The following is about Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, not the Netflix show which it inspired and which is based on some of the lore. To those who wish to watch the show there are no spoilers ahead. To those who plan to read the novel, I recommend you skip this.
I spent the better part of a day struggling to answer the question: What makes a good horror story? Eventually I did what anyone would do in the 21st century–I googled it. One person defined good horror thusly: it explores malevolent characters, deeds or phenomenon; it arouses feelings of fear, disgust and/or shock; it is intense; it is scary and has shocking reveals and plot twists; it immerses one into the macabre. It’s not bad. But something is missing. It seems to name the elements that qualify something as horror, but it doesn’t define what makes good, timeless horror.” I began to think about my favorite horror films.
Let The Right One In is about two lonely and isolated children. Oskar is persistently bullied and neglected and Eli is a vampire who is doomed to remain outside of humanity. Both are “Other”–beings who cannot find love, connection and their place within humanity. The horror elements (the stuff mentioned above) are but the vehicles used to drive home the terror of isolation and persecution.
Hereditary is about multi-generational family trauma, grief and mental illness. It takes on the topics of family demons and inheritances both metaphorically and literally. It is the former that makes it harrowing and compelling, that gives it depth and dimension. Were it only literal then we would be left with another cliched film about demons.
Sadly, most horror is literal. And I say “sadly” because I believe it is the reason that so many are turned off to the idea of horror stories and films. Their experience is that horror films are there to make you look at scary monsters and to startle you out of your seat (both things can be fun if they are a part of something bigger).
So my imperfect answer to the question of what makes good horror is that it shows us something uncomfortable about ourselves. It holds up a mirror to our humanity. It is simply a good story delivered in a scary way.
And so it is that I come to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. My focus will be on but one component of the story to the exclusions of many others: the psychological component that most spoke to me and created the most fear.
She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.
Eleanor Vance has spent the better part of her adult life tending to her demanding invalid mother. We learn at the start of the novel that Eleanor’s mother has passed. From her interactions with her controlling sister and brother-in-law we glean that Eleanor has spent her life surrounded by people who have failed to recognize her individuality. Eleanor’s thoughts, feelings and emotions have been so ignored that not even she knows who she is. Though surrounded by people all her life she is profoundly lonely while also hungry for space. Eleanor’s anger about living a life that has never been her own is the one thing about her that feels real. Her anger is palpable throughout the novel despite her need to always be “nice”.
Eleanor is invited to Hill House by Dr. John Montague. Though she does not entirely understand why she has been chosen she sniffs her first opportunity to have an adventure and to defiantly assert her independence. Eleanor steals the cars she co-owns with her sister and begins her voyage to Hill House. It is during the road trip that we are given access to the machinations of Eleanor’s mind; we see that she has survived her suffocating existence through fantasy and imagination–by creating stories in her mind that allow her to live freely in other worlds.
Dr. Montague is at Hill House to legitimize the study of paranormal occurrences. His invitations were extended to people who he knows to be psychically sensitive. Of his dozen or so invitations only Eleanor and a character named Theodora show up (there is also a character named Luke who is to someday be the inheritor of the house). We learn of a paranormal happening that occurred to Eleanor at the age of twelve when stones rained down upon her home. Eleanor was told by her mother that they were the victims of angry and jealous neighbors who chose this curious method to vent their collective spleen. Here we have further evidence that Eleanor’s mother painted a distrusting and paranoid view of the world which served to keep them symbiotically attached.
The sense of joy we feel for Eleanor’s newly found independence is almost immediately halted when we meet Hill House. Hill House is alive: a living organism with malevolent feelings, wants and intentions. Here I will set aside my prosaic descriptions and let Shirley Jackson take over:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. 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 nearly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House…
And later in the book:
This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into 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.
Hill House was perversely designed to make those who enter it feel disoriented and uncomfortable; the house’s misleading angles and labyrinthine rooms seem to have been created to isolate and trap its visitors. After the first night of a paranormal occurrence Eleanor says, “The sense was that it wanted to consume us, take us into itself, make us a part of the house…” Hill House insist that you stay within it forever.
Here we are faced with the horrific and disturbing irony of the novel: Eleanor’s adventure was meant to liberate her from her oppressive relationships, to give her the space to spread her wings. Instead, she walks into Hill House. At one point the characters come across a message written in chalk on the wall of a hallway: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. The connection between Eleanor, her past with her mother, and her present at Hill House is tenuous and mysterious. Shirley Jackson’s approach to this is more visceral than intellectual. But it is clear that Hill House singles Eleanor out as the one best suited for consumption.
Of course, the symbiotic dilemma is more complicated than this. Indeed, it would not be a dilemma were there not two sides. On the one side is the terror of subsuming the self within another; on the other side is the fear that one will be without love if one does not. In other words, along with the desire to kick oneself free is the accompanying fear that this dooms one to solitude. It leaves one with a false dilemma that does not feel false to the those who know it: I must choose to be one with the other or be forever unloved. Within this dilemma it becomes difficult to know oneself. And so it is that one of the most gorgeous moments of the book occurs on the first night at Hill House. A moment where Eleanor beautifully begins to connect with herself.
Eleanor found herself unexpectedly admiring her own feet. Theodora dreamed over the fire beyond the tips of her toes, and Eleanor thought with deep satisfaction that her feet were handsome in their red sandals; what a complete and separate thing I am, she thought, going from my red toes to the top of my head, individually an I, possessed of attributes belonging only to me. I have red shoes, she thought-that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side and crack my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons. I am holding a brandy glass which is mine because I am here and I am using it and I have a place in this room. I have red shoes and tomorrow I will wake up and I will still be here. ‘I have red shoes,’ she said very softly, and Theodora turned and smiled up at her.”
Even reading this a second time I cannot help but cry at the breathtaking beauty of this scene. We are given access to that deeply intimate moment when Eleanor begins to feel the boundary between herself and the outside. The purity and innocence of her discovery makes my heart break wide open.
But the beauty is short lived and only adds weight to the tragedy of the story. Indeed nothing in the novel is more terrifying and tragic than the simple idea that Eleanor is doomed to be a part of an oppressive whole; that she she will never be allowed her freedom. It is painful to watch Eleanor begin to give in to Hill House; to meld with the very thing that is tormenting her. Eleanor’s desire to gain freedom fades as she enters back into the familiar position of giving herself away to another.
Eleanor’s repressed rage directs itself toward the other characters (especially towards Theodora with whom she has a sort of opposite-personality twinship and for whom she might have romantic feelings). Instead of directing her rage at the house that haunts her, she turns her repressed vitriol–even if only internally most of the time–toward the other characters. Eleanor would rather be the victim of their disdain than the victim of Hill House (one calls to mind here the incident in her youth where her mother told her that the poltergeists were actually angry neighbors). One feels the constant push-pull between Eleanor and Theodora; the simultaneous desire to be closer and to break free.
Horror rarely has happy endings. And so it is with Hill House. Eleanor begins to disintegrate. The depths of her loneliness are revealed by her desire to satisfy Hill House. It is as though Eleanor decides that she can only exist within this oppressive host. The others, worried for her, send her away. As she drives away she decides to steer herself into a tree. Eleanor would rather die than not be a part of the one place that needs her.
The real horror of Hill House is not in the paranormal happenings. Yes, these moments are tense, suspenseful and scary. But they pass. The horror lies in the depths of Eleanor’s loneliness; in the fact that she took her own life before ever knowing who she was. My tears are about the fact that Eleanor never spread her wings. Hill House wouldn’t allow it.