03 September 2011

Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House"

The 2006 Penguin Classics edition cover.
My experience with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House began not with the book itself, but Robert Wise's excellent 1963 film The Haunting. My second encounter was the 1999 version of the film which I saw in the theaters when it came out. Finally, the third time a charm, I read the original novel for my Seton Hill genre class. It's a classic that I'll happily recommend to horror fans, and fans of ghost stories in particular.

The haunted house is my all-time favorite type of ghost story. It's not so much how the ghosts manifest themselves in the house (although that's a fun part of it), but the history behind the house itself...the circumstances that turned it evil.

The stories behind haunted houses are nearly archetypal; you can name them off the top of your head, whether you know the actual ghost story or not:

1) Someone died tragically
2) Someone was murdered there
3) Bad luck and accidents
4) The ground the house is built on is cursed or unholy....etc., etc.

What makes The Haunting of Hill House a standout isn't so much the house's history (which I'll let you readers discover on your own), but the history of the novel's main character, Eleanor Vance. Which leads me to this post's subtitle...

Whether ghosts exist or not, you cannot deny that some people are haunted. We commonly refer to these manifestations as "personal demons"...the past we can't let go of, the feeling of guilt, of unfinished business. Human beings crave closure, and if we don't feel that something is resolved, it's amazing how long we can stand and ask ourselves, "Why?" We haven't put the problem to rest; we keep it going; we hold it back from moving on and crossing over into rest. Which is what a lot of people say about the nature of ghosts: a ghost exists because the living holds onto it, and it can't pass on to the next plane or final destination; or the ghost exists because it can't let go of the living, and it can't move on.

Our personal ghosts are the scariest thing we carry with us. As frightening as haunted houses are, they're a finite horror. The ghosts are confined to the grounds on which the structure is built. As Dr. Montague says of Hill House, "At least it can't follow us, can it?" (Jackson 124).

But the sick, twisted human mind--that doesn't shut off until it's dead. Which means whatever haunts our memory will continue to do so until we put it to rest. Some people do have the strength and resolve to do so...a lot of people can't (which is understandable...I do not judge. I have my own demons, too). "No ghosts in all the long histories of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically. The only damage done is by the victim to himself" (Jackson 140).

So take a place like Hill House, with its demented, off-angled architecture and shady history, and then toss a person like Eleanor Vance into it...there's a reason why the ghostly activity in the place explodes.

In quick summation, Eleanor is 32 years old when Dr. Montague singles her out to partake in his scientific study of paranormal phenomena at Hill House. When she was a child, stones rained down on her house for three days, which Montague classifies as the work of a poltergeist. Because of this confirmed supernatural event, Montague invites Eleanor (and similar participants) to the house in hopes of blowing the roof off the place (in terms of haunting activity).

With a childhood memory of that caliber, you'd think Eleanor's poltergeist experience would the memory that haunts her and fills her with unanswered questions: What was that, how did it happen, why did it happen? But this is really incidental in comparison to Eleanor's real ghost: her mother. There are secondary ghosts that haunt her--childhood, summer, time itself...but it all relates back to her mother, who died under Eleanor's care.
Robert Wise's 1963 film.

Eleanor devoted the majority of her existence to being her mother's companion while she was ill and bedridden. Although Eleanor had a sister, the role of being her mother's caretaker was pushed on her, and Eleanor lost eleven years of her life (and in a way, freedom). The reader gets a clear picture of Eleanor's feelings: "The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister" (Jackson 6). So...there's very strong resentment she holds for both of the women in her family.

Although Eleanor's sister shows up in a couple scenes as a point of antagonism, Eleanor's dead mother makes several appearances throughout, not only surfacing in memories and anecdotes, but in Hill House itself.

Shirley Jackson is clever to construct parallels between Hill House's phenomena and the horrors Eleanor experienced as her mother's caretaker. For example:
  • The loud banging on the walls outside Eleanor and Theo's bedrooms // Eleanor's invalid mother banging on the wall with her cane as she slept in bed
  • The lost childhoods of the Crain children, having grown up in the darkness and isolation of Hill House // Eleanor's lost childhood, isolated in her mother's home, friendless, and in darkness (Eleanor develops an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking repeatedly)
  • The story of the Companion who took care of one of the Crain daughters // Eleanor as Companion to her mother
There are parallels to Eleanor's personal life in ways that do not directly involve the supernatural, but manifest in Hill House nonetheless. A good example is with Theo...Eleanor simultaneously adores her and yet is repelled by her, which strikes me as similar to how she must've felt about her mother.

This really comes out when Theodora is frightened, particularly when she discovers the blood on her bedroom walls and all over her clothing. Eleanor thinks Theo is self-centered; a baby who wants to be the center of attention. But she is even more disgusted because she feels she has to clean up after Theo; she doesn't want any physical contact with her when she's filthy with the bloodstains. This reminds me of one of the earliest descriptions of Eleanor's life with mother: "Caring for her mother, lifting a cross old lady from her chair to her bed, setting out endless little trays of soup and oatmeal, steeling herself to the filthy laundry" (Jackson 7). Compare that to her feelings for Theo: "She thought, without trying to find a reason, that she had never felt such uncontrollable loathing for any person before, and she went into the bathroom and soaked a towel and came back to scrub roughly at Theodora's hands and face. 'You're filthy with the stuff,' she said, hating to touch Theodora" (Jackson 157-158). Eleanor doesn't want to be the Companion, but she can't escape the role, and she seems to resent Theo for pushing her into it.

Near the end of the novel, towards the climax, Eleanor comes right out and gives a voice to the biggest thing that haunts her: "It was my fault my mother died" (Jackson 212). WHAM! This has plagued her for the entire novel, and her entire life...it's only fitting that this appears at the end of the novel. The end = resolution (closure). And resolution is what a haunted person, or a haunted spirit, seeks above all else.

Of course, resolution can have a steep cost...


Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting. New York, NY: Penguin, 1999. Print.


  1. Good post! Eleanor's life, much like Hill House, is defined by darkness and tragedy. It's really the only place she could ever truly belong. Where I would diverge in opinion is that Eleanor found closure at the end. We can assume that by killing herself she will continue to haunt Hill House. This invites a new level of torment, just on a different plane of existence.

  2. Wow, Kristina! What an excellent post. Your analysis is thorough and insightful.

    I loved this book, too, and largely for the reasons you've outlined here. Eleanor Vance is the best character I've read in a long way, and I love that her personal ghosts, as you call them, dovetail so smoothly into the haunting of Hill House.

    The reveal of her guilt was a WHAM moment, indeed, and you're absolutely right: it not only sets up but demands the resolution.

  3. Interesting points, Kristina. I never saw the parallels, and you bring them together so well. Thank you for that.

    I think it is interesting that the focus on personal demons that you mention does not have this book shelved somewhere other than in horror. But then, I can hardly think of anything scarier than going crazy and allowing your personal ghosts to haunt you to death. Literally.



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