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The Haunting and the queer romance that never happened
Through the halls of the old Crain estate, one can hear the sounds of creaking wood, the shaking of old industrial pipes, the voices of the souls of lost children — and the queer romance between its two female leads a movie could’ve created but ultimately didn't.
The Haunting, a loose adaptation of the psychological horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its release. The film, which stars Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor, centers around a group of insomniacs who are tricked into spending the weekend at a supposed haunted mansion known as “Hill House” in the middle of a quiet old estate far from civilization. While the sleep-deprived think they are there to be studied to find a cure, they’re actually a part of a different study intended to monitor their response to fear tactics. What the group doesn’t know, however, is that all the whispers about the old place are real. It is, in fact, haunted by the ghosts of children murdered at the hands of the textile tycoon Hugh Crain — and for one group member, the home’s history has a secret connection to her heritage.
While the film makes a decent attempt at scaring its viewers, it also makes a go at those who feel connected to the characters — especially the character of Elenora, or "Nell," played by Taylor. Displaced by the recent death of her mother, whom she cared for, the audience is automatically sympathetic to her plight, as it’s clear the burden of being an unwilling caretaker has taken its toll on the young woman — she seemingly has no friends, or love in her life.
When Nell meets Theodora, known as "Theo" (Zeta-Jones), there’s a spark between the two women. Theo is fun and lively, a burst of energy who comes into Nell’s life, if only for a weekend. Unprompted, Theo immediately begins to talk about her hectic life as an artist, her luxurious taste for clothes (because you should only buy brand-name shoes in Milan, not New York), and her busy love life — as she has both a boyfriend and a girlfriend. There is a pause from Nell when Theo divulges this bit of information; however, she continues to listen on, and eventually the two women become friends.
As the movie begins to explore the budding relationship between Nell and Theo, there are slight hints of attraction — mostly from Theo’s end. There are long glances where her eyes are clearly taking in the view of Nell’s frame and demeanor, and in one scene the tone of Theo’s voice becomes flirtatious as she attempts to dress Nell in one of her articles of clothing. Nell is timid during the interaction and jumps, seemingly rebuffing Theo’s advances, but Theo doesn't take it as a sign of rejection. Instead, it could be argued that she perceives it as an opportunity to allow Nell some time.
There are other instances throughout the film that depict the potential for a romance between the two characters. Theo’s room being the adjoining one to Nell's is likely no coincidence; they are the only two who appear to be getting close as the “study” continues. Theo readily jumps to Nell’s defense when she tells the group that things are happening to her — she witnesses a skeleton coming to life and a woman hanging from the balcony, hears the voices of children, and is eventually attacked by a spirit. While everyone else thinks Nell’s having a reaction to the study, Theo is at her side, though skeptically. Later down the line, Theo even argues for the meek Nell and herself once they learn the study is all a lie and they’ve been trapped inside a home with an angry ghost after them.
Theo’s desire to take care of Nell in the midst of these events points to the opportunity the script could have taken to dive a little deeper into a romance between the two. For the first time, Nell had someone who cared about her well-being — a reversal of the role she'd played her entire life. We can see Nell’s hesitation to it, but one could interpret it more in response to the idea of anyone wanting her, not necessarily being wanted by another woman.
While there was ample time to build on this lingering tension, the direction the flick chose was not in favor of the larger plot surrounding the haunted home and Nell’s past. As Nell learns she’s the descendant of Hugh Crain’s second wife (who ran away after learning of Crain’s murderous nature), she determines this revelation requires her to stay and help free the spirits of the murdered children. In the end, Theo begs Nell to come live with her at her loft in New York, but Nell tells her the mansion is her home, and even as Nell confronts the ghost of Hugh Crain, Theo calls out to her, but to no avail.
The film leaves the relationship between Theo and Nell on an anticlimactic note, and the Netflix iteration of the book, The Haunting of Hill House, appeared to give Theo’s queer identity more shine but completely tosses away the notion of a relationship between Nell and Theo, as it made the pair sisters. Even though they are closer to each other in a familial context, it’s obvious the relationship has some strain due to the supernatural experiences they endured as children.
So, ultimately, like everything else in that dusty old mansion known as Hill House, the possibility of Nell and Theo finding romantic love with each other will continue to linger among the halls.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.