The Haunting of Shirley Jackson

In Depth
The Haunting of Shirley Jackson

In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the floors and walls are unsettlingly misaligned, leaving inhabitants never quite sure how much to trust even stable-seeming surfaces. But it’s not just the physical instability of homes that haunt Jackson’s work. In Jackson’s fiction, the real horror often lies in the manic loneliness of women so desperate for—even entrapped by the idea of—stable domesticity that they abandon their dying mothers, poison their fathers, and die by suicide rather than leave the places they’ve claimed as home.

Both literary criticism of Jackson’s work and film and TV adaptations focus closely on the theme of home. Critics and readers alike have long mined Jackson’s personal life in search of a “cause” for her fiction, from her troubled relationship with her abusive mother to her turbulent relationship with her chronically unfaithful husband, literary critic and professor Stanley Hyman, who was both Jackson’s biggest fan and most consistent source of heartbreak. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, one of Jackson’s best-loved novels, runs just about 150 pages, but hundreds more have been written connecting Jackson’s agoraphobia and weight with the fact that the main character, Constance, fears leaving her home and spends most of her time in the kitchen. Pretty much all existing film and TV adaptations focus on the literal creepy house and seem to miss the point completely: Loneliness breeds madness, and both the terror and tragedy of a Shirley Jackson story stem from the prospect of belonging nowhere.

In Jackson’s opus, The Haunting of Hill House, the characters make a game of understanding what makes people afraid. “I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” Dr. Montague, their guide to the supernatural at Hill House, tells them. Luke, the playboy whose only care is inheriting the haunted house so he can sell it, answers that fear is “seeing ourselves clearly and without disguises,” while Theodora, the charming clairvoyant who also might be a lesbian, adds “of knowing what we really want.” But Eleanor Vance, the main character of the story, is the only one to speak what might as well be a thesis for much of Jackson’s work: “I am always afraid of being alone.”

Both the terror and tragedy of a Shirley Jackson story stem from the prospect of belonging nowhere.

Of all the characters in Hill House, Eleanor’s story is the one that most parallels the haunting opening paragraph of the novel, which tells the reader that, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” And Eleanor, who has spent the majority of her life under the harshest of realities—caring for an abusive, invalid mother—has subsisted entirely on the dream of one day finding real communion with other people and a home of her own, accepting the chance to spend a summer in a haunted house for research purposes like someone who has won a dream vacation.

“Whatever walked [in Hill House], walked alone,” the opening paragraph tells us, just like Eleanor, and just like myriad other Jackson characters, from Hangsaman’s Natalie Waite to We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s Blackwood sisters. Life is lonely for the “mad” women haunting Jackson’s novels. To them, it’s the outside world that is the fairy tale and locked towers the lived reality.

Since novels like Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and short stories like “The Lottery” made Jackson one of America’s most famous horror authors, critics and Hollywood have tried to get to the heart of what makes Jackson’s work so enduringly scary. For some, it’s the ways she plays with the “female Gothic,” a genre that focuses on the preoedipal condition of longing for a mother’s love; for others, it’s the terror of the domestic juxtaposed with the innate need for domesticity. Both of these takes are easily backed up by details from Jackson’s own life. At the height of her success, Jackson’s mother Geraldine would send her letters berating her appearance in magazine photographs. Angry responses went unsent in favor of airy letters expressing best wishes, as if her mother had never suggested that Jackson’s four children must be ashamed of her weight, as Geraldine did when she saw her daughter’s photograph in Time magazine. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that Stanley was unfaithful and Jackson threatened divorce even as she wrote cheerful essays about manageable domestic chaos for Good Housekeeping. It’s easy to see why critics might find a raison d’etre for Jackson’s fiction in her home turmoil. And for Hollywood adaptations of Jackson’s work, the big scary houses at the center of Hill House and Castle provide plenty of spectral misery on their own, with no need to go digging in the text for what’s really scary about a Jackson story.

But the thing missing from much of both Jackson criticism and adaptations is her work’s simplest theme: madness is born of too much time alone. Jackson’s fiction is populated by women living on the margins, feeling shoved to one side in order for others to connect, which inspires irrational behaviors of the kind Jackson calls “not sane” in the opening of Hill House. Iterations of Hill House, beginning with 1963’s The Haunting, often fall back on depicting Eleanor as mad, which manifests itself in Julie Harris’s performance as a sort of shrill anger and paranoia. They often forget that she is, ultimately, lonely first and crazy only as a result of that loneliness.

Eleanor’s mantra on the drive to Hill House becomes, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” That lover could be anyone: Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora, or the house itself. Even her ultimate suicide, crashing her car into a tree, is an attempt to connect, to join the house she believes is inviting her in with messages that read “Eleanor come home,” which could just as easily be warning her to go away. There’s no way for Eleanor to tell, since she has no home, only the haunting memory of an overbearing mother she accidentally killed and an indifferent sister who uses her as a source of income. In one scene, missing from most adaptations, Eleanor begs Theodora, who already has a partner, to take her home:

“‘I’m coming with you,’ Eleanor said.
‘Coming where with me?’
‘Back with you, back home. I’—and Eleanor smiled wryly—‘am going to follow you home.’
Theodora stared. ‘Why?’ she asked blankly.
‘I never had anyone to care about,’ Eleanor said.”

In one critical interpretation of Jackson’s work, “House Mothers and Haunted Daughters,” Roberta Rubenstein writes that Hill House “psychologically… embodies the legacy of the all-powerful parents lodged within an insecurely developed self.” She points to the fact that the nursery is the most haunted part of the house; this theory puts Eleanor’s suicide down to a subconscious desire to re-enter the womb. But mostly, Rubenstein’s evidence lies in Jackson’s own unstable relationship with her cruel mother, making it easy to say that Hill House is a book about mommy issues, since nurseries and houses are closely associated with the maternal. Both the 1963 and 1999 film adaptations follow this line of thinking, making Eleanor’s connection to the house part of a desire to have a family, namely children, of her own. But both movie adaptations, and that critical read, are glossing over a key part of Hill House: Eleanor would go with anyone. It’s just that no one wants her.

The Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House is less an adaptation of the book than fanfiction set loosely in a world flecked with bits of Jackson lore—a scary house, characters named Nelly, Theodora, and even Shirley. It takes the yearning for motherhood and maternity many steps further, centering the series on a group of children who grew up in the haunted house. The credits open on cheerful family photographs and the first episode features myriad siblings calling one another in a time of distress and a mother sleeping on the floor next to her frightened daughter to comfort her back to sleep. All of these kindnesses would be entirely out of place in a Jackson novel, where the horror is having no one and watching others speak a language of connection that the main character simply cannot translate, leaving completely friendless, unloved characters like Eleanor reaching out only to have their hands slapped away by strangers, certainly, but also those who are supposed to love them most: mothers, siblings, and children.

Ghosts and external eeriness are easier to translate to the screen, but they’re not what truly haunts Hill House. “God, God—whose hand was I holding?” Eleanor exclaims at one point in the novel when she thinks she’s survived a terrifying night by gripping Theodora’s hand in the dark only to discover in the light that she’s been alone all along. No one was holding her, and no one ever will, since in a few short chapters Eleanor will die by suicide after being asked to leave by the group she’d hoped would become her first and only friends. The idea of clinging to nothing and thinking it was love is every bit as horrifying as holding hands with a ghoul in the dark, though no existing adaptations get anywhere near the heartbreak that goes hand-in-hand with the horror of that scene.

The 2018 adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle doesn’t fare much better. The film gets the plot correct: the Blackwood sisters have lost their entire family, save their Uncle Julian, in a poisoning incident involving the communal family sugar bowl, for which the oldest sister, Constance, has been tried and acquitted. The acquittal hasn’t stopped the town from turning on the girls, leaving them pariahs in their mansion with Constance afraid to leave the property. The arrival of a handsome male cousin leaves the younger sister, Merricat, so jealous of losing her sister’s attention that she lights their home on fire, which the villagers take as an invitation to tear the property apart and kill Uncle Julian. In the end, Constance realizes she was wrong to try and escape with Cousin Charles, settling into a life where she depends solely on her sister.

Critical interpretations of the novel see Merricat and Constance as two sides of the same coin—Merricat content with domestic roles and Constance wondering if there might be a way to escape. Again, this read rings true when aligned with Jackson’s own life, cooking and cleaning while being the main breadwinner for a philandering husband who, according to one of Jackson’s essays, did not know how to turn on the stove. In the film, Constance is all beneficent smiles, whether she’s dancing with Cousin Charles and dreaming of Italy or attempting to politely discipline Merricat for destroying his bed, while Merricat is all grimacing sulkiness, quietly understanding everything wrong with Charles’s arrival.

The idea of clinging to nothing and thinking it was love is every bit as horrifying as holding hands with a ghoul in the dark.

But what criticism and the film seem to miss is the fact that Merricat’s first-person narration deftly obscures the reality that Constance is knowingly living with a murderer—her sister, who poisoned the entire family as a 12-year-old in order to be alone with Constance. She devotes all of her time to protecting Uncle Julian from potential further harm by covertly managing her sister’s emotions and never letting her uncle fully realize that he is living with his would-be killer. Constance is not an agoraphobic, food-obsessed stand-in for Jackson, or if she is, then her character belies far more desperation on the author’s part than has been written, because Constance is a hostage. A hostage who loves her captor, but also a person who is not free to leave without inviting more murder. Considering a husband results in the destruction of her home and the death of her uncle, proving to Constance that the outside world is even more dangerous than a life with Merricat, and the novel ends with the two living in the wreckage of a boarded-up house, contemplating eating the children who play on their lawn. Merricat declares that she will keep all other living creatures, right down to spiders, from ever approaching Constance again. “We are so happy,” Merricat says in the final line of the novel, though it’s impossible to know if Constance has ever felt a moment’s happiness or ever will, bound now forever to Merricat. That’s the horror of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

The film, however, opens with the women cleaning their broken house and Merricat beginning work on writing her story, completely in control of the narrative. It ends with Merricat scaring children off the lawn and Constance clinging to her like a hero. “I love you, Merricat,” she tells her sister in the final line, as Merricat watches Constance walk away, both of them with the air of mutually smitten lovers.

Though we don’t have any Jackson screen adaptations that truly get to the heart of what’s so scary about her work, we do have a legacy of scary shit inspired by the lessons she taught other masters of deeply disturbing art. Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Otessa Mosfegh are all devotees of Jackson, to name a few. Reading “Louisa, Please Come Home,” a short story in which a teenage girl runs away from her wealthy family to playact as a working-class shop clerk, only to have her family angrily send her away when she finally returns home, it’s easy to see kernels of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Stephen King’s The Shining, a book superficially about a haunted house that’s actually about the loneliness born of trying to love an alcoholic, takes the terror of often quiet domestic cruelty and literally explodes it, creating something both scary and true. Plath’s The Bell Jar owes at least some of its heartbreaking loneliness to Hangsaman’s Natalie Waite, and Mosfegh’s blasely murderous Eileen could be a second sister to either Mary Katherine Blackwood or Eleanor Vance.

On June 27, 1948, Shirley Jackson published “The Lottery” in the New Yorker. The story focuses on a small town’s custom of stoning one of its residents to death each June in a ritual act of commonplace brutality that exists, seemingly, because it’s always existed. That summer, Jackson would receive 150 letters about the story from fans and detractors alike and would continue to receive them for the rest of her life. And whether readers loved the story or hated it, most of the letters asked the same question: What is this story about?

The question of what Jackson’s work is “about” is one that persists over half a century since much of it was published, yet the recent revival of interest hasn’t seemed to push us any closer to “getting it,” at least not in any screen adaptation we’ve had so far. But maybe our understanding of Shirley Jackson has manifested itself in other ways, lonely characters inhabiting the shadows of other great works, mad and feral.

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