Not Your Typical Haunting

By Cynthia Lee Sheeler

Originally posted to Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities on February 23, 2018.

“When does the haunting begin?”

The question, posed by my mother as my family half-mooned the TV set for scary movie night, was a fair one. An inquiry any number of horror fans might ask when viewing The Haunting of Julia (1981) aka Full Circle (1977).  In fact, a scathing write-up in the New York Times in 1981 called the film “virtually scareless.”

And when compared to other horror movies of its time, it does seem quite tame. No creepy twins splattered in a hotel hallway as in The Shining.  No un-killable sociopaths wielding knives on Friday the 13th or Halloween. No Poltergeist-esque little girls getting sucked into the Console. If you like your horror slathered in special effects and served up with a healthy portion of all things gruesome, you too, may find The Haunting of Julia lacking in fright.

But, as a fan of most things scary from the B-est of B movies — Alice Sweet Alice, anyone?…Anyone? — to the highest of highbrow horror — a la Hitchcock or Guillermo del Toro, I believe the film is one of the best horror movies ever made. It doesn’t grab you by the throat. It massages your neck, ever so slightly, tightening its hold, until, before you know it, you’ve been choked.

So then, when does the haunting begin?

Let’s start with the music. Every good horror flick needs a creepy soundtrack, and it’s often a few screeching cords letting us know the crazed killer is close behind, the monster is under the futon, or the nice man who gave those teens a ride is really a demon. But, the piano/synthesizer blend in The Haunting of Julia is a masterpiece unto itself. The chilling, sad, ultimately beautiful melody plays like a tortured lullaby that clings to you long after the movie has ended.

The haunting is also in the exquisitely eerie atmosphere. Those gauzy images of the haunted home–endless rooms heavy and dusty with someone else’s antiques. Those long dark corridors and sprawling staircases, elegant, yet filled with a sense of dread. Then there’s Julia Lofting’s (Mia Farrow’s) sallow, emaciated form as she calls out to no one in her gloomy new estate. Not to mention those ghostly glimpses, backlit by the dying sun, of the little blond girl Julia sees in the school yard and in the park – visions resembling Julia’s recently deceased daughter. But, a figure much more sinister than the exuberant child she’d buried months before.

The haunting deepens after an ill-advised séance in her home sets her on a path from which she can never return. A path in which she uncovers an unspeakable tale of a long-dead child. We the viewer peer in like flies at the window as those touched by the tragedy are dragged into a whole new horror.

We, and Julia, come face to face with the haunting in the final scene. Not to give away this oh-so-subtle-but-absolutely-brilliant-ending, let’s just say, you won’t see it coming in more ways than one.

The Haunting of Julia is a frightening, yet delicate, dance through the dark parts of your imagination. With no visual shockers, you could say the story is more felt than seen. No shattering windows, bleeding walls, or lurching digitally enhanced phantoms.

The haunting is in what’s not shown.

The haunting is in your mind.

And, after all, isn’t that the most terrifying place for a haunting to be?

Cynthia Lee Sheeler hails from a family chock-full of horror fans, and is the cousin of Randall Malus (but we won’t hold that against her). When she’s not watching scary movies, she’s working in the exciting world of Human Resources and writing fiction. She has published short fiction, was a Pitch Week VII Finalist of the When Words Count writer’s retreat, and is working toward publication of her first novel, Who is Delora Rose?

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