Written by Rikke H. Jørgensen
Keywords: the gothic ghost story, the haunted house, insanity, hesitation
(The Haunting of Hill House 2018 Copyright Netflix)
“Theodora’s hand tightened, and Eleanor caught her breath on a little sob – had something moved, ahead, something whiter than the white trees, beckoning? Beckoning, fading into the trees, watching? Was there movement beside them, imperceptible in the soundless night; did some footstep go invisibly along with them in the white grass?”
Does something unseen creep by in the shadows or is it all in your head? What if you were going mad, spiraling into insanity; and then again what if the ghosts were real? The question whether one is experiencing supernatural things or is just delusional, is a question various films, series, literature, etc. has focused on. When the answer to this question is ambiguous a doubt arises, and this is what Tzvetan Todorov defines as the fantastic. One of those works that has managed to raise this uncertainty is The Haunting of Hill House the novel from 1959 by Shirley Jackson.
The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted several times, most recently (2018) as a Netflix-series produced by “the new master of horror”, Mike Flanagan, who’s known for Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game among others. The series has a different plot and different characters, but there are all kinds of references to the novel in addition to Hill House, which is the thing the novel and the TV series most noticeably have in common. There are also the cup of stars, the writing on the wall, the nursery rhyme (that Jackson used to sing to her children before bedtime), and the circular iron stairway in the library.
Even though the TV series has found inspiration in the novel, they are nonetheless two different stories. The series is more of a family drama, which evolves around the parents and their five children, who move into Hill House to renovate and then sell it so they can afford to build their “forever house”. While staying in Hill House, they all experience mysterious events that raise the question of what is real and what is not, and this is what we as viewers are trying to find out.
The novel is an intentional research of the supernatural phenomenon, where a carefully selected group of people, at the character Dr. Montague’s invitation, goes to Hill House to investigate if it is indeed haunted as rumors claim. As a part of the group we follow Eleanor, an insecure thirty-two-year-old woman, who after having taken care of her now deceased mother, goes to Hill House because she has nowhere else to go. At Hill House, she and the other characters witness strange happenings, but is Hill House haunted or is it the protagonist’s imagination and actions that are the cause of the mysterious events?
The Haunting of Hill House can be described as a haunted house tale and a psychological ghost story. Both are well known in the horror genre, especially in the gothic tradition, and often walk hand in hand. In gothic ghost stories it is often a question of whether something has a supernatural or a natural explanation and the hesitation that arises with this uncertainty. In these stories the question often remains unanswered. This is one of the defining elements of the gothic ghost story.
Hill House is the setting of this ambiguity, and as in most such tales, a malevolent entity animates it. The house is described as haunted, insane, as having an evil intention and agency, always watching and listening silently, but is the haunted Hill House to blame for the visitors’ disturbed perception and the unexplainable events, or is it the guests of the house who are insane and imagining things? One of the interesting questions in The Haunting of Hill House is the uncertainty of who’s haunting who? This is a question both the TV series and the novel ask.
The Bent-Neck-Lady (The Haunting of Hill House 2018 Copyright Netflix)
Is it supernatural or psychological?
The series raises this question almost immediately and creates doubt in various ways throughout. One significant effect is the flashbacks, and another is characters’ interpretation of certain perceptible events. As to the flashbacks, the series uses these to confuse the viewer by disrupting the timeline and raising the question of what has happened. The viewer continuously sees glimpses of the past, furthermore from the point of view of different characters, which slowly reveal the events that occurred in Hill House, and not entirely in a chronological order. These flashbacks add several layers which makes it difficult for viewers to interpret what has actually happened, when we at times perceive something to be real and then later realise it is not. At other times we think something is a figment of a character’s imagination and then it turns out to be real.
This confusion is not limited to the viewer though. The different characters have different interpretations of what happened in Hill House when they were children. Some believe there is a hereditary psychological explanation behind it, that “A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt.” as the oldest of the children, Steven, says in the first episode “Steven Sees a Ghost”. Others think there is something supernatural in Hill House, such as Eleanor who since childhood has been haunted by The Bent-Neck Lady (pictured above). This uncertainty creates hesitation in the viewer.
The fantastic is seen in this hesitation when the interpretation of events is unclear; when the viewer/reader or character is not convinced if events are real or influenced by supernatural forces. For instance in the episode “Screaming Meemies” where the mother, Olivia, wakes in the night and sees the clinically insane Poppy Hill, an earlier inhabitant of Hill House, and don’t know if she is dreaming or not. Olivia even asks Poppy, “I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” and receives the answer “Of course you are. I’m a dream, and so are you, and so are we.” A little later again that night Olivia wakes up holding a screwdriver to her husband’s throat, an incident that could indicate mental instability. In effect neither the character nor the viewer know how to interpret the events accurately – was it a delusional dream or a ghost?
Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) and Poppy Hill (Catherine Parker)
(The Haunting of Hill House 2018 Copyright Netflix)
In the novel the uncertainty also lies both with the characters and the reader. One of the characters questions something he has seen and disregards it as imagination: “‘My wild imagination,’ the doctor said, setting down the chess set. ‘What a house this is.’ […] ‘It watches every move you make.’ And then, ‘My own imagination, of course.’” And again, at other times they are convinced because they have all experienced it: “We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”
But the ambiguity really lies with the reader’s interpretation of the protagonist, Eleanor. Throughout, Eleanor is depicted as a daydreaming woman, sometimes even referring to the present as a dream: “Eleanor, wondering if she was really here at all, and not dreaming of Hill House”. Sometimes she experiences things unknown to the others:“She heard the little melody fade, and felt the slight movement of air as the footsteps came close to her, and something almost brushed her face; perhaps there was a tiny sigh against her cheek, and she turned in surprise. […] None of them heard it, she thought with joy; nobody heard it but me.” Is it real, in the sense that the supernatural can be explained by laws unknown to us, or is it an illusion?
The strange experiences in Hill House are ambiguous and it is uncertain whether we are witnessing Eleanor’s descend into madness or the malign influence of Hill House. And because the reader is inside Eleanor’s head, it is difficult to know if everything happened as she experienced it, or whether it was the ramblings of her unstable mind. The reader’s difficulty of choosing between a supernatural or a psychological interpretation of the events creates further uncertainty.
Both the novel and the series imply there is something wrong with the house, but the uncertainty whether there is something supernatural or psychological behind it, arises most intensely in the end of the novel as opposed to the series where the question asked in the beginning is answered as the story
progresses. The fact that this doubt occurs so intensely in the ending, forces the reader to reconsider everything read from the beginning until end.
It is interesting to see how the series intertwines aspects of the novel and then builds its own story around it. But it is nevertheless two different stories, which individually raises doubt – an uncertainty which may or may not be explained in the end. You will have to see for yourself!
/Rikke H. Jørgensen
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Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999, pp. 25-47.
Briggs, Julia. “The Ghost Story.” A New Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter. John Wiley & Sons, 2012, pp. 211-224.
Clasen, Mathias. Why Horror Seduces. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Schweitzer, Dahlia. Haunted Homes. Rutgers University Press, 2021.
Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Liveright Publishing, 2016.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated by Richard Howard. Cornell University Press, 1975.