Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) remains best known for her supernatural horror novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959. After several decades of critical and commercial neglect, her work now has a higher public profile than ever. Her back catalogue has been re-published by Penguin, Ruth Franklin’s award-winning 2016 biography inspired numerous reviews and articles, and Jackson’s estate has released two well-received collections of her previously unpublished work since the late 1990s, with a volume of her selected letters forthcoming. A film adaptation of her 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle was released last year, and Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House brought a whole new generation of fans to her work.
In the first half of seminar, I will be talking about who Jackson was and the reasons why her work remains so important for horror fans and creators. The impressive scope of her literary interests will be an important theme. As well as creating the most famous haunted house of the twentieth-century, Jackson also played a foundational role in establishing the ‘Suburban Gothic’ sub-genre (in her debut novel, The Road Through the Wall, 1948), wrote what is still the single-most notorious American folk horror tale (‘The Lottery’, 1948), and penned a bleakly funny apocalyptic satire (The Sundial, 1956). What’s more, she was also one of the most high-profile working mothers of her era, thanks to the many non-fiction stories about her busy family life published in contemporary women’s magazines.
In the second half of the talk, I will focus on one particularly timely (and influential) aspect of Jackson’s interest in domesticity and female interiority: her recurrent depiction of deeply troubled young women. I’ll argue that precocious mass-murderer Merricat Blackwood, the narrator of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is the precursor to the many young women in the contemporary horror cinema canon who find the boundaries between reality and fantasy dangerously malleable. Within American horror cinema, teenage girls are often only permitted to openly express rage when their actions are related to some kind of external supernatural force (as in The Exorcist, Carrie, Teeth, Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body). We Have Always Lived in the Castle is therefore particularly interesting in that it explicitly relates its heroine’s disturbing behaviour to the deeply dysfunctional workings of the nuclear family. I will then discuss several recent horror films focusing on homicidal young women whose behaviour and motivations owe much to the Jackson blueprint. These films will include Excision (2012), The Bleeding House (2011), Black Swan (2010), Stoker (2013), The Eyes of My Mother (2016), and Thoroughbreds (2018).
Bernice M. Murphy is Lecturer in Popular Literature in the School of English, Trinity College, Dublin. She has published extensively on topics related to horror fiction and film, and is an expert on Shirley Jackson who edited the first ever essay collection on her work, Shirley Jackson: A Literary Legacy (2005). Her other books include The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2009), The Rural Gothic: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness (Palgrave, 2013), The Highway Horror Film (Palgrave Pivot, 2014) and (edited with Elizabeth McCarthy) Lost Souls of Horror and the Gothic (McFarland, 2017). Her current book project is a monograph entitled California Gothic.
About the Miskatonic Institute:
Founded by Film writer/programmer Kier-La Janisse in 2010, The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies offers classes in horror history, theory and production, with branches in London, New York and Los Angeles, as well as hosting special events worldwide.