The Haunting is a 1999 American horror film directed by Jan de Bont, and starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor, with Marian Seldes, Bruce Dern, Todd Field, and Virginia Madsen appearing in supporting roles. Its plot follows a group of people who gather at a sprawling estate in western Massachusetts for an apparent volunteer study on insomnia, only to find themselves plagued by paranormal events connected to the home's grim history. Based on the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, it is the second feature film adaptation of the source material after Robert Wise's 1963 film adaptation of the same name.
Development for The Haunting originally began as a collaboration between filmmaker Steven Spielberg and writer Stephen King, who together began writing a new adaptation of Jackson's novel, largely inspired by Wise's 1963 film version. After creative differences, the project was aborted, with King retooling his screenplay to form the 2002 miniseries Rose Red. Spielberg meanwhile commissioned a new screenplay for the project, written by David Self, to be produced under Spielberg's own studio, DreamWorks Pictures. Filming of The Haunting began in the fall of 1998, with some location shoots occurring in England at Harlaxton Manor and Belvoir Castle, though the majority of the film was shot in specially-crafted sets in Los Angeles by esteemed Argentine production designer Eugenio Zanetti.
The Haunting premiered theatrically in North America in July 1999. Though met by largely negative reviews from film critics, it was a financial success, grossing $180 million worldwide.
Eleanor "Nell" Vance, an insomniac, has cared for her invalid mother for 11 years, sharing a Boston apartment with her. After her mother dies, Nell's sister Jane and her husband Lou inherit the residence. They eject Nell to prepare for a sale. As she faces homelessness, Nell accepts an invitation to participate in an insomnia study directed by Dr. David Marrow at Hill House, a secluded manor house in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. At the house, she meets Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, an eccentric pair of caretakers. Two other participants arrive, Luke Sanderson and the glamorous Theodora ("Theo" for short), along with Dr. Marrow and his two research assistants. Unknown to the participants, Dr. Marrow's true purpose is to study the psychological response to fear, intending to expose his subjects to increasing amounts of terror. Each night, the caretakers chain the gate outside Hill House, preventing anyone from getting in or out until morning.
During their first night, Dr. Marrow relates the story of Hill House: Its original owner, Hugh Crain, a 19th-century textile tycoon, constructed the rambling home for his wife Renee, hoping to populate it with a large family. Unfortunately, all of Crain's children were stillborns, and Renee, devastated by the multiple losses, killed herself before the house was finished. After, Crain became a recluse. When Marrow's assistant declares that she feels there is more to the story, she is severely wounded in a freak accident and both research assistants leave for the hospital. As the four people stay in the house, supernatural events begin happening. A mysterious force tries to open the door to Theo and Nell's bedroom, there are banging noises against the walls, and the temperature drops in rooms and hallways. Nell begins seeing the ghosts of children in curtains and sheets and a large portrait of Hugh Crain morphs into a skeletal face, vandalized with the words "Welcome Home Eleanor" written in blood. During a heated argument, Theo and Luke deny any involvement in these events. They accuse Nell, claiming she is seeking attention, which she denies.
Nell becomes determined to prove that the house is haunted. She finds Crain's hidden office and learns that he used extensive child labor in his cotton mills. He took several orphans into his home, tortured and killed them, then burned their bodies in the fireplace. Nell surmises that these children's spirits are trapped in the house, providing Crain with an "eternal family". Nell also learns that Crain had a second wife named Carolyn, from whom she is descended. Dr. Marrow is skeptical of Nell's claims and soon reveals his true psychological fear study to the group. After a statue tries to drown him in a pool of water in a greenhouse, Marrow realizes Hill House is haunted and a danger to everyone. After several more terrifying events, Nell insists that she cannot leave the ghosts to suffer for eternity at Crain's hands. Theo offers to let Nell move in with her, but Nell reveals that she is related to Carolyn Crain and claims she must help the children to "move on" to the afterlife.
Dr. Marrow demands that everyone leave Hill House, but Hugh Crain's ghost seals it and traps them inside. Luke defaces a portrait of Crain, enraging his spirit to drag Luke to the fireplace where he is decapitated by a large chimney flue. When Crain himself manifests in massive spectral form, Dr. Marrow and Theo flee the house while Nell distracts Crain. Realizing that he thrived on the fear he created in children, Nell declares she is not afraid of Crain. Nell's declaration weakens the ghost and he is cast into a decorative bronze door, depicting various distressed children in a purgatory-like scene. Crain tries to drag Nell with him, but the children's spirits help her fend him off. As Nell dies, an image of her, posing as a motherly figure, is left in the bronze door, now surrounded by many happy children.
The Dudleys approach at dawn and ask Marrow if he "found what he was looking for". Dr. Marrow and Theo silently walk away from Hill House.