Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts: Night Gallery’s “The House”
“Ghost story.” The phrase evokes images of a creaky, abandoned house, filled with large cobwebs and banging shutters. A pale moon in a dark sky casts deep shadows. A figure in white glides through dusty ruins.
In other words, the opposite of what we get in Night Gallery‘s “The House.”
Oh, it’s about a ghost, but this tale of a haunting is set in bright daylight. The titular abode looks like a real-estate agent’s dream. And the apparition lurking inside isn’t a foreboding phantom under a sheet.
Sounds very modern, doesn’t it? And yet to bring viewers this unconventional twist on a familiar trope, Rod Serling adapted a story written many years earlier by a French writer named André Maurois. It’s truly a short short story — only about 800 words.
Maurois supplied a solid blueprint. The basic idea — about a woman who keeps dreaming about a specific house, only to find the house, learn that it’s haunted, then discover she’s the ghost — was there. But while that works fine on the page, where a reader could easily imagine the details, a TV version couldn’t be so sparse. Serling would have to flesh it out.
It’s the kind of task that many writers would find daunting. Not Serling. As you may have seen in my posts about his Twilight Zone adaptations, taking a simple story and turning into something richer and more visual was truly a forte of the Night Gallery’s self-described “lil’ old curator.”
Maurois’s story is written first person, essentially as a transcript. The unnamed woman is telling the story of how she kept dreaming every night of a specific house:
“In my dream, I was drawn to this house, and I walked toward it. A white wooden gate closed the entrance. I opened it and walked along a gracefully curving path. The path was lined by trees, and under the trees I found spring flowers — primroses and periwinkles and anemones that faded the moment I picked them.”
She relates more details, in a manner reminiscent of the opening to Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” I’m sure many of my fellow Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember hearing Joan Fontaine narrating the opening scene: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderly again.”
In some ways, “The House” is a little sister to that famous novel, just as the Gallery version puts us in mind of Hitchcock’s award-winning film. It has a similar dream-like vibe — not frightening or suspenseful, but mystifying and intriguing nonetheless.
The narrator of “The House” isn’t content to just experience the dream, which always ends with her rapping fruitlessly on the front door. She wants to find this house, if indeed it exists. And so, she says, “I decided to spend my vacation driving through France in search of my dream house.” She looks all over until one day … there it is. She knocks, and a servant answers.
“It was a man, with a sad face, very old. He was wearing a black jacket. He seemed very much surprised to see me, and he looked at me closely without saying a word.”
She asks if the owners would let her tour the house. No problem there — it’s available for rent. She’s surprised the owners wouldn’t live in such a beautiful house, but according to the servant, it’s because the house is haunted.
“‘Haunted?’ I said. ‘That will scarcely stop me. I didn’t know people in France, even in the country, still believed in ghosts.’
“‘I wouldn’t believe in them, madame,’ he said seriously, ‘if I myself had not met, in the park at night, the phantom that drove my employers away.’
“‘What a story!’ I said, trying to smile.
“‘A story, madame,’ the old man said, with an air of reproach, ‘that you least of all should laugh at, since the phantom was you.’”
That’s how the story ends, and as Night Gallery fans can readily see, that’s the twist that ends the TV version too. But the truth doesn’t come from a servant. The narrator, a woman Serling names Elaine Latimer, figures it out for herself. And we hear it as she tells it by phone to her doctor — one of two main characters that Serling created.
The short story, you’ll recall, features the narrator speaking about the house, but we never know who she’s telling the story to, or why. Serling also starts the Gallery version with her filling us in on this special residence, but after we’ve experienced her vision, we cut to Dr. Peter Mitchell’s office at a sanitarium.
She’s been telling him the dream: how it begins with her driving along, spotting the house, then going up and knocking on the door. She returns to her car when no one answers, though she notes that it ends as she’s driving away and the door starts to open. However, she doesn’t see anyone, and she doesn’t know who the owner is.
Elaine is clearly a patient, but she’s ready to leave the next day. Whether she’s there of her own free will or not, we don’t know, but I’m inclined to think it’s her idea. In a quote that takes on added meaning in retrospect, her doctor tells her: “A sanitarium can be a pleasant place, but there’s no reality here for you. The reality comes outside.”
Dr. Mitchell gives her the same kind of advice almost anyone would. She probably saw the house at some point years earlier, and it’s lodged in her subconscious. Maybe it’s coming out when she’s asleep to give her a refuge from the worries of her waking life. “It represents a kind of permanence that appeals to you, and that’s why you keep dreaming about it,” he says. In any event, it’s nothing to worry about.
Most Gallery fans like “The House,” though few give it the highest marks. I think that’s because it’s a neat little story, but not one that really makes a deep impression (which is fine; they can’t all be home runs). But this episode stands out for at least two reasons: It marks the first of four Gallery appearances by actress Joanne Pettet, and it’s the first time John Astin worked on the show.
Astin directs this segment (the first of three that he helmed), and he does so with a flair that’s well-suited to the material. Nice touches abound, such as Elaine appearing in the dream sequence in a flowing peach frock (one from Pettet’s personal wardrobe, it turns out) that seems apt for someone we’ll soon learn is a ghost.
Another one: As the dream concludes, the door to the house swings open, revealing a white background that dissolves to a close-up of Elaine’s eye. Again, a clever bit of foreshadowing, since Elaine is the as-yet-unseen occupant.
Astin also inserts a couple of close shots of Elaine’s needle-work as she talks with her doctor. There’s no apparent significance to the picture she’s creating (some flowers), so I can’t help feeling that it’s meant to emphasize the idea of her making something up.
The doctor tells her to keep in touch, but at least one sanitarium-mate, an elderly lady who mutters “good riddance” as Elaine departs, is glad to see her go. When a nurse asks her why, she says Elaine is “dreamy. Never walked, just sort of wafted along, like a wood sprite. Never put her two feet on the ground.” Small wonder, considering her (apparent) real identity.
Serling’s creation of Peugeot, the real-estate agent, is his most notable addition to the story. He’s introduced in a way that, John Astin later noted, suggests he could be a spirit himself: emerging from the dark copse of trees outside the house as Elaine approaches it. Now that she’s out in the real world (or is she?), she’s found her house. Peugeot offers to show her around.
Initially, he treats her politely and speaks rather gently. He’s surprised, though, when she’s able to relate precise details about rooms she hasn’t been in yet (as far as he knows). And when she raises the subject of the house being haunted, irritation creeps into his voice as he refutes the idea in no uncertain terms:
“It’s purely psychological. I’ll tell you what I think happens. Some overly imaginative person has a bad dream. He recites it to someone else. From that moment on, a seed is planted, and from then on, hysteria takes place. A creaking floor becomes a ghost, and a tap on the wall some manifestation from another world.”
“But do you know what it is really? It’s the house settling. It’s the wood seasoning. Maybe it’s the wind. This house is not haunted. Look for yourself. Why, it’s as bright and warm and delightful as a house can be.”
Elaine is convinced. In fact, she says she’ll take the house. Peugeot compliments her on her “resolve and will,” noting that many lady house buyers take a long time, and several viewings, to make up their minds. Elaine, who had expressed concern about taking on responsibilities when she was last talking to her doctor, seems pleasantly taken aback by his flattering description.
“It’s a beautiful house. It’s just what I wanted.”
“In spite of the ghost?”
“In spite of the ghost. Or perhaps,” she adds with a smile, “because of it.”
We next see Elaine sleeping. Then it cuts to a familiar sight: her driving along in her red convertible, and in the same outfit we saw her in at the beginning. She’s dreaming of visiting the house again, which seems odd, considering that she’s in the house, and it’s hers. She awakens to a knock and goes down to answer the door.
No one is there, but then Mr. Peugeot drives up. He was in the neighborhood and, after assuring her that it wasn’t him who just drove off (he saw no one on the road, he says), asks how she’s doing. He’s delighted that she likes the house, which he calls “eminently unhauntable.”
Elaine objects. Oh, it’s haunted, she assures him. No, she hasn’t seen the ghost — she just knows it’s haunted. He immediately expresses regret at saying anything about the matter, thinking that he planted a seed. Taking offense, she cuts their discussion short and walks back in the house.
She returns to the bedroom and phones Dr. Mitchell, happily telling him about the house, and how it’s haunted. “This ghost comes with the sunshine. This is a daytime ghost.” Again she hears a knock, sets the phone down, and goes to answer it. We don’t see what causes her to yell, but in a few moments she’s back on the phone, telling the doctor that she is the ghost.
Another knock is heard. This time when she answers the door, she sees the red convertible driving away. We can’t see the driver clearly, but we know it’s Elaine.
Interestingly, in these final scenes, she has her needlework beside her on the bed — and it’s finished, which suggests that her creation is complete. She’s solved her mystery and is now apparently content to haunt her dream house forever.
“The House” is the kind of story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny, but for me at least, its pluses (Pettet’s performance, Astin’s direction, the dream-like atmosphere) make it an enjoyable diversion. Serling’s skill at adaptations, which had served him so well back on The Twilight Zone, seemed as strong as ever.
The writer himself, though, wasn’t so sure. As Astin later told Scott Skelton and Jim Benson, authors of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour: “I felt that this story had a great deal to say about who we are. It deals with identity: Are we our own ghosts? I know that Rod was uncomfortable with the ambiguity. He liked very much what I did with it, but he felt his script had let people down. I absolutely disagreed with him. I thought that it was extremely evocative this way.”
Skelton and Benson also gave high marks to this “recursion nightmare looping into itself,” in which the question of what is real and what is a dream is never answered — only toyed with.
If there were viewers who found The Twilight Zone ambiguous at times, they were sure to feel like their heads were spinning after certain Night Gallery segments. Generally speaking, the more you like your endings explained, the less likely you were to enjoy the series. As Nicholas Parisi writes in Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination, “Even a mystery should be presented with clarity, and The House seems satisfied with being only mysterious.”
Joanna Pettet agreed. As she told Skelton and Benson, “The ending makes absolutely no sense at all. It’s a great spin — but wait a minute. What does it mean? It comes out of nowhere. Ultimately, the only thing it is, is odd.” Ten years after The Twilight Zone had debuted, however, odd was in, and open-ended stories had become more fashionable.
Whatever else can be said about the segment, it was clear from this early entry that, for good or for ill, Night Gallery wasn’t your run-of-the-mill spook show.
Better segments lie ahead, but “The House” is definitely worth a visit.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!