Something’s gotta be wrong with that writer.
You’re bound to hear that said a time or two if you dive into the world of macabre fiction and listen to what some say about its most prominent writers.. Edgar Allan Poe. H.P. Lovecraft. Stephen King. Something’s gotta be wrong with them.
‘Course, sometimes, those critics might be onto something. Poe mysteriously died in the street at age 40 wearing someone else’s clothes. Lovecraft was a fragile racist atheist who hardly ever went out. And King … well, King seems A-OK at this point, unless you count his penchant for cinematic cameos a sign of instability.
And then there’s Shirley Jackson—author of such short stories as “The Lottery” and novels such as The Haunting of Hill House, and who some would argue was the most literary fright-writer of them all.
When Fred and Rose first meet Shirley around 1950, she’s in what her husband—professor Stanley Hyman—calls one of her “bouts.” She’s smoking constantly. Drinking excessively. She hasn’t left the house in two months. And worst of all, she hasn’t written a word worth reading for just as long.
Stanley didn’t invite Fred and Rose to live with them because of these bouts. Fred will simply serve as Stanley’s teaching assistant at Vermont’s Bennington College while Rose attendes classes there. But certainly, when Stanley and Shirley’s housekeeper quits, Rose’s presence proves a happy accident. Perhaps, Stanley suggests, Rose could help out around the house: a bit of cooking, a bit of cleaning, that’s all.
“Perhaps I could help out between classes,” Rose says haltingly.
The young woman soon discovers, however, that the extra housework is the least of her worries. Her real concern is Shirley herself. The woman’s tongue is as sharp as a swinging pendulum from Poe. Her unhinged outbursts would fit fine in a King novella. She can make their Bennington residence as horrific as Shirley’s own Hill House.
Yet, in spite of it all, Shirley and Rose grow closer. And as they do, Shirley begins writing again—perhaps her most ambitious work to date, inspired by a real woman in Bennington who, in 1946, walked into the forest and was never seen again.
But as the novel takes shape, the four-person household twists out of shape. Hosts and houseguests become muses and monsters, friends and fiends. And one can never be completely sure which is which. [Caution: Spoilers lie ahead.]
This film contains a whiff of the #MeToo movement, with both Shirley and Rose harassed and subtly abused by Stanley Hyman. They each find strength in the other (though their relationship, as we’ll see, takes some disturbing and unhealthy turns), and in so doing bring about a sort of rebirth in Shirley’s life and work. The book that Shirley eventually writes, Hangsaman, seems to lean heavily into a sense of disempowerment that both Shirley and Rose share with many women, especially in that era. As Shirley tells Stanley, the book’s about “lonely girls who cannot make the world see them. Do not tell me that I do not know this girl. Don’t you dare.”
Stanley, as we’ve already suggested, has some serious issues (and causes some serious issues for others). But his relationship with Shirley may not be wholly awful. He’s very supportive of her writing, navigates her “bouts” and seems to strive to balance caring for her while encouraging her (at times) to move forward.
Rose serves as the movie’s most sympathetic character. She tries her best to do what’s right for her and husband. She tries to help out as best she can and keep the peace as best as she’s able. But that, as we’ll see, can be a singular challenge.
“I’m a witch,” Shirley casually tells Rose. “Didn’t anyone tell you?” She reads Rose’s fortune through Tarot cards and places nettle under Rose’s bed as a sort of pagan good luck charm (much to her husband’s annoyance). She “prays” for the unborn baby in Rose’s womb, too, placing her hand on Rose’s belly (though no audible prayer to anything is heard). When she gets into a confrontation with another woman, Shirley taps her fingers on the other woman’s wrist three times—something that seems to terrify the woman (and may have some sort of witchy significant of which I am unaware).
Shirley seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to pregnant women: She knows Rose is with child (even though she and her husband planned to keep it a secret for a while), and Stanley insists that Shirley is never wrong in guessing the sex of a child. She also has dreams and visions that she places some stock in and seem to power her literary creativity. At one point, Rose walks in on Shirley lying flat on her back in her study, apparently in a bit of a trance.
When someone suggests at a party that Shirley’s latest work was an “anti-Semitic parable,” Stanley quips, “she never hated a single Jew until she married me.”
Rose and Shirley’s relationship is, shall we say, complex, and it’s filled with sometimes explicit lesbian overtones.
One day, when both of their husbands are away, the two appear to, on some level, consummate their physical relationship, though nothing explicit is shown. Shirley’s rocking back and forth on a porch swing, her knee casually moving between Rose’s legs. Rose lifts up her skirt to allow more access and leans over, so that she and Shirley’s faces are less than an inch apart. The scene cuts there. But that evening, during dinner, Shirley and Rose play footsie—with Shirley eventually pressing Rose’s own foot against her husband’s leg. The whole strange interlude leaves Rose flushed. Rose excuses herself, with Shirley encouraging husband Fred to follow her and “attend” to her needs.
Elsewhere, they touch each other’s faces. While bathing, Shirley imagines Rose joining her in the tub. Rose helps Shirley dress (we see the latter in her underwear), and Shirley feeds Rose somewhat seductively in a curious scene.
We see Rose and Fred intimately engaged frequently and sometimes noisily—once standing up on a train. Garments are sometimes unbutton, unbuckled and removed, and a few scenes include Rose’s uncovered breasts.
Neither Fred nor Stanley are faithful to their wives, though. Stanley’s philandering (mostly with the wife of the dean where Stanley teaches) is an understood fact by Shirley. Indeed, an open marriage may have been codified by a “contract.” But her husband’s promiscuity still angers and grieves Shirley (who, on occasion, tries to make romantic advances toward Stanley), and she often refers to Stanley’s paramours using crass terminology. We should note, too, that Stanley makes some uncomfortable advances toward Rose—snuggling up to her at one juncture while she’s cooking, taking her in his arms and dancing with her at another, then giving Rose a full-on-the-lips smooch as he dips her.
Shirley’s novel-in-process is based on the real-life disappearance of Paula Jean Welden. Rose and Shirley theorize that she was going to meet a beau, and that she might’ve been pregnant as well. Those characteristics feed into Shirley’s fictional work. Rose, working in the dirt, suddenly feels some sort of erotic impulse to become one with it—rolling and smearing the mud over her clothed form.
Shirley’s stories can be quite disturbing. As Rose finishes reading Shirley’s short story “The Lottery” on the train to Bennington, she tells Fred that the protagonist was stoned to death. At a party, the dean of Bennington College tells Shirley that, after reading one of her stories, he looked at a paperweight on his desk and wondered whether he might pick it up and bash his own skull in. “You terrify me,” he tells her.
Some of Shirley’s dreams/visions—and some of Rose’s too—are terrifying as well. In one, Rose staggers through what appears to be a hospital hallway, blood pouring from her privates and smearing her hands and feet and clothes.
The movie plays with themes of manipulation and self-destruction. At one juncture, Shirley runs from the house, finds some mushrooms she says are fatal and tries to encourage Rose to share one. Rose refuses, but Shirley eats one as a horrified Rose looks on. (Shirley laughs and says the mushrooms are perfectly benign.) Someone stands at the edge of a cliff, contemplating jumping.
Shirley and another woman squeeze each other’s faces.
Six f-words and an s-word. We also hear “d–n” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused three times (twice with the word “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused once.
The real Shirley Jackson died at the age of 48 in part of her smoking and drinking habits. The much-younger Shirley we meet here is already quite enamored with both habits. She smokes nearly constantly, and at one point Stanley sticks a cigarette in Shirley’s mouth—as she’s lying in bed—because she seems incapable of reaching for a smoke herself.
Liquor flows freely at Shirley and Stanley’s house. Wine is a constant companion with dinner, and Stanley and Shirley habitually share after-dinner Scotches, too. (He brings a glass and a bottle in to her, using it as a scold that she’s been working through dinner far too often.) She totes bottles upstairs with her as she heads to bed. At a party, a clearly inebriated Shirley purposefully spills wine on a couch, watching with bitter amusement as the host tries to clean it up.
Rose, despite being pregnant, smokes and drinks as well. (It was circa 1950, so the dangers surrounding both were not well understood or publicized.)
People treat each other horribly throughout the film. Stanley is perhaps the worst offender: He alternately flatters and insults Fred, jealously guarding his position at the university from what he sees as Fred’s attempts to usurp him. (Shirley eggs him on, telling Stanley to give Fred just enough rope with which to hang himself.) He takes advantage of Rose in every which way he can. Even when he’s kind to wife Shirley, there’s a sense of domination there—an effort to keep her bridled and compliant.
But Shirley can be incredibly mean and massively manipulative, too. Fred lies to his wife regularly. And even Rose, as her sanity slips away, tries to falsify something to drive a wedge between Shirley and Stanley. Every relationship we see here is, frankly, terribly unhealthy.
In the real Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, readers are introduced to a woman named Nell as she participates in a study of what’s reputed to be a real haunted house. Horrible things happen, but we’re left uncertain: Is the house truly haunted? Or is the main haunting in Nell’s mind?
Shirley incorporates two basic themes found in that book and other Jackson works: One, we watch as a character slowly descends into a form of madness. Two, we see, horrifically, that sometimes the worst monsters we face … are us.
The titular Shirley (played with brittle brilliance by Elisabeth Moss) is both victim and monster: She is slave to her own addictions, subject to her own demanding talent, servile to her deceptively gregarious husband. She finds a willing friend in Rose, but is she a friend? Or is Rose simply a tool, a pawn to help this literary queen move her writing forward? We don’t definitively know. Perhaps Shirley doesn’t, either. The mark of a great story, she herself might say, is ambiguity—leaving readers (and viewers) to make up their own minds.
But alas, in many respects, Shirley is not a great story. Not, at least, in terms of the content we see and hear and feel. This is hardly the sort of tale meant to inspire. Rather, it’s meant to unsettle, and often pruriently so. The spiritual content we see (some of which has foundation in fact), the same-sex relationships we uncover (which appear to be wholly fictional) and the language we’re subjected to makes this, at least from a quantitative content perspective, more objectionable than many of Jackson’s own works.
This film, like Hill House, has its appeal. It’s wonderfully acted and weirdly compelling. But it has its horrors, too. And if you poke in its corners and gaze at its accoutrements, you may find that only blackness sits at its heart.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.