The Haunting of Hill House has been twice adapted as a feature film under the title of The Haunting (in 1963 and 1999) and was adapted as a Netflix series in 2018. The Netflix series bears little resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s novel but has been widely acclaimed. The 1999 film with Liam Neeson follows the basic premise of the book, but changes many aspects of the plot and interprets the idea of a haunted house in fairly unsophisticated and obvious ways, much in keeping with what we might expect from the ‘Hollywood’ treatment. The 1963 film, released only four years after the publication of the novel, is the most faithful to Jackson’s story.
Jackson’s novel, itself, employs many of the tropes we have come to expect from haunted house stories. There are knockings at night, doors rattled by unseen forces on the other side, cold spots in the house, as well as visions, and the psychological terror caused by what is happening. Added to this, the very architecture of the house is somewhat unsettling. No corner or wall is at a true right angle. The subtle unevenness of the house causes strange misconceptions. At one point, **** mistakenly thinks the house has two front doors or has somehow turned about because a tower which should be visible from her bedroom is just out of sight, due to the strange layout of the house. And the house is confusing, with a concentric maze of rooms on the ground floor, and a generally confusing layout; and doors refuse to remain closed, adding to the disorientation. In short, Hill House, itself, is a main character in this novel, and Jackson imbues it with malevolent intention, as demonstrated here in her brilliant first description of its presence:
…the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person […] but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together in its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.
Along with the standard tropes of haunted house stories, the premise of the novel is also fairly standard. Hill House has remained unoccupied since the suicide of a former occupant. Mr and Mrs Dudley, its caretakers, live in the nearby village, Hilldale, but refuse to be in the house at night. Dr Montague, an anthropologist, is interested in supernatural phenomena and has rented Hill House for three months from its current owner, Mrs Sanderson, for the purposes of studying supernatural manifestations. He sends invitations to a dozen people to spend part of their summer with him at the house. The purpose of their stay, he states, “was to observe and explore the various unsavoury stories which had been circulated about the house for most of its eighty years of existence.” What he doesn’t tell them is that they have been chosen because they have some experience with the supernatural, or have displayed some evidence of psychic ability. Of the dozen people invited, only two women accept. First, is Eleanor Vance, a woman of thirty-two, who has watched her youth slip away while she has cared for her invalid mother. When she was younger her house was mysteriously rained upon by stones falling from the sky for several days, and it is this that has warranted her invitation from the doctor.
Second, is Theodora (no second name) who has shown some aptitude in identifying cards correctly in laboratory conditions. Theodora has argued with a friend and takes the opportunity of coming to Hill House to avoid a further rift in the friendship.
In addition to these two women, Luke Sanderson, nephew to the owner, and future heir of Hill House, has agreed to accompany Dr Montague and his guests.
The Haunting of Hill House is a really effective haunting story. Its strength lies in its ambiguities which I think the most effective horror achieves. Supernatural horror needs to translate to psychological horror if it is to succeed, and ambiguity is key to this for two reasons. First, the experience of watching many horror films is often laughter rather than dread. What is presented on-screen might be visually horrific, but revealing the supernatural – the monster, so to speak – also limits and reduces it to a singular problem, and problems can be solved: hit it over the head; freeze it; decapitate it; stake it or expose it to sunlight. The limitation caused by the reveal also exists because it may not be sympathetic to our own internal fears. Is that all? we laugh, if we aren’t already laughing at the special effects.
For me, good horror isn’t just about scary monsters or the tension caused by anticipation. I think good horror is sympathetic to our own fears, and is therefore an interaction with us, the audience. Something of us – our sense of identity, our concerns or beliefs – have to be addressed by the horror that is the locus of the story, and this works best as an invasive rather than a pervasive entity. Good horror exists in the liminal: infection; corruption. Apart from tension and the threat of harm, horror becomes truly horrifying when it breaks the boundaries of the subject; of the self. That’s why, even though there are bad zombie and vampire films, these tropes can still produce good horror. They may explore our fears that exist around the invasion of the physical self, as well as psychological transformation. This is why another Netflix show, Midnight Mass, is so effective. The invasive force, a vampire, is not only physically transformative, but perverts the religious beliefs of the community in which it moves, and therefore the very basis of identity. Horror explores the limits of our own sovereignty.
What may be striking for many readers is how little of the supernatural seems evident in Jackson’s novel. For me, this contrasts to David Mitchell’s Slade House, in which the demons and their motivations (along with their backstory) are entirely known. Slade House is a terrible book (I know Mitchell’s reputation and have enjoyed another of his books) which is more about the artifice of the supernatural rather than evoking psychological horror. There is a sense as one reads Jackson’s novel, that while the horror tropes may be standard – mysterious knocking, blood-writing on walls – we are as much interested in the characters as what might be revealed to them. Eleanor is of particular interest. While the novel is written in third person, our perspective is almost exclusive to her. Her constant refrain, “Journeys end in lovers meeting”, alerts us to her desire for romance and an adult life now her mother has died. Her interest in Luke and the sexual competition she perceives from Theodora are part of an accumulating series of events that seem to unhinge her, making hers, and our understanding of what is happening in Hill House difficult to determine. In fact, Eleanor seems to meet the happenings of Hill House with a strange equanimity, which suggests her problems are deep-seated and personal. With her mother gone, Eleanor seeks another companion to fulfil herself. Yet her failure to attract Luke, and Theodora’s rejection of her suggestion that they live together after Hill House, leave her isolated and struggling to define a new self and her future after her mother’s death. There is a sense that she is susceptible to the sense of belonging she finds in the house, and her vulnerabilities are played out in the drama of the haunting.
I think the novel succeeds as horror because it never fully defines the nature of the house. A history of abuse is suggested when an old scrapbook is found, created by Hugh Crain, the original owner, to instruct his daughter in religious doctrines. And other characters act as foils, thereby allowing the reader some perspective on what is happening. When Dr Montique’s wife turns up with a high school principal to help with the investigation, it is funny that they have the strongest belief in the supernatural but experience nothing, apart from what might be their own manufactured results from a session of planchette – automatic writing used to commune with spirits.
Shirley Jackson’s treatment of this often maligned genre is skilful and controlled. Her characters are credible and the mystery of the house remains an atavistic potential. The arc of the story is well-paced and structured. There is not a detail out of place or a superfluous sentence. Anyone interested in reading in this genre would do well to read this book. There will be some aspect or details that will be sure to persist in the imagination after the book is finished.