The first time we see Elisabeth Moss as horror author Shirley Jackson, she’s eerily still, slumped in an armchair while a party rages around her. Her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is playing host, a whirling dervish of manic, alcohol-fueled charm and wit; but there’s no question who’s pulling the strings in this story. Shirley is both spectator and conductor, audience and MC. Though the movie bears her name, Shirley isn’t so much a biopic as it is an extension of her bibliography.
“We tried to make the movie in the style of Shirley Jackson,” director Josephine Decker told Refinery29 over Zoom ahead of the film’s release. “[I wanted] Shirley [to feel] like something that she would have written.”
If you’re looking for a Wikipedia-entry style play-by-play of the author’s achievements, you won’t find it here. Though Shirley takes place during a real period in Jackson’s life in the early 1960s, the events depicted are mostly fictional. Her four children, whom she wrote about in two hilarious memoirs — 1953’s Life Among the Savages, and 1957’s Raising Demons — are nowhere to be found. With its dreamy, hazy cinematography, unsettling soundtrack, and intimately twisted relationships, Shirley blurs the line between fact and fiction, weaving a tale that reflects how Jackson viewed the world.
The movie kicks off with the arrival of a young couple staying in Shirley and Stanley’s home in North Bennington, VT. Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) initially appear as foils to their benefactors, who constantly snipe at each other in a booze-fueled game of cat and mouse. But as the film unfolds, the characters start to swap traits and experiences. Rose, who starts out put together and in control, starts to unravel, while Shirley, who begins the film as a near-recluse, becomes more confident in her own brand of success. Likewise Fred, who seemed so supportive of his wife early on, reveals himself to be untrustworthy and unfaithful, while Stanley, a known-lothario, ends up being the most encouraging — if toxic — force in his wife’s life. As in Jackson’s books, nothing is quite as perfect as it initially seems, nor as bad.
Over the course of her short life (she died in 1965 at age 48), Jackson published more than 200 short stories, six novels, and two memoirs, cementing her legacy as one of the foremost genre authors of the 20th century. And yet, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House aside, her stories only rarely featured supernatural occurrences. Her brand of horror is instead focused on the darkness lurking underneath the mundane. Take The Lottery, one of her most famous and controversial short stories, published in The New Yorker in 1948. The story centers around a fictional small town, in every way a picture of bucolic Americana — except for the fact that every year, they pick someone to stone to death. Of course, this is a fictional conceit; but it echoes the lengths to which society will go in order to keep the status quo and quash any sort of dissent or individuality.
In Shirley, the pressure for women to conform is everywhere — from the way Shirley herself is whispered about and marginalized for not acting like June Cleaver, to the novel she’s working on (Jackson’s real-life 1951 book Hangsaman) about a lonely young woman who disappears from campus, based on the true disappearance of Paula Jean Walden from Bennington College. And then there’s Rose, not so much asked as commanded by Stanley — who also sexually harasses her throughout the film — to forsake her studies to serve as a de facto housekeeper in exchange for room and board. Though she’s clearly hesitant, her concerns are minimized by her own husband, who frames it as her duty to help him succeed in his work.
“A lot of [Jackson’s] work has two female characters,” Decker said. “ One is really good at life, and is socially adjusted. The other one is sort of a misanthrope who can barely get along, and has a more messy internal experience.”
Shirley blends the two archetypes. Moss, with her surly, almost witchy demeanor, initially plays Shirley as the latter. She’s terrifying, her silences as cutting as the barbs she throws at Stanley, who gives as much as he gets. But she’s also in need of real tenderness, and displays vulnerability that stems from her feeling ostracized and misunderstood. Meanwhile, Rose, whose polished red lipstick and sleek hair give off a veneer of perfection, is a woman sublimating herself into oblivion. She scrubs, she scours, but her simmering rage is betrayed by the way she hacks away at a slimy chicken leg, or casually drops eggs onto the floor, as if in a trance. As the film progresses, we veer deeper and deeper into Rose’s psyche, uncovering her dissatisfaction with the expectations of mid-century womanhood.
“In a lot of Shirley's stories, you start out in a reality that feels very fixed and then you end up realizing that you're inside of a character's mind and you're not even sure how you got there,” Decker said.
That emphasis on women’s minds — specifically their fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt, too often ignored by those around them — is what made Jackson such an enduring author. She gave voice to taboo feelings, and made them important. Doing so made her financially successful — Jackson was one of the few women in the mid-20th century who was able to earn a living as a writer. But as Sady Doyle recently pointed out, her finances were always controlled by her husband, whose encouragement of her work always carried the shadow of exploitation, as his own career floundered. In Shirley, that double-edged sword is evident in Stanley and Shirley’s interactions, which most often begin and end with a cry for attention from a man who wants his wife to stimulate him intellectually, but also sit at the dinner table with him every night — never mind the fact that it’s her writing that provides the food.
Just as Jackson herself gave voice to women’s inner pain, Shirley is ultimately a cry for women to be taken seriously as artists.
“The most important thing to me is just that we say the name Shirley Jackson a lot more than we do now,” Decker said. “She’s one of the greatest creators of the last 150 years, but she’s not as famous as the legacy of her work, which has impacted a ton of artists. And a lot of the great horror artists now, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Geiman, Stephen King ... they’re all very indebted to Shirley.”