Think of the term “haunted house” and it is likely to conjure up a variety of images, including decaying Victorian mansions or Gothic manor houses from rural England. However, mention the town of Bennington, Vermont and it is not likely to strike fear in the heart of the Western imagination the same way “Transylvania” would. Yet, it is a locale responsible for generating one of the greatest modern haunted house stories in the English literature.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was published in 1959 and nominated for a National Book Award. It was adapted for film twice in 1963 and in 1999 as The Haunting and as a Netflix series in 2018 by Mike Flanagan (Absentia, Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil). I don’t think you could write an American haunted house story today without referencing it, although it didn’t garner nearly as much critical attention when it was published as it did towards the end of the twentieth century.
Self-proclaimed as “New England’s only practising amateur witch”, Shirley Jackson has captivated the American imagination with her descriptions of the darker side of small-town life. Her most famous (and controversial) story was The Lottery, published in The New Yorker in 1948. Ahead of its time, The Lottery is one of the most widely anthologised short stories and spoke to a generation plagued by conformism. Despite being best-known during her lifetime as a longstanding writer for women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping, it was in Jackson’s literary works where she expressed her frustrations with motherhood and relocation to Bennington. Her stories are chock full of social outcasts at the mercy of their environments (whether they are haunted houses or insular communities full of unfriendly villagers) or their own sanity.
In Hill House, it is unclear whether protagonist Eleanor Vance is witnessing a true haunting or experiencing a breakdown from grief over the death of her mother. Likewise, in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another Jackson novel concerning outcasts in an insular space, Constance is unsure whether her sister Merricat might actually be responsible for their parents’ untimely death resulting from a poisoned sugar bowl, or if the accusations from neighbours are unwarranted. This indeterminacy is the crux of both novels: do the environments (and surrounding circumstances) cause the heroines to commit unspeakable acts, or do they simply allow them to act on impulses they otherwise wouldn’t?
Thus, the haunted house is a perfect microcosm of interior struggle: as Hill House progresses Eleanor further identifies with the house, and each subsequent haunting appears as though her subconscious is acting out via the supernatural: writing on the walls that says “Come Home Eleanor,” strange knocking that interrupts emotionally fraught conversations between her and Theodora, and the climactic car crash scene which Eleanor appears to be powerless to escape. The same thing occurs in Castle, when cousin Charles threatens to infringe on Constance and Merricat’s space and the attacks come off as embodied and deeply personal. Moreover, Merricat and Constance return and continue to live as they always have, the house now resembling a castle “turreted and open to the sky.” Both novels constitute an overidentification with haunted space, which leads the reader to believe that the hauntings are more than just ghosts. Instead, they resemble the projected realities of their female inhabitants.
The idea of environments mirroring the interior lives of the principal characters has been a staple of the Gothic genre since its inception: we are accustomed to reading stories about houses as ground zero for supernatural activity. However, one facet that differs in Jackson’s work is that the ghosts (if indeed there are ghosts) never make a guest appearance. This is significant compared to other Gothic classics, such as The Castle of Otranto, where we finally are given the insight that the hauntings are coming from a supernatural, yet external force. Hill House, by contrast only has the trappings of a haunting, yet no discernible spooks are given. The same goes for Castle; only cousin Charles and the surrounding townsfolk constitute any real threat to Constance and Merricat, but they are both living. Rather brilliantly, the reader is forced to conclude that all and any present danger comes from living or psychological forces rather than the presence of an invading supernatural element.
Unfortunately, this tension is not preserved well in Flanagan’s Netflix adaptation, where the ghosts are very real (Bent Neck Lady, anyone?). However, we don’t always mind because the ghosts are almost entirely hidden; in fact, there are dozens of articles online with a round-up of hidden ghosts in every shot of every episode. Although the real versus psychological isn’t as ambiguous as it is in the novel, the use of ghosts as metaphors is demonstrated well throughout the series. Ghosts represent just about everything from addiction, to grief, to mental illness, to fear of intimacy, to shame. Although it may not be a straightforward adaptation like both films, it still complicates the idea of haunting and the psychological in true Jackson fashion. Moreover, it is really a series about place and the idea of home. If homes can be sources of joy and fulfilment, can they also be places of tension and grief? And what exactly makes a house a home? The writing on the wall that says “Come Home Eleanor” seems slightly less menacing in this way.
Ultimately, we can situate Jackson’s work as great examples of postmodern Gothic: the source of fear has shifted from the idea of an invading supernatural presence to the suggestion of repressed trauma. When Jackson calls back to the opening lines of Hill House in the final paragraph, she states that ‘whatever walked there walked alone’, implying the isolating nature of mental illness and how it draws the person inward. Instead of leaving Hill House and seeking the help that she so desperately needs, Eleanor is driven to suicide by crashing her car on the property and is absorbed into the interiority of the house. Perhaps the true horror of Hill House is the fear of being engulfed and losing one’s identity, being doomed to wander the halls of a lonely place forever.
Kellye McBride is a freelance writer and editor who has very complex ideas about the things that go bump in the night. When she’s not seeking out the dark forces and joining their hellish crusade, you can find her on Twitter at @kellyemmcbride or on her website, kellyemcbrideediting.com.