One of today’s best masters of fiction and fright, Mike Flanagan gave us the binge-able series ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘ back in 2018. Just the first of many revered horror shows directed by Flanagan, the series focuses on the Crain’s and leaves viewers asking — is The Haunting of Hill House based on a true story?
It seems as if the show was inspired by a real-life ghastly mansion, an age-old ghost story, and a deadly Harlem fire.
In Shirley Jackson’s novel, ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ inquisitive guests are terrorized by spirits that reside in a disorienting, massive, and nightmare-filled home that they’ve come to investigate. The resulting text went on to become one of the greatest horror novels of all time, and was even praised by Stephen King himself, master of terror!
‘The Haunting of Hill House‘ brought two film adaptations in 1963 and again in 1999, and most recently in 2018 when the Netflix series arose, directed by Mike Flanagan.
So, where in the world did the inspiration come from to create just a deep and dark world? Was it just pure creativity, or were there real inspirations at hand?
The Winchester Mystery House’s Role
The story is said to have been inspired by that of Sarah Winchester and the infamous Winchester Mystery House. According to a book written by Ruth Franklin, the setting for Shirley Jackson’s novel was inspired by Sarah Winchester, a firearms heiress who built a San Jose farmhouse and eventually turned it into the sprawling, mysterious estate it is today.
Sarah Winchester was said to be tormented by the spirits of those whom her family’s firearms killed. When her husband, William, died of Tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah inherited over $20 million and moved to California to build a home for the spirits of the dead her family had profited from.
For almost four decades, Winchester built the home until she passed in 1922. She never stopped building the entire time — rotating shifts of carpenters built staircases, some of which led to nowhere, doors that opened to the outside, and according to legend, she built it for the ghosts’ pleasure and confusion. She was trying to hide from these aggravated entities.
By the 1950s, the Winchester Mystery House’s story was known coast to coast — Jackson heard about it and the wheels began to turn.
A Harlem Fire
Jackson is said to have visited a scene of a Harlem apartment fire in 1957 where three people had died. It was the closest she would come to a ‘supernatural experience.’ Whether the visit to the apartment was true or not is widely debated, but she says nine people died in the fire even though the official record only shows three. Jackson claimed she got a ‘feeling’ from the building which prompted her to write a novel that ‘you cannot read alone in a dark house at night.’
Jackson said that most people have never seen a ghost, and never want or expect to. She also admits that everyone will have had a sneaking feeling that they could possibly meet a ghost if they aren’t careful — if they were to turn a corner too suddenly or open their eyes too soon when they wake up at night. It seems as if encountering a ghost is a hidden part of the human experience — at least according to Jackson.
The show follows five siblings who grew up in the famously spooky abode and are forced to return to the mansion to relive the nightmare all over again. Over the course of the series, horrors are revealed and the Crains are forced to confront several horrifying entities.
Charlotte and Eleanor
According to one news outlet, The Haunting of Hill House is based on the story of two English girls, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, who visited the Palace of Versailles in 1901. Things started to go wrong when they got lost on the grounds of the Palace.
After taking a wrong turn, the pair encountered a gathering of spirits, just like the Crain family. The first ghost they encountered was a woman shaking a white cloth out of a window, and some men dressed like gardeners in long grey coats who told them to leave.
They did not, and they carried on to encounter a woman with a young girl in a doorway. They soon after came face-to-face with a man wearing a black cloak and oversized hat, who turned slowly to face them before vanishing.
The women chronicled the strange encounters in their book ‘An Adventure,’ which was widely ridiculed for these outlandish claims.
Jackson’s Own Struggles
According to the New York Times, the emotion felt behind the story may have been shaped by Jackson’s own personal struggles. At the time she was writing the novel, she was also writing a letter to her estranged husband, telling him how hurt he made her.
‘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.’
Now, nearly sixty years after her novel came out, Jackson’s work lives on in the nightmares of Netflix and chillers. Buried deep within the script are the bone-chilling real-life inspirations — you just need to dig a bit deeper to find them, if you dare.
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