AN IDEAL of a house is the true villain in Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and the 2018 Netflix series inspired by the novel.
Both novel and series are set in a fictional haunted house owned by the Hills, whose long history is marred by insanity, cruelty, murder, suicide and other tragedies. These morbid associations grew in time to contaminate the mansion with a reputation veering into the morbid and supernatural.
Jackson wrote about an investigator of the paranormal tapping two women and the young heir of the mansion to live in the house and record the phenomena for a research to be published in a scholarly journal.
In the Mike Flanagan-directed Netflix series, the “ghost hunters” are replaced by the Crain couple and their five children, who are renovating the Hill mansion to sell for a profit so that the Crains can build their “dream house.”
Seemingly Hill House of the murky shadows and murkier malice is responsible for the chain of calamities.
Yet, the mansion is not half as “diseased” as the golden ideal of the perfect house that sinks its roots and ensnares the Crains into not just staying on in the mansion that summer but also never escaping the phantoms even after the survivors have aged and transferred.
In a ham-handed way, the Netflix series puts across the ideal of perfection as the most dangerous delusion. It is Jackson, though, who has the voice that rivets.
The most vulnerable in the team studying Hill House is Eleanor Vance. At 32, she is looking for a place of her own. She took care of a demanding mother until the latter died. She hates her only sister and her family. She has no friends, no job, no prospects.
Accepting the invitation to be a research assistant, Eleanor sets off on a journey to Hill House, full of anticipation: “... I am going, I am going, I have finally taken a step.”
This is a poignant line, specially if one suspects the Eleanor/Nellie of the book and the series as mirroring the insecurities Jackson faced in real life. Daughter of a mother who never saw her as measuring up to standards and wife of a lesser writer who controlled her earnings and forced her to listen to his accounts of his infidelities, Jackson had a nervous breakdown but recovered. She was writing a novel when she had a heart attack in her sleep. She was 48.
The line that opens and closes “The Haunting of Hill House” endures as the most chilling ever written about a haunted house: “... whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Written long before an age almost painfully aware that kindness to oneself is the key to wellness and mental health, that line is the most haunting written by Jackson.