The Haunting Power of the House:
How Shirley Jackson Uses Architecture to Unsettle Readers in The Haunting of Hill House
“It watches,” he added suddenly. “The house. It watches every move you make.”
The Haunting of Hill House is a novel written by Shirley Jackson and published in 1959. The book is widely considered a classic of horror literature and has been adapted into several films and television series. The novel is centred around Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a shy and lonely woman who becomes Montague’s assistant; Theodora, a bohemian artist; and Luke Sanderson, the young heir to Hill House. The story follows these characters as they spend a summer at Hill House in an attempt to investigate and document supernatural occurrences.
I’ve written before about “economic horror” and the way the haunted house is often used as a means to trap the protagonists. Usually featuring some variation on families who bought a new home, often one they can’t really afford, and then when the haunting begins, can’t really afford to leave. While I don’t think money and economic themes are central to the plot of Hill House they do play a minor role. Throughout the novel, there are references to the financial struggles faced by some of the characters, particularly Eleanor Vance, who is depicted as being economically disadvantaged and having to live on a limited income. These references serve to underscore the vulnerability and insecurity of the characters, adding to the overall sense of unease and horror in the novel.
However in this case I’m more interested in how Jackson uses the house itself to create a feeling of creeping dread. There are many themes present throughout the novel, particularly the themes of isolation, mental health, the supernatural, and the American dream. The novel explores the characters’ inner demons and fears, and one of the techniques that really adds to the sense of unease is the way the house itself is used as a metaphor for the characters’ repressed emotions and anxieties. This creates a sense of tension that is palpable throughout the novel.
One example is in the way the house seems to change and warp around them. The house is described as having strange angles and dimensions that seem to shift and change, making it difficult for the characters to navigate.
Similarly, as the novel progresses, I think the reader can see how the house’s layout, the way it’s described, and how it behaves, intensifies the characters’ fears and anxieties. The house’s design, and the way the characters perceive it, reflects their own mental state and the reader can observe how their perception of the house changes as their mental state deteriorates.
The house also seems to be actively trying to torment and manipulate them, the characters often feel as if the house is alive and has a will of its own. But is this psychological or supernatural! On the flip side the house is also described as being indifferent to the characters, which reflects their own feelings of isolation and loneliness.
The opening paragraph even after all this time still has the power to send a shiver up my spine.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”