Existential GPS

Holding Darkness Within

A brief tour inside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

The psychological difference between horror and terror as a literary or cinematic device is that both serve their own unique function as a vehicle to elicit powerful feelings ranging from dread to revulsion. Terror is typically described as a feeling of fear, suspense and anticipation that precedes a frightening experience. It is the build toward some awful reveal. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that one experiences following a visually frightening or shocking experience. It is the result of a dreadful realization or the experience of something deeply unpleasant.

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Publicity still for The Haunting, MGM 1963

Yet, unpleasantness occurs in many forms. It manifests both individually and culturally and is mostly universal by its very definition. In short, we can recognize it and feel it both intellectually and intuitively. Have you ever felt lonely, out of place, a misfit? Ever wanted something new, but were fearful of what others might think about you? Are there times when you feel the world doesn’t quite get you? So, unless you are void of human emotion or connection, the answer should have been yes to all three questions.

Welcome to the haunted world of author Shirley Jackson and, in particular, her fifth novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Whether you are a student of literature or psychology, or you just have a morbid curiosity for all the shadowy things that linger at the top of your psyche’s staircase, then The Haunting of Hill House is a book you should read. Author Stephen King has praised it as one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century. I would add that it is also a novel that reveals the intricate and subtle ways in which mental illness manifests, ebbing and flowing like the shadows and sounds within Hill House.

On the surface, the story of Hill House seems fairly pedestrian. A group of individuals participate in a paranormal study at an alleged haunted mansion (back in the day when those sorts of studies could still be sponsored by a university). Dr. John Montague, a professor and investigator of all things supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a withdrawn and timid young woman who resents having lived as a recluse caring for her invalid mother; Theodora, a bohemian, performer and artist (It is implied that Theo is a lesbian, but indirectly so because this is still 1959); and Luke Sanderson, the young heir to Hill House and resident playboy.

The novel, intentionally guarded in its prose, explores the supernatural while finding common ground with psychology. It takes on each of these subjects with equal amounts of care and skepticism while never fully arriving at any conclusion or endorsement of either. Unseen forces hammer on doors and ceilings, mysterious and pleading messages for the main character, Eleanor Vance, are written on walls, and the ghostly laughter and cries of children are heard in the night. If you want a good scare, Hill House won’t disappoint.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Top that for an opening paragraph to any novel. Indeed, this sets the tone for what Hill House is and how it will expose the reader to the haunted and fragile psyche of Eleanor. Hill House is indeed the fifth character in this novel; an eighty-year-old mansion, “born bad,” in a location that is never specified built by a long-deceased and cruel millionaire named Hugh Crain (painted on the ceiling of his only child’s dreary nursery are the words “Suffer the Little Children.”)

Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” This description is not only how Jackson presents Hill House to the reader, but how the character of Eleanor moves through her life, guarded and lonely. Things are not as they seem within the walls of Hill House and they are certainly not well beneath the outwardly modest walls of Eleanor, either. Still waters do indeed run deep, and dark.

Terror, not horror, is on the menu at Jackson’s café macabre, and she masterfully knows which ingredients will pack the most punch. Told in the tradition of a Gothic horror novel, Hill House, has been made into two feature films (the original 1963 version directed by Robert Wise is a faithful and absolutely splendid adaptation of Jackson’s ghost story – see it – now), and is the basis of an upcoming television series on Netflix. Jackson’s tale relies solely on terror rather than horror to elicit emotion in the characters and the reader; manipulating the relationships between the characters’ psyches and the mysterious events in the house, while leaving the reader to determine what may have really happened inside the “wood and stone of Hill House” as well as what occurred in the mind of Eleanor.

With Eleanor, Jackson offers the reader a female character who embodies depth, dimension and mystery. Psychologically wounded by her fear of loneliness, fear of others, fear of self, and a fear of the unknown, Eleanor is at once recognizable and common, yet Jackson keeps her slightly detached, slightly off, so that we understand the metaphor being presented to us as we simultaneously walk the lonely corridors and rooms of her psyche and of Hill House.

As Jackson wrote, “Hill House, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within…And whatever walked there, walked alone.”

To be continued… Part 2 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.