One need not be a chamber –– to be haunted
One need not be a house.
– “LXIX,” Emily Dickinson
Windward House is empty. Its windows shuttered, lawn overgrown, chandelier unlit. Light from the sea dances across ceilings. The house sits at the edge of the cliff. It has survived Atlantic gales and winters with its organs emptied. Beneath, waves crack between crags. They bite and shrink and bloom.
Left alone so long, the house has settled around its bared bones. It’s become a body without lungs, caught at the edge of an inhale. All this time it’s been waiting to be filled up again, with the little girl who left it all those years ago. Whispering with her secrets until she returns. Young Stella.
This is how the 1944 film, The Uninvited, opens. Two siblings, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, emerge between the rocks, next to a dead tree. They’re chasing their barking terrier up the bluff. He gets away, scuttles through a hole in a boarded up window, into the abandoned home.
Rick—played by a young, debonair Ray Milland—is a lapsed composer with a sideways smile and a gut instinct he tries to pass off as logic. Pamela (Ruth Hussey) is much sweeter, with a sharp intelligence and a wardrobe full of dresses perfect for casual dinner parties.
The house is unfurnished. It echoes with their yells and footsteps as they clatter after the dog. Pamela pauses and looks around them, at the curving banister, the chandelier in the entryway, the fireplace in the bathroom. Oh, and that view out onto the ocean!
In a rash moment, they decide to buy it. They don’t have much, but between them, maybe they could hash it. That they’re siblings, going in on a house together well into adulthood, is a strange incongruity in a movie full of them. Perhaps it speaks to the movie’s sense of displacement, or the way the characters are consistently asking questions in the wrong order. Everything in this movie is slightly slanted away from the social norms.
When they go to Commander Beech in town, he’s more than willing to give it to them for well below market price. Selling the house will keep it away from his granddaughter, Stella Meredith, played by a quavering, young Gail Russell. The house, as he sees it, is a danger to her, but she disagrees. Stella hates the idea of the house belonging to another family, and makes this sentiment known to the sibling buyers. They purchase the place anyway.
The Commander asks: “And you’d not be nervous in such a lonely house? All of the wind at nights? It plays odd tricks in old houses.”
Rick laughs. No such thing.
That night, Rick wakes to the sound of a woman sobbing downstairs. It’s a bodily howl without a bodily origin.
Pamela stops Rick from searching; it’s no use. “It comes from everywhere and nowhere,” she says. “Just when you’ve started to think you’ve dreamt it, it comes again.”
“Now don’t go making up stories,” he tells her.
This is the way, of course, that all hauntings begin.
Imagine yourself in the composer’s shoes, standing against the banister and looking after your spooked sister. The hallways curve into darkness. The windowpanes, left dusty for decades, look down on that haunted, beating shore. Imagine the lack built into this home, where a resolved history should have been.
This is not like those ghost stories whispered over campfires. This is your life. You spent the last of your money on this two-story cavern that makes you wary of evening and darkness and that space between sleep and waking.
You begin to question your own senses. The way your hair prickles at the back of your neck as you work on your music. But your sister is frightened, and you’re sure hauntings and ghosts aren’t real, after all. You’re the sensible one between the two of you.
Imagine having to remain sensible, despite your sharpened senses.
And then, imagine meeting that sweet girl Stella, the daughter of the woman that died outside your new home. You see her on the street, and look into her eyes. So deep and wounded, somehow. Perhaps even she doesn’t understand that about herself, but you do. She apologizes for trying to stop you from moving into that house. She explains herself, but the explanation is weak. You forgive her.
Imagine her smile.
Imagine what that smile could make you believe.
From the moment Stella enters Windward House––for the first time in seventeen years, since her mother fell to her death from the cliffs––it becomes clear that the spirits inside want her. She’s there for a simple dinner party, but after she visits the studio, and the chill of that room settles into her skin, the evening pivots toward the hauntings. She dashes down the stairs, outside. Running, as if for her life, toward the edge of the bluff. Rick saves her from the brink. Rocks skitter over, pushed by her heels as she wavers. Almost.
“I hadn’t any sense of danger at all,” she says. “I think this is where my mother fell. By the dead tree.”
Everyone is determined to keep her from the house after that, but she’s adamant. It’s her mother there. She wants to be with her. She wants to wake up and see the dawn with her.
Stella is what’s at stake in this film. She’s the young naïf. She wants to fend for herself when everyone is doing their best to stop her. Stella is erratic and lovely. Her eyes look up at Rick, across at her grandfather, full of a sweet yearning neither can resist.
Before the dinner party that evening, Rick runs his fingers along the piano. “There’s kind of a sleeping beauty magic about the kid,” he says. “I’d thought I’d done something toward breaking the spell. I guess not. Prince Charmed, that’s me.”
In the manner of all Prince Charmeds, Rick wants to save Stella, but there’s something confusing in these hauntings. Sometimes, the force seems kind and sweet. A room fills with warmth and the smell of mimosa, her mother’s scent. But then, other times, a space becomes bone-cold and all hope drains. It seems there are two ghosts. One is there to guard Stella. The other is there to attack.
The Uninvited‘s final act is full of the appropriate twists, although some come off a bit muddled: Stella’s mother’s friend, a villainous Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), takes Stella in, but for her own shady motives; the town doctor helps Rick, Pamela, and Stella stage a séance that ends with Stella speaking in tongues; and, in a final turn, Stella is sent back to Windward House while Rick and Pamela chase her elsewhere, leaving her to face the spirits alone.
Although the mythology can seem convoluted and, sometimes, a bit contrived, its root is sincere and sweet. In a way, the movie is Stella’s coming of age. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must face what they were born with, the curses they inherited from their parents.
But not everyone’s coming of age becomes a battle, as Stella’s does. Not everyone’s ghosts are presented in a mansion on a bluff. Not everyone is forced to face the truth, while flinging themselves toward a cliff and the waves below.
Stella becomes entangled with her past, forced to face answers to questions about herself she didn’t know enough to ask: her mother isn’t who she thought she was, the woman she thought was her mother is now a malignant ghost, her true mother is the protective one, with the scent of mimosa.
But focusing on that turns Stella away from the truths of the present, the man who’s falling in love with her, the way her life has opened up, beyond its former solitude, and the grandfather who would do anything to protect her.
She begins to conflate herself with Windward House, her chambers with the house’s chambers, her ghosts with the house’s ghosts. She’s been carrying their absence like a wound, and this is her chance to confront that, stitch it up. To her, the house has become another body, with aspects and intents and wishes, with expanding lungs and faded skin.
When she first visits, she comments on how glad the house must feel to be lived in again. “It isn’t fair to hate a house because someone died there,” she says. “I love Windward because she lived there for three years, and those were my years.”
When Rick threatens to tear the house down, to protect her from its malignancy, she protests: “You’re talking about destroying that house. You’d be tearing me apart.”
What she means, of course, is that tearing apart the house would be akin to denying Stella the answers she needs so badly in order to fully fill her skin. But Rick worries that Stella’s fixation on the past will keep her from looking to him for the future, and so he turns toward the hauntings with her, against his better judgment.
Gail Russell, as the waif-like Stella Meredith, is the film’s anomaly. She has a baleful set of eyes you can’t look away from, and although she is widely recognized as a mediocre actress, her performance here is staccato and strange enough to work.
Russell secured a contract with Paramount as a teenager, almost against her will, but she was so clinically shy and uneasy in front of the camera, it was difficult to predict which version of an uneven performance she would give. While filming a later movie, she nervously wrung her hands so often, they had to tie them to her sides with a handkerchief.
“I was possessed with an agonizing kind of self-consciousness,” she said. “I felt my insides tightening into a knot, my face and hands grew clammy, I could not open my mouth. I felt compelled to turn and run if I had to meet new people.”
Russell began drinking on the set of The Uninvited, a habit that haunted her through the rest of her life. There’s a shot of her online, failing an alcohol test from an officer. Her hair is tied back in a bandanna, her lips pursed out of concentration and amusement, her eyebrows lofted. In 1957, in one of many drunk-driving incidents, Russell crashed a car through the windows of a café, pinning a janitor beneath her convertible.
She died at the age of thirty-five, her liver damaged from years of abuse. In the last year of her life, she retreated into her home, painting and drinking and occasionally, according to a local radio DJ, calling in to request the song “Stella by Starlight.” The DJ says she called the night before she died; she didn’t want to be identified, she just wanted to hear the song written by a smitten composer for a character she’d played once, before everything else.
This is, perhaps, The Uninvited’s biggest legacy: that of “Stella by Starlight,” the piano piece Rick composes for Stella and plays for her the night of the dinner party, before she billowed out into the dark night, chasing her mother’s death.
“See, this is the only way I can paint you,” Rick says. “Some black keys, and some white, and fingers that are much too clumsy. But you’re in it somehow.”
A few years after the movie was released, the composer, Victor Young, rereleased the song as a jazz piece. It became a jazz standard, often cited among the top ten and covered by artists such as Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Aretha Franklin. The music has also since been featured in other movies, including The Nutty Professor, Sabrina, and Casino.
As Rick performs that evening, in the unseasonably cold studio, the candlelight wavers, and the music dips into melancholy.
“It’s gone awfully sad,” Stella says. “Why have you changed it?”
Rick answers, “It just came out that way.”
His fingers skim across the piano, the piece suddenly and obviously in the minor key, beyond his control.
And so the music sways and builds, sad and inside out. The song is Rick’s letter of intent, his portrait. He couldn’t know it would survive as the film’s ghost, echoing that promise through the strains of Miles Davis and the chords of Aretha Franklin.
Movies are full of them. These spirits. We watch: how things were, there, in that moment. Here are actors playing characters, but these actors were people with things to do that evening, after taking off their character’s clothes and going home for the evening. Now they’ve already done those things and finished with that set, but the mere act of them having been there, once, enacting this story, gives it its power.
They become another gradation of the movie’s ghost story.
This is the power of ghosts, after all: they echo a moment, a whisper, an absence. They’re infinite and mean and strange and mysterious. Meeting a ghost makes you question who you are and why you are. It puts you in front of a past that hasn’t changed, in an ever-changing present. To be able to communicate with a history is a singular thing, even as the danger of coming untethered from one’s present looms larger.
For Stella, rather than unsettle or startle, the answers the ghosts give serve to soothe her ingrained sensibilities. Knowing she doesn’t have to live up to her perfect mother, knowing that the darkness she feels bubbling in her chest is normal and innate, gives her permission to become more herself.
Finally, she can inhabit that which she’s inherited.
Imagine, again, that you are that composer. You’ve unearthed the lies and betrayal that have led the woman you love and the house you own to this place. It’s decided, it’s solved, but there’s one last thing to do. You turn back, to confront this ghost you were so sure couldn’t exist. For her sake, you will face the smoke and subterfuge.
This is, perhaps, what it means to love. Or what it means to try.
There you are in the entryway. The chandelier rattles overhead. The shadows have bled along the walls, as if forcing the house into a negative of itself. The ghost with evil intent is still there, at the top of the staircase. Waiting for someone to call her out. Menacing and menaced.
This is the externalization of Stella’s internal struggle. If you can rend it from within the house, maybe it will drain from her veins as well. You’d be left with a woman lacking ghosts.
There are some battles you cannot win. But maybe, this one, you can.
Imagine tossing your meek flames through the ghost’s emptiness. The candlestick clatters. The light extinguishes.