The Architect of the Post-Modern Haunted House Story: Richard Matheson and The Legend of Hell House

Another Halloween is upon us and I’m very happy to focus on ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural phenomena that can only be found in works of fiction (I do not believe in such phenomena existing in a world measured by science and empiricism in case you wanted to know)—stories of otherworldly manifestations have delighted humanity since we crawled out of the primordial goo a very long time ago. The supernatural is a metaphor for humanity’s mortality, that short time we spend in the physical world learning how to survive a hostile environment, navigating around irritating bosses, bad drivers, bad dates, screaming children, and raucous hockey hooligans; we want to know a single question: Is there life after death? This unknowable question inspires writers, playwrights, filmmakers, and illustrators to create spooky stories of phantom entities from the great beyond terrorizing mere mortals. To paraphrase John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, these entities usually have a message for us and we invariably don’t like it, leading to chaos, bloodshed, and death. It’s simple: Don’t mess with forces we cannot comprehend!

One of the most celebrated horror writers of the 20th Century, Richard Matheson’s spare, tense prose has terrified readers since the 1950s and later, filmgoers and TV viewers alike, adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s memorably macabre stories for Roger Corman films like House of Usher (1960) and The Raven (1963), adapting his own short stories for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (he’s the reason we peer out at the wing of the airplane, looking for mischievous gremlins before our flight takes off!), and even the famous Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within”, in which a transporter accident splits James T. Kirk into two separate entities, one good, one evil. Matheson’s novella I Am Legend is rightfully celebrated as a piece of classic horror literature, a taut, terrifying tale of the last man on Earth battling vampires created by a man-made pandemic. No less than three film adaptations were made: The Last Man on Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price (a cheap American-Italian production in which Matheson was so displeased with the end result that he used his pseudonym of “Logan Swanson” in the film credits), The Omega Man (1971), which is best remembered more for its kitsch appeal of Charlton Heston’s overacting and ‘70s New Age flourishes than its lack of attention to the source material and the worst of the bunch, Will Smith’s I am Legend (2007) in which the vampires are badly rendered CGI mutants—I’ll take Heston and the sunglass-wearing vampire cult of The Omega Man every time! All three adaptations failed to capture the novella’s stark imagery, but at least Matheson’s work inspired George A. Romero’s reinvention of the zombie genre with the unforgettable, brilliant Night of the Living Dead (1968).

I Am Legend is an excellent piece of literary fiction, but my favorite Matheson novel is Hell House, a terrifying novel featuring one of the oldest staples of horror literature, the haunted house. Inspired by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Matheson set his novel in the remote, fictional Belasco Estate in a deserted corner of Maine; unlike Jackson, Matheson’s novel contains plenty of sexual debauchery and BDSM imagery to delight its readers and add a bit of spiciness to the novel’s life-after-death conundrum. Celebrated by critics at the time of its release in 1971, Hell House would inspire Stephen King’s crack at the haunted house nearly a decade later with The Shining, as well as former American International Pictures executive James H. Nicholson, who quickly bought the film rights and set out to make a film adaptation immediately, inviting Matheson to write the screenplay. The Legend of Hell House would end up being a compromised adaptation, but it still offers plenty of creepy atmosphere, a fine cast of actors, and beautiful, smoky cinematography, making it a worthwhile haunted house film.

Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), scientist, is approached by a dying millionaire, Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver), to investigate the infamous Belasco House, nicknamed “Hell House”, for one week to determine if it really is haunted and that there is conclusive proof of life after death. Barrett and his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), are accompanied by two mediums hired by Deutsch, Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), the lone survivor of a previous, similar expedition twenty years ago, and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a young, naïve mental medium. As a physicist, Barrett rejects all notions of the supernatural, insisting any “haunting” is actually just unfocused electromagnetic energy that his newly-created machine can dispatch with a countercharge of particles. But all is not what it seems in Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”, as Barrett and the expedition will soon discover…

Translating a novel to a 95-minute film is not an easy task and pity the screenwriter who attempts an adaptation of a beloved source novel, lest they be assaulted by a novel’s cranky, vociferous fanbase with often-unrealistic demands (is there a more obnoxious-albeit-literate group of fans worse than the Harry Potter contingent of arrested-developed adults?). Nicholson wisely chose Matheson, already a veteran of many films and TV shows, to adapt his own novel, and the result is The Legend of Hell House (1972), a very atmospheric and enjoyable entry in the haunted house subgenre. If films like The Uninvited (1944), The Innocents (1961), and The Haunting (1963) laid the foundation of classic haunted house cinema, The Legend of Hell House helped bridge the gap to other notable haunted house films like Burnt Offerings (1976), The Changeling (1980), House on Haunted Hill (1999), and The Others (2001). It’s one thing for a Hollywood producer to allow a prose writer to adapt their own work, but it’s considered a feat if the writer’s work doesn’t disappear altogether by subsequent rewrites. (An experience Matheson faced when the producers of Jaws 3-D (1983) kept his name prominently on the “screenplay by” opening credits, even if his draft bore no resemblance to the final schlocky product.)

The major differences between the novel and The Legend of Hell House are that the setting moves from sleepy Maine to foggy England and the novel’s explicit sexuality is toned down considerably onscreen. As the majority of the film’s production was financed by British company The Rank Organisation, filming would have to be done in the UK with a primarily British cast; there was also significant resistance to an R-rated film. In 1971, the leading British horror film production company Hammer had started embracing more adult content in their films, as evidenced by The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Twins of Evil (1971), The Legend of Hell House director John Hough’s previous feature. Despite Hammer’s enthusiasm for embracing more graphic violence and bare breasts, Rank was reticent to fund a film that depicted orgies and BDSM dungeons, so Matheson works around the issue with lines of dialogue:

Ann Barrett: What did [Belasco] do to make the house so evil, Mr. Fischer?

Fischer: Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?

Ann Barrett: How did it end?

Fischer: If it had ended, we wouldn’t be here.

Even with softening social mores around depictions of sex and violence on film in the early 1970s, it’s inconceivable that a British horror film could even show a hint of what Fischer describes. Yes, it’s a bit of “telling” and not “showing”, but even Matheson knew the limitations he had to work within and the film shouldn’t be discounted because of its lack of bacchanalia.

Though there is little blood or nudity in The Legend of Hell House, there are enough elements at work that combine to create a sense of dread that builds throughout the film until its “mechanistic” climax. The film emulates a cinema verité approach with its date and time title cards that announce the passage of time as the experiment endures (and so close to Christmas!) as if the film is truly documenting a paranormal exercise occurring in real time. The title cards are accompanied by composer Bryan Hodgson’s electronic music notes that punctuate the dread as events culminate at the end of the week. Though used sparingly, Hodgson’s score is effective in suggesting that there are paranormal events at work in Belasco House, despite Dr. Barrett’s coldly clinical daily reporting. The house selected for Belasco House is a monstrous-looking estate, the type of Edwardian architectural veneer that hides seedy, possibly sinister secrets within. Cinematographer Alan Hume, a veteran of ‘60s Hammer films, ensures that Belasco House is properly cloaked in fog and mist, commonly found in the English countryside, but in this film, a harbinger of doom for most of its current, temporary inhabitants. The estate’s interiors are suitably dark and hazy, as characters disappear into darkness away from the lingering camera, presenting an unnerving, dated interior of Edwardian antiquities that best serve the ghost of Belasco and his eternal phantom houseguests. Hough doesn’t opt for dizzying zooms or off-kilter shots to showcase the supernatural—he doesn’t need to, as the lighting and art direction do all the heavy lifting to create an eerie, constant tone.

Matheson and Hough pit the scientist, Barrett, against the mediums and it is wonderful to watch. One could argue that Clive Revill is very stiff in the role of Dr. Barrett, but he’s playing an arrogant man of science who refuses to even accept the possibility that Belasco House is truly haunted. His delivery is clipped and cold, as his disdain for his temporary companions is not hidden. When he is attacked by unseen forces after a heated argument with “Miss Tanner” (he never refers to his companions informally by their first names), he accuses her of manipulating the house’s electromagnetic energy against him. As far as Dr. Barrett is concerned, the entire week is a prelude to his massive machine of circuits and vacuum tubes to do its scientifically stated purpose. (I love ‘60s and ‘70s analog technology and its massive chrome dials, toggles, switches, and counters.) He resents the presence of the mediums, posing a small threat of mucking up his desire to show off his mighty machine’s ability. Barrett is the epitome of the dispassionate scientist, so much so it’s plainly evident that he and his beautiful wife Ann haven’t had sex in a very long time—he’s far more interested in his machine than he is in her well-being. It’s great fun to watch the house manipulate Ann into a temporary nymphomaniac, suggesting to Fischer that they start an orgy: “You… me… that girl… Lionel… all together… nakeddrunkclutchingsweatingbiting…” Gayle Hunnicutt is very convincing as a quietly suffering woman who’s being controlled by paranormal forces that tap into the guests’ secrets. Though loyal to her husband’s pursuit, it’s clear she’s been languishing long before stepping foot into Hell House, so it’s forgivable when Hunnicutt occasionally slips into her native American accent.

It’s refreshing to see Roddy McDowall in such a restrained performance—though many of us cinephiles love him dearly, seeing him in a genre film where he’s not hidden in ape makeup or chewing scenery is startling, but in a very good way. McDowall’s Fischer, the lone survivor of the last doomed expedition to Belasco House, is the smartest person in the film. A physical medium, he wisely closes himself off from any spectral forces:

Yes, I know the score: you do not fight this house! Look, Hell House doesn’t mind a guest or two. What it doesn’t like is people who attack it. Belasco doesn’t like it; his people, they don’t like it, and they will fight back and they will kill you. So, listen to me. You just leave that damn machine alone and you spend the rest of the week resting, doing nothing. When Sunday comes, you tell old Deutsch any-thing he wants to hear and bank the money. If you try anything else, you will be a dead man, with a dead wife at your side!

Despite his empathic attempts, Fischer knows that he will inevitably be the only person left standing yet again. McDowall imbues Fischer with melancholy and empathy, and it’s one of his best genre performances on film.

It’s likely not a coincidence that the production hired Pamela Franklin, an actress well known for her role as Flora, one of the two children at the heart of the haunting in The Innocents, Jack Layton’s lush, beautifully realized adaptation of Henry James’ famous ghost short story, “The Turn of the Screw”. Now an adult in her twenties, Franklin’s Florence Tanner, a clever mental medium, is a delight to watch, as she spars with both Dr. Barrett over science vs. religion and Fischer over an argument over which medium is being manipulated by Belasco—she thinks it’s Fischer, but it becomes clear quickly that she is the one being duped by unseen forces. Tanner is a misguided, passionate twentysomething, convinced she’s helping the spirit of Belasco’s child, Daniel, and that the rest of the expedition are wrong. Though she realizes too late her folly, she does take one final action that will help solve the mystery of Hell House.

The Legend of Hell House is a film of its time when the general public was fascinated by mysticism and the occult and everything New Age was en vogue, influencing fashion, home décor, comic books, and film and television. Richard Matheson used his considerable talent as one of the great fantasists of the 20th Century to create a scary haunted house novel, Hell House, and to give it life beyond the printed page as a modest British feature film. Though The Legend of Hell House isn’t as well remembered as The Haunting or 1970s box-office titan The Amityville Horror, it deserves recognition as a finely-crafted horror film, one that uses lighting, fog, sound, and otherworldly music to create an effective, moody, and, at times, terrifying narrative. Aided by a well-cast of British actors and one American actor, The Legend of Hell House is an exercise in restraint—I can’t help but wonder what a contemporary filmmaker would do if Hell House were to be adapted again: Would Richard Matheson’s vision be fully realized, or would it be consigned to the list of notable failures, as the adaptations of I Am Legend can attest. There have been recent films and mini-series that have overlapped with many of Matheson’s themes (take a look at any Mike Flanagan Netflix mini-series), but I feel that one of the greatest horror novels of all time deserves another thoughtful examination from Hollywood. For now, I am pleased that The Legend of Hell House exists, a quaint, well-made haunted house film that continues to delight over fifty years later. I still don’t believe in ghosts or haunted houses, but Richard Matheson does his very best to convince me otherwise.


  • Jay Alary

    Jay lives in downtown Calgary, Alberta with his beloved partner, two cats, and far too many books and movies. Alary Jay