“Hill House” — a genuine house just outside London, chosen as embodying just what Jackson imagined, and then photographed as where all the outdoor scenes around it using infrared light (1963 The Haunting)
John Atkinson Grimsaw (1836-93), The Haunted House (1882)
Dear Readers, Students, Friends,
Tonight one of the great American gothic novels and psychological terror films of the 20th century: Shirley Jackson’s highly original 1959 Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s even more unusual rendition of the literary genre not as a horror film (what was mistakenly tried in 1999), but as a psychological film contextualized by
1) the domestic realism of Eleanor Lance’s character and circumstances;
2) the Citizen Kane representation of the Hugh Crain family (as back-story);
3) the quiet lesbianism of Theo (Claire Bloom);
4) and the undercutting sceptical mockery of Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) whose contingent of characters brings into the film the ordinary American upper class who’d love to make money on the house.
The blog will also delve the gothic as such and its history. See my review (evaluation and summary) of Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 (!) Years of Excess, Evil, Horror and Ruin Both Jackson and Wise’s works are in the Radcliffian mode, sometimes called the female gothic.
Eleanor (Julie Harris) turned down by her relatives when she asks for the car (half hers) for a vacation
Eleanor resolute, with all her worldly goods (come to take the car anyway)
When I first read the book I was struck by how it begins in a very secular modern feel atmosphere. Dr Montague (the name of the doctor in Jackson’s book) wants to investigate the supposed presence of ghosts and terrors at Hill House scientifically and he goes about to find people willing to participate in the experiment of living there together for the summer. He gets up a list of names of people from psychic societies, sensational newspaper stories — people who have sighted or been willing to believe they saw or are interested in “paranormal” (the “in” word today) experiences. He doesn’t want any crackpot and there’s a distrust of unknown uncredentialled people which remind me of the distrust of experience on the Net.
He turned up two single women, Eleanor Lance (it’s an “L” in the book), one who cared for her mother all the mother’s life until she died and now lives with a selfish sister and her husband; and Theo, the other who had fought intensely with her woman lover. He also finds the present owner insists he take in a relative. So there are four of them. Then two surly servants (as I said). Now his wife and her chauffeur, Arthur have been invited.
What emerges is something I’ve seen in astute writers of the gothic before. Hell is other people; the group has begun to gang up on Eleanor because she’s susceptible to bullying. It’s a it’s a gothic that analyses the psychic source of terrorizing and why it happens. But beyond that we are beginning to experience terrifying unexplained phenomena. Theodora’s dresses are torn to bits and covered with blood so now she sleeps with Eleanor. One night Eleanor listens to moaning and groaning of a baby elsewhere. Scary things happen in the landscape; all done very slowly you see. Eleanor is suddenly being called Nell and writing appears on the walls which demands she come home.
And we begin to get threats: Mrs Montague talks of being buried alive. She brings a planchette and we have a seance like experience where again Eleanor is picked on, picked out as the one words are hurled at. Slowly I’ve noticed the others are irritated and turn away from her need of them. In the book Dr Montague doesn’t want her around lest she ruins his experiment. (The movie is softer and makes Dr Montague and Theo genuinely concerned for her, and Luke put off by her suicidal impulses on the twirling metal staircase.)
to a sudden powerful close. I was stunned by the ending and yet it was coming at me all the time. The very last words might be said to put a close to a future of endless pain: “and whatever walked there [in Hill House] walked alone.” But …
Warning I’m telling the ending:
There is a constant repeat of lines from Shakespeare’s Twelth Night, the song of the fool: “present mirth hath present laughter” and especially the line; “journey’s end in lovers’ meeting.” This line runs through what I now realize is our heroine’s head: Eleanor. The question is whether when she killed herself by smashing herself and car against the tree, she does know peace or is returned to hill house to walk with whatever walked there.” Journey’s end in lovers’s meeting; the hideous writing on the wall and cruel comments written down are invites to Eleanor (Nell) from whoever or whatever riddles and warps the house — which under assault becomes a wild tempest (making me think of the emotions at the close of Ethan Frome by Wharton, a book I hope never to read again, especially its ending).
Eleanor’s story suddenly is seen so clear as one of a miserable wretched woman: sleeps in sister’s baby’s room and only shares that car, has no right to it, for no husband, no salary. When she loses it after Mrs Montague’s (meant to be obtuse funny — think Mrs Jennings from S&S) antics over a planchette, and nearly kills herself and others by trying to jump off a crumbling bit of gothic convention masonry, they want her out. They kick her out. She’d have to go back to that sister. Theodora has already refused to take her in at summer’s end.
So what were her options? Backstory of clan has two sisters in deadly frightening rivalry.
But what really is chilling is the sudden experience. No one does gothic like Jackson. The cold, the sounds, the wild weird evocation of what can’t be and can’t be explicitly but only allusively described.
Eleanor and Theo (Claire Bloom) talking of their lives
Luke (Russ Tamblyn) thinking about the cold spot
First we need to understand the gothic. It’s been a major US popular subgenre since the 1790s — around the time of the French revolution, which can be regarded as a watershed in western culture (another is World War One).
The gothic is easily identified by some repeating central characteristics: the haunted place, usually a labyrithine house with a past where much misery had occurred. Haunted: it is a genre which uses all the realistic conventions so as to make you believe in and enter the fictional world, and then there is this disruption, this intrusion from the world of the supernatural, at first mild, but then insistent and finally overwhelming.
It evokes in us atavistic beliefs we thought we had almost discarded; the fear of something under the bed, the dark, sudden ounds. We can say almost because many people believe in God or gods, and in supernatural realms, but our beliefs usually don’t unnerve us because they come in the form of controlled doctrines from churches. The church works hard to exclude this kind of belief and include that. The gothic undermines this.
Most deeply it’s a pessimistic questioning of what’s beyond the natural; it’s serious even if popularly treated frivolously. Robert Johnson (the actor who plays Dr Markway — Montague in the novel — the anthropologist-physician) and the director Wise in their voice over commentary in the DVD feature brought up the issue of belief centrally. From one of Johnson’s commentaries: the film prompts or comes out of questions about “what happened to the dead, to one’s relations who died … does it all just end like that; it’s all those things connected to religion as well ..I wonder about these things just like everybody else … where am I going … why am I here … ”
Dr Montague (Richard Johnson) introducing himself to Nell and Theo
The gothic is also metaphysical and asks question about the nature of the universe, about God, about justice and life’s value; Kafkaesque, paranoic and death’s effects are central to the gothic too:
Some sub-genres specialize in horror (violence, the vampire story which attacks people bodily; the werewolf story — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is ultimately a werewolf story); others in terror (spiritual undermining, psychologically traumatized) and that is the ghost story. Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story.
So first we need to define ghost and carefully. A ghost is a the spirit or soul of a living person who died and comes back to haunt those living, usually in malevolent retribution for irretrievable hurt. Very very rare is the benign ghost and it’s no coincidence since people like reassurance and optimistic stories the most famous ghost story is precisely this rare type: Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, where the ghosts come back to redeem Scrooge. Most of the time the ghost are not into redemption.
They form a kind of social protest: social protest books have victims in the center who expose the injustices and cruelties of a system or social/economic/sexual arrangement. I wouldn’t lean too heavily because sometimes the person victimized at the center is actually not to blame for anything at all and makes the mistake of coming to live in this house. Most of the time if you look you find the person has been treated unfairly, is sensitive, and in need of love and comfort and help — so the ghost uses them.
Jackson’s novel as gothic
Eleanor climbing the twisted metal staircase
Montague and others (we too) watching her climb
Eleanor Vance/Lance is the quintessential gothic heroine (it can be a hero): The gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, and the film is brilliantly inward. The house itself is alive: its past includes a number of exploited victimized women. Hugh Crain is like Citizen Kane — back story told up front in movie, brought out slowly in book.
Obviously Eleanor has been taken bad advantage of and is still being taken bad advantage of. spent the last 11 years of life caring for her mother; she is broke, has no car, no place of her own to live, no way to get an independent life; the two women in the story have lesbian orientations so they are just the kind of women our society marginalizes, will not even recognize the existence of
When it’s a woman at the center, she is imprisoned, buried alive, chased down, when it’s a man he’s made an exiles, outcasts; both experience pursuit, being hunted down, labyrinths. So the gothic critiques our society.
The fantasy element is an enabler because it sets up a false screen of frivolity.
Sex is often central — some sexual experience has been very bad — this is seen clearly in Vampire ones. But since we are not doing a vampire one let’s just stick with what we’ve got.
Films have genres and most scary films are horror films: they connect to vampire stories and are physical attacks with computer enhanced imagery today; often sadistic. Wise’s film is not a horror film. The 1999 film is a horror one and the second hour becomes ridiculous. Wise’s film is a psychological study in terror where a woman is slowly driven to lose her mind — other such films as good are The Woman in Black from Susan Hill’s novel; I’ve shown a number of hour long ones from short stories from the BBC archives (Afterward is one)
A young Shirley Jackson
Her life in brief:
Shirley Jackson: in his book, Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, Darrly Hattenhauer tells her life well and concisely. The problem with most lives and the biographies is they have been slanted by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a leading critic, publisher-editor, adept in the kind of critical readings that convince people.
The reality is her writing supported them in their life-style and she did write a lot of junk, meaning short crude gothic fictions, to keep the income flowing in. She did all the housework, had several children; he had affairs openly. She didn’t leave. This was the 1950s and very hard to get a divorce; if you may think the discourse against women today is bad, this was pre-feminism. She became very heavy and that’s a no-no in American society.
Mostly what has happened to her books is they are interpreted
apolitically; as if she has no social protest in them but is merely reflecting her own or other people’s neurotic condition (often women’s). Paradoxically that’s partly because her husband and she were once part of the Young Communist league in the 1940s so to distance them from any politics, it’s all erased. The one good book beyond Hattenhauer is Joan Wylie Hall, Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction.
She is also forgotten and all but her “Lottery” (a startle) and Haunting of Hill House out of print. Like many women her work regarded 20 years later as biodegradable.
She was the daughter of a middle class Republican businessman who sent her to Bennington College where she met and married Hyman in 1937; he did publish her works. Driven as she was and treated the way she was, with the conventional life in the suburbs (this is before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique exposed that), she became alcoholic; later
she used tranquillizers. She did find real comfort in her children. here’s often a sub-theme of protection of children in her books.
How does it reflect the 50s: the story of the woman is central; it’s proto-feminist before feminism became fashionable. Deep upsets in cultural rifts over religion. Like other popular sub-genres the features and characteristics of the kind often make its assertions feel more universal and about the genre.
She did what she could to avoid publicity. Like J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) she was no networker.
Then on her work in general: What she is is a satirist within gothic, showing up human nature as the source or our unjust social arrangements. The society we live in is not some result of imposed conditions; people collude in it. What
we see at the close of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor is thrown out, really heartlessly. If the ghosts are after her, the others want nothing to do with her. She tries to suggest to Theo she could come and live with her, but Theo makes quick work of that. Go back to her sister?
I perfectly understand why Eleanor yields to the spirits of the house and crashes into a tree. We should regard her ending the way we do gods in Homer: the gods in Homer are projections of the inner lives of the characters and so when Venus prompts Aeneas to do something erotic, it’s because Virgil’s Aeneas wants to; but they are also there.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve discovered in the criticism of this book is the idea that it’s all in Eleanor’s mind. That is to blame her, see this neurotic woman and encourage others to despise her. The book is parallel then to The Turn of the Screw; Henry James insisted that the ghosts were malign and there but because he presented them subtlety, many readers insist he is wrong and she is this repressed angry spinster who hurts everyone around her. Can’t
take a joke you see.
It can’t be all in Eleanor’s mind. Crain’s young wife crashed into the tree. Crain’s family was blighted. Theo hears all that
Elinor does; by the end of the novel even Luke is persuaded, and in the movie he gets the last (invented line): “[this house] ought to be burned down and the ground sown with salt.”
The modern 1999 (Jan de Bont) film wants to blame the doctor: in 1999 Liam Nelson as the physician has this secret exploitative agenda to further his career; in the book, Dr Montague is a genuine researcher into psychic phenomena who is making no money on his investigations. He may be wrong to play with the spirits as many a person in gothic is, but he is not personally to blame except insofar as he doesn’t take responsibility for others he has brought here. We are our brother’s keepers. Jackson does not incline to Cain’s heresy (I refer to the Biblical Cain).
There is a semi-comic parallel plot in Jackson’s novel with the Dr wife’s Mrs Montague and her silly planchette board, but she is doing explicitly what lies behind the gothic: trying to get in touch with gods. Arthur is her absurd sidekick: there is a parody of the form, a self-reflexive feel to it.
Very refreshing is the lack of a love story. I am sorry to say the 1963 film does project an implicit thwarted love story between Eleanor and the doctor: Eleanor yearns for him. There is no sense of that in the book. If anyone, Eleanor years for the companionship of Theo is made into a closet lesbian – Wise was aware of this and tried to hint at all. Theo is briefly chased by Luke but she quickly debunks and pushes him away.
Outline of novel, followed by how the 1963 film adaptation differs
Eleanor’s Thelma and Louise moment
Chapter 1, p 3:
The opening paragraph with phrases that end the books: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” Introduces the characters, Dr Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theo, Luke.
Eleanor’s escape from her unkind exploitative relatives with her car (half hers) and we see the working class world of the US; its malls, family types; past the bullying gatekeeper, Mr Dudley
Chapter 2, p 34
Eleanor gets in, Mrs Dudley, her blue room, meeting Theo, the walk in the landscape — a difference from the film is in the film all takes place inside the house once Eleanor gets past her car ride; the idea was to be claustrophobic. In the novel the characters wander about the landscape — with hope; they hope to have a picnic even. Eleanor buoyed by her new relationship: she hopes Theo and she will be like sisters; Theo does at least say they shall be cousins.
Chapter 3, p 56
Luke, Dr Montague, the explanation. The first night’s dinner. They are to take notes (making fun — like Ashima (Namesake) shelves books as opposed to reading them). What are the good of notes if you don’t have any brains. Bits of the back story begin to emerge: p. 67: the first woman crashed against a tree even before she got to the house. Pp. 71-82: the rest of the history; the growing up of two daughters, their fierce rivalry over money (very common in US life), how the younger was married (Theo persists with invented story she cut out the older – a common happening) and envied the older for her dishes. Older loved the house, grew old, companion came to live with her: parallel with Eleanor and perhaps neglected her. The companion inherited the house and the Saundersons are the heirs and relatives of the unnamed companion. Often women are unnamed in gothics. Like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca where we never learn the name of the narrator. We learn Theo is lesbian in orientation; Dr Montague reads Pamela; also likes Sterne, Fielding, Smollett
Chapter 4, p 93
First breakfast; investigating house; more talk introducing characters, interrelationships; first terrifying night: the knocking begins.
Chapter 5, p 136
Dr Montague’s first statement he will turn Eleanor out of the house. Histories of ghosts (o. 139ff); the writing on the wall; the cold spot in the hall (p. 150); Theo’s clothes covered in blood, she removes into Eleanor’s side of their shared space; evil spirit puts ugly thoughts in Eleanor’s mind (p. 159); where she slips backwards on the terrace and could have fallen. Eleanor talk to Dr Montague with great sincerity about how she hates to see herself slipping away; they smell in her a potential victim and they begin to circle her (p. 160). About a third of the way in central sequence; Luke finds handwriting: Help Eleanor Come Home; the night of terror where Eleanor thinks she is holding Theo’s hand and it turns out not so
Chapter 6, p 164
Eleanor learning “the pathways of the heart.” Book for daughter Sophia Craine by Demond Lester Crain found, p 168. Fearful illustrations. Theo curses Crain (p. 171) They wander in the landscape with Luke (pp. 173-80).
Chapter 7, p 179
Mrs Montague coming; again Eleanor is outside. The comic inadequacy of her insensitivity; Mrs Montague goes to live in hursery; the planchette with Arthur again produces a message about Eleanor and home. The four caught in the parlor, and terrible pounding, and cannot reach the nursery (pp. 196-205)
Chapter 8, p 206
The landscape, jokes about rabbits, Eleanor begs Theo to take her back with her, Theo harsh and unkind, Eleanor followed in landscape while Luke and Theo joining forces
Chapter 9, p 227
By this time Eleanor has lost her sanity in effect; the sequence in the hall, the statues, her climbing the stairway, but no one is sympathetic, and they seek to rid themselves of her and she smashes into tree.
The 1963 film: it is not a horror film, but film noir: see comment: The Haunting as film noir
The last seconds of the film: all look at the wreck
All happens inside — significant change. Mrs Montague comes only in the equivalent of Chapter 9, her face at the top of the stairway used to terrify Eleanor down and again to drive her into driving the car into the tree.
The back story is simplified in the film: Hugh Grain now has only two wives, not three, and just one daughter, not two. Also, Wise gives us our history lesson immediately after the opening title sequence: An unidentified speaker (who we soon discover is Dr. John “Markway” [Richard Johnson]) provides voice-over narration to accompany what we can only assume is an objective/omniscient montage of Crain’s first wife dying in a carriage crash, of his daughter Abigail spending most of her life inside Hill House’s nursery (an extraordinary temporal ellipsis is achieved here via special effects as Abigail’s face transforms from child to adult to elderly woman without any apparent cuts), and of old Miss Crain’s female companion committing suicide in the tower. By way of contrast, Jackson’s Dr. Montague does not share his knowledge of Hill House’s dark past until much later.
Dr. Montague a slim, clean-shaven, and decidedly romantic figure in the film; Dr. Markway to take the object of Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) affection, with the result that their scenes together operate on multiple discursive levels: They converse not only as scientist-subject, teacher-pupil, and doctor-patient, but as potential lovers.
There are three additional differences: 1) Dr. Markway’s wife plays a much smaller role in Wise’s film than does Dr. Montague’s wife in the book, and the latter spouse’s hyper-masculine (though quite possibly asexual or lover-friend) Arthur does not appear in the film at all.
Theo’s relationship with Eleanor: in the book extremely ambivalent, is in the film here rendered in somewhat (though not entirely) more straightforward lesbian (if implicit) terms. On the one hand, Jackson’s Theo, although probably gay, expresses only a mild attraction toward Eleanor, and by the end of the novel seems to be hitting it off quite well with Luke. Wise’s Theo (Claire Bloom), in contrast, makes a number of fairly obvious passes at Eleanor and evinces a strong negative reaction toward Luke. Going in the other direction, Theo’s insensitivity, if not outright cruelty, toward Eleanor becomes manifest as The Haunting of Hill House proceeds (“I don’t understand. . . . Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” ); in the 1963 film, Theo only becomes angry in response to Eleanor’s own expressions of jealousy and animosity.
Finally, Eleanor’s last moments alive are handled quite differently by Jackson and Wise. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor’s death drive is, at least until the “unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree,” a) indisputably self-willed–perhaps even suicidal–act: “I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel. . . . I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself” (245). Gidding and Wise, almost certainly under pressure to rule out suicide as a possible motive for their protagonist’s demise, make it cle ar that Eleanor is not trying to kill herself, that the wheel of her car is being controlled by an outside force that she cannot resist, despite her strongest efforts.
Movie is less sympathetic to Eleanor’s dread of going home; makes more of the Crain presence in the house; the house becomes a chief character, a malign alive presence. In book Eleanor seems to alienate them all from her; they seem to feel she has in her the spirits of the house; in the movie they are protecting her from these spirits and thus themselves.
Read Full Post »