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). 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 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. 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.
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. (Originally published 1959).