Study Guide

The Haunting of Hill House

By Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House Introduction

The Haunting of Hill House began scaring years off its readers' lives in 1959 and hasn't stopped since.

Now, Shirley Jackson didn't invent the Gothic haunted house. Not even close. That honor usually goes to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, from way back in 1765. Horace's trademark setting gave the genre its name and made generations of writers and readers addicted to stories of decaying medieval castles, hidden passages behind bookcases, and mysteries surrounding ancient curses.

Other writers taking up the Gothic tradition before Jackson include a pantheon of literary awesomeness: try Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë,  Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner on for size. Heck, even Scooby-Doo beat Jackson to the punch by blending one part Gothic tale with one part the Hardy Brothers mystery and adding a dash of cartoony goodness.

So, if Shirley Jackson was following a super long tradition of Gothic literature lovers, then why does her name rank so highly on any list of horror fiction? What's all the hubbub, bub? Simply put: Jackson may not have got there first, but once she did get there, she rocked the genre with the best of them.

The Haunting of Hill House tells the chilling tale of socially repressed Eleanor Vance, who heads to Hill House to partake in an experiment involving paranormal activities. But the horrors of Hill House don't come in the form of ghosts or vampires or werewolves. Instead, Eleanor and company must contend with the House itself—and with their haunted histories—if they are to survive their encounter with the malevolent mansion.

This novel's success can be measured by how many students, academics, horror enthusiasts, and general readers hold it and its author in such high esteem. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1960—though it lost to Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. One critic said that Jackson's ability to "[detect] horror in the everyday" and her "rapier-sharp prose" made her a 20th century Ambrose Bierce (source). And famed author Stephen King called Hill House one of the two great horror novels of the past one hundred years (source).

After its release, the novel was adapted into a movie by famed director Robert Wise. It was released in 1963 and called simply The Haunting (maybe they couldn't afford the print on the last three words?). Today, it is considered one of the best horror movies of all time, and then some. The film was remade in 1999 by Jan de Bont. While the 1999 version has that new movie smell, the 1963 version remains the definitive adaptation of Jackson's work.

Sadly, Jackson would die a mere six years after the release of Hill House, at the young age of 48. She gave the world only one more novel in that time, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And though her ghost isn't known to haunt any houses, her pages have haunted bookshelves for decades—and if you're lucky, dear Shmooper, she will soon haunt your own.

What is The Haunting of Hill House About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever felt lonely, out of place, or unsure what you should do next? Have you ever had a hard time connecting with the people around you? Ever wanted something new and exciting to shake you out of the humdrum of the everyday? Have you liked someone who didn't like you in that way? Oh, and here's a big one: does your family not quite get you? If you answered yes to any of those questions—and, if you're human, chances are you did—then The Haunting of Hill House is a book you should care about.

On the surface, this novel reads like typical fare. Four people spend a week in a house where unexplainable happenings run amok. Unseen forces knock on doors, enigmatic messages are written on walls in blood, and ghostly voices sing haunting renditions of children's songs. If you're here for another good scare, Hill House won't disappoint.

But the real reason you should care about this novel is the characters. Eleanor and company are portrayed as true flesh-and-blood people, and the fears they encounter in Hill House are the intimate fears we all deal with at some point in our lives: fear of loneliness, fear of love, fear of ourselves, fear of the unknown, and so on. The novel doesn't provide easy answers to calm these fears, so don't ask. But if you want a mature and thought-provoking exploration of everyday as well as supernatural horrors, then you are in for some engaging, if sleepless, nights.

The Haunting of Hill House Resources

Websites

Them Deets
Shirley Jackson's website gives you the details on her life and works. Read on, good Shmooper, read on.

And the Winner Is…
How do you tell if you've made it as an author? Answer: when they name an award after you. Or a boat. One of the two.

RIP
The New York Times gives Shirley Jackson a proper send-off. Tragically, Jackson passed away 48 years young.

Resourcing
This website has some amazing resources for the fan or student of Shirley Jackson. Well done, Virginia Commonwealth University; well done, indeed.

Movie or TV Productions

Black & White & Amazing
50 years later, this Robert Wise masterpiece does Jackson proud. A must-watch.

Hauntingly Bad
This remake of the 1963 adaptation is stupendously entertaining—if viewed as a comedy.

Articles and Interviews

Know-It-All
And not in a bad way. Joyce Carol Oates is one smart person, and in this interview, she shares her knowledge of all things Shirley Jackson.

The Other Mother
You know the Hallmark image of the mother—floral-patterned apron, fresh pie in hand, and an amused shake of her head as the boys try to steal a bite? Yeah, not so much. NPR gives us three books honestly dealing with our maternal relations, The Haunting of Hill House among them.

Celebrate Good Books, Come On
The Internet Review of Science Fiction celebrates 50 years of The Haunting of Hill House by throwing one heck of a party. Well, more essay, less party, but it's still one heck of an essay.

Two of a Kind
Erin Horakova talks The Haunting of Hill House and compares it to another Gothic haunt of Jackson's, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It's two great discusses for the price of reading one essay.

Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Specters
John J. Miller examines Jackson's novel to decide if it's genre fiction, literary fiction, or its own beast entirely. Hint: choose "All of the Above."

Reader, Meet Shirley; Shirley, Meet the Reader
Laura Miller introduces her blog readers to The Haunting of Hill House in this well-written entry. She discusses the novel's characters, its literary lineage, its setting... you know, the works.

Wasting No Words
Sophie Missing considers The Haunting of Hill House the definitive haunted house story in this short-and-to-the-point essay for The Guardian.

An Oldie but a Goodie
Monsterzine discusses why The Haunting (1963) remains relevant for horror fans despite a lack of CGI ghosts and fountains upon fountains of blood.

Video

Back in the Day
Here's the trailer for the 1963 adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Yes, they really did have trailers back in the day—no computers to watch them on, though. You had to drive these buildings called… movie theaters or something.

Redundant Remake
From the director of Twister and Speed? Really? That's the guy they thought would be perfect to remake The Haunting? As this trailer hints, he wasn't quite the perfect fit.

Free Sample
A sample of the 1963 version of The Haunting. Just one, though. Wouldn't want to ruin your appetite for the film, would we?

Oh, All Right
Another great scene from the 1963 film. Now go watch this movie already. Seriously!

Audio

Unabridged Goodness
An audiobook for Jackson's horror masterpiece. It's unabridged because you don't want to miss one word of it.

Images

First and Foremost
The first edition cover for The Haunting of Hill House. We love the way Hill House sits in the long grass like a predator ready to kill. Brilliant!

Lovin' It
A contemporary cover for Jackson's novel. Notice how Hill House almost seems locked up behind the gate. These covers sure have a lot going for them.

The Madame of Horror
Shirley Jackson herself, the mind behind the terror of Hill House.

Star of the Show
An exterior shot of Hill House from the 1963 film. Fun fact: Ettington Hall served as Hill House's… actor (?)… for the film's exterior shots.

Cover Up
Looks like a real cover, doesn't it? It's actually a wonderful bit of fan art that deserves to sit on any bookshelf.

Casting Call
The cast of the 1963 film, looking terrified.

Floating Head Syndrome
The poster for the 1999 adaptation. Like most 90s posters, floating heads abound.

Pulpy
Although not directly related to Hill House, this cover is too good to pass up. It belongs to Jackson's masterful short story "The Lottery," and the pulp era inspiration is so far removed from Jackson's style as to be almost commendable.