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Literary Review of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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The opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is considered to be one of the most poignant, meaningful, and undoubtedly most famous openings in the horror genre, if not in all fiction. To consume is to destroy or expend by use. Most people associate consume

Female Gothic: “Claire Kahane identifies the characteristics of traditional Gothic narratives, including “an imposing structure” within which the protagonist, “typically a young woman whose mother has died, is compelled to seek out the center of the mystery, while vague and usually sexual threats to her person from some powerful male figure hover on the periphery of her consciousness”.

Dissociation/Depersonalization: The act or mental state of not connecting to oneself or not feeling real. Possibly More later.

Horror has been one of my favorite genres for years and The Haunting Of Hill House is one of the most well-known and influential works in the horror genre. The idea of a house that was evil from its conception and was not haunted by an outside force is incredibly intriguing and fascinating to me. Hill House hates humanity and wants to hurt, scare, and consume its inhabitants. Eleanor’s fragile mental health and psyche also represent important elements in horror that are almost always present, even if in a more subtle manner. Psychological horror is much more terrifying and insidious to me than a ghost, ghoul, or vampire could ever be, and is something that has captured my attention for years.

Shirley Jackson uses the idea of a sentient and malevolent house that is desperate to consume and will do anything to achieve its goals to portray haunted houses and their effect on the human psyche in The Haunting of Hill House.

All Quotes Are Temporarily Blue and Italicized

Something that has fascinated readers for decades is how Shirley Jackson portrays haunted houses in a different manner from many other authors before and after her. Jackson chose for Hill House, itself, to be the evil entity of the story rather than haunted by something evil. A question that is commonly piqued by those who are drawn in by this story is: why did Jackson choose for Hill House to be alive? The only answers known are merely speculation, but either way, it has raised quite a lot of discussion of this topic, although it is not the main focus of those who have read this novel. The main focus that people who read The Haunting of Hill House have is the fascination of Hill House’s desire to consume and devour.; as well as the question of why Hill House is so evil.

Throughout the novel, we learn about the history of Hill House and how it was built but we never learn how it achieved its current state. It’s possible to argue that it doesn’t matter who built Hill House or when they did, and all that matters is that Hill House is a powerful force; something that cannot be changed or destroyed, and would exude evil for as long as it stood or anyone remembered it,“Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.”, and that there is nothing that anyone or anything could do to change it. There is a question that is posed of whether or not Hill House became evil due to all of the misfortune of its inhabitants, or whether all of the misfortune took place due to the malicious nature of the house, ‘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’. It is revealed that Hill House was built 80 years ago, and yet, in that relatively short period of time, it has inexplicably become extremely powerful and insatiable.

Hill House is portrayed as a living, a sentient creature that is hungry and wants to consume and devour its inhabitants,“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside. “No,” she said aloud, and the one word echoed.”, who are weak and just a thing for the House to toy with and then eat.

Something that many readers question is whether or not Hill House feeds off of misery. It is a debatable matter as it is unclear if the House feeds solely off of misery and suffering or if it needs an influx of people to keep it alive. Also, the question has arisen as to if Hill House really needs to consume its victims or it just likes to play and toy with its victims, for some form of sick and malevolent joy. The House seems to need to devour people in order to survive and thrive, but it takes pleasure in drawing in more and more victims and conjuring up misery within them, and cruelly toying with them in order to get what it wants.

“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”

It is a thing of curiosity as to why Hill House wants some people and not others, but a reason proposed is that Hill House feeds on the vulnerable and weak, it finds the people who are the most fragile and seeks to destroy them for its own benefit, “The house was waiting now, she thought, and it was waiting for her; no one else could satisfy it.”. Some people who pass through the walls of Hill House are simply the type of person that does not appeal to Hill House: those who are too strong-willed, or sure of themselves, or ignorant; but most are victims in some way or they are useful for furthering the House’s agenda. The house provides people with things that they want or that could appeal to them in some way,“All of them stood in silence for a moment and looked at HELP ELEANOR COME to HOME ELEANOR written in shaky red letters on the wallpaper over Theodora’s bed.”, although the writing frightened and upset Eleanor, it was proof that a desire of Eleanor’s was being filled: the desire to be wanted and to have someplace to belong. Hill House preys on the people who are already vulnerable and focuses on them because it knows that they will be easier to wear down and claim as its victim.

Although Hill House is a force of evil, it is still a house and cannot kill its prey through typical violent means so instead, Hill House does not kill people, it forces and coerces them into killing themselves, “In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”. Eleanor also feels some form of pride in the fact that she is killing herself ‘on her own’, which is really just Hill Houses’ influence on her being stronger than ever. However, right before Eleanor kills herself, the House relinquishes its control and influence over her mind to torment her with the fact that Hill House has won and that it is too late for her or anyone else to save her.

Hill House is able to infiltrate the minds of its victims and change their perception of reality and what they value, “I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.”. Hill House toys with its victims and makes them want to stay, one example of that circumstance is when Eleanor loses sight of reality when the others try to make her leave and starts talking about being walled up alive and wanting to stay at the house. It is also able to convince its victims that things happening outside of the House are inconsequential and makes them seem unimportant and imaginary, ‘We are on a desert island,’ Luke said. ‘I can’t picture any world but Hill House,’ Eleanor said.”, even if that means that they forget the people that were once important to them. Towards the end of the novel, the House’s grip truly takes hold of Eleanor and causes her to lose sight of reality as she can no longer remember who the other characters are, or what they mean to her, or how they met. Eleanor was always imaginative and had a slightly loose grip of reality, but the House makes it much more tenuous and strained, and truly twists Eleanor’s mind so that she has a hard time differentiating fantasy from reality. It even gets to the point where the House has so thoroughly and completely infiltrated Eleanor’s mind that she thinks by dying and staying at the house that she will have finally ‘deserved’ the happiness that she had wanted her whole life but had eluded her.

“Eleanor laughed. “But I can’t leave,” she said, wondering where to find words to explain.”

Something quite fascinating is the effect that haunted houses have on the human psyche. In real life and in fiction, when people enter a haunted house (or what they perceive to be a haunted house) their fight or flight response is invoked, mostly due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of their situation, which typically fills people with fear. The instinctual and very human response of trying desperately to survive, through any means necessary is particularly pertinent in this novel, ‘Fear,’ the doctor said, ‘is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishment of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.’. Hill House is able to use the fear of its victims against them and turn it into a weapon.

Hill House’s effect on Eleanor

Hill House twists and corrupts the emotions and the minds of anyone who inhabits it, the house is able to shift people’s perception of life and how they should act; it amplifies certain thoughts and emotions to manipulate its inhabitants into giving it what it wants. Eleanor is the weakest and most vulnerable of the characters and Hill House easily twists and amplifies her emotions, changing her into a more volatile and fragile person who is closer to their breaking point. One such example is Eleanor’s anger, “Nell?” Theodora looked up at her and smiled. “I really am sorry, you know,” she said. I would like to watch her dying, Eleanor thought, and smiled back and said, “Don’t be silly.”, the house makes it so that Eleanor is cruel and petty, even to Theodora, who she has become quite close to and causes her to act like a bad caricature of herself. Eleanor’s obsession also manifests itself quite strongly as Eleanor is truly filled with an obsession, a desire, a need to be wanted and have someplace to belong and to escape from the mundane and provincial life that she had led in the past, which is something that Hill House takes advantage of, to the point where Eleanor believes, for the first time in her life that she can be happy and that Hill House is the place where that will happen, all while she is slowly becoming a more compliant and willing victim for the House. Eleanor starts to think of the others as her family and imagines the life that they could have together, especially with Theodora“Eleanor smiled placidly. ‘I’ve never been wanted anywhere,’ she said.”. Another aspect of Eleanor that Hill House is able to manipulate is her fear. Eleanor is afraid of not having someplace to belong, people who want her, but most of all of herself. Before she reaches Hill House, Eleanor has a tenuous grasp of who she is, but as the novel progresses and Hill House’s hold on her grows stronger, she loses her sense of self utterly and completely which at first pleases her as she didn’t quite like who she used to be, but she comes to value it and becomes upset that she is losing herself, ‘There’s only one of me, and it’s all I’ve got. I hate seeing myself dissolve and slip and separate so that I’m living in one half, my mind, and I see the other half of me helpless and frantic and driven and I can’t stop it’. Eleanor also feels that she has reached the point where her name is the only thing in her life that belongs to her and is her only tie to who she is, and that she cannot bear the fact that it is being abused.

“Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought; it was my own choice to come”.

“I would never have suspected it of myself, Eleanor thought, laughing still; everything is different, I am a new person, very far from home.’

Eleanor is filled with guilt over her mother’s death and her part in it, which is another thing that the House uses to its advantage, as Eleanor hears banging on the wall and assumes that it is her sick mother calling for her before she remembers that she is in Hill House and her mother is dead, which she believes is her fault because she ignored her mother when she was calling for her in the middle of the night before she died.

Eleanor’s desire to escape is something which drives her to Hill House and makes her a particularly vulnerable target, as she has no one who cares about her enough to worry about her and she has no one who she cares for. She is so desperate to get away that she accepts a strange invitation to go someplace equally strange without much questioning. When Eleanor decided to go to Hill House and she drove away, she experienced and cherished her sense of freedom and the fact that no one had any idea where she was going or for what reason. Eleanor also relished the thought that no one would be able to catch her, even though she had not done anything to warrant people trying to catch her. Hill House was also able to use and manipulate the fact that Eleanor had always felt like an outsider her whole life, and that she had some sort of destiny that was greater than her normal and mundane life waiting for her, and was able to convince her that Hill House was her destiny and that it was the place she had always been waiting for.

“No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.”

Another aspect of Eleanor’s mind that Hill House is able to control is what she says as well as the motivations for speaking, as when the characters share information about themselves Eleanor tells them that she lives alone when she lives with her sister and creates an ideal life that she tells the others about that is made up of bits and pieces of her desires and what she saw on her journey to Hill House. In this ideal life of Eleanor, she would be completely unknown and untraceable with no one ever knowing where she is and she also mentioned that she would plant oleanders by the road in order to ensure that no one is able to access her house and bother her. The fact that Eleanor came up with an elaborate dream of a house and a life where she could just keep people away and be safe reveals quite a bit about Eleanor’s character and her desires. Eleanor also tells the others that she is 34 and not her actual age of 32 for some defiant reason that is inexplicable to her, which begs the question of if the house had already started to influence and effect by that point.

Hill House is able to completely overpower Eleanor’s mind causing her to have some sort of psychotic breakdown and for the house to use her to further its own agenda. She runs through the halls banging on the walls and doors, despite having been terrified herself only a few nights ago by a similar banging sound, and she does so to toy with the others and to scare them if they looked to see what was going on. Originally, Eleanor is unable to distinguish whether or not the banging is in her own head or if she is the one creating all the noise, and is confused by the fact that the others are able to hear a noise that she thinks is in her own head, “ … how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?”, and she is also unable to realize that she is only furthering her own descent into madness at the behest of Hill House.

Although Eleanor is the one who is most vulnerable and the House’s preferred victim, Hill House still affects the others in some way. It could be said that the House doesn’t want any of the others except for Eleanor and the only reason that the House is influencing them is to make Eleanor feel at home there and then destroy her relationships with the other characters so that she is isolated and much more easy to control and manipulate.

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Literary Review of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from
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