The Haunting of Hill House

Published August 31, 2011 by Jennifer Loring

One of the great things about this program is the opportunity to read classics that, for whatever reason, I never made time for previously. So it is with The Haunting of Hill House. I love a good ghost story, but I’ve had considerable trouble finding Western tales that impact me the way Asian horror films or certain video games have. Fortunately the psychological horror of “Hill House” has helped to fill that void. Against the backdrop of a haunted house, Shirley Jackson paints an eerie portrait of a mental breakdown.

“Journeys end in lovers meeting,” Eleanor Vance frequently tells herself. It is evident early on, however, that the “lover” at the end of her journey to Hill House will not be Luke, the eventual heir of the house, nor even Theodora (and, while Jackson denied any sexuality in her work, the lesbian undertones are quite daring for 1959), but Hill House itself. It is a place for which she has been waiting her whole life, we are told, but not because it will at last grant her the freedom she seeks. Reflected in its darkness and its chaotic design is Eleanor’s own tormented mind; that the reader grasps this so early on is not a flaw on Jackson’s part; rather, it makes Eleanor’s descent into madness all the more poignant, for she is, on some level, as aware of it as the reader.

“Perhaps it has us now, this house, perhaps it will not let us go,” Eleanor thinks on their first night. The house, eager for a broken and unwanted soul like Eleanor to walk its halls again, entreats her to recognize that she is home after all, in the one place she has always belonged: “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR” (114), the writing on the walls plead. While ghostly activity is experienced by all four of the house’s temporary residents, it is clear that Eleanor herself, carrying so much repressed anger toward her family and her life, fuels the haunting (after all, she admits that she can hear everything in the house, and that the noises are coming from inside her head), much as she fueled the childhood poltergeist activity. Because Theo represents the woman Eleanor wants to–but never will–be, Eleanor’s bond with her turns particularly vicious. Eleanor has never been a complete person, and what little she possesses of her own identity is chipped away even further when she is forced to share her things with Theo; she thinks, “…I would like to batter her with rocks” (117), just as she battered her family home with rocks. Her rage, completely out of proportion to Theo’s comments upon discovering her ruined clothes, continues to grow: “I would like to watch her dying” (117), she thinks with a smile. And when she is frightened that night by the voices in Theo’s abandoned room, it is not Theo in whom she finds comfort, but the phantom hand of the house itself.

After this event, the deterioration of Eleanor’s sense of self becomes painfully evident. To the horror of her companions, after the wall writing has appeared for the second time, she speaks of seeing herself as two separate and conflicting entities, and that she could end it if she just surrendered. On her final night she gives in at last, running through the halls and banging on the doors just as the “ghost” has done twice before; where the house was cold and hard before, it now embraces her in warmth and softness. “I am home, I am home” (171), she thinks. Even when she is understandably forced to leave the next morning (neither wanted nor needed, as always–Theo’s own clothes are just fine now), she knows the house will not let her go–and she will not allow herself to leave. What little was left of “Eleanor” seems to have vanished, as she perceives only one tragic course of action left to her–to become a permanent resident of Hill House, the only place she was ever wanted, she must kill herself. And yet, in a heartbreaking twist as she plows her car into a tree, the spell of Hill House is broken: “…she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me” (182)? To live would be to face possession by Hill House, or to return to what could barely be called a life in her sister’s home; either way, forever defined by someone–or something–else. Even at the moment of impending death, she wants someone else to act on her behalf. But to actually die grants her the autonomy she has never before experienced. Freedom always comes with a price.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. Jackson had a great talent for building suspense while keeping most of the horror “off-camera.” Eleanor’s descent into madness–and she did not have far to fall–is both creepy and moving. This is the kind of horror that I hope will regain popularity as time goes on.

Works Cited:
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York: The Penguin Group, 1959, 1984, 2006.

9 comments on “The Haunting of Hill House

  • Jenn,I found what you said about Eleanor not being a whole person interesting. You say that Theo is the woman Eleanor will never be, and on that point I want to jump off. I didn't see Theo as that, because she wasn't wholly rounded either. She seemed to me to be Eleanor's other half, neither a "whole" person alone, and opposite. They were clearly foils, each showing the reader what the other was not.I hadn't looked at it that way until now, so thanks.What movies and video games get you going? (had to ask)

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  • Good point. I'm surprised this post makes any sense at all, given my recent battle with insomnia. :)As for movies…Kairo, Ju-on, Ringu, etc. Anything with lots of atmosphere, and without the heavy-handedness of so many American films. Same for video games, the Fatal Frame series in particular. Silent Hill 2 is another one of my favorites. I found the idea of the town creating physical manifestations of your personal demons so compelling.

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  • Jen, interesting post. I agree about Jackson's lesbian overtones. She seemed to highlight this quite a bit in the novel, and for its time it was definitely a bit beyond the boundaries of societal norms. I found their interplay interesting.Personally, I wasn't a fan of THoHH, but the Hill House itself was awesome! :)~Q

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  • It has been theorized that EVERY character in this book is actually only in Eleanor's mind, and that she has multiple personality disorder. In fact, one of your classmates furthered the theory by pointing out that the house is like one giant fractured psyche. One thing I always found disturbing… Yes, she sought freedom through suicide, but even then, because it was the pull of the house that caused her to do it, she'd never be free. She'd just damned herself to be trapped in the house for eternity. Good post! Good thoughts, and process. Thanks!

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  • Scott: At the end of the book I had that thought too, that none of the other characters are real. Eleanor even mentions at one point that she might be imagining everything and that none of them are real. There is also the scene where she wonders how long Mrs. Montague is going to stay, and then Theodora whispers the same thing, and Dr. Montague finally asks the question aloud. Definitely a chilling theory.

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  • What I love about The Haunting is that even though Eleanor is a mess of a person, the house is off-kilter, and things aren't quite what they seem…the story as a whole is so tight! Things come full circle. I loved that Eleanor's death matched the Companion's in significance and Hugh Crain's first wife's death (she too crashed). As kooky as everything is, Jackson certainly has her novel wrapped up in a nice, neat bow. At least, that's how I see it. šŸ™‚

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  • Jennifer, in my post, I looked at the story roughly through feminist literary criticism, but neglected to mention the lesbian undertones between Eleanor and Theo. I totally agree with you thought that it was a daring move for the time period. I focused more on the house being a representation of social control over women, and based on that, I'd have to argue with the idea of Eleanor gaining freedom at the end. It seems to me that Eleanor is not the one killing herself. By that point in the novel, the house has complete control over Eleanor. Her thoughts are not her own. She is doing the house's bidding. The house would rather see her dead than allow her to escape. It's like a horrid case of domestic violence. To me, that last thought where she questions WHY she is doing it, is her identity peeking through, but it is too late. That was my take on it.

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  • I enjoy reading everyone's blog posts – every time I pick up something that makes me think "how could I have missed that?" I never caught the parallels between Eleanor pelting her house with rocks and wanting to do the same to Theo. I also hadn't thought about Theo being the girl Eleanor wants to – but never will be. Although Chris pointed out Theo isn't perfect either – to Eleanor she is the ideal. Enjoyed your post!

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  • Wonderful post, Jenn, and great follow-up comments, too. I'm glad to see you using words like "poignant" and "heartbreaking" here. I felt bad for poor Eleanor. She reminded me of the little companion from Hill House's past — as intended by Jackson, I'm sure; what a genius she was, huh? — a girl who'd never really developed on her own and who'd never been loved.Following up on other comments, I never considered the other characters might be creations in her mind, but it's an interesting possibility, considering her mind and the fact that she arrives first. Hmm. They work either way. I think she only wanted to be like Theo the way she wanted to be other people — the owner of the little home, the love interest of Luke, etc… A very sad and powerful and interesting book.

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