Welcome to the First Modern Haunted House…

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Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of the great 20th-century classics which largely goes unread, much like Isaac Asimov. More’s the pity. The main character, Eleanor Vance, might have stepped out of the millennial generation from a fundamentalist cult for all of her fantasies and longings. Her lack of self-knowledge perhaps is the most striking. 

It does make a modern reader wonder if Eleanor doesn’t suffer from the fawn response. We’re given very little information about her relationship with either of her parents. We know her father died when she was a teen and that she nursed her mother for 11 long years. We also know that Eleanor inadvertently caused her mother’s death, whether through exhaustion or because she wanted her mother dead. 

The other thing we know about Eleanor? She makes up stories and details that don’t actually exist. A lot. For most of the novel, in fact, which makes her somewhat of an unreliable narrator; a disadvantage when the novel is told from her perspective. 

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Eleanor smiled placidly. “I’ve never been wanted anywhere,” she said.

p. 154

The Haunting of Hill House

Eleanor’s lack of self-knowledge is her downfall. 

Eleanor has little identity beyond that of her late mother’s caregiver and her own name. She doesn’t really know what she wants out of life except to belong somewhere. Now, in a healthy adult of 30-something, the usual course of action would be to go out and make a place where she belonged. 

That is not what Eleanor does. She pins all her hopes on her stay at Hill House and hopes that she will find what she’s always wanted. In the end, the choice is seemingly made for her, and Hill House becomes what she wants. It’s an altogether infantile solution to her wish to belong somewhere because, as she notes to Theodora, she’s never been wanted anywhere. 

Considering that she spent the previous 11 years of her life nursing her mother, that statement isn’t completely true. She obviously was wanted at her mother’s house, if begrudgingly. Her mother may not have been very happy at the end of her life, but she almost definitely wanted Eleanor, even if held it against her daughter. 

Unfortunately, that does tend to be the case for some personality types. They begrudgingly accept the help and then hold it against the person trying to help them. 

But Eleanor doesn’t consider this. She doesn’t see her own strengths, her own gifts, or glory in her own accomplishments. Caregiving for an aging family member is no small task—particularly if that member is unpleasant and. your one sibling isn’t of much help. Especially if either of them was emotionally abusive, which, just from the little we see of the sister, we know probably was the case. 

No, Eleanor doesn’t see any of these good points. She only sees herself as awkward, unsure, and naïve compared to Theodora and Luke. She has character; she has potential, but she can’t even see that in herself. 

So, she gives in to the house. 

“In any case, Eleanor, I am sure that I am doing what Mother would have thought best. Mother had confidence in me and would certainly never have approved my letting you run wile, going off heaven knows where, in my car.”

p. 7.

The Haunting of Hill House

Is there toxic femininity in Hill House?

Eleanor’s mother is the elusive character who secretly seems to be there controlling things, aside from the entities in the house. Her memory permeates the action from the moment we’re introduced to Eleanor. Her sister, Carrie, could very well be the stand-in when she basically denies Eleanor has any part of ownership in their car and then has the audacity to tell a thirty-two-year-old woman that she needed her sister’s approval to go anywhere. 

It sounds an awful lot like toxic femininity, or at least a form of it. Toxic feminity, like toxic masculinity, can have different meanings depending on who is using the term. 

Ok, hear me out on this one. Gothic novels of the 1790s operated on men taking advantage of women. They would berate them, try to steal their inheritance, or try to marry them incestuously, all the while threatening their virtue, if you catch my drift. 

But what about novels like Hill House where it’s not the male who is overbearing, but the female? 

The sinister presence in the novel is the house—a distinctly motherly house—which had only one male resident in all of its eighty years. If you notice, the ghosts call Eleanor in feminine voices, which she at first mistakes for her mother calling her in the night. 

The only male figure in the entire novel who could perhaps be the 17th-century style Gothic villain is Hugh Crain himself. The 1999 film remake of The Haunting certainly played this up. Crain even marries three times and then abandons his daughters to their fate. Although not before traumatizing at least one of them with a seriously disturbing scrapbook of sins and their consequences. By all rights, Hugh Crain is the sort of figure from one of the Bronte sisters or Ann Radcliffe

But what do you do about Mrs. Montague and Eleanor’s mother? Mrs. Montague is one of those pushy women who could have been an Agatha Christie character. She bosses her husband around and belittles his efforts, dismisses his experiences, and only comes up with wild stories that almost certainly were at one time plots of actual penny dreadfuls

In fact, I can confirm that a walled-up nun, which Mrs. Montague insists is part of the house’s story (even though it’s most definitely not) is an element of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion. It’s a poem, not a novel, but it pre-dates the penny dreadful by a few decades. 

Whatever way you look at it, the men make terrible villains. But the women? The women are frightening. 

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If you cannot escape your own trauma, then it will consume you. 

We can all make speculations as to the trauma which Eleanor and her companions have suffered. But what we can see is that of all the companions, Eleanor is the only one who cannot escape it.

We can only speculate why that is. Perhaps the poltergeist incident, when she was a child, made both her mother and older sister afraid of her and so they held it against her and made little digs that suggested she couldn’t handle anything herself. 

What we know is that Eleanor hasn’t had the same freedom as, say, her companions at Hill House. Luke, the owner’s nephew, has lived a fairly carefree life on his aunt’s money, having grown up without a mother. Theodora was left at boarding school for holidays and so learned to live without her mother or her father. 

So, in a way, both of them had time and space to form their own opinions and make their own decisions. 

But Eleanor? Elenor couldn’t escape her mother. Her mother wouldn’t mix with the neighbors, wouldn’t let Eleanor wear trousers, and apparently called on her daughter to attend to her needs at all hours of the night, too. Probably why Eleanor slept through her last call. And why Eleanor is often paralyzed between her fantasies, her reality, and her inability to decide what she wants. 

She’s timid, afraid of everything, and almost paranoid that everyone is trying to get rid of her. She’s almost too afraid to discover who she really is, something which Theodora notes at one point in the novel. 

And it’s also probably why Eleanor is the first (and only) to fully succumb to Hill House’s influence. 

Does Hill House foreshadow Carrie?

Well, you’ll have to read both and find out for yourself… But I am going to delve into Carrie next week—not necessarily because it’s already a classic, but because I think it has the potential to be one.

A Note about the Edition

All quotes in this post are, once again, taken from a Penguin Classics edition. I specifically used the 2006 edition with an Introduction by Laura Miller. All quotes have been carefully documented with page numbers specific to this edition. 

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