stop being hurt. Theo, who was across the room, snaps on the lights.
Eleanor thought Theo was holding her hand, crushing it. In the light, it’s revealed that something was holding Eleanor’s hand, but it wasn’t Theo. “Whose hand was I holding?” This is the whiff of death moment, which echoes the Catalyst beat, raising the stakes, specifically for Eleanor, as it seems the house has singled her out.
Dark Night of the Soul: Eleanor confides in the doctor the next morning. She’s worried the haunting is only in her mind, that’s she’s going insane. But the doctor says that’s not the case, the haunting is real. Eleanor then admits she didn’t answer her mother’s knocks the night she died, much like when Abigail Crain died as the companion didn’t hear her. The guilt and regret of that failure is crushing Eleanor. The house seems to sense that by breaking down her spirit.
Later, Luke reads from a book that Hugh Crain made for his daughter, Abigail. It’s full of fire and brimstone preachiness, gloom and doom. It upsets Eleanor. Theo attempts to distract Eleanor by making fun of her school-girl infatuation with Dr. Markway. This only upsets Eleanor more. Hill House is making the group fray at the edges and rupture.
Eleanor leaves in a huff and the doctor sends Theo after her. Eleanor isn’t having it, believing maybe she’s the only sane one in this insanity and even calls Theo an “unnatural thing,” hinting at her being a lesbian. The argument is cut short by a cab horn.
Mrs. Grace Markway (Lois Maxwell) shows up. This throws cold water on Eleanor’s infatuation; she didn’t know the doctor was married. Grace warns her husband that the press got wind of Dr. Markway’s experiments in Hill House and are going to have a field day. Eleanor suggests that Mrs. Markway stay in the nursery, the “heart” of the house. She accepts, despite the doctor’s misgivings.
The group warns Mrs. Markway not to stay in the nursery. She refuses, not believing in the supernatural. Then the doctor realizes he doesn’t have a key—oh well. But then Luke notices the door to the nursery is wide open, like a gaping maw waiting to swallow up the doctor’s cynical wife.
Dr. Markway says that he’s not letting his wife stay in the room alone—it’s the rotten heart of the house. She tells him she’s staying, to see if it really is a haunted house. There’s a sense that this is more than just spending the night, that their marriage is at stake here since she doesn’t approve of her husband’s ghostly work. The doctor relents.
Eleanor is completely out of sorts. She was hoping to hook up with the doctor, but since he’s married, and now that his wife is here, she’s worried about being sent away. Her self-confidence, or what little she had of it to begin with, has been stripped away, giving her a moment of clarity.
Dr. Markway has Eleanor and Theo sleep down in the parlor; they each cozy up on a chair. Luke, who’s supposed to be upstairs guarding Mrs. Markway, sneaks down into the parlor to grab a late-night drink. The door slams behind him and the insane, thundering thumping begins again.
Dr. Markway tries to go out and get his wife, worried about her safety, but Luke won’t let him. Then the entity pounds on the parlor door, bending the wood like it’s made of latex—an incredibly strong force. Eleanor is sure that it wants her and only her. Could she be right? Luke, forever the cynic, finally believes: the house he owns is indeed haunted.
Break into Three: Eleanor breaks away from the group, offering herself up to the house to make it stop. The psychic energy is so powerful, mirrors fall off the wall and crash around her. She goes to find Grace Markway but the woman isn’t there. Eleanor realizes that she’s disappearing “inch by inch” into the house. She’s starting to become at one with the house, accepting its energy and its push to make her a part of it. This beat parallels the Break into Two beat where Theo says to Eleanor that the house “wants her.” This also ties in A and B stories.
1. Gathering the Team: At 94 minutes, Markway and the rest show up in the nursery. Grace is missing. With Theo and Luke, he must find his wife. As for Eleanor, she is dancing with the imaginary Hugh Crain. She wants to stay in this house “always.”
2. Executing the Plan (Storming the Castle): Dr. Markway, Theo, and Luke look for the missing Grace and Eleanor. Eleanor finds herself in the library—it’s not cold or smelly (to her) now. She’s broken the smell of Hill House. She says she’s home, home, home.
3. High Tower Surprise: Eleanor climbs the rickety spiral stairs (where the companion hanged herself and that nearly killed Luke), the loose bolt unfastening from the wall. Markway, Theo, and Luke find Eleanor. It’s a precarious situation—the enchanted Eleanor could fall and die at any moment.
4. Dig, Deep Down: Dr. Markway, feeling responsible for Eleanor’s safety, risks his life to climb the stairs up after her. On the platform, he prevents Eleanor from falling. She seems to have a death wish, to die so she can live in the house—her new home—forever. At the last moment, Eleanor screams, seeing what looks like Grace hiding up in the trapdoor above the stairs.
5. The Execution of New Plan: Dr. Markway decides to send Eleanor away. However, she doesn’t want to leave. She has nothing but what’s in her suitcase. “I’m the one it really wants; can’t you feel it? It’s alive, watching, waiting, waiting for me.” The doctor forces Eleanor into her car. She says her goodbyes to the doctor and Theo.
Eleanor rockets off at high speed. Something unseen “takes over the steering” of the car and forces Eleanor to crash into the tree (the same one the first Mrs. Crain hit in her wagon and died at). Dr. Markway checks Eleanor’s pulse at the crash site—she’s dead. Grace shows up, having been lost in the house, and finally finding her way outside. Dr. Markway realizes that Hill House is haunted and he unfortunately has his proof: Eleanor’s death.
Final Image: Bookended from the Opening Image with a foreboding image of Hill House with Nell’s chilling narration, having joined the spirits inside the stony tomb forever: “Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here, walk alone.”