The Haunting of Hill House: A History

Yesterday, Netflix announced that Shirley Jackson's gothic masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House is coming to the streaming service as a 10 episode series. Mike Flanagan, the writer/director of Gerald's Game and Ouija: Origin of Evil, is the show runner. I'll be perfectly honest. I did not expect this. I don't know if there was an earlier announcement I missed, but I never could have anticipated The Haunting of Hill House would be adapted into such a long format.

  The Haunting of Hill House  has been in print for decades, with various cover art styles. I'm a fan of his trashy looking splash art featuring Eleanor ascending a staircase in front of a giant skull.

The Haunting of Hill House has been in print for decades, with various cover art styles. I'm a fan of his trashy looking splash art featuring Eleanor ascending a staircase in front of a giant skull.

The Haunting of Hill House is a touchstone of literary horror. Originally published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's masterful haunted house story is one of the rare horror novels to be a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction (1960). It is undeniably a gothic horror in the Victorian rather than Southern tradition, set in a sprawling mansion where scientific research standards are used to prove the existence of ghosts. The novel comes complete with a tragic and lonely heroine, doors that open and close on their own, locals who refuse to go anywhere near the mansion (especially at night), a phantom dog, and a dark secret in the attic. It is an especially sophisticated entry in the genre, as much a woman's journey of self-discovery as it is a terrifying text. 

The novel's revolutionary impact on horror cannot be minimized even if the novel is not as overtly terrifying as other major texts in the genre. Just in print alone, The Haunting of Hill House inspired noted horror author Richard Matheson to write his own modern gothic novel Hell House. His intention is to make the subtle suggestion of terror and sexual awakening blatant. It is not the subtext of Hell House but the purpose. The two novels quite literally have the same plot with radically different tones, character arcs, and intentions. If Jackson's beautiful prose and proper Victorian-style restraint is too high button for you, Matheson's explosive and gratuitous text will surely fit the bill. Jackson did not create the scientific exploration of the paranormal in fiction (pre-Victorian gothic and early Victorian gothic always had a "logical" "scientific" explanation for everything that happened), but she revolutionized the use of skepticism as a mechanism for enhancing paranormal horror.

There have been three major cinematic adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House so far, not counting the Netflix series. The Haunting (1963), directed by Oscar-winner Robert Wise (The Sound of MusicWest Side Story, I Want to Live!) and written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nelson Gidding (I Want to Live!The Andromeda Strain), is an incredibly subtle horror film. Obviously, there are artistic flourishes to create more cinematic moments, but it is mostly a faithful adaptation of the novel. What works on page doesn't always work on screen and the audience is left to rely on Julie Harris' heartbreaking work as Eleanor, the tragic heroine, to unlock the deep psychological horror of the Hill House. Just look at this scene where Harris brings pure terror to life out of nothing but a subtle shake in an ornate wall.

It would be almost 40 years before The Haunting of Hill House appeared on the big screen again (though we did get an absolutely bonkers adaptations of The Legend of Hell House in the interim, as well as novels and films as varied as The Shining, Poltergeist, and The Amityville Horror that owe a major debt of gratitude to Jackson's modern spin on gothic tropes). 1999's The Haunting is not a good film. Director Jan de Bont (Twister, Speed) and writer David Self (his debut, followed by Road to Perdition and The Wolfman remake) are not bad at what they do. Their storytelling style is far too overt and over the top to handle the subtleties of Jackson's novel. The Haunting adds in extra murders, subplots, and blatant sexual content that make it seem like the studio wanted to remake Hell House but couldn't get the rights. Catherine Zeta-Jones steals the show as Theo, another invited psychic who helps Eleanor come out of her shell, though Lili Taylor's portrayal of Eleanor would be quite lovely in a more faithful adaptation of the novel. 

Stephen King, who helped immortalize and quantify the impact of The Haunting of Hill House in his seminal horror text Danse Macabre, spent over 10 years trying to bring his adaptation of the novel to life. King is no stranger to taking classic works of horror and reinventing them in a modern context. Salem's Lot is, quite literally, a chapter by chapter adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. The Shining absolutely riffs on the same melody as The Haunting of Hill House, with one psychic teaching another less experienced but far more gifted psychic how to effectively deal with one of the most haunted locations in the world. You either leave voluntarily or die trying. King even took the murder aspect and imagery from the backstory of Jackson's novel, incorporating it into the main plot.

This labor of love and frustration would become Rose Red, a three-part miniseries inspired by the 1963 film. While Rose Red is also extremely violent in its approach, it feels like a more natural extension of The Haunting of Hill House than the 1999 film. The focus is rightly placed on researching the house. King's adaptation, of all things, actually leans into the exploitation factor that is not really explored in the original novel or film.

Just think about it: a group of people who are believed to have psychic abilities are invited, without real context, to explore an incredibly haunted mansion with a long history of unexplained tragedies. They are brought in to prove with their abilities that the building actually is haunted. In other words, someone wants these people who claim to be sensitive to inexplicable evil and the afterlife to open themselves up with no preparation or context to a mansion that has caused numerous suicides and unexplained deaths. That's incredibly messed up. Frankly, just creating this article makes me want to revisit the original novel reading it from this perspective. King addresses it head on, with his characters being fully informed of what they are getting into and having to agree. Even then, the lead researcher is only concerned with the paranormal, not their safety, an element pulled straight from the original novel.

Jackson's interpretation is totally valid--this challenge used as a way to help a woman discover her true power and her own identity after being held back for years as the caretaker of an ailing mother. King's interpretation is also valid, literally using a child with special needs as the cypher to crack open the evil of the house for an academic's potential financial gain. Rose Red accepts the thesis of self-actualization through the terrifying exploration of the unknown and asks again and again if discovering your own potential and identity is worth risking your life for someone else's financial gain. It's a wonderful tension and as strong a reaction to The Haunting of Hill House as The Legend of Hill House.

 One can only assume this bright door in the decaying mansion is opening itself in Netflix's  The Haunting of Hill House .

One can only assume this bright door in the decaying mansion is opening itself in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House.

This brings us to 2018. Netflix announces that a writer/director, whose entire career consists of films about people exploring paranormal phenomena whether they like it or not, has secretly been leading the charge on a 10 episode miniseries adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Per Netflix,

"A modern reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s iconic novel, The Haunting of Hill House explores a group of siblings who, as children, grew up in what would go on to become the most famous haunted house in the country. Now adults, and forced back together in the face of tragedy, the family must finally confront the ghosts of their past — some of which still lurk in their minds while others may actually be stalking the shadows of Hill House."

I'm curious to see how this series turns out. The plot synopsis, frankly, bears little resemblance to what we know of the novel. It actually sounds like It, if I'm being honest. The house in the novel is not as terrifying as what happens to the people in it--the scares are clearly cued into the Eleanor character--and the idea of children surviving that level of torture and choosing to return  could either be a brilliant spin on the original concept or a totally unrelated haunted house story just using the title for clout.

It's not that Shirley Jackson never played with this concept before. Her final novel, We Have Always Lived in The Castle, has a very similar family dynamic. She also loves playing with traditions and generational shifts in her works, so exploring the same haunted location with the same family at two different time periods feels appropriate. I just don't see how that synopsis from Netflix really connects to what made The Haunting of Hill House such an enduring text in contemporary horror. Everything will be revealed when the series releases on 12 October. 

Special thanks to Kristy Puchko and her article at Pajiba for bringing the Netflix The Haunting of Hill House adaptation to my attention.

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