The queer horror genre has taken a lot of twists and turns to reach where it is today. First and foremost, it began with misrepresentation. With examples like the predatory lesbian figure in “Daughter of Dracula” or the blatant demonization of trans people in “Psycho” and “Silence of the Lambs,” queers constituted the shock factor or the horror itself of these films. They were monstrous villains and incomprehensible moral deviants, usually killed off in a particularly violent fashion to cheers in the movie theater. However, with more queer directors working on the scene as well as the shifting social climate of the 21st century, filmmakers have finally begun to shift away from depicting queer figures as villains. Recent films such as “Fear Street” and “Titane” reflect a willingness to feature queer characters as protagonists and final girls, instilling them with a much-needed humanity (or giving them, at the very least, a personality).
Yet before the New Queer Cinema movement, literary works were far ahead in the game. You’ve likely heard of queer coded works like “Dracula” or “Carmilla”, but you might have missed one right in front of your eyes — namely, Shirley Jackson’s psychological thriller, “The Haunting of Hill House.” Despite its explicitly romantic same-sex romance and overt themes of sexual repression, this work has yet to enter the queer horror canon, likely as a result of a lack of queer visibility or scholarly interest in queer issues in 1959, the year the book was published.
“The Haunting of Hill House” appears to be a simple haunted house story on its surface, but quickly divulges from the norm to create a romantic relationship between Eleanor (the protagonist) and Theodora, another member of the Hill House supernatural study. Theodora can be accurately described as Eleanor’s foil. She is everything that Eleanor is not: free-spirited, fashionable, and self-assured. Interestingly enough, the text also implies that Theodora is a lesbian. When describing the reason for her staying at the Hill House, Theodora talks about a genderless “roommate” that she recently had an explosive fight with. Coupled with her lack of a male partner, this past relationship is inferred to be a same-sex relationship that ended in a break up. But why include a queer-coded character in the first place? Theodora’s past enlightens Eleanor about an alternative form of living that is possible within her heteronormative society. Prior to Eleanor’s move to Hill House, she had only experienced a life of sexless solitude in taking care of her sick mother and witnessing the heterosexual relationship between her sister and her brother-in-law. Theodora’s unorthodox past awakens Eleanor to the possibility of being queer within the framework of her world.
Beyond this initial nod to Theodora’s sexuality, the story continues to develop Eleanor’s physical and emotional attraction to her housemate. Theodora showers Eleanor with physical displays of affection, which coincide with the arrival of supernatural events in the house. Only a few nights into their stay, the pair of women are sitting in their connected suites when they hear a loud banging in the hallway. The banging starts up against the door and Eleanor runs to Theodora’s bedroom in fear. There, they clutch each other tightly until the banging subsides, and Theodora remarks, “You’re wearing my bathrobe.” A few nights later, Eleanor is lying in bed next to Theodora when she feels a cold spiritual presence enter the room and blanket her in dread. To protect herself, she grasps her housemate’s hand “so tight she could feel the fine bones of Theodora’s fingers.” Though Eleanor has known her for very little time, they have already become quite intimate with each other. She seeks out Theodora for physical touch and emotional reassurance, and they begin to wear each other’s clothes. In these brief moments of comfort with her female companion, Eleanor slowly begins to form an awareness of her sexuality.
Then, if there was to be any doubt about the nature of longing between the two female characters, Jackson indicates that both of them are waiting for the other to confess their love. As Eleanor and Theodora stroll away from the house and into the forest nearby, there is an uncomfortable, yet intimate silence where “… nothing irrevocable had yet been spoken, but there was only the barest margin of safety left between them.” They struggle with their unspoken emotions and fear to move past the point of no return, as “once spoken, such a question — as ‘Do you love me?’ — could never be answered or forgotten.”
Even more significant than the queer characters in this book is that the entire plot of Jackson’s horror novel can be read as an allegory for the fear of coming out. After finishing the book, ask yourself: what is the real haunting of Hill House? Dr. Montague never clarifies if it originates from the odd angles of the house’s walls or subterranean waters or even from the vengeance of the estate’s original, ill-fated owners. Yet the answer to this question can be parsed out from analyzing what scares Eleanor most.
In the earlier example, when the two girls prepare to speak on their romantic feelings in the forest, they are greeted with a terrifying vision past the trees at the edge of the estate. Before their eyes they see a “picnic party on the grass in the garden,” from which they could hear “the laughter of the children and the affectionate, amused voices of the mother and father.” Then, “there was a checked tablecloth spread out, and smiling, the mother leaned over to take up a plate of bright fruit.” Theodora breaks this hallucination by screaming and the two of them run out of the forest terrified.
There is not anything altogether frightening about this picnic vision when taken at face value. Unlike the frightening banging on their door or uncomfortable chill they faced before, this image is pleasant. Children play amongst colorful flowers, while bees buzz along and a puppy plays in the grass. The family is happy and content. Yet when looked at in the context of the past scene, it takes on a different meaning. Only moments before, the two women were waiting to confess their perhaps mutual affection for one another. There is the very real possibility that they can form a relationship or pursue each other sexually following a spoken confession. But in this wavering second of uncertainty, they look ahead to see a picture of domestic bliss, the ideal nuclear family that both women would be rejecting if they were to pursue their love.
Then, at the end of the book, the community of outcasts she has found at Hill House turn against her, telling her to leave the study and return home. Despite the barrage of strange occurrences thus far, Eleanor only reaches her breaking point at this moment. She refuses to leave the house, clinging onto banisters and doorframes as she is forcibly dragged to her car. One might expect her to want to leave immediately in order to rid herself of the house’s ghosts. Instead, it is evident that she is only scared of what lies beyond the house: a heteronormative society with no place left for her.
Overall, it is almost shocking that the “Haunting of Hill House” has flown under the radar as a queer horror classic for so long. Some academics might dismiss a queer reading of this novel simply due to the belief that Jackson had no intention of portraying a same-sex romance. However, whether or not Jackson wrote her novel with lesbians in mind, queerness transcends subtext in her writing to become a dominant theme. “The Haunting of Hill House” grapples with a multitude of topics that are present in even the most contemporary works of queer horror. It dissects anxieties about loneliness, isolation, losing control, and self hatred. Furthermore, the time period of the piece makes the ghosts in the novel all the more real. To come out in the 1950s was to shut a door on social acceptance, marriage, and the possibility of creating a family. It is no wonder that sexual discovery is an object of fear in this novel. After all, what is more terrifying than finding yourself, only to lose so many others?
Author: Kristin Haegelin (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Emma Blakely (They/She/He), Bella (She/They)