Ladies of Horror May-hem: Theodora


Here we have another grand dame of the horror genre who can rightfully get away with one name, thank you. Meet Theodora…just Theodora, the avant-garde clairvoyant portrayed by Claire Bloom in director Robert Wise’s 1963 haunted house classic The Haunting.

[Loba Tangent: I know that I have rarely made reference to remakes of many of the movies mentioned in this month’s series, but I’m going to make an explicit exception with this movie. Please, please, please, for the love of everything holy in this horror-loving world, do not watch the remake of this film. It is so terrible that calling it an abomination would be a compliment. Saying that it sucked would be kind. Please. I beg of you. Don’t watch it.]

Again, many lists of horror heroines will include the primary female from this film—timid, broken Eleanor Lance. However, Theodora has always stood out as one of the tragically unsung ladies of mayhem for me. I both cherish and mourn for Theodora as she appears in the movie version of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. This is also one of those prime examples of how dramatically a character can change from page to screen…sometimes in great ways and sometimes in disappointing ones.

You see, Theodora as Jackson envisioned her was a free-spirited young woman, so unencumbered by the exacting expectations of normal life that she didn’t even bother with a surname. She was Theodora…in yellow or gaudy plaid or whatever else she cared and dared to wear (in the black and white movie, she arrives in animal print, which was definitely one thing they got correct for Theo). She stood in stark opposition to Hill House, defied its crushing silence and oppressive darkness with her light and indefatiguable spirit. One of my favorite descriptions of Theodora from the novel is an observation by Eleanor of her new friend:

looking at Theodora, it was not possible for Eleanor to believe that she ever dressed or washed or moved or ate or slept or talked without enjoying every minute of what she was doing; perhaps Theodora never cared at all what other people thought of her.

Indeed, Theodora didn’t give much credence to what others thought of her many differences. She was comfortable in her skin in ways that frightened, fractured Eleanor both envied and admired.

She also was a lady of the Sapphic persuasion. Jackson made no qualm about making it obvious that Theodora was, among all other things, a lesbian. Even more importantly, Jackson never presented Theodora in any sort of negative light, either for her clairvoyance or her sexuality. She simply was these things. Unfortunately, making a movie about a book with a lesbian as a prime character in 1963 meant abiding by certain rules of the Hays Code, which monitored closely what could and could not be seen in films. Things like homosexuality…most definitely things like homosexuality portrayed in any sort of positive or even neutral light.

Therefore, the Hays Code treatment of Theodora turned her cruel, jealous, spiteful, and that ultimate code word above all others at the time…unnatural. Even Eleanor, who adores Theodora in the novel to a point that some might see as bordering on love or at least infatuation, says spitefully in the movie: “The world is full of inconsistencies. Unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes they call you for instance!”

Actress Julie Harris, who played Eleanor, even noted once in an interview that film censors even went so far as to demand that Theodora never touch Eleanor. Because gay cooties.

It’s a shame that Theodora couldn’t have come to life in the film in a manner more consistent and appreciative of the way she lived in Jackson’s novel. However, she still delights me to no end that she exists at all.