I Slept in Hill House

The second horror film I watched as a child was called “The Haunting”. This was the 1963 film starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn. As with the first horror film I saw, “Horror Hotel” (or “The City of the Dead” as it was originally titled in the UK), our babysitters felt these were OK movies for children to watch. While I was scared witless, terrified, I have to agree. “Hill House” was adapted for the screen by Nelson Gidding after the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. Jackson lived in North Bennington, Vt. when she wrote “Hill House” which is where we intersect.

Before I get to Bennington, this all came to mind afresh after Cathy and I watched, and thoroughly enjoyed, the Netflick series “The Haunting of Hill House”, created by Mike Flanagan and loosely based on Jackson’s novel. Flanagan’s adaptation added more elements, e.g. addiction, depression, anxiety (these could be based on Jackson’s life as she struggled with these things), and more time, following the Crain family from childhood to adulthood. These personal histories, as told by Flanagan, resonated with me because I’m not so sure we give our own histories enough credit where credit is due, i.e. the present.

my copy

Shirley Jackson spent her adult life living in North Bennington, Vt. because her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, taught at nearby Bennington College. Hyman became a noted critic while Jackson became a better-noted and more successful writer. Jackson dealt with spells of anxiety which left her unable to leave their home while Stanley found the female student body too tempting to resist leading to his request for an “open” marriage. They had four children, Laurence (Laurie), Joanne (Jannie), Sarah (Sally), and Barry. Barry still lived in North Bennington during my time at the college and we spent some time talking on sunny days out on Commons lawn and I think it’s fair to say that the childhood recollections he shared were not so unusual except his mother was Shirley Jackson.

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.—Shirley Jackson on her short story “The Lottery”

“The Lottery” was published by The New Yorker in 1948 and I believe it remains at the top of list for number of cancelled subscriptions. I read “The Lottery” in grammar school and devoured a number of Jackson’s other works including “The Haunting of Hill House”, which was deeper and more disturbing than the film (as is usually the case). There remains some debate as to how much “The Lottery” was about North Bennington or inspired by it. I prefer to leave facts alone and simply recognize how where we live informs our view.

Shirley Jackson and her children

I arrived early for Bennington College one semester because I had a bunch of things to do including a job interview.  My on-campus housing wasn’t ready when I arrived late in the evening so I was sent off-campus to a home in North Bennington to stay the night.  It was an old house with a large, dimly lit foyer. As memory serves, I could not see into the corners of the room due to the darkness. A student sat at a table and we had a brief exchange which mainly consisted of her handing me a key to my room and her pointing up the stairs.

My room for the night was on the top floor and included a padlocked door to the attic. I was tired after a long day and 3+ hour drive so I hadn’t realized where I was until I sat on the bed and stared at that padlocked door. I was in Shirley Jackson’s home, Hill House. At least that’s what my personal history with this story and fear told me. I tried to tell my adult/rational self it was silly to be afraid but I wasn’t the least bit convincing because Shirley Jackson had convinced me otherwise a long time ago.

I slept an hour or so in total, my dreams of “Hill House” blurring into my room in ‘Hill House’ while my silent plea to that padlocked door—please don’t pound—may or may not have been answered.

Hill House ephemera