October 2009

Jessica Ferri

Kissing Dead Girls

The Angel in the House

Shirley Jackson, best known as the author of the disturbing short story, “The Lottery,” (if you haven’t read it, please stop reading my column and do so now) was also the author of several novels, including The Haunting of Hill House. All of Jackson’s work concerns itself with the evils of humanity and the crimes we commit against each other, knowingly or unconsciously. Critics have read her work as a response to the anti-intellectualism and anti-communism fever of the 1950s. While Jackson bought in to some prescribed ideas by marrying young and having babies, it’s obvious that as a writer she was working way ahead of the social curve.

Writers and critics alike have claimed that Jackson’s only explicit paranormal work is The Haunting of Hill House. Stephen King often cites her as one of his greatest influences.  Hill House tells the story of one Dr. Montague, a washed-up scientist whose real interest is the paranormal. In hopes of salvaging his career, he decides to invite a few people to a haunted house he’s heard about in hopes that if they stay there for a few weeks, something spooky will happen. Then, he can write a book about it and become famous. He chooses one relative of the house’s owners, Luke, to assure them that he’s not doing anything distasteful, a woman named Theodora who supposedly has telekinetic powers, and Eleanor. Eleanor’s case is particularly interesting: she is chosen because when she was young, not long after her father died, “showers of stones had fallen on [her] house . . . dropping from the ceilings, rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof.” After Eleanor and her sister were removed from the house, the stones stopped falling.

Upon arriving at the house, Eleanor is immediately repulsed by it. “Hill House is vile, it is diseased,” she thinks, “Get away from here at once!” And yet, at the same time, she is compelled to enter because “she is expected here.”

Theodora, a bright and breezy young lady makes her entrance shortly thereafter. She and Eleanor are so terrified by the house and so relieved to see another human being that they become fast friends. Luke turns out to be a funny guy, and Dr. Montague greets everyone by asking who knows how to make a martini. After dinner, the doctor tells everyone the horrible history of the house, which involves an overturned carriage in the driveway and the latest tenant hanging herself from the turret outside. Everyone goes to bed pretty shaken up, and in the middle of the night they hear knockings and rapping, childish laughter, and Montague and Luke end up chasing a phantom dog out into the garden. Other paranormal events include someone writing “ELEANOR COME HOME” on the walls with chalk, and then in blood.

This book was the subject of a very unfortunate film remake in 1999 shortened to The Haunting starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Owen Wilson. I think it’s pretty obvious who played whom. Whoever wrote the screenplay, after reading the book decided that in their adaptation the house should be filled with the ghosts of dead, abused babies who had been left there alone to die and wanted Eleanor to be their mother. There are some pretty spooky implications and I don’t think those screenwriters were too far off. But what Jackson’s getting at is a feeling of homelessness that can drive one to domestic panic.

Eleanor’s character is thirty-two, single, lives with her sister, her brother-in law and their kids. She nursed her ailing mother for most of her life until her death. In other words, Eleanor’s life has been a prison. She’s totally beholden to others and the scientific experiment she’s participating in at Hill House is her first chance to start a new life for herself. At first, she clings to Theodora, telling her she wants to go home with her when they leave Hill House. Theodora responds with “Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” And Eleanor replies, “I’ve never been wanted anywhere.”

As the book goes on, and more supernatural events occur, Eleanor is pleased, even turned on by the activity. Have you heard of a fetish called Objectum-Sexual? Basically, it’s an object fetish: being in sexual love with an object. Some lady in June of last year married the Eiffel Tower. I’m not kidding. This could be Eleanor’s ailment. At one point, Eleanor says, with trepidation, “I am disappearing inch by inch into this house.” In this day and age, when someone’s lonely they can always consult the Internet or, apparently, marry a national monument. But Eleanor, in 1959, as a single white female, is totally and completely alone. The house feeds on her insecurity.

Virginia Woolf came up with this idea of “The Angel in the House.” Women, up through the Victorian Era were expected to exist solely in the domestic realm as sweet angels who did what they were told: shut-up, keep house, and help their men be the best they can be. And who can forget Jane Eyre? Thinking she’s hearing the moans and screams of a ghost, Jane eventually discovers her boyfriend’s current wife walled up in the attic! And what does Jane do? She marries the guy. Predictable! There’s a similar trope happening here in The Haunting of Hill House -- except the spirit that beckons to Eleanor is no angel. Perhaps Jackson is trying to warn women not to place all their eggs in the domestic basket: the foundation and shelter you stand upon can contribute to your downfall.

In actuality, most of the demons in The Haunting of Hill House are Eleanor’s own. It’s the perverted scheme of Dr. Montague and the real evil energy inside the house that push her over the edge. There will always be good witches and bad witches. Regardless of our marital status, we all have demons. We’ve got to get out of bed, put the ruby slippers on and fight another day.

Happy Halloween!