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.
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.
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.
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.