Happy Halloween everyone! It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and you know what that means! I’m going to read a scary book and then ramble about the many adaptations of that book, hoping to see how good the adaptations are, and how powerful the book has become. And, because I apparently can’t make anything in my life easy, I found a way to make this year’s spooky installment of Film Library even more complicated than last years. Last year I talked about Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and the three incredibly different adaptations that it spawned. So, to up the difficulty, I decided to tackle one of the greatest ghost stories of all time this year, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s a beloved and massive figure in the horror world and it’s been made into two vastly different movies, along with a brand new Netflix television series. So, buckle up and get ready to talk about some fussy British ghosts!
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
Shirley Jackson, who is probably most known for her short story “The Lottery,” wrote this novel thanks to a fascination with the idea of ghosts, haunted houses, and the paradoxical idea of scientists trying to ascertain the unknowable. She learned about the concept of scientists in the 1800’s going through the process of trying to scientifically research haunted houses, leading to incredibly dry and stuffy papers that didn’t really have any sort of answers. The idea of a group of stuffy scientists heading into a decidedly unscientific situation in to hopes of explaining the preternatural was very intriguing to Jackson, and she got to work attempting to tell a story from these sorts of people’s perspective. Not a dry tome after the fact, but a gripping story of people who are experiencing something explainable while trying to find logic in it. And it ended up working rather well. The book has continued to be a seminal work in the horror genre, often being considered one of the finest horror novels of all time. It tells a ghost story in a very different way, relying less of typical scares and horror, and instead using good old-fashioned character-driven terror.
The novel tells the story of a group of people who are planning on staying in a supposedly haunted house, known as Hill House, to research what’s actually going on inside of it. The group is led by a mild-mannered aging paranormal investigator named Dr. John Montague, and includes a meek woman named Eleanor Vance, a strong-willed an flamboyant artist named Theodora, and Luke Sanderson a cocky young man whose family own Hill House. But they weren’t the ones to build it. The House was originally built by the Crain family, who had nothing but bad luck inside the house. Several deaths, a bitter feud between sisters that led to insanity and seclusion, and a whole host of accidents have led people who have no interest in the House, writing it off as cursed. So, Dr. Montague was able to get a temporary lease, finding time and two willing participants to help him investigate the House, hoping to see what’s actually going on. And that tale is primarily told from the perspective of Eleanor, a sad woman who has spent her entire life caring for her cruel and sickly mother. The mother has recently died, and finding herself adrift with no idea what to do with her life, Eleanor accepted the position of a research assistant, finding herself quickly in over her head.
Hill House is an incredibly strange place, built in a manner that’s incredibly easy to get lost and disorientated in. They spend a majority of their time wandering through the house, trying to get their bearing, and straining to figure out the layout. There are several odd features of the building, including some seemingly supernatural ones, including an unexplained cold spot in front of the nursery where the last remaining Crain died. But, after a few days of getting used to the house, the real horror begins. Every night the crew are bombarded with strange sounds and sights, including a terrifying pounding on their doors. There’s not explanation for it, but they’re confident that their continued presence in the House will eventually yield some sort of answers. And, to make matters stranger, messages start appearing on the walls of the House, specifically calling out Eleanor by name, telling her she’s home. And, as things continue to get more and more dire, they’re given some additional companionship when Dr. Montague’s domineering and cruel wife and her partner Arthur arrive at the house. Mrs. Montague is a spiritualist who believes that the ghosts inside Hill House need to be communicated with, not studied. She and Arthur begin attempting to speak to the ghosts, being promptly ignored so the spirits can continue to harass our primary four characters. But, after a week of this treatment, Eleanor starts acting incredibly strange. The rest of the crew become worried that she’s either going mad or getting possessed by the House, and decide she should leave. She fights back, fleeing through the House and not wanting to go back to her sad life. But, they eventually catch her and force her to leave the House, for her own good. And, in response, Eleanor promptly commits suicide on the grounds of the house, running her car into the same tree that one of the Crains died at decades ago, adding another death to Hill House’s roster.
The Haunting of Hill House is a wonderfully spooky little book. It’s just under 250 pages and makes for a really quick read, and ones that’s jam-packed with atmosphere. The novel doesn’t really rely on horror and scares. Instead in focuses on terror and tension, lulling the reader into a false sense of security and then slowly ratcheting up the strange occurrences, the unreliability of Eleanor’s narration, and the all-encompassing sense of dread that the novel ends on. There aren’t many vivid descriptions of the actual ghostly actions, many of them specifically being hidden from Eleanor, which ends up having a similar effect as the shark in Jaws. Because the novel doesn’t go into depth describing the house or the horrible things that are happening in the house, instead focusing on how the characters are reacting to them, we’re allowed to fill that in by ourselves, making it so much scarier. It’s tense, it’s terrifying, it’s character-driven, and it’s just a hell of a great read.
THE FIRST FILM
The Haunting of Hill House was very popular when it was first released in 1959, which of course meant that it was going to be brought to life on the silver screen, sooner or later. And, the book eventually fell into the lap of director Robert Wise while wrapping up West Side Story. He loved the book, and decided that he would make it his next project, putting it into the hands of screenwriter Nelson Gidding. Gidding also found the novel fascinating, but decided that it wasn’t actually a book about the supernatural, instead viewing it as an elaborate metaphor for mental illness. And, once Shirley Jackson pushed back on that, insisting that it was supposed to be a story of the supernatural, Gidding and Wise decided to kind of hybridize those concept, creating a film that was ambiguous. And, some confluence of those elements made the film not particularly appealing to the studios. Wise was either rejected or low-balled by all the American studios he had experience with, so he decided to travel to England, working with a British studio to bring the film to life in the way that he envisioned. And yet, it wasn’t a huge success. The film did moderately, and was given pretty lackluster reviews, most people finding the film too complicated and confusing. But, over the years the film has grown in standing, often getting referred to as one of the greatest horror films of the era.
The Haunting has a very similar premise as it’s literary influence, just with some relatively minor tweaks. It’s still about a large abandoned house, called Hill House, that was created by a seemingly cursed family known as the Crain’s. The House has stood abandoned for quite some time, until a charming and smooth-talking paranormal researcher named Dr. John Markway as he convinces a woman named Sanderson who owns the House now to let him research the paranormal goings on. He then invites a series of people who have experience with the paranormal to become his research assistants, ending up with only two people willing to come to Hill House. Eleanor Lance and Theodora show up to Hill House where they meet up with Markway and Luke Sanderson, the spoiled heir to the Sanderson family who is required to be in the House with everyone. And from there, the film plays out incredibly similarly to the book. The wander the house, find the strange aspects of it, and come in contact with what appears to be a vengeful poltergeist.
But, while all of this is going on, Eleanor begins to find herself being happier than she’s ever been before. She’s lived a terrible, repressed life, and in Hill House she’s allowed to be a brave, modern woman with a self-created backstory. And, in the process of tricking herself into being someone she’s not, she ends up starting to fall in love with Dr. Markway. Theodore gives Eleanor a lot of grief about this, since she’s much meaner to the simple Eleanor in this film, but she can’t help but fall for the dashing leader of the group. Which is of course when Markway’s cold wife Grace shows up. Alone this time. Grace is a massive skeptic, and finds Markway’s fascination with supernatural to be completely annoying. So, she’s arrived with the request of seeing what all the fuss is about, demanding to be put in the most haunted area of the House.
So, against their wishes, they put Grace in the nursery that night, the most obviously haunted room in the House. And, that night as the quarter meet up in the lounge, they witness the most obvious and frightening poltergeist activity they’ve come across. And this makes Eleanor start to snap, she runs around the house, terrified of everything around her, and ends up climbing a rickety staircase in the library. Markway convinces her to come down, but as she starts to do so she sees Grace peering at her from a secret trapdoor. She thinks that it’s a ghost, and completely loses it, causing Markway to decide Eleanor needs to leave the House. She refuses, but they end up deciding it’s the best thing, and force her out into the night. She sadly starts leaving the house, but as she drives she swears there’s a presence in the car with her. Which is when she sees Grace running across the driveway, causing her to swerve into a tree, killing herself. Everyone arrives at the scene of the accident, finding a confused and lost Grace who apparently was so terrified she’s been running around the House. They all swear that Eleanor didn’t commit suicide, and that something in the car made her do that.
When I did some research on this film, I was pretty surprised to find that it wasn’t well-received when it came out. Especially because of the complaint that it was “incomprehensible.” I don’t know if it’s just because I’d read the book, or because I’m more used to the idea of unreliable narrators and questionable cinematic realities, but I really don’t understand that complaint. It’s a film that makes sense, and ends up as a really great adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Even though Wise and Gidding were specifically told by Shirley Jackson that the story is meant to be a legitimately supernatural one and not a case of a woman having a mental breakdown, they still slipped in enough elements into the movie to make it somewhat questionable, creating a very unnerving experience. It keeps you guessing from the beginning until after the film is over, and it ends up becoming a bit of a litmus test, letting the viewer put whatever baggage they carry in regards to the supernatural into the film. But, the thing that’s so great about this film is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. The set design of Hill House is stunning, and several innovative camera-techniques were used to accentuate the strangeness of the House. The lighting is harsh and creepy, the camera movements are unnerving and eerie, and it all comes together to create a film that is actively upsetting to watch, just adding to the wonderful dread and terror that the story creates, coming together to make a delightfully frightening film.
THE SECOND FILM
A lot of people get irritated by the apparent lack of creativity in Hollywood, chiding their over-reliance on just remaking and rebooting properties that already succeeded. But, that is by no means a new phenomenon. Hollywood has always recycled what worked before, often to less successful results. And, when you have a film like the Haunting, with such a simple premise, such a perfect deliver-system for scares, and such a stature in the world of horror, it was inevitable that someone would eventually try to remake the film, or at the very least take another stab at adapting Shirley Jackson’s novel. And, weirdly, this film actually had the makings of being an interesting film. Because the genesis of this remake came about from an abortive collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Spielberg wanted to make a haunted house movie, and reached out to Stephen King to work on it with him. And, because King was such a fan of Shirley Jackson’s novel, it was suggested that they attempt to take another stab at it while also using the real-life Winchester Mystery House as an inspiration. That film obviously didn’t get made, sadly, but Spielberg apparently became interested in remaking the classic film, eventually leading to him producing this film while Jan de Bont taking over directing duties. And the resulting film is what we’re about to talk about, one of the most derided remakes of all time, and a near universally disliked film. I’d heard tale of this film for quite a while, considered one of the worst films of the 1990’s, and after loving Shirley Jackson’s novel and Robert Wise’s film, I kind of hoped that it would be overblown. But, it really isn’t. 1999’s the Haunting is really rough.
The film actually does do something a little different with the format of the story, probably the only notable thing about it. Instead of being a straight-forward examination of a haunted house, the events of this film are instigated by Dr. David Morrow, a psychologist fascinated with the concept of fear. He wants to examine how fear can affect people, and is planning on doing that by tricking a trio of people with insomnia by telling them he’s actually researching a cure for insomnia. He gets together three patients, Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson and convinces them to spend a week with him in Hill House, a massive mansion owned by a cruel industrialist that is rumored to be haunted. Morrow claims that it’ll be a secluded place for them to get the best results, but in reality he’s picked the creepiest place he can find, trapped them inside of it, and tells them that it’s haunted in order to creep them out. Hill House is a massive mansion, full of strange rooms that don’t make sense because the man who built it, Hugh Crain, was convinced he was haunted and built the rooms to be as confusing as possible to confound the ghosts.
Morrow originally planned on having two assistants to help him prank these poor sleepless people, but the first night an accident causes the two to have to leave for medical attention, leaving us our four protagonists. They make the best of it, Morrow doing his best to fake the idea that he’s actually trying to cure their insomnia while actually putting it in their heads that they’re in a scary position, figuring them to be highly susceptible people. And, it works. Eleanor, Theodoroa, and Luke spend their nights terrified that vengeful ghosts are out to get them, and Morrow plays along with it, clearly behind all of the strange occurrences. Until we start to see Eleanor come across some legitimate ghosts of children, all warning her about how evil the house is, and Hugh Crain specifically. So, unless Morrow has a much higher budget than we were led to believe, some actual haunting appears to be happening. Morrow doesn’t realize that though, assuming that Eleanor is just falling under the spell of the story and becoming his most successful test subject. But, all of that starts to fall apart one day when they find a massive message painting on a wall of Hill House saying “Welcome Home Eleanor.” And, Morrow had nothing to do with it. He brushes it aside, assuming that Luke or Theodora were just being mean, but it starts to leave a bit of worry in him.
Eleanor meanwhile becomes convinced that the house is haunted, that it’s trying to communicate with her, and that it’s her job to prove to everyone else that something is actually happening. She begins snooping around the house, and ends up discovering a secret office belonging to Hugh Crain, pointing to the idea that he was a complete monster. He made his money off the backs of child labor, and apparently took out the frustrations of his inability to have children by murdering his child employees in the house and burning them in a massive fireplace. She also learns that she’s the descendant of one of Hugh Crain’s wives, making her related to Crain. She tries explaining this to everyone, but she ends up having a bit of a nervous breakdown, causing them to doubt her. But that all changes when the House decides to drop all pretenses, and starts acting completely insane. Morrow is attacked by a sentient statue, and the entire house starts filling up with CGI monstrosities that attack our heroes. Morrow, Luke, and Theodora decide that it’s time to flee from the house, and start trying to escape, only to find that the House has locked things up tight, not wanting them to get out. Luke attempts to fight back, and is killed by the ghost of Hugh Crain, who then reveals himself in all of his demonic glory. And, seeing her evil ancestor, Eleanor realizes that the only way to stop him and free the souls of all the children in the House is to break his power. She loudly proclaims that she’s not scared of him, which knocks Crain off guard, allowing all of the children ghosts to attack him and defeat him. The strain ends up killing Eleanor though, and she’s absorbed by the house, giving the children a mother figure finally. And, with Hugh Crain destroyed, Morrow and Theodora are able to escape from the house, having no idea what just happened.
This movie isn’t good! There are some interesting ideas in it, and they actually made some changes to the source material that let them do something new. The only problem is, it doesn’t end up working that well. I liked the idea of having the whole idea of the plot turned on its head, revolving around a shitty psychologist who is trying to trick people into thinking a house is haunted so he can study their fear, only to find out that it’s actually a haunted house. That’s a premise I would expect from a Batman comic featuring the Scarecrow, but I thought it actually had some potential. And then the rest of the movie happens. And it’s just not good. The film goes completely hog wild with CGI that was probably awful looking in 1999, let alone with the hindsight of almost twenty more years. And one of the reasons that that’s so egregious is that the actual set design in the house is absolutely gorgeous. They made so much effort to make a big, boisterous house full of strange and creepy atmosphere, only to cover most of it up with terrible CGI, completely throwing out the concept of the haunting being debatable and replacing it with increasingly goofy ghost scares. The principal actors in the film are just wandering around, struggling to interact with archaic CGI, and acting like no one is actually buying into the premise of the film, putting in performances like they can’t wait to get off of set. It’s such a quintessentially terrible 90’s movie, to the point where you could probably play a bingo game with bag 90’s cliches, creating a film that really and truly should only be remembered in regards to the better adaptations of the story it’s based on.
THE TELEVISION SERIES
It’s clear by now that Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has had a pretty huge affect on popular culture, one that has gone on to define the entire “haunted house” genre at large, while becoming a property that has the potential to get remade every few decades, trying to breathe new life into it. Last year we talked about Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, a novel which has stood the test of time, and has been made three times, still showing the potential for being made again in the future. And, I could easily see the Haunting of Hill House taking on a similar life, popping up occasionally with a new adaptation that tries to tell this well-established story in a new way. But, what I probably wasn’t expecting, was the latest iteration of this story. Because after two film adaptations of differing quality, the novel has taken on a strange fourth life. As a Netflix mini-series. Now, I’ve been a defender of Netflix’s original content for a while, and I think the idea of trying to do a limited series based off of Haunting of Hill House could really work well, really getting into the dread and menace of the house, at the risk of maybe stretching things too thin by squeezing ten hours out of a book that’s less than 250 pages. It felt like an idea that could really pay off. And, it did. The Haunting of Hill House is a wonderful show, one of the best that Netflix has ever created. And it really doesn’t resemble Shirley Jackson’s novel at all.
The Haunting of Hill House follows the Crain family and their experiences with a large manor known as Hill House from their introduction to the house in the summer of 1992 all the way to the present day of 2018. In 1992 the family, comprising of father Hugh, mother Olivia, and children Steven, Shirley, Theodore, Luke, and Eleanor move into the abandoned Hill House, hoping to renovate and flip it by the end of the summer, something they’ve done before several times. Unfortunately, Hill House is more than it seems, full of unexplained mysteries and apparent hauntings. But, things reach a terrible height one night when Olivia appears to go insane, causing the rest of the family to flee the house. And, when Hugh returns to check on his wife he finds that she’s committed suicide. This event shatters the family, as Hugh has to defend himself in court for Olivia’s death while the children go to live with their aunt, slowly drifting apart.
Over the ensuing years the siblings’ relationship starts to fall apart as they deal with the traumatic event of their childhood. Steven becomes a famous author, primarily by taking the stories and experiences of his family and selling a novel inspired by the events of Hill House, to the chagrin of his family. Shirley becomes a mortician and funeral home director, and frequently has to deal with visions of the dead while trying to keep her business and marriage afloat. Theodora has become a child psychologist, relying on a strange psychic ability she’s acquired, which manifests when she touches people. Luke has become a heroin addict, spending most of his adult like bouncing in and our of rehabs, mooching off of his family members at every turn. And Eleanor, or Nell as she’s called, has done her best to create a normal life, despite some serious problems with sleep paralysis. But, after Nell’s husband dies from an unexpected aneurysm, her life is thrown into shambles, culminating in her returning to Hill House and committing suicide.
The Crain family are then brought back together for the first time in years, forced to spend time together and deal with the death of Nell. Despite everyone’s logical complaints Shirley decides to host the funeral and even take care of the mortician duties as everyone arrives as Shirley’s home/parkour, ready to say their goodbyes to Nell. And, over the course of a very dramatic night, they start to realize that things aren’t quite as they seem. They finally clear the air, and start talking about what happened in Hill House, what happened to their mother, and what’s been going on with their lives ever since staying in that horrible house. None of them have ever dealt with the trauma they experienced in Hill House, and have generally made it a mission to never speak about what they witnessed. However, after a tense fight they notice that Luke has vanished, and they begin worrying that he’s headed to Hill House to do something awful. So, the family head to Hill House, where things get a little insane. The House has been abandoned ever since they fled it that fateful night, but when they get inside they find something shocking. When they lived there in 1992 there was one room, which they called the Red Room, that they could never open. But, the door is now wide open, with an unconscious Luke inside. Everyone piles into the room, where they’re confronted with the ghost of Nell. She explains that the house is a living entity that feeds off of occupants, and was in the process of eating the Crain family so many years ago. She succumbed to its horrible powers, but as a last act is able to push her siblings from the house, hoping to give them some sort of catharsis while having to deal with the fact that every problem in their life stems from ghosts.
Going into The Haunting of Hill House I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. By that point I’d read the novel and watched the two movies, so when this show almost immediately started flipping the story on its head, becoming something wildly different, I was a little put off. But, as this show plays out I couldn’t help but be blown away. This show is great. I loved every bit of it, and am honestly in awe of how well this show worked. It’s an incredibly loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, but it ends up hitting a lot of the same themes in a really fascinating way. Because it’s still all about repression, and the way that people act in traumatic situations. The show obviously does away with any worry about the actual existence of the ghosts, just giving us straight up proof that Hill House is haunted by some really powerful spirits. But, not content to make one of the most creepy and genuinely horrifying television shows I’ve ever seen, the show also becomes an incredibly deep and moving drama, following the descent of a family after a parental suicide. Yeah, there’s a lot of ghosts in the show too, but what you end up taking away from the show is the various ways that a parent committing suicide can affect a family, really examining the drama and turmoil that such a thing will cause. This easily could have been a show without any ghosts in it, and still carry a fantastic punch. But the patina of horror that surround the show just becomes the cherry on top, giving us a show that is utterly unique, immensely fascinating, and just one of the best things I’ve seen all year.
When I set out to do one of these Film Library posts there’s usually three different outcomes that I’ve become accustomed to. You’re might have an adaptation that’s so incredibly close to the novel that it’s kind of impossible to talk about, because there’s no real separation between stories. You might also have something that adapts the book in name only, going in a completely different direction to the point where the movie you’re talking about bares only the slightest resemblance to the book. Or, you can have something in between, an adaptation that feels like the book, but tries to go in some different directions. And, weirdly enough, The Haunting of Hill House has had all three types of adaptations. It’s a fantastic book, and one that had a massive impact on the world of horror in general, and ghost stories specifically. Shirley Jackson set the gold standard of haunted house stories, and all the have followed share at least some DNA with her masterpiece. It’s a book I highly recommend, especially if you’re at all interested in ghost stories. But, as you can tell from at least two of the adaptations, the real draw of the book, and the reason that I think it’s had such a massive impact on the genre is the way that the book examines horror through the lens of trauma, really getting into the way that horror can reveal our true nature. Or, as Shirley Jackson puts it.
“To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.”
And all of that pathos, horror, and insight is brought to vivid life in Robert Wise’s the Haunting. It’s by far the most literal adaptation of the book, and experiencing the two stories back to back can get a little repetitive. Wise’s main addition to the story was his doubts regarding the world of the supernatural. The film told the same story as the novel, but with more focus put on the insanity of Eleanor, positing a world where there actually are no ghosts, that it’s all just about a repressed woman who has never been allowed to be herself, and when put in a terrifying position she kind of snaps, making everyone else around her question their own sanity. And in that mystery the film is able to come to life, becoming a really special film, one that defends its existence.
However, going in the opposite direction is Jon de Bont’s the Haunting. I really don’t think it would have made sense to make a film similar to Wise’s. Having two films based on the same book that had the exact same plot and feeling would be ridiculous, making it so the only real reason it was made because people don’t want to watch old things. And, as I said earlier, I do kind of appreciate some of the choices that the 1999 film made. Having it all be a scam, only to actually take place in a legitimate haunted house is a kind of fun idea. But, the movie ended up getting too wrapped up in ridiculous CGI effects, and an idea to make everything connected, especially with Eleanor being destined to be in the house. It threw all subtly out of the window and ruined every one of the good ideas that cropped up, leaving you really wishing for a better movie that seemed to be promised. I can’t imagine recommending anyone watching this movie, other than trying to be a completest, or if you’re also writing an insane article.
And then there’s the Haunting of Hill House show, which I’m still gobsmacked by. The show is definitely the most different of the adaptations, stripping away almost everything other than some character names and the idea of a haunted house called Hill House. Other than that, the show really tells it’s own story, while still adapting the themes of the novel. It’s still about the horror of the unknown and how we react to things we don’t understand. But, it also props up an absolutely fantastic story about familial trauma. Not exactly what I was expecting from a Haunting of Hill House adaptation, but it’s one that I really appreciated. Plus, it gives us the idea of a bunch of home renovators accidentally stumbling onto a haunted house, which is an incredibly solid idea for a horror story.
The Haunting of Hill House is an amazing story. It’s become one of the most archetypal ghost stories in the Western canon, and it’s just mythic enough that it can be adapted in a whole lot of different ways. As I said, I feel like this is a story that’s going to keep getting remade every few decades, finding new and different ways to bring it to life. We’ve seen four very different versions of this story of the years, and with one major exception, they’re all well worth your time. So, this Halloween I highly recommend getting into the spooky world of Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House was written by Shirley Jackson, 1959.
The Haunting was written by Nelson Gidding, directed by Robert Wise, and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1963.
The Haunting was written by David Self and Michael Tolkin, directed by Jon de Bont, and released by DreamWorks Pictures, 1999.
The Haunting of Hill House was created by Mike Flanigan and released by Netflix, 2018.
Categories: Film Library