In ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ Clothes Make (and Ruin) the Women
Shirley Jackson’s gothic masterpiece is attuned to suspense and style in equal measure.
Photograph by Deborah Turbeville for Vogue via Getty Images.
Clothes Before Prose is a column that explores the use of fashion in some of our favorite novels. This week: the eerie intimacy of sharing clothing in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
At the beginning of The Haunting of Hill House—the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel upon which Netflix’s 10-part series is based—Eleanor Vance takes a car (her sister’s; stolen) and sets out on a journey with the scantest possible information. She has been invited to a house, possibly haunted, by a man she doesn’t know, because she had a childhood encounter with a poltergeist.
Unlike Netflix's family-centric adaptation, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House involves the meeting of four strangers—Dr. Montague, who has contrived the trip; Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House; Eleanor; and a young woman named Theodora—who find themselves in a house beset by escalating psychic disturbances. This is a ghost story in which ghosts are seldom seen; a horror story without gore. If horror relies on acts of transgression to deliver its chills, then The Haunting of Hill House is uniquely attuned to the transgressive implications of wearing another person’s clothes.
Eleanor sets off to Hill House armed with gloves, a pocketbook, a light coat. These are sensible items, appropriate to her dull New York City life. She’s someone who would choose neutral, non-assertive hues. Camel, maybe. Dark brown. Navy blue. But on the back seat, concealed in her suitcase, are clothes Eleanor has bought herself specifically for the occasion. They are clothes that embody the kind of person she wishes to be: a bright red sweater, red shoes, and even—“excited at her own daring”—two pairs of slacks. This impulse is a familiar one. Who hasn’t, on the precipice of a holiday, recklessly bought a wardrobe’s worth of aspirational clothing? You imagine you will be different. More relaxed. You will be lighter, prettier, more at ease. You will be the kind of person who drinks brandy. You will make new friends. It’s easy to be seduced by this kind of thinking. New clothes offer the possibility of reinvention.
With this detail—the daringly purchased slacks, packed into the very bottom of her suitcase so “she need not take them out, need never let anyone know she had them, in case she lost her courage”—you know everything you need to know about Eleanor’s character. The ease and modernity of slacks are their defining qualities. But Eleanor has not bought the slacks merely to please herself. She bought them because her mother would disapprove of them: “Mother would be furious,” she thinks. It should be noted, at this point, that Eleanor’s mother is long dead.
When Eleanor gets to Hill House, she attaches herself immediately to Theodora. Theodora is like Eleanor’s other half, her photographic negative. Her world is “one of delight and soft colors.” She is elegant and unhindered. Comfortable everywhere. She wears softly tailored slacks, a bright yellow shirt (“You bring more light into this room that the window,” observes Eleanor), vivid plaid. Even in the disquieting atmosphere of Hill House, Theodora is as lovely as a stray sunbeam. “I dislike being with women of no color,” she declares, and Eleanor dutifully begins to wear red. She wants Theodora’s approval in a way that suggests infatuation. There’s an ambiguity to her devotion, a breathless undercurrent of desire that swiftly festers into obsession.
Their first experience of Hill House’s manifestations comes in the form of something (not human, not animal either) which awakens them in the middle of the night as it makes its way down the hallway outside their adjoining bedrooms. The temperature drops and there is a scratching at the door. Eleanor runs to Theodora’s bedroom, where they are too frightened to do anything but huddle together on Theodora’s bed. In the grip of terror and threatened by a malevolent psychic force, Eleanor impulsively puts on Theodora’s bathrobe to ward off the chill, an act that implies a level of familiarity between them even though they’re practically strangers. Jackson knows that sharing clothing is a gesture of intimacy and blurred boundaries—the habit of lovers or close sisters (relationships which Eleanor lacks but yearns for). Moments later, when whatever it is vanishes, Theodora is taken aback that Eleanor is wearing her clothes and demands Eleanor put on her own robe. Later, Theodora discovers that all her clothing has been destroyed under mysterious circumstances, smeared with a sticky redness that may or may not be blood. On the wall, above her ruined yellow shirt, are scrawled the words “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR.” Out of necessity, Theodora is forced to wear Eleanor’s clothes.
Theodora in Eleanor’s red sweater. Theodora in Eleanor’s blue dress. Luke, their mutual (albeit barely convincing) love interest, is charmed by the situation: “You were wise to bring clothes enough for two,” he tells Eleanor. “Theo would never have looked half so well in my old blazer.” By now, Eleanor’s feelings for Theodora have twisted into loathing. All tenderness is gone. “I hate her,” she thinks, “she sickens me; she is all washed and clean and wearing my red sweater.” It’s as if Eleanor had hoped that Theodora wearing her clothes would bring them closer; instead, it only highlights everything that Eleanor lacks.
Jackson has long been recognized for her mastery of suspense, but it’s the inner life of Eleanor and Theodora—their friendship, their rivalry, the little torments they dole out for each other while professing their devotion in the same breath—that give the book its weight. Jackson understands what it means to dress for the gaze of another woman or the intimacy of a borrowed sweater. When Eleanor is fully under Hill House’s strange influence, when her madness is finally recognized, Dr. Montague and his companions resolve to send Eleanor away—away from the poisonous influence of Hill House and back to the safety of her own lonely life. Eleanor doesn’t want to. She has nothing, and no one, to go back to. Besides, she protests, she can’t possibly leave—because then what would Theodora wear?