The Haunting of Hill House
is regarded as a quintessential haunted house novel and considered Shirley Jackson’s best work. Stephen King has been public about his admiration of the novel and its influence on his own quintessential haunted house novel, The Shining. He dedicated his book, Firestarter, to Jackson.

The Haunting of Hill House, though it was misunderstood at the time as a simple haunted house tale, is a meditation on suppressed feminism, depression, and the unspooling of sanity. Jackson brought many of the conventional Gothic tropes of the genre—vast old houses, oppressed female protagonists, and shadowy figures—and then added a modern element with ESP and parapsychology.

The work also influenced Richard Matheson, who wrote Hell House, that was later made into the film The Legend of Hell House (1973). The Haunting of Hill House was adapted into The Haunting (1963), and you can compare the film’s beat sheet, as well as a 1999 film and a Netflix mini-series released on October 12, 2018.

From the 1959 novel by: Shirley Jackson
Total pages: 246 (first edition hardback)

Book Genre: Gothic Horror

MITH Type: Supra-Natural Monster
MITH Cousins: The Shining, Burnt Offerings, Hell House, The Amityville Horror, Snowblind, Turn of the Screw, The Elementals, House, The Woman in Black, A Stir of Echoes, Ghost Story, The House Next Door, House of Leaves, The House of Seven Gables, The Shunned House, The Castle of Otranto, The House on the Borderland

How does The Haunting of Hill House hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the novel:

Opening Image (page 3) We open on probably one of the best passages of a horror book, or any novel for that matter, perfectly setting the tone for the dread to come: “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.”

Catalyst (pages 4–6) Many novels start with a Catalyst beat and then follow with the Set-Up/Debate beats working in concert. The Haunting of Hill House is no different. Dr. John Montague secures Hill House for a summer in hopes to discover evidence of supernatural manifestations. He plans to find others who will share with him in the ghost hunting. After a lengthy search of possible assistants, he finds three.

Set-Up/Debate (pages 6–33) Thirty-two-year-old Eleanor “Nell” Vance has spent most of her life caring for her invalid mother. Though the story covers four primary characters in the novel, Eleanor is essentially the main protagonist. This child-like woman, Nell, will grow the most over the course of the story and the events at the haunted Hill House will affect her profoundly. This is her Opening Image. Eleanor showed up on Dr. Montague’s radar after a series of psychic events, like showers of rocks falling on her childhood home for three days, caught the doctor’s attention. Eleanor is in a stasis = death moment as her mother has died and she’s living with her sister, Carrie. Eleanor is unhappy and feels that she has no purpose now that her mother has died. She needs change.

Theodora, or Theo, came to the doctor’s attention as laboratory records showed she had guessed nineteen out of twenty Zener cards (flash cards with symbols on them), which indicates a psychic ability.

The devil-may-care Luke Sanderson, one of the Hill House owners, is the third assistant to Dr. Montague. Luke’s a notorious thief and liar. Though Luke doesn’t possess any psychic powers like those of Eleanor and Theo, the family lawyer thinks it’s a good idea to have a representative at the house during the summer experiment.

Theme Stated (page 18) During her drive to Hillsdale, and ultimately to Hill House, Eleanor passes a vast house with a wall around it and stone lions guarding the steps. Eleanor imagines herself living there, dusting the lions each morning and patting their heads goodnight. She’s looking for a new home (her life back with her sister untenable). She imagines a large house with stone lions to grow old and die in, a place of her own. This is Eleanor’s emotional need, to find a home and a place she belongs. Eleanor’s need is also also the primary theme of the novel—finding a place one belongs.

Debate (cont’d) (pages 19–33) Eleanor finally arrives at Hill House. Mr. Dudley, the groundskeeper won’t let her through the gate, warning her that she wouldn’t want to come in anyway. Eleanor demands to be let through and Dudley finally relents, telling her he doesn’t stay past dark and that she’ll be locked in. Dudley is a true Threshold Guardian, in Campbellian terms, that guards the Special World from the Ordinary one.

Break into Two (page 35) Driving up the long driveway, Eleanor sees the vast Hill House—adorned with Gothic spires and gargoyles—and she’s immediately revolted. It’s a vile place. She tells herself to get away at once. But still, she drives on, as she cannot go back to the way things were. Nell making her choice to move forward is the Break into Two beat.

Fun and Games (pages 36–126) Inside the dark and labyrinthian house, Nell encounters Mrs. Dudley, who’s about as coarse and foreboding as her husband. Showing Nell to her room, Mrs. Dudley warns that she and her husband don’t stay around Hill House after the sun goes down, will be six miles away, and that nobody will come for them “in the night, in the dark.”

The visitor gets used to her new surroundings. I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, Nell thinks, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside. However, Nell tells herself that “journeys end in lovers meeting.”

B Story (page 43) Soon, Theodora, or simply “Theo,” arrives. She’s the opposite of Nell: outgoing, confident, urbane, and a flashy dresser. Theo, with her insight and cutting remarks, will act much like an older sibling to Nell and help her grow the most and learn the theme of finding a place one belongs.

Fun and Games (cont’d) (pages 44–126) Nell and Theo explore the grounds of Hill House, waiting for Dr. Montague to arrive. They bond as they’re lounging next to a babbling brook, and call themselves “cousins” as they share many of their commonalities together. Later, they meet Luke Sanderson, the future owner of Hill House.

Nell, Theo, and Luke meet Dr. Montague. They’re going to explore the house and this is where the promise of the premise scenes really begin.

After getting to know one another during drinks and dinner, Dr. Montague, at the insistence of the others, tells the history of Hill House. The doctor is reluctant to tell them as he’s afraid that the stories will mar the results of his experiment. However, he does so. Montague mentions houses described in Leviticus and Hades—the notion that some houses being distinguished as evil is as old as time. No one has inhabited Hill House for more than twenty years.

The house, with its checkered history, seems like it was bad from the beginning—sick and leprous. This history of Hill House excited the doctor and he reached out to people with paranormal experience—Theo with her telepathic ability and Nell with her “poltergeist experience.” Of course, these were the only two that came of the dozens that Montague had tried to contact.

Hugh Crain, the doctor continues, had Hill House built eighty years previous. His young wife, however, died before she laid eyes on it, her carriage overturning on the long driveway snaking up to the house. Sad and bitter, and left with two young daughters, Crain tried marriage twice more. The second Mrs. Crain died in a fall and the third died of consumption. After the death of the third wife, Crain closed the house, had his daughters stay with a cousin, and lived abroad alone.

When the girls grew up, they fought over the house. The elder sister moved into Hill House and took a girl from the village as a companion. The younger sister was furious, wanting many of the treasures inside Hill House. After the elder Crain’s death, she left the house to her companion. This involved a bitter lawsuit with the younger Crain sister, but the companion won out and took up permanent residence. However, the former village girl was ostracized by the townspeople and eventually hanged herself in the tower turret.

The house fell into the hands of the Sandersons (Luke’s family), who put the vast mansion on the market. However, it has remained empty. People don’t stay long in Hill House. The doctor says that Hill House destroys the lives of everyone it comes in contact with. The house was built at odd angles with self-closing doors to make it more confusing and labyrinthian (not unlike the famous Winchester House).

Despite the evil surroundings and reputation of Hill House, Eleanor wakes up refreshed and feeling good. After breakfast with Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague, they explore the house. They reach the library in the tower. In horror, Eleanor sidles away at the stench of “cold air of mold and earth” that attacks her. She cannot join the others inside the library. The Doctor points out the trapdoor above the iron spiral staircase that leads to the balcony; this is where, allegedly, the companion was supposed to have hanged herself. Eleanor is cold and scared. Nobody else can sense what Nell claims she smelled. The doctor makes a note.

Further into the house, in the drawing room, they come across a marble statuary of Hugh Crain and his daughters. Montague believes the monument is a symbolic protection of the house. On the veranda, Eleanor nearly falls trying to lean back to view the entire tower. Luke, however, saves her.

Later, the doctor takes the group to the nursery which is the “heart” of Hill House. It’s colder than the rest of the house. (Cold spots are often signs of a paranormal presence as the entity is drawing energy from the air to manifest.) All of these feelings disturb Nell and the doctor has her promise to leave Hill House if she feels the house catching her.

Midpoint (pages 127–135) During the night, Eleanor awakens hearing pounding on the door. She thinks it’s her mother, but it isn’t. Theo joins Nell in her room, hearing it too, crossing A and B stories together. It’s a pounding that’s coming down the hall. The room grows icy cold. Something large and heavy crashes against the bedroom door. Eventually, the banging stops. Luke and Dr. Montague, coming in from outside, ask them if anything is wrong (they were chasing a “dog”). They mutually feel that Hill House is trying to separate the group. This is where the stakes raise. (p. 135)

Bad Guys Close In (pages 136–174) Despite the paranormal activity from last night, Eleanor is happy to be in Hill House. Everyone is happy. The doctor warns them all that they might be bewitched by the house’s spell. He doesn’t believe any physical danger can happen as Hill House usually attacks only the mind.

Luke discovers a disturbing message in the hall. Written in chalk, it reads: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. Nell is terrified that Hill House knows her name and uses it for its sinister purposes. Eleanor and Theo fight about who wrote the message, which is indicative of the BGCI moment as the group begins to break down externally and internally. Even though Eleanor and Theo make up, Nell secretly believes that Theo is trying to move to the center of the group to usurp Eleanor. (Is Hill House working its mind-trick spell?)

Then Theo finds all of her magnificent wardrobe destroyed and her room splattered with blood. The same message, in blood, is scrawled again: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. Theo will now share a room and clothes with Eleanor. The bloody message doesn’t affect Eleanor this time. However, later, having brandy with the doctor (to help her sleep), Eleanor tells him that she’s afraid that Hill House will take her name. She will be nobody without it, nameless.

That night, Theo and Eleanor are awakened by more noises—laughter and unintelligible voices. Theo, sleeping next to Nell, squeezes her hand tight. The sound of a crying child terrifies them and Nell yells for it to stop. Nell’s hand is gripped hard. Clicking on the lights, Nell sees Theo across the room, not holding her hand. “Good God,” Nell asks. “Whose hand was I holding?”

Luke finds a book in the library—a book titled “MEMORIES, for Sophia Anne Lester Crain; A Legacy of Her Education and Enlightenment During Her Lifetime From Her Affectionate and Devoted Father, HUGH DESMOND LESTER CRAIN; Twenty-first June, 1881.” It’s filled with fire and brimstone fables of morality (listening to parents, avoiding sex, staying out of hell) and the seven deadly sins with scary paintings by Goya and Blake, and even some by Crain himself. The book is signed in the author’s blood. In a way, this discovery is perhaps why Hill House is so evil and twists the minds of all who enter; it was founded on such. Eleanor finds the book repugnant.

All Is Lost (pages 175–177) Taking a walk near what were the gardens, Theo and Eleanor have a spat with one another. Their emotions change to fear when they see a picnic setting and the Crain children with their puppy, a visage that only two sensitives could see. Terrified, they run back to the house. Nothing that dies ever seems to leave Hill House. There’s a whiff of death element here. All the hauntings thus far seem to manifest themselves around Eleanor (just like the showers of rocks that fell on her house as a child). Is she causing them herself, or is the house singling her out?

Dark Night of the Soul (pages 177–226) Eleanor, alone, in the dark woods and hills near the house, lies down among the grass and flowers and feels a sense of happiness. But she knows this moment of home won’t last. What will she do? This beat echoes the Theme Stated and Debate earlier where Eleanor’s emotional need is to find a home and a place she belongs.

Mrs. Montague steamrolls her way into Hill House. She’s bossy and difficult, thinking her husband incompetent with regards to the spiritual. Mrs. Montague is old school, wanting to employ such Victorian ghost-hunting tricks as automatic writing and Ouija boards, and she wants to sleep in the most haunted room in the house, the nursery. She’s accompanied by Arthur, an equally abrupt individual. Ironically, Mrs. Montague says that she only uses love and compassion to speak with the spirits.

The two rambunctious newcomers hold a séance and have a conversation with a ghost that has a message for Nell. The spirit mentions that she is without a home or a mother (as Nell is). Mrs. Montague believes that Eleanor is more psychically receptive than even Nell, who only wants peace and splendor in her life, believes.

As Mrs. Montague sleeps in the nursery (with Arthur who stands guard all night with a revolver), Nell, Theo, and Luke all stay in the doctor’s room. Montague feels like Hill House will really come alive tonight so he wants them all together. Hill House “goes dancing” as Theo later describes it with the pounding, pounding, pounding. For Eleanor, the pounding feels like it’s inside her as much as in the house. Brandy and the warm arms of Theo can’t penetrate the cold Eleanor feels. The house shakes like it’s coming down around them. Eleanor, in a moment of clarity, decides to relinquish possession of herself over to the house.

The next morning, at breakfast, Mrs. Montague and Arthur complain about the lack of disturbance in the house (obviously they have no actual connection to the spirit world). Eleanor asks Theo if she can live with her, crossing A and B stories together. However, Theo rebukes her saying that she isn’t in the habit of bringing stray cats home.

Later, down by the brook, Eleanor hears footsteps and a voice whispering her name. Eleanor is psychically linked to the grounds and house, listening to things that are happening and almost able to predict what will happen next. Is she falling into the madness that is Hill House, becoming one with its brick-and-mortar lunacy? While no one else can hear the house, namely Mrs. Montague with her Planchette and board, Eleanor hears someone singing old children’s rhymes.

Break into Three (page 227–228) Eleanor saunters into the house, barefoot. The often cold house is “luminously warm” to her. It seems she is at home in Hill House now.

Finale (pages 228–245)
1. Gathering the Team: Eleanor hears a voice that she believes to be her mother’s and follows it. She bangs on the doors of the other Hill House residents. She seems now to be the poltergeist, as much as responsible for doing the haunting as the house is.

2. Executing the Plan: Eleanor is called by the voice to the library, the place she couldn’t enter before. However, she knows that there will be no stone lions in her future, only this house. And like the companion before her who hanged herself, Eleanor climbs the iron steps of the spiral staircase. By this time, having been aroused by Eleanor’s knocks on the door, the Montagues, Arthur, Theo, and Luke arrive at the library.

3. High Tower Surprise: The iron staircase buckles under Eleanor’s weight as she ascends. The group on the ground pleads with her to come down—she’ll die if she doesn’t. Ignoring them, Eleanor reaches the trapdoor at the top of the stairs but finds it nailed shut.

4. Dig, Deep Down: Luke climbs up the stairs, risking his own life, and brings Eleanor back down. The spell of the house broken for now. The next morning, Eleanor is humiliated at her actions. The doctor is going to send her away. Eleanor argues, saying that she doesn’t have any home to go to, crossing A and B stories. The doctor says that he spoke to Carrie Vance, Eleanor’s sister, who was more worried about her missing car than Eleanor, and who has reluctantly agreed to take her missing sister back.

5. The Execution of New Plan: As Eleanor is sent away by Dr. Montague and the others, she thinks “journeys end in lovers meeting.” She has an idea to stay at Hill House forever, just as she wanted. She can end her fleeting journey forever when she meets her ultimate lover, the house. Eleanor Vance hits the gas pedal and drives her sister’s car straight into a large tree at the curve in the driveway. And dies.

Final Image (page 246) After Eleanor’s death, Dr. Montague stops the Hill House experiment and publishes a paper with mixed results. Theo and Luke go their separate ways. And Nell, well, she finally found the home she was seeking—forever. “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

See other Monster in the House Beat Sheets>>