Welcome back to Movie Club Sungays! In this series, I have teamed up with the podcast Queerfully to review a queer movie every month. Make sure to follow Queerfully on Twitter so you can vote for which films we talk about next. And don’t miss Queerfully’s episode on The Haunting!
Each Movie Club Sungay post will review the film under a queer lens. This means that I’ll be looking into what the film does well and poorly in terms of queer representations. I also have a film degree, so I’ll occasionally sprinkle in some of my knowledge there. Let’s get started!
For October, we decided to celebrate Halloween with a Movie Club Thursday analysis of The Haunting, a 1963 film of a haunted house that blurs the lines between supernatural reality and insanity. Sound familiar? That’s probably because the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House (THOHH) carries the same plot. Both the film in this review and the THOHH series are based off the same book, The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. So, this review looks at the first motion picture version of your favorite spooky lesbian, Theodora. At times, the review will likely reference THOHH for comparisons and connections. It is very important to note that the film versions of these characters are NOT siblings.
The Haunting takes us back to black and white cinema, directed by Robert Wise. (That’s right, The Sound of Music dude.) As a horror film over 5 decades old, it likely won’t scare you. I’m a baby about horror films and jump scares, but time aged the film enough for some immunity when it comes to fearing scary movies. Definitely less scary than THOHH.
What the critics had to say
Apparently, the film had mixed reviews. Some critics prided the film on its horror and theme, others found it boring and lacking in plot. My favorite review of the latter says little more than, “makes more goose pimples than sense,” in a review from The New York Times (Crowther, 1963). It seems to be a consensus though that this film adaptation was liked a hell of a lot more than 1999 remake.
Is the 1963 version of Theo really a lesbian?
Short answer: Yes. Long answer: The film concentrates Theo’s lesbian identity into very obvious subtext. This means that she never kisses another woman onscreen or outrightly confesses her feelings for another woman, but the dialogue and other film elements create Theo’s lesbian identity in a way that is not very subtle. I must stress that for a film released in 1963, I was completely shocked by how gay it was. That being said, this review is going to look at Theo’s lesbianism in the context of Hollywood in the 60s, as well as present a very soundly-structured theory on how the other woman in the film is also gay. Buckle up.
Theo is a lesbian
From the very first moment of Theo’s introduction, she’s already giving flirty eyes to the woman protagonist of the film, Nel. (Remember, the characters are not sisters in the film version.) Flirty eyes might seem pretty standard and subtle, but the film wastes no time inserting obvious dialogue to clarify.
As the four characters investigating the house sit down for a meal together, Nel makes a toast for her “new companions,” to which Theo looks directly at Nel and states, “Excellent. My new companion.” Later on, the film also establishes that Theo is unmarried.
In likely the most significant scene relating to Theo’s lesbian identity, the two women stand on a balcony, arguing over Nel’s mental state and whether or not the house is actually haunted. At one point, Theo calls Nel “stupid and innocent.” Nel rebuttals by stating, “I’d rather be stupid and innocent than be like you.” She continues describing “nature’s mistakes” and adds, “…like you for instance,” while speaking to Theo. This dialogue can only point to one thing: the lesbian in the room.
So, like, there’s all this spoken-line evidence, plus the constant flirty looks. Like, this is not an exaggeration. Please see the photographic evidence below.
Lesbianism in 1960s Hollywood
Let me give you a very brief rundown of gay history in Hollywood films to contextualize how shocked I am about the obviousness of Theo’s lesbian identity in The Haunting. In 1934, Hollywood production companies enforced what became known as the Hays Code. This production code, resulting from pressures of a Catholic audience, banned “immoral” acts from films, including homosexuality. The code gradually disbanded throughout the 60s as more and more filmmakers deviated from the rules outlined there. However, filmmakers often included a sense of morality in their films even when breaking the codes. For example, including a lesbian character often met deathly endings to reinforce the idea that homosexuality was a sin.
I’ve done an in-depth thesis project on The Children’s Hour (1961) as a result of the Hays Code, which includes a lesbian character who hangs herself at the end of the film. Her style is butch in contrast to Audrey Hepburn’s character (the other woman in the film), and the story’s theme basically said, “Lesbians deserve to suffer.” Let me contrast the striking differences between The Children’s Hour and The Haunting in the aftermath of the Hays Code.
In The Haunting, our lesbian is not only an obvious one compared to many during her era, but she also survives and faces no “penalty” for her identity, unlike the lesbian in The Children’s Hour. In fact, [SPOILER COMING] despite Nel’s death, I’d say the ending for all the characters in The Haunting was fairly optimistic. Another great detail to note is that Theo’d been just as feminine as Nel in the film, unlike the lesbian in The Children’s Hour, whose appearance (including her hairstyle, or rather, lack thereof) assigned her more of a tomboyish look. With her more feminine persona, her optimistic ending, and general existence that wasn’t predatory or villainous, Theo embodies one of the best lesbian representations of her time.
I did a shallow scrape of research before writing this review to see what others had to say about Theo’s lesbianism in this film, but wasn’t too happy with my findings. Without digging into any scholarly analyses, I found a fun article deeming Theo a strong independent woman in the film (she was, much like you’d think of her from THOHH), and also claims that her sexual “ambiguity” was a purposeful choice to let the audience “suspect her sexuality” but not give it away because it’s “not their business at all” (Khan, 2015).
I strongly disagree, since the “ambiguity” of her identity is only because the 1960s marked the very beginning of the Hays Code’s fadeout. In fact, for 1963, Theo’s identity isn’t ambiguous at all, but the confinement to what we now deem as ambiguous subtext results from the Hays Code and the need to slowly integrate homosexuality into Hollywood; otherwise, the film may not have even made it to the big screen. According to the film’s wiki (with information I was unable to verify without purchasing a book) Wise had planned to make Theo’s identity more obvious by including a scene in which Theo and her (female) lover breakup, with “I hate you” written in lipstick on her mirror. Theo’s identity was intentional and as obvious as 1963 could’ve created it without meeting a boycott in the box office.
Nel is gay too
Okay, so this is going to take more convincing, but hear me out. I’ll try to make it brief. This seemed very obvious to me while I was watching it, but now that I’ve gathered all the evidence, I realize how flimsy my connections are. We’re going for it anyways.
As you may be familiar, THOHH’s version of Theo has a supernatural power of sorts, dealing with a kind empathy or sixth sense sensitivity to people around her. She wears gloves as “extra protection” from this “sensitivity.” Suppose that—all though much more subtly—The Haunting’s Theo has the same ability. This can be inferred through a few different points in the film.
One, Theo is very sensitive to the supernatural activity in The Haunting, and she arguably becomes the coldest when the house become active. Despite her tough persona, supernatural activity reduced her to a “big baby” (Nel’s words) and always leaves her shivering, while the rest of the characters seem less physically affected from the cold. Additionally, Theo seems to make accurate guesses about Nel before Nel vocalizes her thoughts. For example, Theo calls her “Nel” before knowing her nickname, knows that Nel brought new clothes with her to the house, and knows that Nel thought of changing her hair. This implies Theo’s sensitivity to others’ thoughts. Okay this forms the base of the theory, so hold onto this.
If Theo can feel the thoughts and feelings of those around her (and especially of those she physically touches, like the THOHH version), then we can soundly guess she has some idea of Nel’s feelings in relation to herself and knowing if her feelings for Nel are reciprocated, or at least if Nel is questioning her feelings for Theo. The obvious connection here is that Theo would not willingly continue to flirt with Nel if she knew Nel didn’t have any feelings for her whatsoever. What kind of lesbian would willingly put themselves through that? Sure, we all make up feelings in our heads and dig in for a certain heartbreak, but if we knew, for sure, that the woman was straight and wasn’t questioning her feelings at all, retreat would likely be on our agendas.
But, to further back up my sound theory, there is a line in the film that speaks to Theo’s psychic understanding of Nel’s feelings. While sitting at the table with the other investigators, Nel asks Theo what she’s afraid of. Theo answers with, “Knowing what I really want,” and her eyes look at Nel a second too long. As someone with Theo’s overt flirting and powerful confidence, I just find it very hard to believe that she’s scared of loving women. Theo said this line because she knows that it’s what Nel fears instead, and Nel’s reaction to Theo’s statement shows it. See attached screenshots. Case closed. I will not be taking questions at this time.
This concludes your movieclub (thurs)gay Halloween special
Overall, The Haunting’s lesbian representation back in 1963 completely thrilled me. Despite my familiarity with Theo’s character from THOHH, I lowered my expectations below zero for this Hays-Code-era film. Despite lesbian tropes at this time (and even now), The Haunting delivers a strong character who simply exists as a lesbian.
Don’t forget to listen to Queerfully’s podcast, breaking down Theo’s character in The Haunting and contribute to the discussion by commenting on the post or adding your thoughts on Twitter! What film should we review next? Let me know in the comments and tune in next month for another MovieClub Sungay!
If you enjoyed this post, please consider sending a $3 donation to my ko-fi page, or support the blog buy signing up on my Patreon (perks start at $1/month). I will be occasionally updating patrons on future book endeavors!