One of the most fascinating classes I took in college was my Ghost Story literature class. It was also one of the most difficult classes I took, but it was so interesting that I will admit it was worth the struggle. One aspect of ghost stories that fascinates me is the insight they often give into human psychology. Yes, ghost stories are often far beyond realistic, but that is part of the point. They use an incredibly creative and far-fetched premise to grab our attention, and as we read the story, we are forced to analyze how human beings respond to fear when they are in the depths of what they cannot explain; therefore, ghost stories both reveal our human weaknesses and fragility of life. One of the stories my class read that stood out to me the most was the 1959 book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. While I will admit that I actually liked the 1963 film better than the book, I still think it is quite clear why Jackson’s story forever influenced and set the standard for the genre of paranormal literature.
Eleanor Vance is a kind woman who has never really been able to live a life of her own. She has spent years caring for her ill mother, and she sleeps on a cot in her sister’s home. She has no home or family of her own, and although she is a fully-grown woman, she does not seem to have ever had any sense of true freedom. One day, she receives an opportunity that she cannot resist. A place called Hill House has long possessed a reputation for being haunted due to its tragic history with its occupants, and a man named Dr. Montague is determined to discover the truth about the mysterious abode once and for all. He invites Eleanor to join the group he has assembled to live in Hill House over the summer, and while this proposition would deter many, Eleanor is enthralled by the idea. Eleanor joins Dr. Montague, his wife, the nephew of the current owner of Hill House, and a woman named Theodora, and they quickly discover that there is far more truth than hearsay to the rumors about Hill House.
There is a line in the story that says, “Whatever walked in that house walked alone” (Jackson 1). The Haunting of Hill House is not a particularly happy tale, but it delves into the subject of the desire for human connection. Eleanor, who has been so deprived of human connections for much of her life, forms a special bond with the incredibly toxic home because she is the most vulnerable and feels more at home there than she did with her family. She clings to the people in her group because they are the first chance she has had to make friends in ages. Eventually, however, her bond with the house consumes her and ruins her relationship with the rest of the group. She becomes an entirely different person, all because she has an unending hunger to feel close to something. How often do we make hasty decisions and run into toxic situations out of desperation for love, attention, or belonging? How many times do we sell ourselves short because we are raw and desperate, and how many times do people take advantage of us because our weaknesses give them a foothold? Yes, this story is highly fictitious, but our loneliness often haunts us and follows us everywhere we go, much like the environment of Hill House.
Jackson uses a thrilling setting and breath-taking descriptions to captivate the readers, and even Stephen King hails this story as one of the best horror stories of all time. (Those of you who are familiar with The Shining will find elements that are reminiscent of Jackson’s story.) Jackson uses a character who seems like any lady we would meet at church, work, or the grocery store and sets her within a place that none of us would ever be able to fathom, and then she exposes how other people’s treatment of Eleanor affected her. Eleanor’s behavior and weaknesses can at least partially be traced back to how her family kept her on a leash and never allowed her to make a life of her own. We make poor decisions in order to fill the gaping voids in our lives or in an attempt to find happiness, but those poor decisions also tend to bring others into the gutter with us.
The Haunting of Hill House is a tale that captures a powerful image of humanity, and it has stood the test of time because it challenges other writers to do the same.