It was several months ago that I looked around inside Hell House through the eyes of director John Hough’s cameramen. I watched The Legend of Hell House and I found the experience engrossingly chilling. But there was much left to be desired. I decided to go deeper. I bought and read the novel: Hell House by Richard Matheson. The book was like a descending staircase; each page was a stair. Step by step, I went down into the depths of the plot and unearthed the complexity of the characters. I arrived at a place the movie couldn’t or wouldn’t take me. Upon finishing the novel, I watched the film again. Did I enjoy it more, less or the same? Let’s find out. But first, an overview of the plot as per the novel.
A rich, old, dying man is willing to pay big money to a team of scientists and psychics if they could prove, once and for all, if there is life after death – or not. I don’t know how one can prove a negative, but let’s not worry about this logical flaw. They have one week to conduct their study. Their “laboratory” is to be “Hell House”, which is described as “The Mt. Everest of Haunted Houses” (This line is from the movie. Is it also in the book? Gosh, I don’t remember!)
The team includes Dr. Lionel Barret, a physicist who dabbles in parapsychology, his wife/assistant Edith, psychic and “mental” medium Florence Tanner, and Ben Fischer, “physical” medium and sole survivor of a “Hell House” expedition that took place years ago. I’ll explain more about the “mental” vs. “physical” mediums later.
The history Hell House is one of drunkenness, orgies, murder, and on and on – you get the idea. At the helm of all this debauchery was Emeric Belasco. When the years of partying finally came to a close, all of the inhabitants of Hell House were dead. However, the body of Emeric was never found.
The four-person investigative team – all of them have experienced supernatural phenomena in the past. So when the house starts to act up, none are surprised or overwhelmed with great fright. Not at first anyway. But there is no disagreement – the house is definitely haunted. However, as to the question concerning the source of this haunting, there is bitter debate.
Dr Barret is a man of science. He theorizes that the human body emits EMR – electromagnetic radiation. This is “psychic” energy – energy created by thoughts and emotions. Due to the rather extreme nature of the house’s former inhabitants, a powerful energy field has remained in the house. Certain people that are sensitive to psychic phenomenon can then tap this energy. These would mediums such Florence Tanner and Ben Fischer.
Here’s a quote from the book. Dr. Lionel Barret is speaking:
Is it any wonder, then, that Hell House is the way it is? Consider the years of violently emotional, destructive – evil, if you will – radiations which have impregnated its interior. Consider the veritable storehouse of noxious power this house became.
Hell House is, in essence, a giant battery, the toxic power of which must, inevitably, be tapped by those who enter it, either intentionally or involuntarily.
While at Hell House, the team experiences many disturbances, including phenomena that is usually attributed to a poltergeist (tables are upturned, dishes go flying, etc.) Barret insists this is on account of Florence Tanner. She is projecting, perhaps unwittingly, her psychic abilities onto the environment. He does not believe in what he terms “surviving personalities”. In other words, there are no such things as ghosts. So he thinks.
Florence vehemently disagrees and is offended that the doctor is blaming her for the disturbances. Not only does she believe that spirits haunt the house, but she is also convinced that one spirit in particular is trying to communicate with her -Daniel Belasco; the son of the evil and manipulative Emeric.
Is the house really haunted by spirits or is there only one field of energy through which all of the supernatural events occur? Are they both correct or are they both wrong?
I won’t answer these questions but I would like to use this opportunity to point out how this book touches on a certain theme within haunted house lore that really fascinates me, and does so extremely well. It has to due with the nature of haunted houses.
There exists this dichotomy
- A house is haunted because it has ghosts; the spiritual remains of the deceased. Since the ghosts exist, they have to be someplace, so they might as well shack up at a house. But they could be anywhere – a forest, a bus, etc. But when they’re in a house, the house is haunted. Remove them, and the house is no longer haunted. Case closed.
- A house is haunted in and of itself. The haunting is inherent. There may or may not be ghosts. The house itself is in some way causing the paranormal phenomenon.
Some haunted house novels are all about the first scenario while others delve more into the second setup. Hell House presents both and lures its readers on a mysterious journey as they wonder which situation best describes the haunting of Hell House.
So what of the film?
I’d say maybe I enjoyed it a bit more the second time around, but this is because I had a better understanding of the story, thanks to the book. Whereas I did see the ideological conflict between Dr. Barret and Florence Tanner on first viewing, it was less obvious and more confusing. While I knew Dr. Barret was a believer in the paranormal (he witnessed the formation of ectoplasm for Christ’s sake!), I didn’t understand his specific viewpoints as they related to the field of science until the near end of the movie. Also, the book cleared up the differences between a “mental” and “physical” medium. (See readers, I told you I’d get around to explaining this. You thought I’d forgotten!) Florence Tanner is a mental medium. She can feel the presence of evil. She can understand the thoughts and emotions of spirits (or maybe the thoughts and emotions that were left behind). However, she is surprised when physical objects move after her sittings (when she goes into a spiritual trance). This shouldn’t happen because that kind of disturbance should only occur with “physical” mediums.
The film fails at explaining the finer points of the plot. And the ending is very abrupt and awkward. The book does a much better job of summarizing the final events and solving the mystery of Hell House. In order to enjoy the film, just forget about nitty-gritty details of the story and just absorb the haunted house atmosphere. Look at it from a more simplistic point of view and think of it only as a story about four people who are trying to survive a stay at a haunted house and leave it at that. From a visual perspective, including all the props, decorations, furnishings, the film succeeded in creating an eerie, gothic-style haunting.
Now about my original review of the movie –
I wasted too much time comparing The Legend of Hell House to The Haunting. Admittedly, they are similar in some ways but they each have their own identity. I like The Haunting better than The Legend of Hell House but this should be a “never mind.” I saw both films early on in my Haunted House project, viewing The Haunting before The Legend of Hell House. Perhaps I was too attached to The Haunting. I treated it as my “first love” and would compare my next relationships to my first haunting embrace. That is a “no-no” in the world of dating and love, so I guess it should be off limits for enjoying haunted house films as well.
What do you think?