film

A Haunted Legacy

When considering the horror genre, our attention often swivels to the large sections in bookstores occupied by the still growing collection of Stephen King. He’s the writer behind classics like Misery and Carrie, and has inspired so many films based off of the words he originally wrote.

Nevertheless, if we creep back to the years before King’s influence, we arrive at Shirley Jackson, the original inspiration for much of the current genre.

The Gothic genre flourished from her care. Responsible not just for six novels, she also wrote an extensive collection of short stories and two autobiographies, along with other nonfiction works. Her popularity was built off of her ability to startle, using clever symbolism and dark undertones to rattle readers. She revolutionized American literature during the 1950s and 60s.

All of her work was complex. Each story had layered meanings and could be analyzed further, to peel back each element in order to reveal the smooth inner workings that made her writing great. However, the novel that truly sparked her career as a novelist was The Haunting of Hill House.

This book was filled with the turmoil from the relationships she had with both her husband and her mother. Her husband, Stanley Hyman, was known for his frequent sexual relations with other women. In contrast, her mother was an obsessive woman, hellbent on dominating Jackson. Despite her infusion of her painful relationships, this was the first novel that she wrote that achieved immediate financial success upon publication.

Telling the story of a haunted home referred to as ‘Hill House’, Jackson created a slow build of characters finding themselves caught up in the influences of the house. Eleanor Vance, the protagonist, spiralled into a descent of madness throughout the book before killing herself. The house dominates all who enter, and takes who it will. Hill House was a chaotic architectural landscape and bleak history wrapped up into a haunting tale.

Published in 1959, Jackson’s book focused on the theme of terror and revolved around a cast of characters who had taken to staying at Hill House to look for scientific evidence about the existence of the supernatural, due to the long sordid history of the house. She intentionally ensured that the house lacked any physical appearances of ghosts, and instead fixated on the psychological realm of fear, except for a single brief scene where Eleanor is confronted with a pastoral vision of her own desires. Instead of ghostly figures lurking, Jackson was intrigued by how a branch would strike a window during the dead of night and the fear that it would spark. Her book delved into finding the irrational as well as the rational in that emotion, and how it managed to manipulate the different characters.

1963 brought the grim novel to film. Retitled as The Haunting, it was a cinematic masterpiece. Cleverly filtered to remain dark and haunting, the house visually dominated the screen. Jackson’s original story was translated to screen with mostly minor changes, and the house took a defined shape under the influence of MGM and Robert Wise. Wise followed Jackson’s lead and never once revealed any physical images of a ghost. Instead the house was filled with harsh physical angles and dreadful artwork, and set to the uneasy tune of a house settling loudly. The atmosphere produced enough gloom to make anxiety twist in the stomachs of the viewers.

From the 1963 film  The Haunting

From the 1963 film The Haunting

Cinematically, this gave the house a massive presence that relied more on clever film strategies and less on superficial props. In comparison to the newer remake of the book as a 2018 Netflix series and the use of physical figures in the backgrounds, The Haunting had massive success playing with the anxiety of the viewer through subtle lighting and dramatic angles.

Jackson had been spurred to write a ghostly tale and had turned her focus to finding imagery of houses and mansions to spark her interest. The Haunting of Hill House was not the first novel of hers to fixate on dominating houses. The Sundial and We Have Always Lived in the Castle were two other grim tales that fixated on grand mansions and were each paired with equally lengthy family histories.

Perhaps she had been inspired by her own family history for these books as well. Her great-great-grandfather was a notable architect in the California area and helped to establish many outstanding mansions. Houses were in Jackson’s own blood.

Another source of inspiration for the dark Hill House was from the very real Winchester House, where the widow of a gun magnate had a labyrinth of a mansion built to protect her from all the vengeful spirits that she believed to be haunting her. The chaotic layout was said to confuse any spirits, ensuring that she was safe. Jackson took advantage of the real life architectural nightmare and incorporated the clever details into her own work, layering in the odd turrets and maze like hallways. Hill House was a feat of clever architecture, and had to take the shape of an endless labyrinth.

Wise chose the formerly known Ettington Hall for an exterior film location for The Haunting. Filled with a dark history of tragedies and plenty of potential for ghosts, the building terrified the actresses thoroughly. With the leering stance it took from the deliberate low angles filmed, it is easy to appreciate the hulking stance of the shadow drenched mansion. Wise had found the perfect location to represent Hill House. Perhaps a ghost of a girl would pass by one of the windows, overlooking the film set up.

While Jackson’s love for houses stood out in this novel, her haunted relationships certainly lingered both on page and on screen. The protagonist, Eleanor, frequently wishes for stability and a home. The domestic world is out of reach, and she is consumed by her desire for a place of her own. The Haunting represents this passionate wish by using her inner monologue to reveal Eleanor’s satisfaction in settling in as a member of the group, and her eventual swerve into maddening obsessiveness in remaining at Hill House.

Photo courtesy of Morgue File

Photo courtesy of Morgue File

Perhaps the most startling scene is when Eleanor, terrified, reaches out for someone’s hand. Noises and uneasy shadows cause devastating fear that takes control of her senses. Transfixed by the shadows across her wall, she feels intense pain from someone holding her hand. Originally under the assumption that her roommate Theodora, another guest at Hill House, was at her side, but all fans of both the book and film will recall the grim realization when Eleanor realizes that no one is holding her hand.

Jackson’s overwhelming loneliness and emotional isolation in her marriage may have translated into her work. How often did she look across the dinner table and face a husband who had become a stranger to her? How often did the fear of his sexual activities with other women follow her? Perhaps the hand that would reach for her own had become unfamiliar but yet so very wanted.

Eleanor’s complex relationship with her mother mirrored her own. Jackson’s own mother sent toxic letters to her daughter and despaired upon Jackson’s writing and appearance. The protagonist of the story spent years acting as caretaker to her invalid mother, shackled to her. It is not until the mother’s death that she is able to slowly take flight and wait for her own opportunity to find a life for herself. Maybe this was Jackson’s most secret wish. If her mother died, she would finally be freed from the burden of their correspondence and the endless criticism. She could fully find her own identity and not be smothered with negative remarks about her appearance.

The Haunting managed to translate much of this turmoil onto the screen. Wise managed to adapt the novel with a few alterations, and portray a growing unease throughout the course of the film. Feeding off of fear, the novel builds and creates a sharp terror that viewers will feel and certainly dread.

The movie was the perfect adaptation. Despite a follow up remake in 1999 and a completely rewritten version of the novel made for a Netflix series, The Haunting caught the strangeness perfectly. The expressions of fear across actors faces were exaggerated by the use of camera lenses and Eleanor’s inner thoughts seemed to echo over the film, creating an almost dreamlike quality to them. The Haunting allows for the viewer to slip into the slow build of madness which is why it still manages to hold up, even to this day.

The Haunting allowed viewers to feel small beneath the hulking size of Hill House. By making minimal changes to the original material, Wise produced a masterpiece that would hold up in comparison to the later remake. The Netflix series acts as a distant cousin to the original intention of Jackson, and is comparable in name only. Jackson provided a bleak setting filled with historic tragedy and gave Wise a selection of characters that sprung to life on the screen.

Often, we look towards Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft for their extraordinary take on American horror literature. They dominate sections of shelves with their impressive bodies of work and stand out against movie posters. Hopefully, nonetheless, we can begin to turn our attention to Shirley Jackson, the woman often shuffled between fiction and horror sections of bookstores, and who revolutionized the genre with her unnerving terror.


Interested in more Shirley Jackson and the film?

Bernice M. Murphy complied an excellent selection of essays, titled “Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy”. Or, check out Ruth Franklin’s A Rather Haunted Life.

Tania Hussain’s piece explains the inspiration behind Jackson’s Hill House and is a great look into the transition from original material to Netflix series along with Paula Guran’s two articles: “Delight in What I Fear” and “Shirley Jackson & The Haunting of Hill House”.

If you’re more curious about The Haunting and the work put into making it a cinematic masterpiece, check out Andrea Passafiume’s article here to learn more about the film techniques.


rachelitme+.jpg

Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

The Perils of Marriage

In black and white film, a house is devoured by flames as a car races down the road, drawn to the scene of the grand estate on fire. By Hitchcock’s direction servants rush along the lawn, looking upwards to the west wing of the house where a woman in black is visible standing by the window. The bed of the first Mrs. de Winter burns in her shadow, the final reach of the dead woman.

Originally a novel published in 1938, Alfred Hitchcock managed to transition Rebecca into an Academy Award winning film in 1940. Often hailed as the master of the suspense genre, he rose in popularity, allowing for his films to endure over the course of many decades. Newer remakes have helped to put his original work back into the spotlight, such as the television show Bates Motel which aired in 2013, launching attention back to the original masterpiece, Psycho.

His film history has lasted to this date, and it was because of Daphne du Maurier that he grew in talent, fully mastering his dramatic camera angles and rigid storyboard method.

Having begun her career as a writer with a series of short stories published throughout the 1920s, du Maurier was thrust into the literary spotlight with the release of Rebecca. Despite having languished while writing the novel as part of her three book deal, as well as trashing the first 15,000 words she had drafted, Rebecca had swiftly come to form after a Christmas spent far away from her own family and children. Having been inspired heavily by du Maurier’s own feelings of jealousy of her husband’s prior relationship, she managed to spin a complex gothic tale of a nameless girl, and a dead woman.

As a romantic psychological thriller, Rebecca told the story of a nameless protagonist and the whirlwind romance between her and Max de Winter, a rich widower. His first wife, Rebecca de Winter manages to extend her presence from beyond the watery grave, stirring strong emotions of jealousy and resentment. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine take on the roles of the newly married couple, swiftly unraveling over the course of the film and novel.

Hitchcock learned a valuable formula in crafting a classic gothic tale from du Maurier. A female, having arrived at a large English estate shrouded in mystery, struggling to create herself a new life are the bones of the many grim stories that came before.  One of the primary achievements of the film was masking the identity of the protagonist so thoroughly, that she often exists without any identity. Other characters talk around her, rarely ever confirming her marital name and status.

This was a massive success for the film, having had to adapt from the first person narrative where readers had the advantage of gaining insight from the narrator herself. By Hitchcock’s hand, the protagonist was reshaped and presented as a floundering girl, someone without any real identity that could contend with Rebecca’s.

From the 1940 film  Rebecca

From the 1940 film Rebecca

The setting of Rebecca allowed for the film to shine. As a grand estate alongside the coast, du Maurier had crafted a complex environment filled with rocky coves and hidden shipwrecks. Because of this diverse landscape, the film was allowed to be visually complex. The structure itself had been massive, looming over the characters. Often, the protagonist would be seen trembling her way through the long corridors and grand rooms, trying to find refuge.

Hitchcock managed to bring a dead woman back to life by scattering symbols of her throughout Manderley. Directed by the original novel, tokens of Rebecca de Winter’s life remain on display. Her embroidered initials stake her claim across the domestic realm of the estate, and it was by her own hand that she transitioned the small building by the cove into a place where she could freely engage in a sexual lifestyle with other men. Rebecca’s bedroom and morning room exist and function as an extension of her domain, allowing her world to remain present.

One of the highlights of the film was the clear representation of a toxic relationship. The protagonist visibly wilts, trying to win her husband’s affections. However, Max de Winter often rebukes her, heaping on criticism of her character and watching her spiral into a state of nervousness. As she attempts to change her appearance numerous times, it is never to his satisfaction. She cannot compete with the beauty of his former wife, and is trapped in a marriage without real love.

The turning point in their relationship is when Rebecca’s ship is recovered. Despite the careful transition of novel-to-film, the ending had to be altered to be approved by motion picture production code. In the original novel, Max de Winter admitted to murdering his wife by shooting her. In contrast, Hitchcock was forced to alter the scene to make it more tasteful by having him admit, in an emotional state, that it had been an accidental confrontation between the two that had led to her death.

The protagonist is able to swiftly take control of their marriage with this confession, delighted with the events that had transpired a year ago. Rebecca had been tarnished, and instead of a murdered victim, she became a hurdle for the two to overcome together. She argues that Rebecca de Winter’s death could be covered up, and that it would always be his voice against a dead woman.

From the 1940 film  Rebecca

From the 1940 film Rebecca

Perhaps the grim thrill of the protagonist throwing herself at Max de Winter’s defense is the real horror of the story. Despite Rebecca having been a murdered woman, the narrator is suddenly able to restore her own identity and take control of the situation, drowning the reality of the situation.

Hitchcock learned a valuable lesson from du Maurier. The grimness of humankind and the toxic relationship between the married couple represented the real peril of marriage; in losing one’s voice and becoming trapped into gendered roles of the time. She gave him incredible pacing building to the shocking truth to Rebecca de Winter’s death, and the transition of a struggling woman into a hardened soul, clinging to their relationship while denying another woman her voice.

However, perhaps the greatest element of Rebecca was the creation of Mrs. Danvers. With numerous descriptions of her ‘dead skull’s face’ in the novel, the film positioned her shrouded in dark shadows, a loathsome figure stalking the protagonist around Manderley.

Admittedly, Mrs. Danvers was the finest creation to be given to the gothic genre as a whole. As a classic element to the genre, her figure could be traced to other published work decades later. For example, her personality could be found in the sadistic cab driver from Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, or Ruth Ware’s housekeeper in The Death of Mrs. Westaway. Never once a redeemable character, she morbidly obsesses over the life of her deceased mistress. Hitchcock was able to bring her to life, expertly framed in darkness, and let her menace her way about.

While Hitchcock could be said to be the master of suspense, I think it would be fair to claim Du Maurier the mistress of suspense.

While he has transitioned two other pieces of du Maurier’s to film, Rebecca was one he was forced by the studio to remain faithful to, despite the altering of the cold-blooded murder. The novel had been a gift, almost, to Hitchcock, despite his later complaints of the lack of humour the film contained. He was able to take the slow transition of a helpless woman into a hardened accomplice, and to the slow destruction of something grand and make it into something superior to many films of the time.


Has one of your favorite books been transitioned to the movie screen? Was it good? Terrible? Tell me your bookish plights below.


rachelitme+.jpg

Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

The Pioneer of the #MeToo Movement

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, better known as MGM, is responsible for film classics like Gone with the Wind and The Gorgeous Hussy. As one of the older American movie studios, they helped pave the way for massive success of many actresses. However, despite the bright lights and glittering history of the studio, it has a darker underside that it’s still haunted by to this day.

While the studio certainly had connections to unleashing glamorous movies and using new technologies to keep up with the times, they were also responsible for unleashing one of the earliest pioneers of the #metoo movement.

Patricia Douglas managed to boldly fight her way into headlines across America before vanishing, shrinking into the grim shadows of Hollywood. Her rape, caused directly by trickery from MGM, had become a spectacle, broadcasted as she underwent extreme efforts to snatch at justice for herself.

The 1930s was a difficult decade. Full of economic turmoil, the studio managed to persevere and adapt to new budgets and compete with other major film studios. By 1937, MGM had not only managed to maintain their success, but also reap in huge financial rewards that helped to keep them popular. To celebrate this achievement, they sponsored a large party for the men involved in maintaining their legacy, where over a hundred women were taken to a remote location to serve as entertainment.

A scheme had been developed to hire a large group of women under the premise that they would be working as dancers and extras on a movie set. The location was at an isolated ranch, and the women soon realized their dangerous predicament as they were stranded with no way to contact the outside world for aid.

They had been delivered to this set after sitting through dress and make up and were left for hours before the men eventually showed up. Quickly inebriated after their arrival, the men descended like a swarm of locusts.

Sexual assault and harassment, as always, has been a difficult subject in media. Often, victims become further victimized. In the more recent years, though, media has allowed for people to support victims in rape cases, allowing for more encouragement and bringing awareness to the issue. In the 1930s, however, more archaic beliefs of assault ran rampant, making it extraordinarily difficult for any woman to step forward and demand justice.

This party saw many men harass the women tricked into attending. Women attempted to swiftly flee the wandering hands and lewd comments by hiding in bathrooms or darting away. Nevertheless, Douglas was not lucky enough to find safety.

Photo from the Everett Collection

Photo from the Everett Collection

Intentionally humiliated by men forcing alcohol down her throat against her will before a man by the name of David Ross managed to drag her away and rape her. She was underage and publically a teetotaler. Douglas had trusted MGM for honest work as an extra for a film and instead she had been tossed into a pit of snakes.

In the chaos of the aftermath, Douglas had been brought to a hospital for a medical exam, that had been arranged by MGM, that claimed that no intercourse could be proven. No follow up police report was ever filled out, which allowed Ross to slip back into his life comfortably and left Douglas with no support.

Most women would have vanished quietly. Some might have sought out money from the guilty party in exchange for their silence, but instead of remaining passive, she led a charge for justice.

Her career was wrecked with this crusade. Publically proclaiming her rape at the hands of Ross, Douglas suffered the humiliation of being forced into the same room with the man and also from the attempts of a smear campaign against her. Detectives, hired by MGM, failed to pinpoint any loose behaviour from her character, as she was an underage girl who publicly identified as a teetotaler. They found limited ammunition to use against her.

Despite their limits, the case did wither and collapse in court before it was dismissed. Douglas swiftly followed up with a lawsuit that was aimed at the men who arranged the party and for women to be hired under false premises. This was eventually dismissed as well, but Douglas was not a woman to roll over and accept defeat.

By connecting her assault to a violation of her civil rights, she managed to make her case a federal one. This was the first time any woman took rape to a federal level, which paved the way for future assaulted women. Douglas was fighting for visibility and justice, and she is the reason why the #metoo movement has managed to flourish in the past year. Without her first voice, the hashtag would have been caught in limbo.

This was the unfortunate final end, though, to her public campaign for her rights. With a dismissal at the federal level, she was left stagnant and without options. Her career had suffered from collateral damage because of this public crusade, but it had also become meaningless to her. Douglas accepted the stigma that was to drown her social standing and run her out of the Hollywood movie industry.

Why had Douglas failed constantly in her legal battles? It was an uphill battle against MGM, who refuted evidence and tried to undermine her by buying false witnesses. They refused to attend court and leave her standing alone, underrepresented and faltering beneath the pressure from the outside world. Their arrangements with the hospital after her rape saw that the medical exam was botched, and they failed to contact the police. Douglas was fighting against a powerhouse from the very beginning of her journey, and the odds were very much not in her favour. MGM had been intent on dismantling any evidence.

It wasn’t just the men at MGM that failed Douglas, but also journalism. Her public demand for justice made headlines nationwide, thrusting her into the spotlight. However, the word “rape” was censored in print, and other words would be used in its place, such as “ravished”. Very few headlines would feature the word “assault”. Her identity was completely exposed in these articles, as even her home address was included in the text. No one was protecting Douglas.

MGM was responsible for many great hits that make up such a huge part of pop culture. Fantastic movie classics, however, cannot compare to their efforts to demolish Douglas. She suffered from not only from the rape, but the aftermath as the film studio attempted to figuratively murder her. By promoting unsavoury lies about Douglas’s character, and purposely preventing the case from gaining any traction by refusing to cooperate, they are entirely responsible for this woman’s overnight vanishing act.  

“We had her killed,” the studio’s general manager allegedly said decades later, in regards to whatever happened to Douglas. She lived, stubbornly, for decades in isolation after the desperate bribing of witnesses, dismantling of any support she could have found, and the failure of the justice system.

When headlines swivel to Harvey Weinstein and other men of his kind, attention should be focused on the long line of transgressions that have brought us to this era. MGM taught us that not only do men have the ability to put women in dangerous situations, but certainly in this case they believed that they had the right to ridicule them in the aftermath. This is the generation that allows the use of lace panties as proof in a courtroom to deny rape, but it is also the generation that is finally letting victims reach out and support one another. We can thank Douglas for our ability to come forward and join hands.


rachelitme+.jpg

Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

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