Is The Haunting Of Hill House Based On A True Story?

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
After watching The Haunting of Hill House, out October 12 on Netflix, you'll desperately hope the terrifying show is not based on a true story. Actually, let me clarify: About 99% of you will be hoping that Hill House is purely fictional, because that will mean ghosts aren't real and there's nothing to be scared of when the lights go off. The remaining one percent of you? The rest will be as curious as the people who buy Steven Crain's (Michiel Huisman) books about hauntings. You'll want to believe in Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House tells the story of one family's summer spent in the most haunted house in America. Olivia (Carla Gugino) and Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) move their five kids to Hill House with the intention of renovating and flipping the house for lots and lots of money. Hill House is a beautiful — if decrepit — mansion, adorned with statues and staircases. Almost as if the structure possesses a will of its own, Hill House resists all the Crains' plans for change and betterment. Instead, it hurls customized hauntings at each of the family members.
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When designing this particular house of horrors, did Netflix get inspiration from some real-life hauntings? Perhaps. The Haunting of Hill House is based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel of the same name, widely considered a seminal work of horror fiction. The show preserves many of the book characters' names, then casts them in new roles. In the book, a scientist named Dr. Montague aims to prove the existence of the afterlife by spending four days alone in Hill House, a notoriously haunted place. The show, on the other hand, focuses on a family in a haunted house.
Actually, "haunted" isn't quite the right word for Hill House. It's more like the house is alive. Check out the first paragraph of Jackson's book, which is repeated in the Netflix show: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."
From the start, Jackson challenges the reader to to think of a house as a "not sane" being, not as a static structure made of wood, brick and plaster. In the book, Hill House is a malevolent entity which singles out inhabitants and bullies them with strange events — blood oozes out of walls, random messages appear. But there are no ghosts in Jacksons's book. The house can't physically harm anyone. It can, however, drive a person mad.
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The house is firmly a product of Jackson's mind — who else but Jackson, literary horror writer extraordinaire, could create a home so poetic and so unsettling at once? Still, when designing the architecture of the fictional house, Jackson looked to accounts from famous haunted houses like Castle Neuschwanstein in Germany and the Winchester Mystery House in California (subject of the recent horror movie Winchester), as well as the writings of supernatural expert Nandor Fodor. Fodor believed haunted houses were structures imbued with the icky emotional baggage of its former residents. That emotional energy manifested in what we call hauntings — knocks on walls, slammed doors, and cold drafts (all of which appear in Hill House). Most significantly, Fodor believed ghosts were actually the external manifestations of conflicts within the subconscious mind. So if a house is "haunted," it means trauma took place there. That's certainly true of Netflix's Hill House.
When writing Hill House, Jackson also may have been inspired by the campus of Bennington College in Vermont, where her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, taught. Jackson and Hyman lived near the notoriously haunted Jennings Music Building, which students and professors alike have reported paranormal occurrences, from cold spots to voices drifting down supposedly empty hallways. In the Shirley Jackson biography A Rather Haunted Life, author Ruth Franklin posits that Jackson was alsoinspired by the Edward H. Everett mansion near Old Bennington, Vermont. According to legend, the ghostly presence of Everett's first wife roams the hallways.
Strangest of all? When Jackson was visiting California, she came across a house that embodied the perfect aesthetic of Hill House. Jackson asked her mother, who was from California, about the house. Apparently, the house had been built by a family ancestor, architect Charles Bugbee. As Franklin writes in Jackson biography, "the houses were impressive architectural creations in the neo-Victorian style that came to be typical of the Bay Area, laden with ornamentation and studded with gables and bay windows shooting out at unlikely angles." Or, as Jackson called them, "big old California gingerbread houses." The looming Victorian structure in the TV adaptation of Hill House could almost be a Bugbee creation — just add windows that glow red in the dark and a door that won't open.
While The Haunting of Hill House isn't based on a true story, the fact that it's inspired by so many real places should scare you enough.
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