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Literature / The Haunting of Hill House

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One of the most acclaimed horror novels of all time, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson follows the misadventures of a group of people recruited by Dr. John Montague, a would-be specialist in the "analysis of supernatural manifestations," as they attempt to document the goings-on at Hill House. Hill House ("not sane"), erected in the late nineteenth century, was commissioned by one Hugh Crain—whose first wife died before she even managed to enter the house. His second wife also died. And the third. If this run of suspiciously bad luck wasn't enough, the house has since seen a run of mysterious events, suicides, and strange accidents, all of which have left it with a very unfortunate reputation indeed.

The main characters:

  • Dr. John Montague: The rather fluttery Dr. Montague does his best to study Hill House "scientifically," although he proves completely incapable of understanding what's going on. As we later discover, he's also dominated by his wife, an enthusiast for all things paranormal.
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  • Eleanor Vance (a.k.a. Nell): Almost all of of the novel is told from Eleanor's perspective. She's thirty-two, unmarried, and under the thumb of her annoying family. For Eleanor, the trip to Hill House represents a last-gasp attempt to free herself from her old life.
  • Theodora: A flamboyant artistic type who lives with a lover of unidentified gender, and flirts with both Eleanor and Luke Sanderson.
  • Luke Sanderson: Identified point-blank as a "liar" and a "thief," Luke is on the scene because Hill House belongs to his family; he's also the intended heir.

And, last but not least...

  • Hill House: The house is a character in its own right, exuding evil from the very slope of its roof.

In the tradition of Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery," most of the novel's horror derives from Mind Screw instead of graphic terrors. The Haunting of Hill House was adapted to the screen in two films named The Haunting (in 1963 and 1999), of which the former is considered a classic in its own right. The latter... not so much. Netflix adapted the story into a series, which was released on October 2018.


Not to be confused with fellow horror movie House on Haunted Hill (1959).

Tropes used:

  • Abusive Parents: Hugh Crain must have been quite a father, judging from his book to his daughters that goes on at some length about how they will burn in hell if they sin, complete with illustrations of the Seven Deadly Sins he made himself, with the last page written in his own blood.
  • A House Divided: Thanks to Hill House's little games. The tactic works most effectively on Eleanor.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Theodora (masculine nickname, came to Hill House after a terrible "falling-out" with a female "friend" that included sentimental gifts being destroyed and yelling, quite attached to Nell) and possibly Luke as well as Crain's older daughter, who never felt compelled to marry but did take up a young female "companion."
  • Being Watched: Everyone, by the house. Later on, Eleanor begins spying on the others.
  • Big Eater: Theodora is always extremely hungry and tends to blame her problems (and Eleanor's) on the need for a meal.
  • Big Fancy House: One of the creepiest ones ever. But, as the characters observe, the house isn't a totally bad place to stay. Mrs. Dudley's meals are delicious and nourishing, and when the visitors manage to sleep, they tend to sleep soundly and wake up refreshed. This contrast just makes all the visitors more uneasy.
  • Bizarrchitecture: Everything's slightly off, from the floors to the walls. As a result, doors never stay open...
  • Blank Slate: Eleanor, whose identity revolves around more powerful personalities around her.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Mrs. Dudley. Just about the only thing she says to anyone is when she will be setting the table for meals and taking them down again. Oh, and how no one will be able to hear them at night if they scream.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Mr. Dudley. He almost refuses to let Eleanor in, apparently just out of spite.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Luke, Theodora, and arguably even Eleanor.
  • Demonic Possession: The House seems able to influence, possess and possibly even devour people. At the end Eleanor seems to have no idea that she is being influenced until just before her car hits a tree...
  • Driven to Suicide: In the past, the "companion" who inherited the house instead of Crain's younger daughter. Supposedly it was because everyone believed she had swindled the elder Miss Crain (the younger daughter even started a rumor that she murdered her) and shunned her for it. However, given her firm belief someone was breaking in at night despite the fact no one comes near Hill House in the dark, the house probably wasn't helping.
    • In the present, Eleanor.
  • Dying Town: The crumbling Hillsdale. No one moves in; the lucky ones leave.
  • Dysfunctional Family: Every single family in the novel. Hugh Crain's family, needless to say, takes first prize, though Eleanor's is probably a close second.
  • Extreme Doormat: Eleanor has spent her entire life doing whatever her family tells her, first caring of her mother and then taking orders from her sister. Taking the car to Hill House is the first thing she ever decided to do on her own. Then the house starts taking advantage of her.
  • Fright Beside Them: In bed, Eleanor clings tightly to Theodora's hand as sinister sounds emerge from the darkness in their room. Suddenly, the lights go on, and Eleanor sees Theodora sitting up in her own bed. She has clearly not been anywhere near Eleanor for some time.
  • Genius Loci: Hill House itself, though the hills around it don't appear to be any more safe.
  • Genre Savvy: The quartet realize very early on that they should not ever split up while in the house and that anyone who leaves during the night will die. They don't do a great job of following those rules, though.
  • Ghostly Chill: There's a permanent cold spot right before the entry to the nursery. Eleanor and the others also feel icy cold anytime the house begins to manifest something.
  • Haunted Heroine: The house starts to pick on Eleanor specifically after a couple of days. She seems to be the weakest target.
  • Haunted House: One of the classic examples.
  • Haunted House Historian: Dr. Montague fulfills this role by telling them the history of the house. He lampshades how difficult it is to get accurate information on a haunted house.
  • Hearing Voices: Eleanor hears muttered voices too low to make out, and children screaming.
  • Henpecked Husband: Dr. Montague. When Mrs. Montague arrives she pretty much takes over the investigation of the house completely.
  • Holier Than Thou: Hugh Crain, whose version of Christianity seems to have been somewhat ''unusual" (though more so now than in the 19th century). That book he leaves for his daughters...
  • In-Series Nickname: The others start calling Eleanor Nell.
  • Ironic Echo: "Whatever walked there, walked alone."
  • Madness Mantra: Eleanor keeps having "journeys end in lovers meeting," from a song she heard once, go through her head. As the novel is mostly in her perspective, it turns up a lot. As she declines, she even starts hearing other characters repeat the words, apparently at random.
  • Mind Rape: And how. Most of the terror of the novel is in Eleanor's viewpoint skewing further and further into insanity as the house invites Eleanor to "come home," tempting her with one of the most important things she lacks.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: A point most notably lost in the 1999 adaptation:
    • Whatever it is that pounds on the doors and walls of the house is never seen - nobody ever opens the door to see what's out there.
    • Theo and Eleanor encounter a ghostly vision of a picnic. Theo looks behind her and screams at Eleanor to run and don't look back! We never get an account of what it was Theo saw.
  • Romantic Runner-Up: Eleanor for both Theodora and Luke.
  • Science Versus Magic: Is the house actually haunted, or do people just have weird experiences because all the angles are wrong and it looks creepy?
  • Shrinking Violet: Eleanor. She has lived her entire life as a recluse, taking care of her invalid mother.
  • Surreal Horror: What happens when Theo and Eleanor try to leave the house after dark.
  • Our Founder: The apparently horrific statue of Hugh Crain and his daughters.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The other characters see and hear strange things too, so something weird is certainly going on, but Eleanor experiences and sees things the others do not. Which leads us to...
  • Unreliable Narrator: Or, rather, unreliable third-person POV. As the story progresses, Eleanor's perspective becomes noticeably warped.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: Eleanor finds Theodora enthralling, but doesn't take Theodora's teasing and cold shoulders very well.
  • Where It All Began: The last sentences repeat the opening almost exactly;
    Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its 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.


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