Horror I Love: The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
‘No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair.’
‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.’
The first time I was exposed to Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House, it was under the worst circumstances possible; I was twelve years old, and at a sleepover, where we watched the 1999 movie adaptation ‘The Haunting’.
Even back then, I knew it was a incredibly bad film, but it’s stuck with me ever since. Partly because Owen Wilson gets decapitated by a fireplace right before the big climax, but mostly because it so recklessly misunderstands its own source material - in ways that really show up the trashy, sentimental, melodramatic tendencies of the worst of the horror genre, but also illustrate the brilliance of the original text.
Let me try to explain (with spoilers).
Both book and movie start in the same way, right up to the end of the bolded text below:
In The Haunting, Eleanor, a young woman with traumatic memories from her childhood and severe social anxiety, joins a group of misfits at Hill House in the Berkshires - a ludicrously nightmarish piece of architecture, replete with staring cherub faces, creepy paintings, and weeping angel statues.
Over time, the group are attacked or killed off one-by-one, as Eleanor discovers that the house is haunted by the malevolent ghost of one Hugh Crain, child-murderer and 19th century tycoon, who she happens to be descended from. Discovering her reserves of inner strength and courage, she summons the spirits of the children who Crain murdered, and banishes him to Hell with their assistance. (Then she ascends to Heaven.)
At one point a statue tries to drown Liam Neeson, as well. It looks like this:
Even if the CGI had aged better, the movie would still be a gross misappropriation of the text, though, because...
The Haunting is a spatial horror - not a ghost story
In the novel, Hill House is something unnervingly simple and self-possessed; its solidity and empty sense of calm are heavily emphasised from the opening lines. In fact, for something that is deliberately called ‘not sane’, it sounds remarkably sane:
‘Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.’
As Eleanor first approaches it, she actually imagines it as a Gothic structure of ‘spires and gargoyles’, before being proven horribly wrong; her first impression of the house is horrifyingly simple, and entirely non-visual.
‘It was vile.’
The depiction of Hill House, as the novel unfolds, expands into the most memorable haunted space in any horror literature, precisely because Jackson understands that it is the space itself that is devilled - and we don't need any antagonists beyond the environment itself.
In fact, we never meet any ghosts in Hill House; we’re never given anything as boring or banal as a child-murderer with a grudge who hangs around for 200 years trying to scare visitors. Hugh Crain is mentioned as one of a series of former owners whose lives came to a sticky end, and the characters joke that perhaps he’s to blame for their misfortunes...but in fact, it’s heavily underlined that there are no humans and no human motives at the root of the haunting.
This is, simply, an environment where people go bad, and where bad things happen to them, and the accumulated weight of those human stories only adds depth to darkness within the building over the centuries; it’s the same kind of ‘onion-peel’ haunting history that Nigel Kneale went on to use over and over with audio dramas like The Stone Tape. (And later, the Kneale-inspired TV show Ghostwatch.)
The terror in Hill House comes from architecture, and navigation; not just the horrid, plain exterior, but an interior that isolates us and makes us lose our bearings; we later learn that all of the floors are at a slight angle, which causes doors to swing shut behind the characters but also gives them a constant, implicit sense of unease.
The haunting events themselves, when they occur, mostly revolve around our inability to trust our subjective sensations in an environment that makes us afraid.
A sense that someone is holding your hand in the darkness; knocking sounds in the night that might just be the plumbing system, or the wind. (No matter how much high-concept horror evolves, this last one terrifies me more than anything, simply because it's so common in reality - if you’ve ever slept in an old house, you’ll have heard those banging noises, ringing out with a rhythm that just seems too damn noisy and specific to be random, as if something is calling out to you.)
The Haunting is a deeply-felt, psychological tragedy
As the novel progresses, the scale of its audacity beyond spooky scenes becomes clear; because human beings, as it turns out, are capable of adapting to anything.
The characters joke about their experiences until they no longer seem so frightening. They begin to display, out of bravado, a kind of affection towards their environment, and start to doubt that there’s anything truly wrong with it.
And Eleanor, poor Eleanor, one of the most compelling, tragic, and deeply-felt protagonists in genre fiction, begins to fall apart.
In much of I Am In Eskew, I’m really working through my greatest fear; that what I’m hearing and seeing is not what other people are hearing and seeing.
I guess you could call it a fear of madness, but I do think it’s more than it; it’s the terror that my own sensations can no longer be trusted, that I will have no way of confirming them with others. A fear of isolation from the rest of human experience.
Eleanor, who is used to being ignored by the people around her, finds a family and a sense of purpose in Hill House. She can speak candidly about her paranormal experiences to the other characters without being dismissed. She can ‘enjoy’ the fear of Hill House as part of a group.
She even finds herself developing a sexually and emotionally inarticulate infatuation with Theodora, the only other female member of the group, and a narcissist who treats Eleanor with sporadic affection and intimacy.
(Side note: Jackson does deal with the awakening of gay female desire with surprising prominence and semi-directness a couple of times in her novels, although as it’s usually associated with danger, darkness and mental illness, I’d hesitate to call her ahead of her time. It’s actually presented as the climactic threat to the protagonist’s wellbeing in the not-very-good Hangsaman.)
But as the novel progresses, Eleanor realises that she is not, as she thought, part of a family. The rest of the group don’t entirely seem to trust her; they apparently suspect her of causing several haunting events for attention. More and more, she begins to feel isolated from them; particularly from Theodora, who seems to have an intimate attachment with the handsome Luke.
Then it’s almost time to leave, and Theodora mockingly refuses to take Eleanor home with her when they go. She is ignored, shunned, cut out of conversations.
And so she begins to haunt them.
‘Dancing, the carpet soft under her feet, she came to the door behind which Theodora slept; faithless Theo, she thought, cruel, laughing Theo, wake up, wake up, wake up, and pounded and slapped the door, laughing, then shook the doorknob and ran swiftly down the hall to Luke’s door and pounded; wake up, she thought, wake up and be faithless. None of them will open their doors, she thought; they will sit inside, with the blankets pressed around them, shivering and wondering what is going to happen to them next.’
The ending, when it comes, is as inevitable as it is awful, and it comes from a place of anxiety I understand all too well: the fear of someone who’s always considered themselves broken, then finds a group that finally seems to accept them.
The constant anxiety, the constant terror, that comes with the hope of becoming 'normal'.
Can I find a place where I belong? Can I find people who I belong to? Can I ever really trust them when they say that they understand me?
And when they try to leave me, how can I make them stay?
It’s a spectacular, subtle, sympathetic book. If you haven’t read it, definitely grab yourself a copy.