12 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting of Hill House'
Can a house be born bad? That’s the question Shirley Jackson asks in her classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Released in 1959, the gothic novel follows four strangers who converge on a purportedly haunted house to “scientifically” seek out evidence of the paranormal. Things rapidly devolve and the characters—in particular, the novel’s lonely protagonist, Eleanor—realize, too late, that they’re in over their heads.
Upon its release, the novel sold briskly, earning Jackson a National Book Award nomination and high praise from critics. In its review, The New York Times called the story “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic” and described Jackson as “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale.” It also caught the attention of Hollywood, and within four years MGM released a film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise. Since then, the novel has been made into a play, into a widely panned 1999 movie, and a Netflix series. Here are 11 facts about The Haunting of Hill House you should know.
1. The Haunting of Hill House was inspired by real-life paranormal investigators.
Jackson was inspired to write the novel after reading about a group of 19th century “psychic researchers” who rented a house they believed to be haunted in order to study paranormal phenomena. The researchers studiously recorded their experiences in the house in order to present them in the form of a treatise to the Society for Psychic Research. In her essay “Experience and Fiction,” Jackson explained that she was most intrigued by the way the researchers revealed their own personalities and backgrounds throughout the study. “They thought they were being terribly scientific and proving all kinds of things,” she explained. “And yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds.”
2. Shirley Jackson had a terrifying sleepwalking experience while writing The Haunting of Hill House.
Early on in the writing process, Jackson awoke one morning to find something terrifying atop her writing desk: A note, with the words “DEAD DEAD” scrawled upon it, written in her own handwriting. Jackson, who loved ghost stories but did not believe in ghosts, brushed the strange discovery off as sleepwalking. In “Experience and Fiction,” she wrote that she used the strange note to motivate her, explaining, “I decided that I had better write the book awake, which I got to work and did.”
3. Jackson made an unsettling discovery while researching haunted houses.
Before she began writing The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson scoured magazines and newspapers for photos of houses that seemed haunted. During her research, she stumbled upon a photo of a house in California that had a particular air of “disease and decay.” She was so struck by it, she asked her mother, who lived in California, if she could find any additional information about the house. Her mother’s response shocked Jackson: Not only was she familiar with the house, but Jackson's own great-grandfather had built it. After standing empty for many years, the house had been set on fire—possibly by a group of townspeople.
4. There were multiple versions of The Haunting of Hill House’s Eleanor.
In A Rather Haunted Life, Shirley Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin writes that Jackson initially struggled to decide what kind of character her protagonist, Eleanor, would be. Jackson wrote three different iterations of Eleanor. One, according to Franklin, was “a spinster with a swagger”—a far cry from the introverted Eleanor of the finished novel.
5. The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story without the ghosts.
Jackson often referred to the novel as a “good ghost story” despite the fact that it doesn't have any overt ghosts. “The House is the haunting,” Jackson explained in her notes for the novel.
While much of the novel is left ambiguous, Jackson was clear about the connections between Hill House and her protagonist, Eleanor. “Jackson clearly intended the external signs of haunting to be interpreted as manifestations of Eleanor’s troubled psyche,” Franklin explains in A Rather Haunted Life. At the same time, Franklin notes, “The novel makes it clear that something in the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”
6. Jackson’s husband was too afraid to read The Haunting of Hill House.
Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a well-known literary critic and professor who enthusiastically read all of his wife’s books—but not The Haunting of Hill House. According to Franklin, “For the first time he refused to read her manuscript: He found the concept of ghosts too frightening.”
7. The Haunting of Hill House has earned comparisons to The Turn of the Screw.
Since its release, critics and fans have drawn comparisons between The Haunting of Hill House and the writings of everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Hilary Mantel. But the comparison that comes up the most is to Henry James’s classic novella The Turn of the Screw. In her introduction to The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller explains that the two novels share common themes, including “a lonely, imaginative young woman” and “a big isolated house.” In his 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes, “It seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” (The Turn of the Screw was adapted into The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second in the anthology series from the creators of Netflix’s Hill House adaptation.)
8. Roald Dahl sent Shirley Jackson a letter after reading The Haunting of Hill House.
Legendary children’s author Roald Dahl was so struck by The Haunting of Hill House, he wrote to Jackson suggesting she write for television. According to Jackson biographer Lenemaja Friedman, Dahl asked her to “consider writing a script for a television show that Ellyn Williams was doing in Britain.” It’s unclear whether Dahl himself was working on the show (his TV series Way Out premiered in 1961, two years after the publication of Hill House), but Jackson ultimately refused his request.
9. The Haunting of Hill House was Jackson’s first profitable novel.
The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t just Jackson’s most popular novel: It was her first profitable novel. “Hill House was a financial and critical triumph," Franklin writes. “For the first time, a novel of [Jackson’s] had finally earned back its advance and was even making a profit.”
10. Shirley Jackson sold the film rights to The Haunting of Hill House for $67,500.
When Jackson sold the movie rights to Hill House for $67,500 (“an astronomical fee for the time,” notes Franklin), it propelled her family into true financial stability for the first time. They used the money from the film to buy living room drapes, a player piano, and a washing machine and dryer.
11. The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted a number of times.
The first movie, The Haunting, was directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story) and starred Julie Harris as Eleanor, Claire Bloom as Theodora, and Russ Tamblyn as Luke. It debuted in 1963 to critical praise; according to Franklin, Jackson was publicly effusive, declaring herself “terrified” while watching the film. Privately, however, “she bemoaned the changes made to the plot, but said that the house—the real star of the movie, anyway—was wonderful,” Franklin writes.
An adaptation of the same name, starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor, and Liam Neeson, hit theaters in 2009, and—unlike Jackson's novel and the previous film adaptation—went heavy on the supernatural elements. (As ScreenRant notes, “the house is literally brought to life and is actively killing its inhabitants. There is no ambiguity in this movie.”) It has just a 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In his review, critic Roger Ebert wrote, “To my surprise, I find myself recommending The Haunting on the basis of its locations, its sets, its art direction, its sound design, and the overall splendor of its visuals. The story is a mess, but for long periods of time that hardly matters. It’s beside the point, as we enter one of the most striking spaces I’ve ever seen in a film.”
In 2018, a more heavily adapted series—which used the full name of Jackson’s novel and its general themes, but not much of the plot—debuted on Netflix. The book has also been adapted for theater and radio.
12. The Haunting of Hill House has a lot of famous fans.
Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, and Carmen Maria Machado are all huge fans. Del Toro included Hill House in a series of six classic horror novels he curated for Penguin, Maria Machado called it “the scariest novel I’ve ever read,” and Neil Gaiman has written that, while plenty of novels have scared him, Hill House “beats them all.” Stephen King, meanwhile, has written that Hill House has one of the best openings he’s ever read, calling it “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for.”
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.