By Johanna Isaacson
Like most people alive today in the US, I read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” in a high school English class. But it wasn’t until I was in my thirties, when I came across the 1963 film The Haunting, that I become aware of any of her other writings. Once I started reading Jackson’s work, I became obsessed. Writing in the fifties and sixties, Jackson creates an array of odd women, trapped in odder domestic situations that both modernize and ironize “Female Gothic” tropes of the 18th and 19th centuries: the dark side of marriage, mothering, and other feminized activities shown through the depiction of imperiled women entrapped in uncanny interiors.
A contemporary to Jackson, Betty Friedan diagnosed the mid twentieth century era’s version of gendered oppression by the suitably gothic title: “the problem with no name.” But her solution to haunted housewifery—that women get a waged job—was simplistic. Female careerism was no antidote to the terrors of domestic life. Instead, uncannily, women’s poorly paid jobs and everyday lives became an extension of this nameless problem as capitalism increasingly acted, as Nancy Fraser argues, as a “free rider” on “activities of provisioning, care-giving and interaction that produce and maintain social bonds” (101).[i] Nevertheless, confident that entering the work force was the only path to women’s liberation, Friedan explicitly belittled Shirley Jackson as one of a retrograde group of anti-feminists who wrote about themselves as if they were “just housewives” (quoted in Savoy 829).[ii]
To the contrary, through Jackson’s gothic mode we can see “nameless” feelings surrounding housework not as the problem that can be cured by entering into waged work, but as a symptom of a system that relies on making feminized activity appear worthless even as it is central to the production of social life. This sensibility links Jackson’s depiction of a lonely “spinster” in The Haunting of Hill House to the gothic tale of transphobic fascism in Alison Rumfitt’s recent novel, Tell Me I’m Worthless. In both works, the internalization of feminized “worthlessness” creates a gothic style that can’t easily be reduced to familiar tropes or simplistic causality, and rather is found in opaque but resonant gothic themes, carefully calibrated humor, and something akin to what Sianne Ngai calls “politically strategic” paranoia as feminist theorizing (300).[iii]
Alas, this uncanny allusiveness is anathema to the sentimentality and positivist leanings of contemporary culture. And this leads to reductive representations of gendered experience. Here, I will briefly explore some key aspects of six versions of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to make the case that a feminist gothic politics is as necessary as ever, even as we arguably have moved past the genre’s original context when women found themselves physically sequestered in the domestic sphere.
In The Haunting of Hill House Jackson creates a gothic portrait of gendered dissociation through her protagonist, Eleanor Vance, who both flees from and toward the domestic. The novel begins shortly after her mother’s death, which liberates her from care work, but leaves her with a devastating sense of guilt and resentment. Because of a supernatural event that occurred during her youth, Eleanor is selected to join Dr. Montague, a researcher of the supernatural, to investigate Hill House, a large, creepy edifice created and ruled by a forbidding figure named Hugh Crain. His looming presence personifies the house’s all-pervasive patriarchal violence. In this “terrible place,” as Carol Clover names it, generations of women died mysteriously and gruesomely, alone and in fear.
Besides Dr. Montague, Eleanor’s companions in this adventure are Theodora, a lesbian artist with psychic abilities, and Luke, the callow nephew of the house’s current owner, there to guard his own inheritance. Eleanor will find some community with this motley crew, but her doomed story will confirm that she lives in a world devoid of non-hierarchical intimacy.
As in Jackson’s novel The Bird’s Nest, which features a protagonist with multiple personality disorder, Eleanor is split. Part of her yearns to be one of the “guests,” along with Dr. Montague and his other invitees. This desire is linked to the fantasy of intimacy free from servitude. Yet she is too perceptive to abandon the reality principle. She is constantly reminded of her kinship with Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper of Hill House. Like Jack Torrance of The Shining, she arrives with hopes for leisure and luxury only to find she will always be Hill House’s “caretaker.”
Following the gothic mode, Hill House is a house of mirrors, where Eleanor encounters her doubles and antitheses. She is like Mrs. Dudley in that the other guests often treat her as a maid, but unlike Mrs. Dudley, she cannot separate domestic work from her emotions. In this sense, Mrs. Dudley is aspirational—her cold repetition of the times she serves and clears away meals and her vow to abandon the guests to the dark unknown are assertions of power. She will do her job but not an ounce more. At the same time, this detachment, as Dara Dawney argues, signifies her similarity to Eleanor as a homeless home maker—”Not her home, the house demands her labors, leaving little room for her own volition – the condition, in other words, of many women toiling endlessly in homes that they could never hope to own for themselves” (296).[iv]
Eleanor’s mother and the women who died in Hill House all provide models of female abjection that echo the scant possibilities available to Eleanor— mother, “spinster,” or servant. Mirroring Eleanor’s toil and guilt as a caregiver, a working class “companion” was once hired to serve Hugh Crain’s daughter, Abigail, in her old age, and like both Eleanor and Mrs. Dudley, this nameless servant was rumored to have left the woman she was tasked with tending alone “in the dark, in the night,” where no one could hear her scream. As with Eleanor’s abandonment of her mother and Mrs. Dudley’s desertion of Eleanor, the companion’s actions may have led to her charge’s death (84). The house of mirrors refracts and casts shadows, but it has one consistent message: the two choices available to women are endless toil or endless remorse.
Eleanor is too sharp to delude herself; she knows the future she hopes for—intimacy without servitude—is already foreclosed. Her only moment of freedom is when she drives toward her destination in a stolen car. Once she gets this car on the road to Hill House, she experiences exhilaration. The world, for a moment, offers to cherish her without demanding servitude as she is liberated from quantification altogether. Such measures as miles and hours lose meaning as the car becomes a vessel of pure potentiality: “The journey itself was her positive action, her destination vague, unimagined, perhaps non-existent” (16).
But the real world offers no destination that can provide a fraction of this freedom in transit. There is no place where she can find intimacy and community divorced from domestic and emotional labor. In fact, this sentiment was echoed in Jackson’s biography. In her later life Jackson perpetually fantasized about running away from her unfaithful husband and judgmental community. Although she never managed to do so, one of her few pleasures was aimless joy riding. In her life and in her art, driving seems to emblematize, as Wyatt Bonikowski argues, “the objectlessness of a feminine jouissance which, Jackson seems to recognize, is difficult to represent as anything other than unrealized.” (84)[v]
In her own initial joy ride Eleanor attains freedom. But any destination, including romance, is a trap. Her only conventionally suitable love interest, Luke, is self-admittedly “entirely selfish” and makes clear that any attachment to him would be contingent on her serving as his surrogate mother. As he says, “I am always hoping that …someone will make herself responsible for me and make me be grown up” (184). Though desperately lonely, Eleanor summons dignity and self-preservation by rejecting this proposal, thinking “Why don’t you grow up by yourself…All I want is to be cherished…and here I am talking gibberish with a selfish man” (184). The result of this intimate conversation with Luke—the only such exchange she will have with a man—is to remind Eleanor of her deep solitude.
If romance is a dead end in The Haunting of Hill House, family is something even worse. Indeed, the only destination widely available to women of Eleanor’s time and class would be a home and a family, and with this situation comes subjugation. This is pointed to when Theo and Eleanor go for a walk in the garden behind Hill House and encounter a bucolic scene of a happy, normative family. Here, the “affectionate and amused voices” of a family picnicking in a richly hued clearing appear to dazzle and blind the two women. When their eyes finally adjust, Theodora inexplicably screams and the scene turns to ash. The family crumbles and the two women are surrounded by “nothing except weeds growing blackly in the darkness” (194-195).
As Jackson’s drafts show, this enigmatic scene is central to the novel’s deep interrogation of the family form. Jackson’s draft notes start with the words “DEAD DEAD” as a guiding mantra. But these words are finally replaced with “FAMILY FAMILY” which, in this context, means the same thing (Lootens 156).[vi] When later the women try to recount the horror they encountered in the garden, all Eleanor can say is “The children… and a puppy” finding no way to explain how these symbols of comfort and innocence manifest to the women as terrifying emblems of destruction (196).
In the end, this novel manages to communicate that Eleanor’s death is not so much a tragedy, but the completion of a process of a woman disappearing. With no possibilities to form relationships or stability outside the hierarchies she rejects, the only direction Eleanor can travel is deeper and deeper into nothingness. As Tricia Lootens puts it, “Her death is only the dramatic accomplishment of a domestic murder that began long ago” (166).
The power of Hill House continues to haunt in four film/TV adaptations. However, even in the first and most successful version, the fact that the medium is so skewed toward male voices and perspectives leads to the obscuring of Jackson’s complex, Female Gothic voice. The 1963 film The Haunting directed by Robert Wise and written by Nelson Gidding creates a rich ambiance in its exploration of a haunted mansion and a young woman’s anxieties, but while the film is genuinely eerie and evocative, it reframes Jackson’s aesthetic to focus on the male anxieties expressed through a character who was peripheral to the novel’s primary themes, Dr. Markway (named Montague in the book).
The film, like the novel, follows Eleanor’s journey to Hill House and to her death. However, here, the character Markway takes center stage as her would-be savior. It is his hubris and attractiveness that lures Eleanor to her doom. This feeds into the myth that Jackson’s novel is so careful to unravel— that is, the middlebrow Freudian concept that sexual repression is at the heart of female “hysteria.” To the film’s credit, it explores this theme as a problem rather than an answer, leaving us questioning Markway’s decisions and judging whether his own savior complex has made him culpable in Eleanor’s death. Still, the film turns on Eleanor’s romantic fixation on Markway, and the discovery that he is married leaves her with no alternative but to give herself to the dark pleasures of the house still possessed by the sadistic Hugh Crain.
In noting Markway’s ambiguous intentions we see him as an interesting reflection of Eleanor’s “hysteria.” However, because of this refocusing on Markway’s fractured masculinity, the theme of Eleanor’s fear of servitude fades into the background. The focus on domestic labor that is so prevalent in the book is mostly eradicated from the film, and the more conventional theme of thwarted romance takes center stage, as the haunted thrills that excite Eleanor are continually equated to her passion for Markway. The film’s suggestive cinematography makes it a powerful viewing, but at the same time The Haunting becomes the first of many film and TV adaptations that betray key aspects of the novel.
Infamous nominee for five Razzie awards, the 1999 Steven Spielberg produced version of The Haunting manages to undermine everything interesting about the novel as well as the 1963 movie. As in the other versions, here Eleanor flees from a miserable life of tending to her dying mother and arrives at Hill House seeking escape and communion. However, from there, the film flails. Eleanor’s initial rejection of family servitude leads to even greater sacrifice in Hill House, where she discovers she is a blood relative of Hugh Crain. Rather than confront her own demons and assailants she becomes a saint, sacrificing herself for dead children whose souls are entrapped in the house.
Whereas in the novel Eleanor appears as a fractured woman registering the terrors of the family form and gendered roles, in the 1999 film—stripped of the voice-over she was allowed in the 1963 version—she lacks interiority altogether, and her struggle with the house leads to the conclusion that the meaning of life and her visit to the house has “always been about family,” as she says in one of her many leadenly explicit lines of dialogue. The film ends with her limp, dead body in the treacly embrace of ghost children she has liberated. They whisper “thank you Eleanor” as they float up to heaven bathed in golden light and soon her own saintly ghost body follows into some vaguely Christian afterlife. Here, Eleanor’s socially attuned, irresolvable desires fall to the wayside; instead, she is a self-sacrificing billboard written over with the words “family values” and “save the children.”
Rose Red is a little-known miniseries version of The Haunting of Hill House created by Stephen King after he dropped out of Spielberg’s hopeless 1999 film project. Rather than turn Eleanor into a sacrificial angel, this version gets rid of her altogether. Here, the women populating Hill House, now called Rose Red, include Prof. Joyce Reardon, an ambitious academic obsessed with uncovering the supernatural aspects of the house; Annie Wheaton, an autistic, psychokinetic 15 year old girl; and Rachel Wheaton, Annie’s sister and devoted caretaker. A number of other men and women with psychic abilities are invited to Rose Red to aid Joyce in her relentless quest.
As in all of King’s works featuring haunted spaces, the house terrorizes its unwanted guests by presenting them with their deepest fears, which they must confront and defeat or die. In the end, the characters who obey gendered norms fare the best, with Annie and Rachel forming a traditional family with Steve, the man who was initially engaged to Joyce. Joyce, a domineering careerist, is killed by her own hubris, devoured by a crowd of ghouls that include the primary demonic spirits who haunt the house, a white woman and black woman who may be lovers. Another plotline that features misogynist terror is the story of Emery Waterman, a man who has never escaped from his overbearing mother’s influence. He emerges from this ordeal reborn as he gains autonomy by battling his mother, depicted as a grotesquely obese, obstreperous monster comparable to the devouring mother in Dead Alive.
The series ends with many of the morally ambiguous characters killed off, and the pure and innocent preserved. This supports Downey and Jones’s argument that while King admires Jackson’s work, his tributes to her fiction betray the complexity with which she imagines haunted, gendered spaces (233).[vii] For Jackson, one person’s “bad place,” can be another’s space of refuge. Dirt and pollution can be symbolic weapons against the cleansing of society’s outcasts and “others.” Ghosts and demons are ambiguous figures that point to conflicts and contradictions within and among people rather than simplistic forms of evil. Conforming with King’s sensibility, Rose Red ignores Jackson’s open-ended use of the Female Gothic and instead resolves with cathartic closure. All of the gender non-normative characters die and we are left with Cathy, a devoutly Christian woman, Emery, a man finally liberated from his horrific mother, as well as Steve, Rachel, and Annie who now form a normative family.
While Eleanor in Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, is a “spinster” who has detached from her family, “Nell,” in Mike Flanagan’s 2018 TV show of the same name is a young girl who is sacrificed to reestablish a family’s absolute centrality to all its living members. This forsakes Jackson’s tale of a woman haunted by the repressiveness of the family form and of normative gender roles, and rather idealizes these institutions (now accommodating gay relationships, at least). Instead of Jackson’s relentless critique, Flanagan offers a therapeutic narrative that focuses on the ways that addiction and mental illness interfere with family values, rather than exploring the ways that the pressures to conform to this institution might themselves lead to addiction or mental illness.
In the end, through Nell’s sacrifice and through exploring trauma, her siblings emerge stronger than ever as a family. The profoundly alienating statement that Eleanor makes at the end of the novel as she dies, “I am home,” which emphasizes that nowhere is her home, is sentimentalized in the miniseries as the Crain family’s eldest brother Steven uses the phrase to recommit to his marriage and family. By the end of the series, siblings Steven, Shirley, and Luke expel the ghosts of trauma—secrets and addictions—and recommit to a life, as Steven puts it, that is centered on becoming “a better husband…a better son… a better brother.” The jarring, uncanny note that Jackson’s novel ends with after Eleanor’s death at the bidding of Hill House—“whatever walked there, walked alone”—is here revised to emphasize the power of strong families to redeem even the most terrible place. Following a saccharine montage of reunited couples and families (both living and dead) to the tune of uplifting folk music, Steven reads from his novel, The Haunting of Hill House (yes, now written by a man), in a passage that reaffirms the power of love and culminates in the very un-Jackson-like, unambiguously uplifting line: “those who walk there, walk together.”
Alison Rumfitt’s debut novel Tell Me I’m Worthless is the first adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House that does justice to Jackson’s indeterminate style and refusal to sentimentalize the family.[viii] The novel is set in contemporary London and focuses on the stories of Alice and Ila, two people who are simultaneously attracted and repelled as they struggle against internalized transphobia and racism. Alice is an out trans woman, but she is scarred by her past as a closeted teenager, when her feelings of alienation and her father’s conservatism led her to the neo-fascist corners of the internet, attracted by the hope for belonging, by self-hatred, and by the homoerotic undercurrents that pervaded this male dominated sphere.
We first encounter Ila as an outspoken TERF. But gradually we learn that she and Alice were once best friends and lovers. The turning point was a trip to the novel’s terrible house, here called Albion to emphasize its relationship to British nationalism. The women went as activists to investigate the house, but within its walls their identities crumbled and their dark desires for conformity and exclusion of “others” surfaced. Their friend Stella was completely absorbed by the house. And though Alice and Ila managed to escape, both have memories of being raped and scarred with racist and transphobic images by each other in that horrific place.
This depiction of the house as an impressionistic allegory for the psychological impacts of nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia allows for a true modernization of Jackson’s tale. Here, the idea of “home” is estranged to show how the sense of belonging we wish for in private life is inextricable from hierarchy and prejudice. Home is, as Rumfitt claims she has learned from Jackson’s novel, “a fundamentally demented place onto which you latch” (30).
The house—given its own voice in the novel—articulates the protagonists’ deeply ingrained thoughts: “For someone to feel safe, another has to be unsafe” (61). This sense of negative solidarity—what Jason Read defines as “the weak bond orienting isolated and competitive individuals against those who are [seen to be] failing to work or bear their share of austerity”—structures Alice and Ila’s precarious relationship to feminism and trans liberation.[ix]
Whereas neither of these women are in any danger of becoming housewives or mothers, they still face more barriers than opportunities. As a trans woman, Alice is terrorized by the fear of not passing. In theory, she can get a job but there are few fulfilling jobs to be had. To survive she must take on unenjoyable, precarious, and compromised sex work gigs.
Ila, a non-white, Jewish lesbian existing in an ethnocentric, heterosexist country, also has few possibilities. She seems to have taken shelter in the TERF community, not only to find a sense of belonging but also as a place to gain a platform for her writing, with sources like The Guardian paying her for opinion pieces when she might have few outlets were she to express herself on other topics. We also realize that her turn to “gender critical” feminism is a means to quell her own trans desires. As a trans man, we suspect, Ila’s prospects in life might be further endangered.
Paternalistic offers of closure and safety are here seen as the fascistic solutions to these problems. The house is given the voice of a menacing authority tempting the two former friends, promising them protection so long as they commit to destroying everything and everyone “foreign” in their lives. Both women experience an inertial drift toward this hierarchical order: “How easy it is to slip, unthinking, into ways that the house wants you to be” (130). This uncanny fascism makes it clear that women’s and all people’s roles are still constricted, and that “the problem with no name” which haunted housewives in Jackson’s moment has arguably expanded to all realms of life, rather than disappeared with the emancipation of some women from the home.
By the novel’s end Alice and her best friend do not just confront the demons in the house, but their own complicity. They escape this terrible place only to recognize it as a microcosm of a terrifyingly authoritarian world. However, they leave with a renewed commitment to each other that evades the closure we see in Flanagan’s rendering. The novel avoids a singular interpretation of the final line, which resonates throughout all versions of the tale, “whatever walked there, walked alone.” Instead, the ending erupts into a scene of trans solidarity confronted with anti-trans violence as the friends march hand in hand into a bloody, unknowable future.
Works like Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless are a sign of a promising horizon in cultural production, where diverse, critical voices are tuned into gothic wavelengths. This gives me hope that the layered experiences of gendered and racialized life in late capitalism will gain the complex representation they deserve and which the gothic mode so richly suggests. Now, whether these works will be endowed with the capital to translate into film and TV productions is another question…
Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror from Common Notions Press and The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books. She has published widely in academic and popular journals including, with Annie McClanahan, the entry for “Marxism and Horror” in The Sage Handbook of Marxism (2022). She runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films.
[i] Fraser, Nancy. “Contradictions of Capitalism and Care.” New Left Review, vol. 100, July/Aug 2016.
[ii] Savoy, Eric. “Between as if and is: On Shirley Jackson.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 45, no. 6, 2017, pp. 827-844.
[iii] Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2007.
[iv] Downey, Dara. “Not a Refuge Yet: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Hauntings.” A Companion to American Gothic, edited by Charles L. Crow Wiley Blackwell, 2013.
[v] Bonikowski, Wyatt. “‘Only One Antagonist’: The Demon Lover and the Feminine Experience in the Work of Shirley Jackson.” Gothic Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 66-88.
[vi] Lootens, Tricia. “’Whose Hand Was I Holding’: Familial and Sexual Politics in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.” Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy, edited by Bernice M. Murphy, McFarland & Company, 2005.
[vii] Downey, Dara and Darryl Jones, “King of the Castle: Shirley Jackson and Stephen King.” Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy, edited by Bernice M. Murphy, McFarland & Company, 2005.
[viii] Rumfitt, Allison. Tell Me I’m Worthless, Tor Publishing Group, 2021.
[ix] Read, Jason. “The Principle of our Negative Solidarity.” The New Inquiry, January 24, 2014. https://thenewinquiry.com/the-principle-of-our-negative-solidarity/
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