Welcome back to the graveyard, as today, we continue Halloween Month by entering one of the most famous haunted houses in literature. From the mind of Shirley Jackson, come a landmark in horror literature and film- The Haunting of Hill House.
Dr. John Montague rents out Hill House, a crumbling mansion with a dark history, in the hopes of uncovering scientific evidence of the supernatural. He brings with him three guests- Theodora, a young artist, Luke Sanderson, the heir to the mansion, and Eleanor, a recluse just emerging from years of caring for her mother. Both Theodora and Eleanor have had supernatural incidents in their past, and it is hoped their presence will spark something within the house. And indeed strange events do soon follow- noises are heard throughout the night, writing appears on the wall, and Eleanor begins to act stranger and stranger, saying she finds a kinship with the house (though it is implied she is becoming mentally unstable). After she endangers herself, Dr. Montague feels that Eleanor must leave for her own safety. While unwilling at first, Eleanor eventually starts to drive away from Hill House, but then her car slams into a tree, killing her. The reader is left to wonder if her actions were suicidal, or if Hill House truly did leave it’s dark touch upon her.
What Writers Can Learn- Perception, Subtlety,
Hill House stands as one of horror literature’s greatest works, and for good reason. In many ways, it flips the greatest rule of the writing trade- ‘show, don’t tell.’ The reader is told many things- the deaths and suicides associated with Hill House, Eleanor’s history of reclusion and paranormal experience, and even hints at lesbianism in the character of Theodora. However, what all of this means is left up to the reader, and because of that, the story can read many different ways. For example, Eleanor is clearly shown as a timid, sheltered woman, first controlled by her mother and then her sister. Coming to Hill House is her first real independent act, a fact she muses on constantly. Therefore, it is easy to see why she would form a bond with the house and its inhabitants- she sees them as signs of her own freedom. It also could explain why she is so reluctant to leave and return to her old life.
However, there is also a more unnatural possibility to Eleanor’s attitude. Dr. Montague’s profile of her states that there was an incident in her childhood where stones fell from the sky onto a disliked neighbor’s home. Readers of novels like Carrie would recognize this as a classic example of telekinetic abilities. Therefore, it is possible that Eleanor may be causing the disturbances herself, using unknown telekinetic powers. Therefore, her death is a kind of supernatural suicide. As for the incidents themselves, they themselves could be Eleanor’s attempt to prove both to herself and Dr. Montague (whom she admires), that Hill House is haunted and their adventure has not been for nothing.
But that could be a final possibility- that Hill House simply lives up to its reputation. The house has a long history of death- the founder’s wife died on the way to it, his second wife died from a fall, his daughter lived in the house until death, and the final inhabitant hung herself. This is a house with a long history of death to it’s name, and the gothic nature of the story never rules that possibility out, despite everything else that can be held accountable. Therefore, Hill House stands as a novel that is different for everyone who reads it- but chilling for everyone. For aspiring horror writers, this is the best kind of fear- one that is individual for every reader, and therefore more terrifying.
Hill House has been adapted for the screen in two instances, both titled The Haunting. The 1960’s version is highly recommended, but the remake adds several changes and lessens the insanity angle for CGI scares. House on Haunted Hill and Richard Matheson’s Hell House novel also explore similar ground. But no matter what house you choose to look through, the graveyard will be right outside for next week.