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Writing from Your Experience: The Haunting of Hill House

14 April, 2011


For US author Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), many of her stories began with things that happened in her life, which she turned into fiction. She once wrote about what led her to create one of her most famous fictional works, the creepy Haunting of Hill House.

Stephen King considers Haunting to be one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century. It was adapted as a play and twice made into a film. I saw the original film years ago and late at night.  At the time, I had a flat in a big, old two-story house, a  place that at night came alive with a litany of creaks, bangs, and sometimes what sounded like someone—or something?—taking shuddering breaths. After watching the film, there was no way I was going back to my place that night.

The film and the book do not frighten overtly, in the way we are now used to. No axe murderer leaps out of the closets at Hill House. Instead, the scariness is psychological, showing how evil can prey on the minds of those most susceptible.

Jackson happened to read a real-life account of a group of ‘nineteenth-century psychic researchers’  who rented a haunted house in order to conduct so-called scientific tests of their experiences. She became excited about these ‘earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people’  and began considering a story in a similar vein.

Oddly, as soon as she had this idea in mind, she found that ‘all kinds of things turned up to enforce my intentions’, perhaps because she was so focused.  Although she claimed she was not psychic or involved in the supernatural, some of what happened next was spooky. And the spookiest thing concerned the house itself.

Jackson was going  to NYC, when her train stopped at the 125th Street station. She happened to glance  beyond the station and found her attention riveted by a ‘tall and black’ building, ‘dim and horrible in the dusk’, a building ‘so disagreeable that I could not stop looking at it’.

That night, she had nightmares about the building. Her nervousness about seeing it again became  ‘so extreme ‘ that she changed her ticket so that her train passed the building at night, when she would not catch sight of it. (Or it would not catch sight of her???)

Even back home, she found the building still bothered her, so much so that she asked a friend living in NYC to locate it and perhaps find out ‘why it looked so terrifying’. He discovered  that seven months before, it had almost entirely burnt down in a fire that killed nine people.  Only one side of the building remained. And oddly, this side was only visible at one particular point only—the 125th St Station, where her carriage had stopped. ‘From any other angle it was not recognizable as a building at all.’

She began collecting photos of ‘odd houses’, looking for one suitable for her story.  Then in a magazine, she found a photo of a house that seemed perfect, conveying the ‘same air of disease and decay’ as the building that frightened her in NYC. She wanted more information about the house but knew only its location, a town in California. She sent the picture to her mother, a life-long Californian, and asked her to check where she could find out more about it.

Her mother wrote back that she was surprised; she had not known any photos of the house existed. It had been  built by Jackson’s great-grandfather. After standing deserted for years, it had caught fire. The suspicion was that the townspeople ‘got together one night and burned it down.’

Soon after this discovery, Jackson came to her desk one morning  and ‘found a sheet of copy paper moved to the center . . .  neatly away from the general clutter.’  On the sheet was a message: DEAD DEAD. Even more disquieting, this message was in her own handwriting, although she had no recollection of composing it. She decided that ‘I had better write the book awake, which I got to work and did.’

Small wonder that she started her story as follows:

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.

Source: ‘Experience and Fiction’. Come Along with Me. E. Stanley Edgar Hyman (Ed.). London: Michael Joseph, 1969.

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