This House is Built on Tropes
By: Date: July 26, 2020 Categories: Essays Tags: , ,

May 20th, 2019

The Haunting of Hill House is part of the 1950s American horror tradition.  Though it is mainly comparable to pieces from the world of film, it still sits soundly as a member of the family.  According to Andrew Gordon, the author of “Monster Mash”, an article from the journal Science Fiction Studies, 1950s horror had several main thematic touchstones, citing The Haunting of Hill House alongside Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, for the theme of “psychological horror” (Gordon 163).  The Haunting of Hill House is nestled soundly within this praxis.  It uses the ideas in the years previous as well as establishing a precedent for ongoing tropes within the genre.  From our perspective looking back on the horror tradition, Shirley Jackson’s novel feels like a formulaic group investigation of a haunted location narrative because it laid the groundwork for how those stories should function.  The Haunting of Hill House both builds on, and builds anew, the rules of horror fiction.

Social interactions and societal expectations are oft ignored in discussions of  The Haunting of Hill House.  The characters speak in a very performative way, almost aware of their station as characters.  They refuse to ever speak their minds, choosing instead to assume roles for the purposes of playing pretend with one another.  This is a response to the rising trend of conformity spawned by threatening “invasion narratives” as well as “outsider narratives” common in 1950s horror (Gordon 163).  This precedent for this type of story is described thoroughly in “Monster Mash” and is best summarized in one quotation:

“He [Mark Jancovich] sees the threats in these films as reflecting not so much fears of the Red Menace as anxieties about the rapid changes being brought about in postwar American life by the rise of what he terms ‘Fordism’ or ‘rationalism’: ‘the process through which scientific-technical rationality is applied to the management of social, economic and cultural life… This new system which both created conformity and repressed dissent,’” 

(Gordon 163).  

Each character follows suit and toes the line of these pretend personas to fit in.  This idea of conformity and reliance on science in the face of any challenge is very present in the novel.  From the very regimented way in which Mrs. Dudley feeds and cleans up after the protagonists to the almost ritualistic way that our quartet spends their days, uniformity and observation is central to their behaviors.  Every one of the three guests is content in following the laidback scientific method of Dr. Montague.  No one raises an issue and everyone plays their part. 

The metanarrative of horror is part of the genre itself.  Horror evokes many effects within its structure, including self-referential irony and the spirit of camp.  Paragons of this idea are the films Scream, directed by Wes Craven, and The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon.  They are both rife with the hypermediacy of their group led horror by containing the five archetypal horror characters.  These characters are colloquially, and somewhat crassly referred to as the virgin, the whore, the jock, the scholar, and the fool.  The Cabin in the Woods calls out these tropic roles within the story itself, identifying each of its characters as one of these titles.  It is similar to the horror movie rules presented in Scream as they state the rules within the movie and then the narrative follows them to their consequences.  With this background, it is easy to see these tropes and rules within The Haunting of Hill House.

Reading The Haunting of Hill House after having consumed so much other horror media makes these character tropes stick out in surprising ways.  It should be noted that these terms are the common ones used within horror analysis and are not intended to be personal judgments about characters or their morality.  As the main character of the book, Eleanor is our virgin.  The title of the virgin is not denotative of sexual or moral purity.  It focuses instead on naivety and inexperience, two things that Eleanor deeply exemplifies.  For most of her adult life, she has cared for her mother and is therefore unwise to the world.  She feels a thrill at simple things such as driving alone and picking out new brightly colored clothes.  Theadora is the whore.  Again, this is not a comment on her promiscuity, merely her position in the story.  She is far more worldly than Eleanor.  She lives, unmarried, with a roommate of unspecified gender while also carrying on a flirtatious and playful rapport with both Luke and Eleanor.  This, along with her vanity, situates her as our whore.  While ostensibly Dr. Montague is the leader of our group, seeing as he summoned everyone to the house, Luke Sanderson is our jock.  He was originally described as dishonest, but his address of Eleanor and Theodora stops him from being the fool.  Upon meeting them he says “ ‘These being dead,’ ” he said, “ ‘then dead must I be.’ Ladies, if you are the ghostly inhabitants of Hill House, I am here forever.’”  (Jackson 50).  His charming nature and proclivity towards taking control of social situations make him truly fill the archetype.  Dr. and Mrs. Montague are the trickiest to pin down.  The initial thought, given Montague’s position, is that he should be the scholar and his meddling wife should be the fool.  However, the audience’s inherent dislike of Mrs. Montague aside, it may actually be the reverse.  When Mrs. Montague arrives, Dr. Montague instantly tells her with a tone meant to appease, that “There’s a definite cold spot just outside the nursery door,” (Jackson 170).  To this, Mrs. Montague replies “After nearly a week I certainly thought you’d have things in some kind of order. Any figures materialize?” (Jackson, 170-171).  She is, despite the fallacy of her methods, actually focused on pursuing results and uncovering the secrets of Hill House.  She is engaging in scientific inquiry.  While Dr. Montague is well versed in the history of the house, he himself says “I am most unwilling now to influence your minds with its complete history before you have had a chance to see for yourselves,”, warning Theodora, Luke, and Elanor about the dangers of prior knowledge influencing their analytical analysis of the investigation (Jackson 61).  Yet, Dr. Montague still goes against his own judgment and tells his cohorts the story of the house, effectively poisoning their objective view of the house while also giving them a false sense of his own knowledge.  All of these characters seem to slot nicely into the five archetypical horror roles, but they do not fill them perfectly.  

It is here, with these roles defined, but not perfectly filled, that the 1950s psychological horror of The Haunting of Hill House comes back into play.  These archetypes are expectations that the audience holds.  When characters do not behave the same way the audience expects them to, we become uncomfortable.  This is especially the case of Eleanor.  It is obvious that she is just assimilating to and playing a role.  Of herself, she defines that “me. I have red shoes, she thought—that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side and crack my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons,” (Jackson 76).  One might assume that these thoughts are just facets of introspection, but they are not.  Eleanor is choosing to be Eleanor.  She is defining herself my terms that she did not enter the story with.  She notes upon unpacking that the shoes and slacks are new.  Eleanor is choosing a new identity, another part of the desire to conform and the fear of outsiders or of being discovered as an interloper.  Further, her many repetitions of “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” accompanied by her flirtatious relationship towards both Luke and Theodora also distance her from her chaste self (Jackson 32).  These divergences make her imperfect for the role of the virgin, therefore shaking her position as the main character in the audience’s eyes.  It makes us question why the book centers round her.  This tropic role is further subverted by her erratic behavior and death.  The virgin is often referred to as “the final girl” (Lipset 6).  This means that her death must occur last, if at all.  None of the other characters die, so her death, along with her new garish and sexual identity, places her more into the category of the whore.  This effectively unbalances the placement of each character and instantly makes the audience feel that something is very wrong within the narrative.  

It is understood that as this novel was published in 1959 and therefore cannot be said to be following these later tropes.  However, it does serve as a foundation for, as well as a subversion of those tropes when viewed through a future lens.  As a piece of genre fiction, The Haunting of Hill House is intentionally composed of established tropes and themes.  It obeys the precedent of the fifties while also laying the groundwork for future group investigation horror. 

Craven, Wes, et al., directors. Scream. Dimension Home Video, 1997.

Goddard, Drew, et al., directors. The Cabin in the Woods. Alliance Film, 2012.

Gordon, Andrew. “Monster Mash.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 2000, pp. 162–166. JSTOR,

Hitchcock, Alfred, et al., directors. Psycho. Universal Home Video, 1998.

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics) (p. 50). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lipsett, Joe. ““One for the Horror Fans” vs.“An Insult to the Horror Genre”: Negotiating Reading Strategies in IMDb Reviews of The Cabin in the Woods.” Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association 10.11.1 (2013).

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