Jackson said a visit to the scene of a 1957 Harlem apartment fire, where three people had died, also inspired her to write her novel.
Some believe Jackson’s own sadness was a source for the haunted feelings throughout her book.
In Shirley Jackson’s novel, “The Haunting of Hill House,” inquisitive guests are tormented by the spirits residing in a massive, disorienting, nightmare-filled house of horrors they have come to investigate. The resulting text went on to become one of the greatest horror novels of all time, garnering praise from a parade of critics, including horror master Stephen King himself.
“The Haunting of Hill House” also spawned two film adaptations – in 1963 and 1999 – and most recently, the Netflix series directed by Mike Flanagan.
The story said to have inspired ‘Hill House’ is that of Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House
According to the book “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life” by Ruth Franklin, the setting for Jackson’s novel was inspired by the story of Sarah Winchester, an heiress to a fortune built on firearms who began turning a San Jose farmhouse into what became known as the Winchester Mystery House.
Sarah Winchester was said to be tormented by guilt, believing her family and its fortune to be “haunted” by the spirits of those killed by the family firearms, according to Smithsonian magazine. When her husband, William, died of tuberculosis in 1881, Winchester inherited over $US20 million in wealth built on bullets and moved to California reportedly to build a home for the spirits of the dead she’d profited from.
For 38 years, Winchester built and built the home until she finally passed in 1922. For all of that time, rotating shifts of carpenters built staircases leading to ceilings, doors leading to nowhere, windows overlooking other rooms, and after a 1906 earthquake devastated the then-seven story palace with over 200 rooms, they rebuilt it as a four-story mansion with just 160 rooms.
According to legend, she built it for the ghosts “pleasure, or perhaps as a way to elude them.”
Four decades of constant construction created quite a stir and the Winchester Mansion was well known even before its owner died. By the 1950s, its legend had spread coast-to-coast, and Jackson had her stage.
But she didn’t quite have her horror story.
That’s because the Winchester Mansion, bizarre as it may seem, is home to a purportedly tame slew of said “hauntings,” according to Atlas Obscura. For the rest of her story, Jackson would look east – to the streets of New York.
Jackson said a visit to the scene of a 1957 Harlem apartment fire, where three people had died, placed her ‘the closest she would come to a supernatural experience‘
Whether the visit to this Harlem location was true or not is debated – she says nine people died in the 1957 fire when the official record shows three people died, plus she got the location wrong – but Jackson claims the feeling she got from the house was “the closest she would come to a supernatural experience.”
According to Franklin’s book, it also made her determined to write “the kind of novel you can’t read alone in a dark house at night.”
“Most people have never seen a ghost, and never want or expect to,” Jackson said about the experience, according to Franklin’s book. “But almost everyone will admit that sometimes they have a sneaking feeling that they just possibly could meet a ghost if they weren’t careful – if they were to turn a corner too suddenly, perhaps, or open their eyes too soon when they wake up at night or go into a dark room without hesitating first.”
Jackson’s source for the disturbing story might also be accredited to her own lingering unhappiness
According to the New York Times, the emotional and haunting feeling of “Hill House,” especially in regards to the novel’s protagonist, Eleanor – or in Netflix’s series, Nell, might have been shaped by Jackson’s personal struggles.
“You once wrote me a letter telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me,” Jackson wrote in a letter to her estranged husband during the time she wrote “The Haunting of Hill House.”
Now, nearly 60 years after her novel debuted, Jackson’s work lives on in the new adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House.” Buried within its script lie the mystery of the Winchester Mystery House, a “supernatural” experience in New York, and Jackson’s own loneliness.
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