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Literature / The Haunting of Hill House

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"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. 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."
— opening paragraph

One of the most acclaimed horror novels of all time, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959) follows the adventures 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, a desolate and reputedly haunted country mansion.

Hill House ("not sane") was erected in the late 19th century, 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. As if this run of suspiciously bad luck wasn't enough, the house has since played host to all manner of strange accidents, suicides, and other mysterious events that have left it with a very unfortunate reputation indeed.

In 2023, A Haunting on the Hill, a companion work set in Hill House (as opposed to a direct sequel), was authorized by the estate of Shirley Jackson and written by author Elizabeth Hand.

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.
  • 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.
    • Eleanor's own mother is implied to have been this.
  • A House Divided: Thanks to Hill House's little games. The tactic works most effectively on Eleanor.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Eleanor comes to feel like the others are excluding, patronizing, and disparaging her, though her word on it is unreliable. Given how friendly they are to her early on, it may well be the house isolating her and affecting her mind.
  • Ambiguously Gay:
    • Theodora has a masculine nickname; came to Hill House after a terrible "falling-out" with a "friend" of unspecified gender that included sentimental gifts being destroyed and yelling; and becomes quite attached to Nell.
    • The elder Miss Crain never felt compelled to marry but lived with a young female "companion", to whom she willed the house.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Does anything supernatural happen in the book at all? Or is Eleanor, as the POV character, just insane? More to the point, does it matter?
  • 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.
  • Companion Cube: Mrs. Montague talks about her planchette as if it were a particularly temperamental person, so much so that Luke at first asks who Planchette is.
  • 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 sometimes even Eleanor cope with the unpleasantness of their environment by cracking wise and inventing over-the-top stories about their true identities, which they present with feigned seriousness.
  • Dean Bitterman: Arthur is a singularly unpleasant old boy to have been put in charge of a school, speaking with satisfaction about beating signs of weakness out of his students and not even wanting to count "milksops" towards the student population.
  • 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.
    • Another former inhabitant who tried to flee the house's malevolent influence ended up riding his horse into the tree on the driveway.
    • In the present, the House influences Eleanor to drive her car into a tree when the others force her to leave.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: Mrs Montague, of all people, is the only one who considers that it might be unwise to allow Eleanor, completely under the influence of the house, to drive off alone. She's proved horribly right.
  • Dying Town: The crumbling Hillsdale. No one moves in; the lucky ones leave.
  • Dysfunctional Family:
    • Hugh Crain lost three wives in quick succession; he himself was mostly absent in his daughters' lives but inflicted bizarre Egocentrically Religious screeds on at least one of them; and the two daughters became bitter enemies.
    • Eleanor spent her entire adult life playing nursemaid to her sick mother, is browbeaten by her sister and brother-in-law, and hasn't been happy since she was a child.
    • Mrs. Montague is openly disparaging of her husband's work and has much less to say about him than about her "friend" Arthur.
  • Emasculated Cuckold: Implied to be the case with Dr. Montague when his wife arrives with her "friend" Arthur, whom she treats fondly compared to her open disdain for him, and takes over his investigation under his nose.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing:
    Eleanor's Brother-in-Law: Besides, how do we know she'll return [the car] in good condition?
  • 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.
  • Ghost Butler: The doors in the house always close themselves, even when the guests prop them open with heavy objects. Someone claims, not quite jokingly, that the housekeeper must be closing them... rather than watch them close on their own.
  • Ghostly Chill: There's a permanent cold spot right before the entry to the nursery, which freezes people numb even though the thermometers don't register it. 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. Hill House was the site of at least three untimely deaths and a suicide, but it's unclear whether it hosts specific ghosts or, as Dr. Montague suggests, the house itself is aware and evil.
  • 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. Dr. Montague states that she's a pleasant person and a good wife when she isn't hunting for the occult, though how accurate that is is anyone's guess.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Near the end of the novel, a much less mentally stable Eleanor runs up and down the bedroom hallway and bangs on everyone's doors, just like whatever had been banging on their doors in the previous nights.
  • 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...
  • Imagine Spot: Driving to Hill House, Nell has several fantasies about starting a new life in the places she passes, some of them involving elves and other supernatural creatures.
  • In-Series Nickname: The others start calling Eleanor Nell.
  • Ironic Echo: "Whatever walked there, walked alone."
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Mrs. Montague and her boyfr-ahem, friend, Arthur. Really cemented by their sessions of Planchette, which reports on an immured nun. Doctor Montague notes such a thing never happened at Hill House, nor were there ever nuns visiting. Predictably, she's furious about being called out.
  • 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.
  • Manchild: Eleanor is the female version. Her childishness and naivety are painfully justified; she has spent her entire youth as a carer to her abusive mother, and consequently has no life experience.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Is the house haunted in the conventional sense by the ghosts of past occupants, or are the characters' weird experiences happening entirely within their own minds?
    • At the start of the novel, Luke nonchalantly observes that he thought the doctor might 'send the car into a tree' in response to seeing Hill House for the first time. Does Luke have psychic powers? Is the house telling him what it intends to do? Or is it just an extremely creepy coincidence?
  • 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.
  • Phony Psychic: Mrs. Montague makes up some nonsense about a nun being "bricked up alive," which Dr. Montague immediately calls bullshit on. She goes ballistic about it, and complains at length that her planchette won't work for at least a week due to his doubting her (not that the silly thing worked in the first place, of course).
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Deconstructed. Dr. Montague isn't just smart and scientifically curious — he's a pleasant, understanding fellow who jokes with the three younger people in the house and never addresses them with any kind of scorn or condescension. However, he knowingly brings supernaturally sensitive people into a house that has been known to kill, and we later find out that his investigations are greeted with indifference and scorn by fellow academics.
  • Romantic Runner-Up: Eleanor for both Theodora (who reconciles with "her friend" whose heavily implied to be her girlfriend) and Luke.
  • 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. They're driven down a dark path by the annihilating whiteness of the lawn and trees in the moonlight, and then things go From Bad to Worse when they see a vision of a picnic...
  • Our Founder: The apparently horrific statue of Hugh Crain and his daughters.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: While most of the characters and indeed all of Montague's team experience the supernatural at Hill House, it is heavily implied that none of the events have any physical reality but are all akin to collective hallucinations drawn in part from the traumatic history of the house (a la The Stone Tape) and in part from their own troubled psyches. The final chapter makes this close to explicit by revisiting the most dramatically gruesome event: the vandalising of Theodora's bedroom and wardrobe with blood or red paint, witnessed by all of the team. However, when the enthusiastic but ironically spiritually-insensitive Mrs Montague investigates the room, it turns out to be completely clean, save for a few day's dust due to their having sealed it off.
  • 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.
  • Tragic Dream: All Eleanor wants is a home. This leaves her deeply vulnerable to the machinations of Hill House.
  • 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.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Mrs. Montague completely ignores the harrowing experiences the others have had in the house and insists that it's haunted by Friendly Ghosts who need her love and understanding. The others are utterly baffled.
    • Also Eleanor, who fantasises about a fairytale happy ending ('Journeys end in lovers meeting') as the house takes possession of her.