Personification in 'The Haunting of Hill House'
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been a staple in horror literature since its publication in 1959. With ominous, dark, and frightening mood and themes, the novel has inspired authors and directors such as Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro, spawning various stories and films. In The Book of Lists: Horror, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is listed as onf of Stephen King's favorite horror stories of all time (Bradley, Howison, and Wallace 2008, 225). Del Toro writes in an introduction to the 2013 electronic edition of Jackson’s novel: “With The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson evolves the ghost story one step further by creating an equally fluid tale—one that will again test the relationship between the fantastic and the psychological.” What is it about The Haunting of Hill House that has spooked and inspired generations? The answer may be the manor itself—Hill House—which is written into life full of evil and malevolence.
The tale of a young woman, Eleanor, running from a suffocating life and trying to find herself is made terrifying by the presence and interaction of the cursed Hill House. Jackson masterfully creates a character out of the mansion with haunting, detailed description of its physical appearance and by giving the house its own malicious personality. Personification is defined by Dictionary.com as: “the act of personifying; the attributing of human qualities to an animal, object, or abstraction.” Jackson successfully uses personification in The Haunting of Hill House by attributing evil, diabolical behaviors and disturbing physical qualities to Hill House.
By equating Hill House’s physical appearance to that of a wicked, evil person, Jackson lays the ground work for frightening personification. Jackson gives a detailed and disquieting description of the architecture on page 32:
"No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of the house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice."
This description showcases the building as more than just an inanimate object, but also a living, breathing entity—one that is filled with cruelty and mal intent. Even the other characters in the story see the evil personification of the house. “The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words forming freely in her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once” (Jackson 2013, 30–31). For readers, being able to imagine the design of the house helps to create a creepy mood and disconcerting setting, building a character out of the mansion.
Hill House just doesn’t look evil but also has hateful and corrupt thoughts and feelings. “Hill House, not sane, stood itself against its hills, holding darkness within it; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more” (Jackson 2013, 3). Giving thoughts and feelings to the house adds to the personification. Jackson is not only creating a place, but a character. With evil intentions and motivations, Hill House is the antagonist of the novel. “It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed” (Jackson 2013, 32).
To add to the personification, these evil intentions and behaviors are not kept hidden inside Hill House, but also manifest into physical forms which can interact with the characters. Hill House can summon figures, is in command of its own form, and create sound and force: “the iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door, higher than either of them could reach, higher than Luke or the doctor could reach, and the sickening, degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door” (Jackson 2013, 123). The physical interaction with the other characters builds on the appearance and thoughts attributed to the object, helping to construct the personification of the mansion. This physical interaction also ups the stakes and danger poised to the other characters, creating tension and suspense. Hill House not only has spirits roaming around inside it, but is a living, thinking being of its own accord—much scarier than just a house with ghosts. Thus, the personification of the building is successful in creating horror and terror.
But the interaction doesn’t stop at Hill House’s ability to impact the other characters physically. The house also creates an emotional response in the characters and active communication with them, mainly Eleanor who becomes obsessed with Hill House and believes she’s connected to it. “She heard the little melody fade, and felt the slight movement of air as footsteps came close to her, and something almost brushed her face…None of them heard it, she thought with joy; nobody heard it but me” (Jackson 2013, 215–216). The ability to elicit behaviors and feelings in the other characters is a testament to Hill House as a character. The effective communication between Hill House and the others completes the house’s personification.
The intelligent choice to make Hill House its own character infuses another level of horror in The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson successfully creates a terrifying personification of a haunted house with physical description, feelings and intent, and interaction and communication with the other characters. With all of these elements, Hill House feels alive and its evil feels real—not just a setting, but a true personality hell bent on the destruction of the inhabitants’ body and soul.
Bradley, Howison, Wallace, ed. 2008. The Book of Lists: Horror. New York: Harper Collins.
Del Toro, Guillermo. 2013. “Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors: On the Penguin Horror Series.” In The Haunting of Hill House, edited by Guillermo del Toro, xi–xxx. New York: Penguin Horror. Kindle.
Dictionary.com. “Personification.” Accessed April 8, 2018. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/personification?s=t
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin Horror, 2013. Kindle.