A haunted house is a lovely thing. It must be, in order to attract so many. Perhaps it’s the knockdown price that's so attractive, or it's potential as a fixer-upper. A haunted house is a place of possibilities, mostly blank. Because how can a house really be haunted? Isn’t it more likely that people bring their own pain with them, draw out a response that’s really only a mirror of their own papered-over, painted-over flaws?
The haunted house is often a metaphor for family violence. Yet families can be haunted when houses aren’t, and a history of horror doesn’t have to be tied to a dwelling-place.
When Eleanor Vance, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, comes to inhabit that house, she's dragging with her the pain and frustration of the 10 years she spent taking care of her now-dead mother. Eleanor is invited to help investigate rumors of supernatural activity at Hill House, and her own childhood history of telekinesis is believed by the group’s head, Dr. Montague, to show a useful sensitivity to the paranormal. But this sensitivity to the supernatural has a price, and Hill House uses the memory of her dead mother's voice and presence in order to dra Eleanor further into the home. Jackson writes, “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”
The monster is Hill House, and the monster is mother. Hill House, playing on Eleanor's vulnerabilities, has cloaked itself in motherhood, and the haunting takes on maternal aspects, as Eleanor calls out to her dead mother and Hill House calls back. Jackson writes: "'Come along,' a voice answered distinctly upstairs, and Eleanor turned, eager, and hurried to the staircase. 'Mother?' she said softly, and then again, 'Mother?'"
“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”
Eleanor's relationship with her biological mother was difficult and filled with resentment, and because of that, the playful, child-like relationship she develops with Hill House — dancing and laughing through the corridors, "held so tightly in the embrace of the house" — comes to seem all the more attractive.
“It knows my name,” says Eleanor, the initial terror of the this knowledge finally peaking into pleasure, a sense of her own belonging. She is the small creature held inside, her little movements mirrored in the haunting around her; her name is written over the inside walls of Hill House in chalk and blood. And, most horrifying of all, she likes it. She's happy there. "I don't want to go away from here," she says. "It was not cold at all, but deliciously, fondly warm... I am home, I am home, she thought.”
Hill House is built, deliberately, to be full of odd angles and sloping stairs, with everything just a little bit skewed from centre. It is described as "the crazy house at the carnival." Nothing is where it’s supposed to be — “time after time we choose the wrong doors” — and the effect is destabilizing and estranging. Eleanor, on arrival, finds it immediately horrific: “The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once."
“It knows my name,” says Eleanor, the initial terror of the this knowledge finally peaking into pleasure, a sense of her own belonging.
But her mother is dead, and there is no home to go back to, so Eleanor doesn’t get away. She doesn’t leave, and one unbearable, undermining house is exchanged for another. She grows to love it.
Eleanor Vance is not the only girl in a horror novel with a difficult mother. Carrie White, the titular character of the Stephen King novel has it much, much worse. Of all the monsters in Carrie, the mother, Margaret White, is the most horrific. She is determined to punish her daughter both for developing into a woman and for possessing, like Eleanor, occasional telekinetic ability. A religious fanatic, Margaret abuses and isolates her child. She throws her tea in Carrie’s face. She smacks Carrie’s head against an altar, kicks her, slaps her, and locks her in closets for so long that she "once fainted from the lack of food and the smell of her own waste."
Of all the monsters in Carrie, the mother, Margaret White, is the most horrific.
Carrie is mercilessly bullied at home and at school. It's no surprise then that when a prank goes badly wrong at prom, Carrie destroys the peers that tormented her and then goes home — to the hateful figure that haunts her house — to finish the job.
Even as a small child, Carrie hated that house where she lived with her mother. As a toddler, she used her telekinesis to make ice and stones fall from the sky. Every single piece of stone and ice fell through the roof of the house; not a single shard or rock fell outside the boundary. She meant to destroy the home.
It didn't work: The house recovered. Haunted houses nearly always do. (Destroying the house doesn’t destroy what comes into it or what comes out of it. The house is a structure containing evil, not evil itself.) Margaret White’s house stands, walls around closets around madness, until Carrie goes to the prom and discovers it’s not the house that needs burning, it’s all those who have hurt her, including her mother.
Carrie and The Haunting of Hill House share a horrifying maternal figure, and both books feature a house made haunted, in part, by the presence of or the memories of that figure. But by some twist of birth, both Eleanor and Carrie possess supernatural abilities, with which to respond to the disturbing nature of their respective dwelling places. They, like their homes, are haunted. And so they respond the only way they know how: Carrie kills her mother, removing her evil spirit from the house. Eleanor dies by suicide, so that she can stay a child in Hill House forever. Because, perversely, hauntings need deaths to survive.