A war exists at the heart of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House—a war between supernatural and psychological phenomena. At the start of the novel, a group of individuals with psychic sensitivities is recruited by anthropologist—and closet parapsychologist—Doctor Montague to spend a summer at the “evil” mansion, delving into the house’s terrifying mysteries as part of an experiment which Montague hopes will validate his research in the field of paranormal activity. Through their adventures at Hill House, Jackson shows how each individual is also at the mercy of the horrors that dwell within his or her own mind. Jackson argues that the traumas, illusions, and terrors lurking within the human psyche are often more frightening than ghosts or hauntings—and that the line between supernatural and psychological phenomena is often blurry and porous.
As Jackson describes the supernatural and paranormal phenomena that take place within the walls of Hill House, she leaves open the possibility that at least a portion of the “haunting” is taking place in the minds of the four characters who have come to investigate the manor—primarily within the troubled brain of the novel’s protagonist, Eleanor Vance. Jackson uses Eleanor’s unstable and rapidly deteriorating mental state to break down the boundaries between paranormal events and psychological ones, and to show that the recesses of the human mind hold far greater horrors than even a haunted, accursed house. When Eleanor first arrives at Hill House, she immediately senses evil and hopelessness emanating from the manor. Even though her instincts tell her to turn around, decline Dr. Montague’s invitation, and return to the cramped apartment she shares with her sister, brother-in-law, and niece, Eleanor’s desire to break free of her claustrophobic circumstances and strike out on her own pushes her forward. Eleanor begins to relax as she meets the other subjects of Dr. Montague’s experiment: Theodora, a psychic who is sensitive to the realm beyond the human one, and Luke Sanderson, the young man who stands to inherit Hill House. However, Eleanor tells no one the truth of her life: that after years of caring for her sick and ailing mother, she is now, at thirty-two, unequipped emotionally or financially to handle the world. What’s more, she remains haunted by a childhood encounter with what may have been a poltergeist.
As the narrative progresses, Jackson casts doubt over whether the “haunting” from Eleanor’s childhood was truly the work of a poltergeist—or the result of Eleanor’s own telekinetic abilities. The writing on the walls that appears throughout Hill House in chalk and later in blood, entreating Eleanor to “COME HOME,” may also be the work of her powerful subconscious. Jackson never provides an answer as to the truth of Eleanor’s powers or lack thereof—Eleanor may be at the mercy of supernatural or paranormal tormentors, or her own mind may be her worst enemy. In cultivating ambiguity surrounding Eleanor’s capabilities, Jackson creates a potent metaphor about the terrifying power of the human mind to isolate, debilitate, or even defeat the individual ostensibly in control.
Though Eleanor is the novel’s primary protagonist, she’s not the only one who suffers during her time at Hill House. The phenomena which Eleonor, Theodora, Dr. Montague, and Luke all experience come in many forms: phantom dogs, loud knocking and shaking at their bedroom doors, and, most ominously, the writing on the wall. At one point, Theodora experiences a frightening vision, which she never describes but is clearly terrified by, while Eleanor is seized by a strange, giddy desire to throw herself off the roof of Hill House. As Eleanor’s mental state declines, the group tries to send her away—only to watch helplessly as she crashes her car and commits suicide in front of them on her way out of the Hill House gates. By showing that other people besides Eleanor are physically and emotionally affected by the house, Jackson further complicates the question of whether the strange happenings outlined in the novel are the result of a true “haunting,” or part of individual or collective delusions which grip those who visit the house. Though Jackson ultimately offers no definitive answer, she uses the mysterious ambiguity surrounding the “haunting” to suggest that perhaps the most frightening thing of all is a psychologically haunted self.
The Haunting of Hill House uses the trappings of Gothic horror and familiar haunted-house tales to tell a different story entirely, one rooted deeply in metaphor: the story of a mind becoming unhinged. As the titular haunting unfolds, Jackson muddies the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined, what is supernatural and what is terrifyingly mundane—to Jackson, the human mind is, at the end of the day, the most haunted and unknowable place of all.
The Supernatural vs. The Psychological ThemeTracker
The Supernatural vs. The Psychological Quotes in The Haunting of Hill House
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.
During the whole underside of her life, ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House. Caring for her mother, lifting a cross old lady from her chair to her bed, setting out endless little trays of soup and oatmeal, steeling herself to the filthy laundry, Eleanor had held fast to the belief that someday something would happen.
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.”
“Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer.”
“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.”
“I hate having things done to me.”
“You’re about as crazy as anyone I ever saw,” Theodora said cheerfully.
“I don’t like to feel helpless,” Eleanor said. “My mother—”
“Your mother would have been delighted to see you with your toenails painted red,” Theodora said. “They look nice.”
Eleanor looked at her feet again. “It’s wicked,” she said inadequately. “I mean—on my feet. It makes me feel like I look like a fool.”
“I think we are all incredibly silly to stay. I think that an atmosphere like this one can find out the flaws and faults and weaknesses in all of us, and break us apart in a matter of days. We have only one defense, and that is running away. At least it can’t follow us, can it? When we feel ourselves endangered we can leave, just as we came. And,” he added dryly, “just as fast as we can go. […] Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.”
“I promise,” Eleanor said, smiling.
“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.”
“Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell. They sometimes do that,” Mrs. Montague broke off to explain. “They repeat a word over and over to make sure it comes across all right.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “What do you want?” he read.
“Want to be home.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for what?”
“Home.” Arthur stopped, and nodded profoundly. “There it is again,” he said. “Like a word, and use it over and over, just for the sound of it.”
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.
“And your night?” the doctor asked timidly. “Did you spend a—ah—profitable night?”
“If by profitable you meant comfortable, John, I wish you would say so. No, in answer to your most civil inquiry, I did not spend a comfortable night. I did not sleep a wink. That room is unendurable.”
“Noisy old house, isn’t it?” Arthur said. “Branch kept tapping against my window all night; nearly drove me crazy, tapping and tapping.”
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.
No stone lions for me, she thought, no oleanders; I have broken the spell of Hill House and somehow come inside. I am home, she thought, and stopped in wonder at the thought. I am home, I am home, she thought; now to climb.
“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.
“Go away, Eleanor, you can’t stay here; but I can,” she sang, “but I can; they don’t make the rules around here. They can’t turn me out […]; I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me.”
With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator… [...] I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.
In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?