On the many adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”
A Woman’s Scorn
Women are born with the weight of the world embedded in their genetic makeup. The continuous spurts of pain the female body undergoes in childbirth and menstruation are expressions of a fundamental burden of being. In our culture, it’s commonly believed that this feminine pain makes women more emotionally intelligent than men and results in early self-sufficiency. But it’s equally common for these same feminine traits to be taken as lunacy. Literature and film abound with depictions of female suffering and female insanity, but there is only one genre that does it justice: the Gothic. Women have authored a number of the genre’s most celebrated works (including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre), and in Gothics featuring female protagonist, the pain of the female protagonist drives the story forward and becomes the key to its resolution. Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House offers an excellent example. The novel follows Eleanor Vance and three strangers in the castle of Hugh Crain, where a doctor has gathered them to investigate paranormal activity in the castle. Each has been in contact with the supernatural one way or another, except Eleanor. She claims that she has not seen a ghost before and doesn’t know if she truly believes in them. The reason she took the opportunity to be part of the experiment was to escape her nightmarish reality as her mother’s caretaker, a role she had fulfilled for almost a decade. Her sense of purpose had been stripped away after spending her days mopping up urine. But when her mother died, she finally had the initiative to begin living instead of just existing.
Unlike many of my peers, who had read “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in The Castle in high school, I had very little experience with Shirley Jackson. Her story “Flower Garden” was listed on the syllabus of one of my classes last semester, but I now realize that I didn’t give it as much attention as it deserved. What started my borderline obsession with Jackson was Netflix’s 2018 adaption of The Haunting of Hill House. Never in my nineteen years on this planet had I watched a show that shook me to the core, but there were moments in The Haunting of Hill House when I paused the television rose from my seat and screamed to the top of my lungs for three minutes straight. Then, I’d clear my throat, crawl back into my bed, and press play.
Jackson’s story has been adapted three times in three different ways. Each adaption has grown into its own entity and tackled different aspects of the paranormal. The first os Robert Wise’s movie The Haunting (1963). Many consider this film a classic, and it’s widely thought to be the best version of Jackson’s story. I had a subtle detachment from it. While I adored the visuals within the film, it lacked in the female agony department. At the very beginning of the first act, the female characters die in sequence, each in a manner heavily gruesome and violent. King Hugh Crain’s first wife is killed when her carriage crashes into a tree on the property of the castle; his second wife is killed by an invisible force before she fell down two flights of stairs; and Crain’s daughter, Abigail, dies of a stroke in the home. The most recent owner of the home, Abigail’s nurse, inherits the home, but, she later hangs herself on the spiral staircase in the library. All of these deaths are portrayed in the span of minutes, one after the next.
Despite my overall distaste of the film, I adored the opening sequence of the piece. There was violence, grotesque imagery, a family curse, and mania. Everything I could’ve wanted in a Gothic film in those glorious ten minutes. However, the film transitions from a traditional, authentic Gothic piece to a standard horror movie as it progresses. For instance, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) is portrayed as borderline insane. The supporting characters fear leaving her alone because of her erratic behavior. One can even say that the real “villain” of the female movie isn’t the haunted house on the hill, as it is in Jackson’s story, but the mentally unstable female protagonist. Even though I was supposed to view her in a negative light, I empathized with Eleanor.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand why Eleanor is the way she is. The woman’s jittery behavior is a side-effect of the years she spent nursing her mother. She had to hop up for her mother’s every need, no matter the hour. The moment Eleanor sat down, her mother would call her. She never had a spare minute to herself for damn near a decade. Eleanor’s body began to cripple from exhaustion. So, one day, she decided to ignore her mother’s calls. Just for one night, so she could finally get a night’s rest. Sadly, that’s the day her mother died. Throughout the film, Eleanor beats herself up about her mother’s death, feeling as though she is to blame. She couldn’t confide in her sister, Carrie (Diane Clare), because she just assumed her sister was mad. This leads me to my next point: Eleanor is not insane. She spent her adulthood being a parent to her mother, without help, since her sister was too busy raising a family of her own. (And when their mother dies, Carrie has the audacity to attempt to kick Eleanor out of the apartment so she can live there with her husband and kid. Pitiful.) But, Eleanor’s sister isn’t the only one who places an unfair label on Eleanor, her new “friend” Theodora (Claire Bloom0 decided to throw the poor girl in the ring.
My thought when I saw Theodora was “She’s gonna eat Eleanora alive and pick her teeth with her bones.” Theodora’s powerful aura shook the whole film. When she is in the frame, it’s hard to look away from her wide eyes and luxurious black hair. She is a seductress, and even I, as a viewer, fell under her spell. Despite her alluring qualities, she is a stone-cold bitch. Theodora takes jabs at Eleanor every chance she gets and somehow laces it with a saucy compliment. I am still perplexed by how she mixes it so easily. I can understand why Eleanor often questions her sanity when Theodora is around. What makes Theodora’s character even more complex are her telepathic abilities. She invades Eleanor’s private thoughts whenever she feels like it, giving Eleanor a plausible reason to question her sanity.
I don’t view The Haunting as a Gothic film because Eleanor’s pain isn’t her own. Every person in the film had been projecting their insecurities and pain onto her. Eleanor’s anxiety comes from her mother. Her mania was planted by her sister and nurtured by Theodora. Eleanor’s emotions aren’t genuine in the sense that they merely reflect what everyone wants her to feel. Her private thoughts are invaded and her free will is restricted. She never gets the chance to actually live as she dreamed for herself.
The 1963 version of Eleanor may be flawed, but Wise’s portrayal is a masterpiece compared to the 1999 version of Eleanor, conceived as a modern Hollywood spin on Wise’s film. What a waste of time and talent. How dare director Jan deBont gather such star-studded cast and have them portray this catastrophe? Lili Taylor (who plays Eleanor) and Liam Neeson (who plays Dr. Marrow) try so hard to carry the weight of this film, but the writing is just too bad for them to save. The frightening moments in the film are laughable. The incestuous and pedophilic undertones were the true horror in the film. Yet, somehow, it was just a subplot. Even though I hated every second of the film, this version did present hints of female agony (if you covered one eye and squinted the other). The Eleanor in this had displayed genuine emotions from within and used them to save the day. In that sense, it does appeal to the Gothic genre.
Maybe it is just my bias, but I feel as though the 2018 adaptation of Jackson’s novel is the best yet. There weren’t any hints of the Gothic genre; it embodied it. Every frame, every visual screamed “Gothic” and it was so satisfying to see. After spending four hours watching the previous tellings of the story I decided to rewatch the whole season on Netflix (I told myself that it was for research purposes, so I wouldn’t feel guilty.) What makes this version so special is the gun wrenching display of female agony and the impact it has on the story.
All three adaptations open with an eerie reading from the introduction paragraph of Jackson’s novel. It is what sets the mood for the retelling of the story.
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 neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.1
Even though all three adaptations remain mostly faithful to Jackson’s language, the television show adjusts the time. In both films, the reader highlights that the house has stood on its own for eight years. But, in the television show, the narrator adds another twenty years to the original eighty. This small change gestures to how the story has transcended time and grown alongside three different generations. Each depiction is a representation of the time it was made. This could be the reason why I wasn’t able to connect with the two films. I do not belong in the 1980s or the 1990s, nor do I have that much knowledge of those times. I was able to identify with the newest version because it is a reflection of my time.
Another difference in the TV show is its treatment of Eleanor’s death. In the movies, as in the book, Eleanor dies by suicide at the very end, which represents her finally obtaining the freedom she so desperately wanted throughout the narrative. Netflix tells the story out of sequence, opening the series with her death and unraveling the story around it. Although viewers of the series know that Eleanor has died, she is still the driving force in the story. By using Eleanor’s death as the starting point for the series, the TV show does not suggest that Eleanor’s suicide sets her; rather, it does the opposite.
About halfway through the season, Mrs. Dudley (Annabeth Gish) describes the house as having teeth. She calls it “hungry and stupid” because it will not stop eating anything and everything in its way, no matter if the thing it is eating is innocent.2 I wish it was said sooner. “Hungry and stupid” perfectly describes how Hill House treats its residents, feasting on the fresh meat just for the sake of it. Even during the first night at Hill House, the moldy walls took bites out of the Crain children. But, the people affected the most by it were the youngest kids, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Eleanor (Victoria Pedretti).
The premise of my argument is based on female agony, and Luke’s suffering in the Netflix adaptation might upset that gendered interpretation. However, Luke and Eleanor are twins, which ties Luke to Eleanor, the original character. In literature, twins are magical. Authors can make them psychically identical, with matching personalities, or fraternal, with mismatched personalities. Luke and Eleanor are special because they don’t fit the twin stigma. They are exactly alike in some ways, and completely different in other ways. The fourth episode of the series, “It’s a Twin Thing,” highlights their connection. The episode opens with the twins talking about Eleanor’s nightmares. Throughout the series, little Eleanor had been telling the family about his entity that has been haunting her. She has named it ‘The Bent-Neck Lady’. When no one is around, the ghost appears to Eleanor. No, not in the corner of her eye. The Bent-Neck Lady would stand right in front of Eleanor’s face and groan.
Since they shared a room, Luke often has to pacify Eleanor when the ghost appears. He did it almost every night when they were kids. When they grow older, the twins find different ways to cope with trauma of the home. Luke turns to drugs and Eleanor turns to religion. The Bent-Neck Lady ends up being final push to Eleanor’s suicide. The Bent-Neck Lady appears to Nell one night in adulthood. Eleanor’s body grew stiff and her mouth began to shiver. Her husband reaches over and attempts to ease her sleep paralysis. He looks up to the window, where he sees The Bent-Neck Lady. Her husband approaches the ghost steadily, but just before he is about to face her, she breaks his neck. Even after Eleanor’s husband dies at the hand of her childhood villain, Eleanor tries her best to make amends with her family, especially Luke. However, he is in no shape to be the support system she needed. He can’t make the nightmares go away this time, as he did in childhood. Luke’s drug addiction strips Eleanor of her other half, the only person that believed her about The Bent-Neck Lady. Eleanor can’t fully get over her traumatic childhood, because it literally keeps haunting her. So, the house takes the final bite out. Eleanor hangs herself on its spiral staircase.
The relationship between Eleanor and Luke is the purest element portrayed throughout the season. No matter what happens, they show up for each other (even though Luke was high most of the time). Eleanor was his number one supporter of his getting sober. Luke just wants Eleanor to be happy. They were spiritually attached to one another, able to feel each other’s emotions despite the distance. An example of this comes right after Eleanor dies. Luke left rehab to chase his girlfriend a day prior to Eleanor’s death. His girlfriend ends up leaving him in the cold after she pirates his valuables. He is left stranded in the hot city of Los Angeles with only the clothes on his back. He found a quarter on the ground and decided to call his older brother. He tells Steve Crain (Michiel Huisman), “I’m so cold, and my legs and arms are so stiff, It’s like withdrawal, but I haven’t used.”3 Luke’s subconscious knows Nell is dead before his conscious did. In more ways than one, Eleanor was his drug. Her love was addictive and Luke kept coming back for more. Losing Eleanor does cause his body to go into withdrawal, only it’s not from the drugs.
Eleanor’s pain transcends herself and oozes into her twin brother. It pushes him to seek revenge on the house by burning it to the ground, an act that ultimately pulls the rest of the family for one more battle. It brings out all the terrors of their childhood and was ready to eat them whole. The Cain siblings are all gathered in one room where they all had to face the trauma of their past. Eleanor’s ghost is there and she explains everything that had happened at the home since she died and left the house. The encounters with the Bent-Neck Lady, the nightmares she had and how the house pushed her mother’s spirit to kill her. As she retells the story, Luke is slowly dying from being injected with rat poison. Eleanor’s love had been strong enough to save her brother from reaching her same fate. When the attention of her siblings was on her, she said “I loved you completely. And you loved me the same. The rest was confetti.”4
After that statement, it seems like everything clicked into place. As a viewer, I knew that there wasn’t a limit to what Nell would do for her family. Even though she was the youngest, she was the glue that held the family together. At the highlight of her life, her wedding, and the lowest point of life, her death, Eleanor gathered the family together to display her love. Even after death, she protected them and loved them more than they ever did for on another.
- Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics, 2006), 1.
- “Screaming Meemies,” Episode 9, Season 1, The Haunting of Hill House, written and directed by Mike Flanagan (Netflix 2018)
- “The Twin Thing,” episode 4, season 1, The Haunting of Hill House, written and directed by Mike Flanagan (Netflix 2018).
- “Silence Stay Steadily”, episode 10, season 1, The Haunting of Hill House.