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How THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE Has Shaped Our Ideas of Haunted Houses

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Christine Ro

Staff Writer

Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. Blog:

A new adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House is to be released by Netflix on October 12. The series appears very far removed from the Shirley Jackson novel, even more than the apparently execrable 1999 adaptation. But the importance of the Hill House brand attests to the source material’s continued resonance. Here are just a few quotes from the novel that hint at why The Haunting of Hill House resonates when it comes to perceptions of haunted houses.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson1) A haunted house could be anywhere. After all, A death has occurred in just about any old house.

“Hill House has an impressive list of tragedies connected with it, but then, most old houses have. People have to live and die somewhere, after all, and a house can hardly stand for eighty years without seeing some of its inhabitants die within its walls.”

2) A haunted house is solid—and shared. So it can’t be dismissed as the hallucination of a single person.

“In all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking, there is not one iota of belief in ghosts. Not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile. No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense. Not one of us thinks rationally that what ran through the garden last night was a ghost, and what knocked on the door was a ghost, and yet there was certainly something going on in Hill House last night, and the mind’s instinctive refuge—self-doubt—is eliminated. We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”

“Eleanor thought that the oddest part of this indescribable experience was that Theodora should be having it too.”

3) If original sin exists, it might be embodied in a haunted house.

“The concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden—perhaps sacred—is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer.”

“The evil is the house itself, I think. It has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives, it is a place of contained ill will.”

4) Not everyone can escape a haunted house.

“I think we are all incredibly silly to stay. I think that an atmosphere like this one can find out the flaws and faults and weaknesses in all of us, and break us apart in a matter of days. We have only one defense, and that is running away. At least it can’t follow us, can it? When we feel ourselves endangered we can leave, just as we came.”

The problem with this idea is that it assumes that people have somewhere to go. But Hill House’s lonely, unmoored Eleanor Vance, so much like The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, doesn’t. Thus, to Eleanor:

“I could go wandering and homeless, errant, and I would always come back here.”

5) Ultimately, though, explanations don’t help in the face of sheer terror.

“Intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all.”