Throughout The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson creates a palpable atmosphere of fear. As she builds terror and dread, Jackson examines the effects of prolonged bouts of fear on her four main characters—Eleanor, Doctor Montague, Luke, and Theodora—and, in so doing, ultimately suggests that the state of being acutely afraid over such an extended period of time creates an effect of dissociation or depersonalization, rendering individuals strangers to themselves and one another.
When Eleanor first arrives at Hill House, she is tethered to reality—though a little whimsical and fanciful at times, there’s nothing about Eleanor to suggest that she’s insane, delusional, or prone to dissociative episodes. As the house deepens its claim on her, however, Eleanor slowly loses her grip on reality—and on herself. She begins to feel she is “disappearing inch by inch” into the house, “going apart a little at a time” due to the pressure of the fear she’s experiencing, and the increasing frequency with of sounds, noises, and even presences that only she can perceive. In the book’s denouement, as Eleanor’s spirit seems to meld with—or be taken over entirely by—whatever possesses Hill House, Eleanor runs wild through the house in the middle of the night. She is both herself and not herself; she clearly is in possession of her own memories, but she refers to herself in the third person and speaks of having at last found her way “home” to the very “inside” of Hill House. The morning after the episode, once Luke and the others have coaxed Eleanor down off of a rotting iron staircase from which she was, ostensibly, preparing to plunge to her death, Eleanor is encouraged to leave the house but seems reluctant to—she has become obsessed with the house, and decides to commit suicide in its driveway rather than leave it. Only in the “unending, crashing second before the car” hits a giant oak tree does Eleanor briefly seem to return to herself, wondering at last why she is “doing this” and why no one is stopping her. Eleanor’s fear seems to have completely severed her connection with reality until that final moment, when it’s already to late to reclaim her sense of self.
The housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Dudley, is perhaps the most profound example of someone whose elongated exposure to the evil within Hill House—and the terror it inspires—has resulted in a kind of dissociation. Mrs. Dudley speaks robotically and flatly in sentences that describe only her schedule in the house—her entire existence has become oriented around the times at which she enters the house, performs her duties, and leaves again. She never reveals anything more about herself or her life to the new guests, and she doesn’t ask any questions about them either—in fact, she never even varies the words she uses. Mrs. Dudley’s flat affect, depersonalized speech, and inability to focus on anything other than getting out of the house shows that in order for her to complete her accursed duties at Hill House, it’s necessary for her to separate herself from anything but the task at hand. Just as Eleanor, in the depths of her fear, cannot access anything beyond being afraid, Mrs. Dudley’s life outside Hill House—whatever it is—becomes inaccessible to her when she’s within the confines of the house.
After an encounter in which whatever possesses Hill House writes a message to Eleanor on the walls of Theodora’s room in blood, Theodora moves into Eleanor’s room. The two sleep in separate beds, but begin sharing clothes and possessions, as all of Theodora’s things have been stained with blood. As the two of them begin dressing, speaking, and acting like one another, the line between them blurs. Theodora, dressed in Eleanor’s demure clothes, begins calling herself “Eleanor” and speaking in mocking tones about “herself” in the third person. At the same time, Eleanor allows Theodora to paint her toenails bright red—though she feels provocative and out of place in her own body once the job is done—and begins adopting some of Theodora’s more fiery characteristics. As the two women seem to meld together, it is almost as if they are latching onto one another’s personalities as they feel their own selves dissolving in the presence of their constant state of fear and disorientation. It’s easier to embody another person than it is to reckon with the confusion and strangeness that has infiltrated their own minds, and as Eleanor and Theodora both consciously and subconsciously adopt parts of one another’s appearances and personalities, it seems they’re trying to hide themselves away, perhaps out of an instinct to preserve whatever is left of their true selves.
Additionally, Doctor Montague, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson all discuss the strange effects of being exposed to heightened fear over a long period of time. In humorous, almost academic discussions each morning as they lay out their plans for the day—and in the evenings, often after an encounter with the presence within Hill House—they deconstruct the emotions they experienced during the episodes with an eerie detachment, often poking fun at their own terror or one another’s. As the novel progresses, these chats become more and more ludicrous to the imperiled Eleanor, who is—depending on how one views the narrative—either drifting further away from herself, or closer to the true core of who she is: a woman possessed by an entity even she can’t understand. Indeed, as the others try to bring Eleanor back from the brink of her own destruction, they do so with the same tongue-in-cheek, disbelieving irony with which they’d deconstructed their encounters with the presence at Hill House days earlier—it’s as if what’s happening to their friend right before their eyes is at a distance or remove from them.
“When I am afraid,” Eleanor Vance states at a crucial point in the novel, after a horrific message has been scrawled in blood on the walls of Theodora’s room, “I can see perfectly the sensible, beautiful, not-afraid side of the world […] But when I am afraid I no longer exist in any relation to these things.” Jackson’s attempt to define fear as a state of dissociation, in which the “not-afraid side of the world” exists but becomes inaccessible, is her novel’s great experiment. Through the omnipresent atmosphere of terror and dread which permeates Hill House, she explores how fear slowly but surely detaches her protagonists from reality.
Fear and Dissociation ThemeTracker
Fear and Dissociation Quotes in The Haunting of Hill House
When they were silent for a moment the quiet weight of the house pressed down from all around them. Eleanor, wondering if she were really here at all, and not dreaming of Hill House from some safe spot impossibly remote, looked slowly and carefully around the room, telling herself that this was real, these things existed, from the tiles around the fireplace to the marble cupid; these people were going to be her friends.
The doctor sighed again. “Suppose,” he said slowly, “you heard the story of Hill House and decided not to stay. How would you leave, tonight?” He looked around at them again, quickly. “The gates are locked. Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness—it was eighteen years ago, I grant you—was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree. Suppose I tell you about Hill House, and one of you wants to leave? Tomorrow, at least, we could see that you got safely to the village.”
“It was accepted locally that she had chosen suicide because her guilty conscience drove her to it. I am more inclined to believe that she was one of those tenacious, unclever young women who can hold on desperately to what they believe is their own but cannot withstand, mentally, a constant nagging persecution; she had certainly no weapons to fight back against the younger sister’s campaign of hatred, her own friends in the village had been turned against her, and she seems to have been maddened by the conviction that locks and bolts could not keep out the enemy who stole into her house at night—”
“She should have gone away,” Eleanor said. “Left the house and run as far as she could go.”
“In effect, she did.”
“We must take precautions,” he said.
“Against what? How?”
“When Luke and I are called outside, and you two are kept imprisoned inside, doesn’t it begin to seem”—and his voice was very quiet—“doesn’t it begin to seem that the intention is, somehow, to separate us?”
Looking at herself in the mirror, with the bright morning sun light freshening even the blue room of Hill House, Eleanor thought, It is my second morning in Hill House, and I am unbelievably happy. Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.
“When I am afraid, I can see perfectly the sensible, beautiful not-afraid side of the world, I can see chairs and tables and windows staying the same, not affected in the least, and I can see things like the careful woven texture of the carpet, not even moving. But when I am afraid I no longer exist in any relation to these things. I suppose because things are not afraid.”
“I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” the doctor said slowly.
“No,” Luke said. “Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.”
“Of knowing what we really want,” Theodora said. She pressed her cheek against Eleanor’s hand and Eleanor, hating the touch of her, took her hand away quickly.
“I must say, John, I never expected to find you all so nervous," Mrs. Montague said. “I deplore fear in these matters.” She tapped her foot irritably. “You know perfectly well, John, that those who have passed beyond expect to see us happy and smiling; they want to know that we are thinking of them lovingly. The spirits dwelling in this house may be actually suffering because they are aware that you are afraid of them.”
Somewhere there was a great, shaking crash… […] Eleanor heard the laughter over all, coming thin and lunatic, rising in its little crazy tune, and thought, No; it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.
“I’ll come,” she said aloud, and was speaking up to Theodora, who leaned over her. The room was perfectly quiet, and between the still curtains at the window she could see the sunlight.
She heard the little melody fade, and felt the slight movement of air as the footsteps came close to her, and something almost brushed her face; perhaps there was a tiny sigh against her cheek, and she turned in surprise. Luke and the doctor bent over the chessboard, Arthur leaned confidingly close to Theodora, and Mrs. Montague talked.
None of them heard it, she thought with joy; nobody heard it but me.
Dancing, the carpet soft under her feet, she came to the door behind which Theodora slept; faithless Theo, she thought, cruel, laughing Theo, wake up, wake up, wake up, and pounded and slapped the door, laughing, and shook the doorknob and then ran swiftly down the hall to Luke’s door and pounded; wake up, she thought, wake up and be faithless. None of them will open their doors, she thought; they will sit inside, with the blankets pressed around them, shivering and wondering what is going to happen to them next; wake up, she thought, pounding on the doctor’s door; I dare you to open your door and come out to see me dancing in the hall of Hill House.
“I haven’t any apartment,” she said to Theodora. “I made it up. I sleep on a cot at my sister’s, in the baby’s room. I haven’t any home, no place at all.” […] She laughed, hearing her own words, so inadequate and so unutterably sad. […] “So you see there’s no place you can send me.”
I could, of course, go on and on, she wanted to tell them, seeing always their frightened, staring faces. I could go on and on, leaving my clothes for Theodora; I could go wandering and homeless, errant, and I would always come back here. It would be simpler to let me stay, more sensible, she wanted to tell them, happier.