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Staff Review: The Haunting of Hill House

Jillian Oliver

Jillian Oliver

Jillian is a New Orleans-based library associate, writer, and movie-lover. When she's not working, she likes to read creative nonfiction, and write for various film sites.

Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House is one of those horror classics that remains influential decades after its publication. The novel was so successful that it inspired two film adaptations, including the 1963 film The Haunting and the 1999 remake of the same name. This year, Netflix has revisited Hill House with its TV series, The Haunting of Hill House, which takes the plot in a new direction, mainly erasing Jackson’s placid protagonist, Eleanor Vance, in favor of a story about a family haunting.  

The novel takes us to a more personal place: the mind of a repressed, isolated woman who seeks adventure in otherworldly phenomena following her mother’s death. Her opportunity comes when anthropologist and paranormal researcher, Dr. Montague, puts together a crew of people –– many of whom have had psychic experiences –– to stay at a palatial mansion called Hill House. 

 A man named Hugh Crain once owned it and gave the palatial house a Winchester Mystery-feel with many twists and turns. A history of death adds to the home’s foreboding nature. Among the dead are Crain’s wife, who died in a carriage accident in the driveway, and a caretaker, who hanged herself. Dr. Montague and his ensemble of Eleanor, Theo, and Luke soon experience the aftermath of the tragedies that befell the house. 

Shirley Jackson Breathes Life Into Hill House 

Shirley Jackson sets up a motley crew with Theo as the witty, independent woman, displaying much confidence in contrast with Eleanor’s diffidence. Luke is the flippant future heir to Hill House, who is more of a skeptic than the others and attends Dr. Montague’s study to oversee it for his Aunt. On the other hand, Theo and Eleanor are present because of their potential psychic abilities, with Eleanor having an early experience with a poltergeist.

Dr. Montague is the group’s self-assured patriarch. If we draw parallels to Jackson’s personal life, his personality could be partly inspired by her husband. He had a level of freedom and assertiveness that Jackson struggled to attain throughout her life. In that vein, Eleanor becomes attracted to Dr. Montague and hopes he will be the lover she dreams she’ll encounter before the house creeps into view. The later arrival of his wife dampens this dream and inspires jealousy that Jackson presumably felt with her repeatedly unfaithful husband. Much like Jackson lacked the will to confront her husband, Eleanor retreats further into herself and Hill House.  

The novel offers an insidious kind of entrapment.

Eleanor has just come out of living under the thumb of her invalid mother and older sister. For many years, a stifling domestic world encased her. This is an intriguing element –– since Jackson wrote the story when women were supposed to find satisfaction in domesticity –– but Eleanor instead suffered silently under the reign of two matriarchs. 

Hill House is a new dominating force in her life. With its flying buttresses, gargoyles, and spires, Eleanor finds the house “vile” and “diseased,” and immediately perceives it as a living, breathing entity. She wants to return, but she has nothing to return to. Eventually, the house seduces her and makes her want to stay.  

What Makes it Such a Gripping Story? 

Although we’re immersed in Eleanor’s unstable mind, the hauntings touch all four characters and leave little doubt that the voices, writings on the wall, and wisping shadows are external. Unlike another classic horror tale, The Turn of the Screw from 1898 – whose narrator is a governess who may have invented the spirits – Eleanor, via her own anguish, could be the cause, or poltergeist, catalyzing the supernatural happenings. Still, there is little doubt that they’re happening, and the intentions of these ill-formed spirits provide an additional element of suspense.

To a modern audience, however, characters like Eleanor may seem like terrible role models. We tend to favor protagonists that gain a sense of power on their journey, but Jackson’s literature doesn’t need to give us what we want. Instead, Jackson skillfully exploits how isolation can cause unrest, and even torment. Unfortunately, some film adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House have swept this to the side. 

The story’s themes endure through movies and other horror novels, including Stephen King’s, The Shining and even Salem’s Lot. Still, Jackson’s original story offers a brand of suspense that stands as a singular gem in the horror genre. 

Looking for more scares?

Get in the Halloween spirit with the Library! Whether you’re looking for a true scare, a spooky romp, or a some wholesome fall fun, we’ve got you covered. Check out these staff recommendations to find something for every age group:

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