This past Halloween spooky season, I finally followed through on reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House after several years of wanting to do so. I was inspired to read it after watching Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series of the same name. To say that Flanagan’s series was loosely based on the book is an understatement. There are very few similarities between the two, although they are both excellent in their own way. Flanagan’s series is about a family consumed by loss and grief, and it came at a time when those themes were particularly resonant with me. Jackson’s book is about a woman consumed by a desire to belong somewhere, anywhere, after a lifetime of never fitting in. It shocked me how much I saw myself reflected in her struggle.
[There are spoilers ahead for both the book and the series. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.]
The book’s protagonist, Eleanor, a.k.a. Nellie, a.k.a. Nell, arrives at the titular Hill House on invitation from Dr. John Montague, who is investigating the house for paranormal phenomena. Although Montague sent such invitations to a number of different people, only one other person besides Eleanor accepted theirs. It is an odd invitation, to be sure, but Eleanor accepts it because, ultimately, she has nothing to lose. She is unhappy in her life, and as we follow her on her journey to the house, we see her tendency to retreat into a fantasy world.
After she arrives at the house, Eleanor meets Montague and two other people: Luke, who stands to inherit the house and is there representing his family, who owns it, and Theodora, who is the only other person to have accepted Montague’s invitation. Nellie quickly becomes friends with Theodora, a.k.a. Theo, and there is a suggestion that maybe her interest extends beyond friendship. It seems for a while like maybe the feelings are reciprocal, but as Theo and Luke pal around more and more, they become casually cruel toward Nellie.
Or do they? Although the book is written in the third person, it is often filtered through Nellie’s perspective. Her retreat into fantasy during her car ride to Hill House, though, gives readers the warning that her perspective is not always based in reality. Does Theo really become increasingly hostile toward Nellie, then, and do she and Luke make snide comments about her while she is within earshot? Maybe. Or maybe a lifetime of feeling like she doesn’t belong has led Nellie’s mind to interpret things that way.
Ultimately, as Nellie’s sense of rejection overtakes her, she finds comfort in the house itself. We have been told over the course of the book how wrong the house is. Everything within it is somehow off; its angles aren’t quite right and the structure itself exudes a sense of gloom. As Nellie’s connection to those around her fades, though, her connection to the house grows. She comes to feel like she is a part of it and it is a part of her. When, at the end of the novel, she is faced with the end of her time at the house, she instead decides to stay with it forever by crashing her car into a tree on the way out.
Nellie’s desperate need to find a connection with something external, be it an unrequited love or a seemingly haunted house, comes from her tenuous grasp on her own sense of identity. There is nothing she is particularly good at. If she doesn’t annoy the people around her, she at least strongly feels like she does. It makes sense, then, that she would find some sort of odd kinship with a house that also doesn’t seem to belong, that is awkwardly built and that has an interior which is confusing to navigate.
Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD, never really fitting in, feeling awkward and out of place but not really knowing why, getting the sense that I was an annoyance to people around me, being prone to lose myself in internal fantasy worlds… Yeah, I saw a lot of myself in Nellie. Recently I have been facing the prospect of finally escaping the haunted house I’ve been living in for over 16 years now, with roughly the last 6 of those years being on my own most of the time. It’s something that needs to happen. The house is haunted. Everyone else has had the good sense to escape. In The Haunting of Hill House, it turned out the specter haunting the house was Nellie herself. Here, it is me.
And yet, the idea of leaving this house terrifies me. I have made this weird, seemingly unlovable house my home. I’ve spent the best of times here and the worst of times here, including over a year of near-total isolation during the pandemic. It’s no coincidence that I’ve dedicated the last few years to making a total career change into one that requires being out of the house. I know in my heart that it is unhealthy for me to continue haunting this place. Its angles are wrong. It makes strange noises at night. Sometimes I turn the corner and for a brief moment see a cat that isn’t there, a projection of my own grief after losing both my cats in the past 13 months.
Both the novel and the TV series of The Haunting of Hill House end in Nellie’s death. On the surface level, she is a victim of the siren song of an evil, haunted place. On a deeper level, though, she is a victim of herself, a broken person who is unable to overcome her own grief and her inner demons. She is unable to stop haunting herself. In the novel, it is unclear if anyone will grieve over her loss. In the TV series, she leaves behind a family who cared for her. I am not Nellie, and I will not share her fate, but both versions of The Haunting of Hill House have reminded me of what could happen if I make the mistake of believing my strongest connection is to a house of my own haunting.