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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

The Turn of the Screw vs The Haunting of Hill House

I'll say it now - I'm almost positive that Shirley Jackson read Turn of the Screw and said 'I can do that but with repressed homosexuality.'

As I'm sure all horror fans know by now, Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House will be coming out on the 12th October. Critics have rated it very highly so it's one to look forward to! See you all back here for a review on the first episode.

The series is based on the book of the same name by Shirley Jackson. Because I can't help myself, I read the book in preparation and I couldn't help but notice the similarities between it and Henry James's ghost story Turn of the Screw.


Turn of the Screw

Written by Henry James in 1989 and often classified as both gothic fiction and ghost story, the story is told from the perspective of a governess. The narrator has been assigned to two children, Miles and Flora, on a remote country estate in Essex. The governess is happy there and very much loves her new charges until she comes to the conclusion that the grounds are haunted.

She is plagued by the ghosts of past employees Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, both of whom had a special relationship with Miles and Flora. She becomes convinced that both children are secretly aware of these ghosts and are being manipulated by them.

This anxiety only builds until she confronts Miles about the ghosts, shielding him against the appearance of Peter Quint. In a frantic scene, she tells him he is no longer controlled by the ghost. She holds the boy until the ghost finally disappears, but Miles dies in her arms.

That's really the best summary I can make. The book itself is no clearer. But I have to say, it's well worth the read even so.


There's been a long-standing critical debate over whether or not the ghosts are all in the governess's mind. This all stems from an outdated belief in the concept of 'sexual hysteria' - the bizarre notion women can go insane from sexual repression.

I'm not even... so I'm just going to roll my eyes.

While the idea of hysteria is a frankly offensive, it's hard not to say that Henry James wasn't writing with this in mind. Throughout the book, the governess has an unusual attachment to the children's uncle, a man she only saw once. That obsession is transferred to Miles - the governess speaks to him and treats him in a way which you wouldn't a child his age. Yeah. Eww.

After reading it, I honestly believed that this governess did have a warped attachment to the boy in her charge and subsequently, all of her perceptions in the book need to be questioned.

Many people describe this book as both innovative and repulsive. It is repulsive, but it's also beautifully written, engaging and well worth the read.

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The Haunting of Hill House

Written in 1959, this gothic horror novel was a finalist for the National Book Awards and is considered by many, including Stephen King, as one of the best literary ghost stories published in the 20th century.

The Haunting of Hill House is told from the perspective of Eleanor, a woman who answers the advertisement place by Dr Montague, looking for volunteers to stay with him at a notorious place called Hill House. A woman called Theodora also answers the call and the three are joined by Luke, the future heir of Hill House.

The four start off in good spirits and friendships quickly form as they help Dr Montague scientifically prove the existence of paranormal activity. It is suggested that Eleanor had previous experience with poltergeists - though she herself seems unsure. She's also shown as more sensitive, much of Hill Houses spooky activity seemingly only happening to her.

While most of the paranormal activity is minor, mostly consisting of knocking on doors with no explanation, one major even comes when Eleanor and Theodora come across the image of a ghostly picnic with a mother and children.

After another event where Eleanor seemingly loses her mind, trying to climb up the dangerous tower and get outside through a trapdoor, all agree she has to leave the house. Eleanor rebels against the idea - she now considers the house as home. When she is left with no choice, she gets into her car and drives at fall speed into a large oak tree on the ground, committing suicide.


Much like Turn of the Screw, we're left wondering if Eleanor was under the influence of supernatural forces or was insane.

With the majority of haunted house stories, the action builds until the protagonists discover some long secret face which puts everything into context, explaining the haunting and how to defeat it. Jackson completely dismisses this structure and we never get an answer.

Inevitably, the main debate amongst critics over this book revolves yet again around sex. Literature critics don't have enough to do.

There is a subtext throughout the novel of Eleanor dealing with a great deal as she comes out of her shell. After losing the majority of her adulthood as she was forced to stay home and look after her mother, Eleanor is thrown into a new world. There are suggestions of a relationship with Theodora and she's also shown as jealous of the attention Luke gives the other girl.

Eleanor, at the end of the day, is a complicated mess of a character and one that I felt a lot of kinship with. If there was ever a story written in the head of a socially anxious introvert, it's this one.


The result of both books is that the reader is left in a position where they have to decide whether or not there were any ghosts. Or whether the protagonists were insane. I personally lean towards both these stories are dealing with the psychological, rather than paranormal.

The most dangerous threat seems to be the woman's emotion and unlike the more masculine destructive anger, both Eleanor and the governess are shown to have a destructive love.

All in all, both are very weird books but well worth the read if you're looking for a spooky evening in!

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

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