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Book vs. Flick: The Haunting of Hill House

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Jun 11, 2019

Shirley Jackson is both one of the best-known writers of all time and a reclusive mystery of a person who passed away at the comparatively young age of 48 after leaving us with a couple of memoirs and several intriguing, complex works of fiction. Her novels and short stories have been named as favorites among many contemporary writers, such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Sarah Waters. Although Jackson was famously hesitant to discuss her work in life, one thing is clear, and that is that we have yet to see the end of her influence.

The Haunting of Hill House was released in 1959, and by that time much of Jackson’s career was behind her. She would release only a few more short stories and one more novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Hill House would go on to be one of her best-regarded works, and it has been adapted, or at the very least borrowed from, many times over.

The Essential Ghost Story

The bare-bones plot of The Haunting of Hill House is fairly stereotypical now, although this tale was an early example of a writer taking a deep focus on people that would now be referred to as ghost hunters. The protagonist Eleanor, also known as Nell, is trapped in an abusive home with her sister and her brother-in-law, so when an invite comes to stay at Hill House as part of an experiment on the existence of the supernatural, she takes it. The psychic Theodora has had an argument with someone who is strongly implied to be her girlfriend and takes the invite on a whim. Luke is invited to the house because his family owns it and plans on leaving it to him. Finally, the man who called them there, Dr. John Montague, is interested to know if there are truly ghosts at the infamous Hill House.

Much of the story follows Nell and her shaky mental health as it interacts with the hauntings and leaves her vulnerable to manipulation from the ghosts. A psychological horror story of the finest caliber, the question of whether the ghosts are real is left unanswered, and we must rely on our unreliable narrator Nell to form our own opinions.

The development of the idea for The Haunting of Hill House involved Shirley Jackson listening to accounts of people dismissing the phenomenon of ghosts and finding herself both in disagreement with the denial of their existence and compelled to explore the way people interact with the concept of ghosts. The deeply felt interpersonal relationships of the book are the primary draw, and all the horror comes from the uniqueness of each perspective. The main character, Nell, is mortified by the idea of ostracization, while Theo is afraid of others seeing her as she truly is. Tellingly, while the men involved in the story are also haunted, their interactions with the ghosts are much different than those of the more psychically attuned Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor is more vulnerable, and it is she that the ghosts prey upon.

What Sets The Book Apart

In the book, there’s a greater focus on Nell’s inner world than in any of the following adaptations. The 1963 film, directed by Robert Wise, focused on extended inner monologues to accentuate Nell’s instability, while the book holds a much more forgiving and more trusting view of her. Her rambling, conflicted inner monologue reels between excited optimism, inhibited shyness, sharp judgment of others, and an overwhelming sense of guilt and fear. Nell is a fascinating study, and her role as the centralized character is overwhelmingly important to the final product.

Another thing that can’t go without mention when discussing The Haunting of Hill House is what a truly great writer Shirley Jackson is. This novel is incredible. Jackson is well-regarded and highly influential for a reason. Her style of writing prizes storytelling and personality tics among her characters, yet there is never a moment of filler in her descriptions or in their conversations. She refuses to conclusively answer questions about the house and the events at hand, yet there is a clarity to her style that seems inarguable and fact-based. Her insight on Theo and Nell’s relationship makes for one of the most interesting and even paradoxical dynamics in horror history. The focus on deep character beats is what sets this story apart from so many other ghost stories throughout the ages.

Robert Wise's 1963 Adaptation and the 1999 Remake

The first film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel was brought to the world by Wise, the then soon-to-be-incredibly-well-known director of massive hits like West Side Story and The Sound of Music. At the time of filming, he had several notable genre films under his belt, including Curse of the Cat People and I Want To Live!, and would go on to later direct films like Audrey Rose and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was also the editor of a little film called Citizen Kane. Still, The Haunting remains among the best works of his career. A surprisingly fast-paced walk-through of the major beats of the novel with an emphasis on Theo’s casual cruelty and her attraction to Nell alongside Nell’s rapid mental deterioration, the film ups the ante due to the comparative time restraint of movies of the era, but in doing so highlights other aspects of the story — that of a rapidly loosening grip on reality via Eleanor and the general failing of humans to properly care for those among us who experience trauma and mental health issues.

 

Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn in The Haunting (1963)

Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn in The Haunting (1963)

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Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn in The Haunting (1963)

There’s an often-repeated story around the film version of The Haunting of Hill House involving an incident where screenwriter Nelson Gidding went to visit with Shirley Jackson to discuss the intent of her book. The filmmakers had decided that Nell was suffering from a psychological disorder and that the ghosts were merely imaginings of a deluded mind. Shirley Jackson killed that theory, revealing flatly that the story was truly just about ghosts. Both viewpoints strongly influence the respective takes on the plot, but what is left unsaid in this anecdote is that Nell is a woman who has spent much of her time escaping to fantasy to find refuge from a reality where she is forced to bear the burdens of a family she has no love for. The way the ghosts interact with her unique perspective and how the other characters view her as hysterical are major elements of why it’s such a scary story. She is discredited and dismissed when she desperately needs to be heard, and in the end, she loses her life to the disbelief and cynicism of her only friends.

 

 

There had certainly been “haunted house” movies before The Haunting, but few ghost stories of any medium that followed would be exempt from its influence. The rapidly deteriorating mental health of a psychically sensitive female character who is forced to inhabit a clearly haunted homestead is a trope known well to horror fans. Many films that have followed, like 1973's The Legend of Hell House and 2013's The Conjuring, have taken elements from The Haunting. Yet the sleek simplicity of the original plotline, the willingness to leave things unsaid, and the overlap in the story with feminist issues such as women being regarded as hysterical and being dismissed by male characters, means that it has yet to be equaled in the realm of horror fiction.

The follow-up adaptation in 1999 removed the element of mystery from the story completely and played up the horror elements to the extreme. Featuring some comparatively bizarre casting choices and using new CGI methods that were both necessary for the development of CGI but do not age well at all, this version of the story was panned by critics. I’m inclined to agree with a negative reading of the film. Both the book and the previous film had succeeded by their subtlety, so turning the ghosts into CGI monsters was motivated by late ‘90s horror movie remake excess more than by the desire to create a work of cinematic brilliance. Still, in the wide world of moviemaking, they can’t all be Oscar winners.

Other Elements of the Story

One of the most interesting aspects of the Hill House franchise has been the character of Theodora and her importance to queer audiences. The 1963 adaptation did groundbreaking work by refusing to shy away from Theo’s sexuality, strongly applying an attraction to Nell and a recent breakup with her former partner as her primary motivation to stay at the house in the film. Theo’s personality has fluctuated over time. Early on, there are hints that Theodora is a lesbian that will generally go as read by queer audiences but many straight people could likely breeze through without giving it a thought. The subtext was sent in a different direction by the 1999 version, which openly stated that Theo was in relationships with both a man and a woman. Theo's pansexuality and polyamory is also interestng, and this is another take on the character. By the time of 2018's Netflix series, Theo had changed again but reflected that dark depth that had originally drawn so many queer fans to regard the character as one of the most important among early portrayals of queer characters in cinema, who is not killed or morally punished by the end of the film as has been so often the case.

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Kate Siegel as Theodora in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House

The recent Netflix series completely reimagined the story, reworking the plotline to follow a cast of characters known as the Crain family — five children and their father, all of them reeling from trauma after the death of their mother in the mysterious Hill House several years earlier. In this update of the story, the names and basic personality types of the characters Nell and Theo are put into the context of sisters, although Theo remains bitingly honest and Nell is still unstable. Other elements of their lives have changed; for instance, Theo is standoffish and moody while Nell has gone the opposite direction of her book self and has tried many things only to rapidly lose interest in them. There is a sibling also named Luke, although he bears little similarity to the Luke of the original story. For longtime fans, these surprising creative choices might be viewed with apprehension, but the series was an innovative and interesting reboot examining the silence around mental health issues within families and the fallout of having a mother that was lost to what appeared to be self-harm and a father that refused to openly discuss the matter. True to Jackson’s concept of tense interpersonal dynamics in the face of the unexplainable, the series yet still managed to give us a brand new take on the mythos.

The Haunting of Hill House is at once an excellent book, an incredible movie, a campy box office bomb, and a fascinating Netflix series about a family suffering from communication and trust issues. All of these takes serve their own purpose, but one important thing to remember is that they are all about a bunch of people getting scared in a very cool haunted house, and it's pretty hard to go wrong with that concept. You’re doing yourself a favor if you catch at least three out of four of these takes, and even the '90s version can be enjoyed as a monument to the year 1999. Fans of the Netflix series are encouraged to seek out the book and original film, and old-school Shirley Jackson fans are equally likely to find something satisfying about the new take.

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