The Haunting of Hill House: No Ghosts--Just a Really Lonely Girl
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Spoiler Warning: Read at your own discretion.
I still see it clear as day. The moment my dad popped the VHS tape into our clunky VCR. We’d just arrived home from the mall. We shopped at the ‘Family Home Entertainment Store,’ a now unknown and defunct room at the mall. As a family, this was our favorite place to visit. Not for the new video game section or those fancy overpriced video discs.
But for the horror movie section.
We were never into gore. No, we liked classics. If horror movies were a dinner, Dracula (1931) was our main dish, served with a side of Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954), topped with The Mummy (1932). A little gore may be fitting for dessert which was any made for TV or straight to VHS Stephan King film.
Then there was the one that changed me forever.
The Haunting (1954).
That fateful summer night changed me. The Haunting was the first movie to ever truly scare me. I did not sleep after watching that film.
And it still sticks with me today. So much so I had to read the book.
The Haunting of Hill House by master author Shirley Jackson has been picked apart by a myriad of writers. Heck, it’s a classic and they are the most fun to pick apart. These are my initial thoughts of the novel and what stood out to me upon the first reading. I will not say I am the first to present these perspectives, nor will I be the last.
I was content enough with the old film, but as I read Shirley’s book, but I soon realized nothing can compare to the heart-wrenching spin the reader is put through. Netflix’s series loosely based on the book gets the tone right but still does not capture the same terrorizing torture Shirley puts you on in the journey of sanity to a madman.
This is because the reader soon realizes the one important factor that makes this book truly scary: there are no ghosts.
No, the spectral being that everyone hoped to encounter is a myth. The novel begins and ends that same, emphasizing this: “...and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
This is because the being that “walks alone” is our protagonist turned antagonist Eleanor. She is the title's namesake.
Like many great novels, our story begins with a doctor. Dr. Montegue believes in the supernatural so much so that he is puts everything on the line to gain evidence. He invites guests to stay at Hill House, a supposedly haunted mansion. But his guests are in for more than a holiday. They are part of his experiment to awaken Hill House's spectral beings, to prove the supernatural once and for all. Oh yes, and all the guests he invites have alleged supernatural abilities. In a way, his guests are there to poke the hornet’s nest. And his ‘special’ guest is creepy Eleanor, a meek little nobody who carries serious baggage from her late mother. And she complicates everything with her suspected sixth sense abilities.
I’m sure you’ve seen this trope repeated one too many times in subsequent haunted house films and novels.
The novel is primarily told from Eleanor’s unreliable perspective. And it’s her mind in which we dive into insanity. Where the reader initially fears the ghostly activity Eleanor witnesses, there are hints these events are not by accident. As she unravels the mystery of Hill House, she doesn’t seem to find answers, but the reader does. Every ghostly event follows one of Eleanor's experiences, and as we near the end it is evident that the ghostly activity is a manifestation of her negative emotions on a subconscious level.
Her frenemy Theo picks up on this rather early on. An empath, she is not fooled and sees right through Eleanor. When mysterious writing appears on the wall (Help Eleanor Come Home Eleanor written in blood-red paint), Theo points out it's Eleanor's fault. Although Eleanor denies it, the reader knows deep down that Theo is telling the truth.
This is when the truly terrifying part of the story begins. Eleanor’s denial of her involvement, and her fantasies. Both of which are tied to the death of her mother and the emotional toll it took on her as a caregiver.
Her fantasies border--okay border is putting it gently--sociopathic levels. So desperate for connection she fantasizes about Luke, the playboy heiress of the Hill House. But her possessiveness turns to Theo and she begins to romantically fantasize about her as well. All comes crashing down when she spies on Luke and Theo together, and the reader feels the burn and scorn that inhabits Eleanor. But as an unreliable narrator, we have no idea if what Eleanor saw really happened, or if this is another sick fantasy to add to the story she wishes to live. To top it off, Dr. Montegue’s wife, a self-proclaimed medium enters the picture, and her personality rubs Eleanor in every wrong way possible.
With this event, the ghostly activity becomes violent. Eleanor no longer sees Hill House as just a house; it's hers and she projects her possessiveness for Luke and Theo onto the house. The big ringer that Eleanor is the one causing Hill House’s activity is when she dances and runs through the house. Pounding on the walls, spectral forms, and all other supernatural activity she relishes in. She even comments, “why am I not scared?” Seeing herself as a savior to sacrifice, she consciously melds her mind with the house and uses her newfound ability to spy and take out her angst without any inhibitions. Some sacrifice Eleanor--now no one can stop you.
Coming to a climax, Dr. Montegue decides to send creepy Eleanor away. Apparently, she’s sending one too many chills down the backs of her peers. But Eleanor knows their plans and motives because she’s crossed all lines of privacy. As she drives away, she’s driven mad at the idea of leaving the house. She’d rather die than leave. And in a moment of clarity, she gains back a moment of sanity and asks: “Why am I doing this?”
Too late--she crashes and dies. The End. And look; all the ghostly activity suddenly stops and the good doctor is left with no evidence. Coincidence? I think not.
Throughout the novel, Eleanor is told stories of previous ghost activities. I won’t go into these details (you’ll have to read the book), but the ghost activities before Eleanor arrived were simply urban myths surrounding an old house. And it’s clear the activity she caused is influenced by the stories she’s heard. The haunting is real because she made it real; she wanted it to be real. All the events are a direct consequence of Eleanor’s jealousy and need for attention from years of neglect/abuse. And the house becomes truly hers in death.
This novel will easily enthrall you. And the best part? It’s bang for your buck. Only 64,597 words, many consider The Haunting of Hill House a novella. But wow, those few pages pack a punch. What was meant as a quick read and break from my marathon read of Gone with the Wind, became a terror session as Shirley engrossed me in her prose.
Forever the scariest book I’ll ever read. If you’re looking for a classic horror that will haunt you for years to come, this is the novel for you.
Thanks for reading. As always, enjoy life! ----H.B. Nuttall