When I first began this blog post, it was meant to be a comparison of this series and the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson of the same name. The more I read, and the more I watched, the more I began to realize that the Netflix series is nothing like the book. Apart from a few names being reused from the novel, and the partial setting at Hill House, there is nothing more to compare the two plots. That doesn’t mean they’re terrible; they both stand alone as really incredible stories with some of the same overarching themes and one very important motivator of fear: Hill House.
I had no idea that the Netflix series even incorporated the character of Eleanor, the protagonist of the novel, until a handful of episodes in. She had been there the whole time, you see, always being referred to by her nickname, Nell or Nellie. In the novel, Eleanor is only referred to as Nell when her character is not being taken entirely seriously. Their characters are portrayed quite differently, as the series has a different plot altogether than the novel. With that being said, both Eleanors reach the same goal by the end (or the beginning, respectively) of the story. That goal? To return to Hill House, a place that is and will always be “home”, made permanent by her death within the walls of Hill House.
She’s a tragic character within Jackson’s pages, and it is possible that most readers can identify with her character, as she is complete with certain identifiable quirks, social awkwardness, the feeling of freedom found within the walls of an unlikely haunted house, and the need to belong somewhere, anywhere that will have her – even if it is a place that poisons her mind and causes her to take her own life (this can be left up to speculation within the novel.)
Eleanor Crain (taking the name Vance after she marries) on the series is just as tragic, but has differing variables that cause the downfall of her ability to keep away from Hill House. Her mother was present, supportive, yet was driven to suicide. After growing up in Hill House she was plagued by ghosts and nightmares that grew in intensity as she came of age. Her husband died suddenly of a brain aneurysm early into their relationship, and her mental health dwindled until she came to the realization that she must give in and face her demons within Hill House, never to leave again. With everything she loved taken from her by the hauntings inside and outside the house, she had to return, if only to be warmed by the memories of those she loved. She needed to belong, she needed to give in to the pull of the house and accept that her time was up.
Eleanor is a symbol of strength and independence, to the reader, and to herself. She makes her own decisions and follows her own aspirations, no matter where they take her. She will stop at nothing to realize her passion and her purpose. All of this, however, slowly dissolves, turning to naivety and becoming a deep seated weakness, constantly influenced by everyone around her. She feeds off of everyone’s kindness until they are spent, leaving only Hill House, a place that, to her, was her only home, but in reality, was a place where no one belonged.
By the end of the novel, Hill House becomes her tomb, and her motivation is entirely left up to the reader: was Eleanor influenced by the paranormal activity of the house, or was she simply suicidal? This mirrors the character of Eleanor in the series, who also dies at Hill House (this time, inside by hanging herself). We can’t decide until the final episode if she was mentally unstable, depressed, and suicidal, or she was coerced to kill herself by all of the ghosts and demons residing in Hill House.
Both Eleanors are described well with a single quote from the novel. Do you always go where you’re not wanted? Spoken by the character Theodora, a name we see used in the Netflix series as well. Instead of her friend, though, she is portrayed as Eleanor’s sister in the series.
Eleanor’s perception of Theodora within the novel causes the reader to nod in agreement: yes, Theo is an attention seeking woman who is kind yet selfish, becoming annoyed easily. The way she is illustrated to us, from the eyes of Nellie, we can completely agree. However, Theodora is the true symbol of empowerment within the house, in the show, and the book. It is hinted in the novel that Theo has some kind of extrasensory power and is more sensitive to the happenings in Hill House than the rest of the cast of characters. She doesn’t let that come between her and her independence, her life outside the house, her awareness of reality and the ability to walk away at any time. She rejects Nellie, to avoid being nailed down and responsible for another grown woman, and to teach Nellie a lesson – Hill House is something she is involved with for a moment, and that she should not allow it to inhabit her mind and become a forever burden. This gesture of keeping Nellie at arm’s length was in vain, however, as the House lead her right to her death. Yet, the company left the house after summer’s end, and went on with their lives, releasing the sway Hill House may have had over each of them. Life and time went on for all of them, but Nellie was the “perfect storm” of a victim for the house to consume and forget.
There are also several nods at other names taken from the novel and placed in the series. Dr. Montague, a pivotal main character in the novel, turns up only once in the series as Eleanor’s therapist. Luke, another main character and part of the Hill House company is resurrected in the series as the junkie twin brother of Eleanor. The show adds an extra layer of supernatural, giving the twins a “special ability” to somehow feel the other, referred to as the “twin thing” in the show.
There being supernatural elements within both stories goes without saying, but the most interesting aspect or example of this would be Theodora. It is hinted that she may be the most sensitive to the presence of spirits or ghosts within the walls of Hill House, but in the novel, her character commits no action to further this theory made by Dr. Montague, however, she does not deny it either. We are led to believe that she is not a skeptic because she has been privy to the presence of ghosts her whole life, whether she wanted to be aware of them or not. This is one of the reasons Dr. Montague may have chosen her as part of the company, to gain further insight as to the goings-on at Hill House.
Theodora’s abilities are heightened in the series, as she has some sort of “second-sight” through touch. Her mother catches on to this and gifts her gloves, so she doesn’t have to avoid touching others and feeling their experiences and deep emotions. She is also the most sensitive to Hill House as a child, compared to her siblings, as she is always very cold, probably because the house is filled with the spirits of decades and decades of people who died in the house and are now doomed to roam the halls for eternity.
The house itself is a supernatural entity, a catalyst for dark things to wander freely. In the novel, the house showcases its influence, audibly at first, with loud knocking and banging on doors and walls. It graduates to causing Theodora and Eleanor to hallucinate a terrifying scene in the garden. That’s about the extent of it, apart from its influence it has over Eleanor. In the series, the house is portrayed as much more terrifying. The hauntings begin right away after the family moves in and happen every single night. It begins with sounds, yes, but soon the hauntings manifest themselves into nightmarish ghosts that the Crain family (children at the time) are subject to. Each child sees something different, but the one that is the most notorious is the “bent-neck lady” that is seen by Eleanor. The ghosts then become memories that affect them in their adult lives, and the influence that the house has over the family is strong enough to pull all of them back, hoping they will meet their demise inside the walls so they can never leave. The house may even cause the untimely death of Eleanor’s new husband. She is plagued by sleep paralysis and night terrors, which is actually a reminder from the house that it is always there and always waiting for her to return home. One night she is having a night terror and her husband goes to turn the light on and sees the “bent-neck lady”. He then suffers a brain aneurysm and dies suddenly. Her fear is the house’s power, no matter how many miles away.
All of the Crain siblings encounter hallucinations, and they come as nightmares while waking. The visions start as the siblings living an incredible life that fills them with happiness, only to realize that they have lost time and the fantasy shatters, turning into their deepest fears – not a ghost, but reality, the “what if” coming to life before them.
Speaking of, fear is an overarching theme that surpasses the rest. Everything within the novel and the series is motivated by fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of abandonment, fear of confinement, fear of losing yourself. Those are only a few, obviously. To start with the novel, Eleanor’s fear of being alone or being caged, never being granted freedom, is her prime motivator to leave her family and drive to Hill House, a place she’s never been, to stay with people she’s never met, simply because she received a letter. Her fear is that she will never belong, and she doesn’t want to let an opportunity to find her true home pass her by. Just like in the first few chapters, the last few pages render Eleanor fearing the same exact thing as she is asked to leave the house for her own safety. She is feeling as though she is being rejected. She asked Theodora if she could come home with her, and is refused because Theodora has a life of her own and now Eleanor believes that the whole company is rejecting her because the house’s influence caused her to climb to her death – almost. Eleanor will not face another rejection, and must belong, no matter the cost. In this case, it’s her life.
In the series, fear is portrayed so well – the actors all deliver incredible performances that show the audience how afraid they really are: at what they see, at their memories, at their nightmares, at their mistakes. All of the Crain siblings, Eleanor included, are afraid of being ripped from their family, however their attitudes and actions bring them further and further apart with only Hill House left as the catalyst that brings them all back together. Although it is a place they all avoid and try to forget, it is the one thing they have in common, that one shared trauma that is so powerful it mends their relationships and makes them stronger together, as opposed to more vulnerable apart.
In the novel, Eleanor probably considers the term “family” very loosely, her primary purpose in life being the caretaker of her sick and bitter mother. Still young, she is not taken seriously by her sister and brother-in-law, which causes her to act out and finally be, what she thinks is, her own person – finally independent. When she arrives at Hill House she experiences hauntings, scribbles upon the walls reading “Eleanor, come home…” which is highlighted once in the Netflix series. Our protagonist assumes she’s found a new family that will embrace her forever, but to the others in the company, this is simply a summer vacation, their real lives put on hold, temporarily. For Eleanor, she has left her old life behind in search of a new, real life – something like an adventure, however it is not realistic for her, and fate has chosen her for something much more sinister. In the beginning, she abandons whatever is left of her family, and in the end, the family she believes she has found, abandons her.
The theme of family ties adjusts itself a bit for the series. The whole Crain family is very close and loving in the beginning, but the longer they stay in Hill House, the more they are…ripped apart. By the time they all come of age and go their separate ways, they all have their little quirks but also very rocky relationships with each other. There’s always something in the way of them mending their relationships with each other, and it takes Eleanor’s suicide, and the (almost) death of Luke to bring them all back together as they were before the horrors of Hill House ruined everything. The final episode of the series paints the house as a sort of purgatory for lost souls, or for those who have died and cannot escape the house. Some want to die there, so they can continue to be visited by their relatives that are alive, while some are malevolent, and will always be that way.
In the end, the house isn’t the problem, it is simply those who inhabit it, good or bad.
In the pages of the novel, the house is simply a vessel for negative energy, having nothing but bad intentions for the inhabitants. All those who inhabit the house are slowly driven to madness, and the only answer to the equation, is to leave the house and never return. It stands quietly unless disturbed by outside forces, and this is blatantly shown as a warning with the opening and closing passage of the novel, both identical, showing that history, all to often, repeats itself:
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 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.