The Haunting of Hill House

A Review of The Haunting of Hill House

By: Shirley Jackson


I read this book before, in college (which was actually a really long time ago but who’s counting) in a class on horror literature. What I remembered about it, I think was the opening line—which is still one the best openers in any novel I have ever read and the rest came from that horrible movie with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. So, I was excited to revisit it for this class.

My first impression, was “this seems a lot like Hell House” and I tried not to compare the two as I read. Instead, I focused on Eleanor and her strange connection to the house. Given that the entire book is written from her POV, it’s hard not to. And given that Eleanor is the only character who is written three dimensional, it’s easy to get inside her head (as frightening as that may be).

Often times, I found myself thinking about Jackson’s choice of title. The Haunting OF Hill House rather than Haunted Hill House or something similar. And I began to wonder if we were dealing with a ghost story at all. Here is what we know of Hill House: it was built by a lunatic named Hugh Crain and built deliberately off balance. Bad things happened to Hugh and his family. We know his daughters turned out similar to their father (and after finding his homemade book, one can’t be too surprised) and we know that the people of Hillsdale shun the place. But what we don’t know is what happened to anyone else who tried to live there. There is no proof of a haunting from within.

So, along comes Dr. Montague and his handpicked assistants to investigate. We know why he is there, we know that Luke was forced upon him. We are told that Theo has shown telekinetic abilities (but we never see any evidence of such during her stay at Hill House). We also meet Mrs. Montague who insists upon her own telekinetic abilities but again see no proof during her time at Hill House. The “hauntings” we do experience—and for a novel length piece, they are few and far between—all seem to be centered on or around Eleanor.

Eleanor, the child-like, sheltered, naïve woman who was invited to Hill House because as a child she was involved in poltergeist type activity. Eleanor, who looks to Hill House as her salvation, her escape from a world and family that held her back. Is Hill house haunting her or is she haunting it? I raise the theory of the latter. The house is a deformed creation doomed to suffer from the madness of its creator and in its monstrous form, draws those whose minds are as broken as its edges and angles. Eleanor falls in love with it and it, her. The two become one and it calls her home.

Eleanor, the perpetual child, finds a mother in Hill House and it, in turn, finds its soul mate. They are both the products of their creators and both slightly off.

Is there a ghost or ghosts haunting Hill house? I don’t think there is. I think it has an energy, I think most houses do. Hill House is haunted by those who are drawn to its unnatural energy. Those who are off-kilter enough to find comfort in its carnival fun-house mystery. The haunting is therefore done by the humans who inhabit it. Their energies working in a symbiotic relationship to cause horror.

The Haunting of Hill House was titled, I think, deliberately by Jackson because like many of her other works, this story is NOT a ghost story at all but a character study of the madness and power of the human mind. There is no need for the supernatural when we can do so much damage to each other. I think that is the message Shirley Jackson most frequently tried to convey in her works and manages to do so with a genius-level subtlety in this novel.


2 thoughts on “The Haunting of Hill House

  1. I really like your discussion of the title. I also wondered why she phrased the title in such a way. I was talking about the book with one of my roommates and he corrected me that the book was titled “The Haunting at Hill House,” which I had to explain was wrong. After talking about the title with him, I wondered why Jackson selected that wording. Similar to The Overlook in The Shining, it appears that Hill House builds off of the energies of the characters, which would explain why Dr. Montague specifically selected people who experienced psychic phenomena like Eleanor and Theodora to come to the house. Furthermore, like you said and as the characters pointed out in the novel, all of the paranormal activity they experience stems from Eleanor. She is, in a way, the one haunting Hill House.

    However, I am not sure that I completely agree with the idea Eleanor finds a mother in Hill House. As I discussed in my comment of Contessa’s post, Hill House appears to be searching for a mother figure in that the children at Hill House never had a maternal figure to care for them. If anything, Eleanor was a mother figure to her own mother, and she seems to be happy that she is finally free of her mother when she dies. Still, Eleanor is childish, and perhaps both her and Hill House are looking for a mother, almost playing out Eleanor’s relationship with her real mother. While she wants a mother, she is doomed to care for that maternal figure. In a way, Eleanor succumbs to the patriarchal concept that she must be cared for and care for others in a motherly role at the end of the novel when she decides to give her life in exchange for a permanent relationship with Hill House.


  2. I also wondered about the title and why she wrote it as she did. I thought she wrote it like that because the haunting occurring in the house was from Eleanor, not ghosts. I didn’t think the house was haunted either but that it had energy from all of the pain and tragedy that happened there. I also think hysteria creeps into peoples minds and play tricks, especially in a house that’s said to be haunted and purposely built off-kilter.
    Eleanor picks up on the energy at the house and responds to it in a positive way. She wants a bond with someone who will protect and care for her. The house gives her that while messing with her head. I think Eleanor was young, impressionable, and her mind could easily be caught up in a type of hysteria. She even goes to extreme lengths to tie herself to it at the end, like the bond of mother and child. As I read this novel, I couldn’t help but think of the comparisons between it and the Yellow Wallpaper.


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