Countdown to Halloween: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson 1959

One of the finest ghost stories ever written was Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It was made into a 1963 movie The Haunting regarded as one of the best supernatural movies in cinema history. The movie was modestly received when it first came out and scared many viewers. Using cleverly designed sets and distorted angles, the film stands out as a first-rate psychological horror movie that is unmatched. A remake in 1999 starring Liam Neeson, Lilli Taylor and Catherine Zeta Jones did not capture the original film’s essence and failed at the box office. Although the 1973 movie The Legend of Hell House incorporates themes of the Hill book, it was based on Richard Matheson’s book, and he wrote the screenplay. Jackson’s book inspired Stephen King for his book The Shining and later for a made-for-television story Rose Red.

What makes both the book, and the original movie effective is that the terror relies on what the people experience as the entity makes itself known. We never see actually see the entity but certainly its effects as it makes noises, wanders around at night, or writes words on a wall. The group that assembles in Hill House are led by Dr. John Montague who wants to find proof of the supernatural. He is later joined by his wife and friend to also discover the supernatural in the house. The house itself (its location is never revealed in the book, but one can surmise somewhere in New England) has a tragic history of loss and death. The locals stay away from the home and only the married caretakers visit during the day and leave before dark.

Almost everyone there (except for Montague, his wife, and her friend) has some experience with the supernatural. Not long after they arrive at the house, they each begin experiencing supernatural activity of one kind or another. As more of the story unfolds, Eleanor becomes a target for the entity, and she see things or experiences things the others do not. This leads in the book (and more so in the movie) that she is suffering mentally and losing touch with reality. Both her and Theodora see a ghostly picnic at one point, but Theodora sees something bad when she looks back causing her to get Eleanor out of there. What Theodora saw is never revealed, but it must have been terrifying enough. Again, another example of using the people to show the terror but not the entity itself.

By this time Eleanor is beginning to say she is home in that house, so Montague decides it best to get her out. As in both the book and original movie, it ends up in a car crash as the story ends. It is unclear in the book her fate, while the movie is more definite. The chilling ending though in both cases cones from the final statement. In the movie it is done as a voiceover by the actress Julie Harris who played Eleanor in the movie.

Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here… walk alone.

The entity seems to be the former owner of the house or perhaps a demon that has taken it over. It is never made clear on that point. Other ghosts are suggested but never figure prominently so they could be there or not. It is that uncertainty that makes this such a great story of terror and psychological drama. Well worth reading during the Halloween season or anytime you want a spooky novel, as is the original 1963 movie. Sad to say the 1999 remake is a dud. It totally changes the story, Eleanor, and we actually see the entity (who is very wicked indeed for killing and trapping the souls of children). There is gore in this movie, though not a splatter fest. Liam Neeson’s character is more devious and disturbing in this movie as the person leading up this team.. Only fans who want to see Catherine Zeta Jones prance about in the movie (and unlike the book puts her sexuality on full display) may want to watch it.

Advisory to parents: The 1963 movie is pretty scary. Not recommended for young children (as is the book as well).


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