We Have Always Lived in a Horror Movie: Shirley

I suppose it was inevitable that Shirley Jackson star in a horror movie. She did, after all, write “The Lottery”—the one piece of rural horror that almost every child in the U.S. reads before high school—and what may be the greatest haunted house story of all time, The Haunting of Hill House. When she wrote a bestselling domestic memoir she didn’t call it Life with Father or I Remember Mama or anything so saccharine, she went with the title Raising Demons. When “The Lottery” caused a sensation and interview requests poured in she told reporters she was a witch—sometimes, she meant it. So it makes sense that in 2014 author Susan Scarf Merrell cast her as a rather sinister presence in a psychological horror novel, Shirley. Now filmmaker Josephine Decker has adapted the novel into a movie with Elisabeth Moss perfectly cast as Jackson, Michael Stuhlbarg bringing his own brand of creepiness as her professor/lit critic husband, Stanley Hyman, and Logan Lerman and Odessa Young as Fred and Rose Nemser, the fresh-faced couple that comes to live with the Jackson-Hymans.

This is a non-spoiler review, but I can’t imagine it’s a spoiler to say that things do not go well.

I have friends who read “The Lottery” in school and were terrified by it. I still remember hitting the ending, sitting in a stifling, sunny Florida classroom, the grin on my face, and staring at those last lines for ten minutes, that grin getting bigger, as each of the other kids reached the end and gasped in shock and horror. See, here was truth. Here was the world I knew. Of course little Davy Hutchinson flings stones at his mom—everyone else is, right? What might happen to him if he refuses? How many other times did I stumble across actual truth during my education? Not terribly often. So imagine my delight when the opening scene of Shirley uses “The Lottery” story as foreplay, with young wife Rose Nemser putting her copy of the New Yorker down and leading her husband to the train’s bathroom so they can join the railway equivalent of the Mile High Club.

The ensuing psychodrama more than lives up to that opening. The Nemsers are traveling to Vermont for business: Fred Nemser will be the new TA for Stanley Hyman’s Bennington class, and Rose hopes to become friends with Stanley’s wife Shirley Jackson, who has just achieved fame for her creepy short stories. This doesn’t quite work out. Stanley is every stereotype of a handsy professor; Shirley is an agoraphobe with writer’s block. Within moments of meeting the Nemsers Stanley has already talked Rose into playing housekeeper since Shirley isn’t up to it, and she’s soon entangled in an intense relationship with Shirley, who is desperately trying to write the book that will become Hangsaman. The two are only supposed to stay for a few weeks, but Stanley prevails upon them to stay longer—and the two are batted back and forth between Shirley and Stanley like two half-dead-yet-still optimistic mice, who occasionally poke out of their torture to attempt genuine friendship.

Screenshot: Neon

The acting is impeccable throughout. Elisabeth Moss is perfect as this version of Shirley Jackson, and creates a sort of swirling vortex at the center of the film—you never know whether Shirley will be witty or vulnerable or the meanest person you’ve ever met. Michael Stuhlbarg embodies Stanley Hyman as a constant fluctuation of energy and stillness—seething in silent rage one minute, then dancing and flirting with everyone in the room. Watching them together you can see the college-aged Shirley and Stanley who fell in love with each other, and you can trace the trajectory that turned them into an embittered, hateful couple who make the barbs seem like banter for their party guests, and save the really mean shit for when they’re home alone together. Odessa Young is appropriately uncanny as Rose. She’s not actually some naive schoolgirl—again, the first time we see her she’s turned on by reading “The Lottery”. But she is brimming with vitality, which makes her vulnerable to Shirley’s machinations.

To make two things clear: this is much more a psychological horror than anything else, a worthy riff on the parts of The Haunting of Hill House that focus on Eleanor’s troubled mind. Also, this is not even remotely a true version of Shirley Jackson or her husband. This is a chopped and screwed version of Shirley Jackson, with bits of reality taken out of context and repurposed to tell a particular story of gender roles and emotional vampirism. The Shirley we meet here is agoraphobic, hanging on by a thread, and openly hates her husband. In the wake of the success of “The Lottery” she is just embarking on her second novel, Hangsaman—but you wouldn’t know from the movie that that she’s already written a well-regarded debut, The Road Through the Wall. In the film, she and Stanley have reached middle age with no children. But in real life Shirley wrote Hangsaman when she was 35 years old, with three small children, while she was living in a bustling house in suburban Westport, Connecticut—not Vermont—and regularly running down to New York to see friends. If we wanted to map this onto reality, the film portrays a child-free AU version of the real world Shirley of the early ‘60s—after Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle—who developed severe agoraphobia (and probably had a few pill addictions after various doctors urged “mother’s little helpers” on her) and hated her role as a Bennington faculty wife, mashed up with the younger Shirley who was still trying to get the hang of writing novels. The real Shirley hated housework, but she still did it; she was a great cook; an imaginative if not traditional mother; she served on the PTA; she went to faculty parties. And as for the real Stanley? While he did have an incredibly successful class at Bennington, and was continually unfaithful to Jackson, he seems not to have seen current students as fair game the way this iteration of Stanley does. These fictional counterparts seem almost to feed on the younger people in their lives.

There are references to many of Jackson’s books, as well as plenty of factual details scattered across, but again this is not a biopic, or even close to it. If you want a bio, Ruth Franklin’s book Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is exhaustive and, honestly, heartbreaking. You get the sense there that if Shirley had just gotten her good agent a little sooner, and if her husband had been a little better about his non-monogamy, she might have had a longer and happier career.

Screenshot: Neon

But those things didn’t happen in our timeline.

And here’s where I have to get a bit more thematic.

Shirley continues a loose trend I’ve noticed of creating slightly AU biopics that fictionalize their subjects without quite veering into fantasy. The movie edges toward queering Shirley and her relationship with Rose, without ever fully working out what that type of relationship would mean in the context of her marriage to Stanley and life as a faculty wife. The women’s flirtation serves as an off-ramp from heteronormative 1950s society, and a way to make the problematic men in their lives irrelevant—but it only works for a few moments. It’s a momentary band-aid for a movie that is about very deep wounds. If Shirley gives us a queered Shirley Jackson, or a monstrous Shirley Jackson, we can meditate on the destructive nature of mid-century U.S.’s domesticity cult without really thinking about how many books she didn’t get the chance to write, and the movie can stay fun.

Screenshot: Neon

But this is what I’ve been turning over in my mind. Last year’s Netflix adaptation of Haunting of Hill House gave us an openly gay Thea. The character was a lesbian in the original draft of the novel, but Jackson backed away from the depiction in the final draft until we get a woman who is vibrant and alive and seems not to GAF about people’s opinions, but also plays the pronoun game when talking about her roommate. Mike Flanagan’s series makes the character openly gay and gives her a romance that is one of the of the bright spots in a story riddled with grief and trauma. That, to me, is how you queer Shirley Jackson. Whatever Jackson’s own take on queerness was—she seems to have been upset occasionally by people lumping her books in with lesbian literature—her characters still lend themselves to queering in a way that can be used to look at the absolute reality of society, which, while it might drive you insane for a while, is the only way to make real changes. Instead Shirley feints toward queerness but never quite uses it to critique the endless loop of repression and misogyny that are causing all the characters’ problems.

But having said that, I still think this is a fun, very fictional take on one of the U.S.’s best horror writers.

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