In case you’ve been living in an underground cave that doesn’t even have basic amenities like WiFi or even just in rural Ireland, you’ve heard of the newest rendition of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘, now blowing up Netflix. Directed by Mike Flanagan, who has also done Hush, Oculus and Gerald’s Game to name a few of my favourites, this is the latest attempt at bringing Jackson’s story of dread and unease to the visual stage, but it is not the first. In 1963 Robert Wise directed ‘The Haunting’, and in 1999, under the same name, Jan de Bont released his version. Both of these movies stick to the basic premise of the original novel with some minor changes, while the new Netflix original series has created it’s own fresh narrative. So why has the story of Hill House survived for almost 60 years? And why is it routinely recognised by the likes of Stephen King and many others as the greatest haunted house story ever written?
Basic Premise –
The story of Hill House begins with Dr. Montague, a psychologist who rents the infamous Hill House in the hopes of documenting scientific evidence of the supernatural. To do this, he invites a group of people he believes have had some kind of interaction with the supernatural to stay in the house for the summer and take notes on everything that happens there. Unfortunately, only two show up to the house, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, just Theodora. Luke Sanderson, the light fingered nephew of the owner is sent to stay with them too though he has no connections anything out of the ordinary. From the very first moment they all feel that there is something off with the house, maybe its the fact that it was purposefully built to be off kilter and confusing, or the dark history of Hugh Crain and his family that were to inhabit the building, but whatever it is, this feeling permeates the group until odd things, undeniable and unambiguous things start to happen.
Jackson’s Writing –
One of the reasons that Jackson’s writing has stood the test of time for so long, is the delicacy and intricacy with which she writes. Every line is deliberate, every character full and complete. You can see this in Jackson’s other work as well but when dealing with the monstrosity that is Hill House, you feel the building take on a character of its own, and you understand completely the apprehension the characters feel just being there. It’s been said before, but Jackson’s story could have been written off a pulp novel and forgotten if not for her treatment of the words. She draws you in from the very first line, that first paragraph quoted so often that always sends chills down my spine. From that first couple of lines you know something is fucked up here, and you have to read more.
The scares in the book aren’t bloody or gorey, they aren’t over the top or ambiguous. They are conscious and intentional, they are knockings on the wall and cold spots that everyone can feel, things that no one can deny being there. There is no what if about Hill House, it’s darkness is already there, seen even in the daylight, and everyone fears the coming of the night – especially the Dudleys.
Theodora the Kickass Lesbian –
My first introduction to Hill House was the 1999 movie ‘The Haunting’, where Theodora is a fashionable fun sister and friend to the sheltered and nervous Nell. Maybe I was naive, but I never got the lesbian feeling from Theo in that adaptation, but then again I was born without gaydar so who knows. But when I started reading the novel, having don no research whatsoever, I was genuinely surprised to immediately think ‘Hey! She’s a lesbian!’ It was obvious in the text and even more obvious in the 1963 movie version. But even thought the novel was written in the fifties, the treatment of Theo as a lesbian, (sexuality is not discussed in the text, but there may as well have been a neon sign following Theo around), is surprisingly positive? If that’s the right word to use?
Theo is often seen as a mirror to Eleanor, even given that she doesn’t have a second name like every other character. She is open and expressive where Nell is closed off and repressed, she has her own place where she lives with a woman, where as Nell feels homeless and lost. Theo accepts that she has some psychic abilities whereas Nell denies that the stones that fell on her roof as a child had anything to do with her. The two become close even sharing a bed, Nell begging Theo to come and live with her when she is forced out of the house for her own good. If lesbianism as a theme is to be taken seriously, from my reading it felt as though Nell wanted to be with Theo, but Theo knew they couldn’t, and Nell went mad from that small touch of freedom and home that she felt in Hill House, allowing it to consume her.
In the 1963 movie Theo is played as more forward with her advances towards Nell, and when emotions run high Nell accuses her of being ‘unnatural’, but in the new Netflix show Theodora is out and proud, as she should be in this day and age. The theme of sexual repression and repression in general is something that gives Hill House it’s power not just over Nell, but to continue as a specter of dread and fear for the past sixty years. It’s the power to not just kill you or possess you, but to turn your own mind and your own fears against you.
Humour in Hill House –
One of the reasons I love the novel so much and will read it again and again, is the humour shown between the characters. In my opinion one of the most important things in horror, especially a story that relies on dread and tension, needs something to offset this. It can be the saving grace to a terrible movie, and serve as a break for the reader/viewers nerves so that the story can keep on scaring. I’ve found a few of Jackson’s stories have made me laugh out loud, not least of which is ‘My Life With R.H. Macy‘, I was cackling at that for hours.
The humour in Hill House serves two functions though – to ease the tension for the reader, and to allow the characters to escape the really horror they are in. Even sitting in the house for breakfast makes them feel like they are somewhere unnatural, but pretending they are fictional characters, sisters on a picnic, they can imagine themselves somewhere other than Hill House, proving, if nothing else, that ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality.‘
There’s little humour in the 1963 movie or the current Netflix series, however they both still work well. If you haven’t seen the new Netflix show I can’t recommend it enough, I will being going back to watch it myself just to try and find all the hidden background ghosts. I have a feeling this story will continue to permeate through the coming decades and get a few more adaptations. I’ve enjoyed them all so far, let’s just hope no one really ruins it.
What did you think of the newest adaptation? Did you see Theo as gay when you read Jackson’s novel? Would you like to see more humour in horror? Comment down below and let me know!
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