The Woe of Housewives, the Cold War, and Mass Surveillance in Shirly Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

By: Margaret Schedler

                                                                                                            (CW: Suicide)

            Shirly Jackson’s The
Haunting of Hill House
, published in 1959, was the first of its kind.
Jackson published her book on the precipice of the Women’s Liberation Movement
when women began to actively reject the cookie-cutter lifestyle that the world
wars created. Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House personifies the
discrimination that Jackson’s generation of women felt while trapped in their
roles of homemakers by mimicking the stress of Cold War era mass surveillance.
The House in the novel is haunted with the spirits of women who felt isolated
in the home, lost children, and were rejected by society when they didn’t match
expectations. The House welcomes in women who do not fill their roles and traps
them until they can learn to live as wives and homemakers under the pressure of
constant third-party vigilance. The Haunting of Hill House’s plot,
however, shows that no woman, “can continue for long to exist sanely under
conditions of absolute reality” (Jackson 1). The House is the deciding factor
and the ultimate power in The Haunting of Hill House, as it seeks the
perfect woman. 

            The foundation for The Haunting
of Hill House
was the mass hysteria surrounding the Cold War and Russia.
The US government used propaganda to encourage young and predominantly white
people to get married, buy a house in the suburbs, and have numerous children.
The American Public Broadcasting Service writes, “embedded
in the propaganda of the time was the idea that the nuclear family was what
made Americans superior to the Communists” (PBS). The Cold War established a
culture of suspicion among the government and populace by fueling the average
American’s fear for the unknown: Russia. Mass surveillance and fear framed the
nuclear family’s subconscious. In Richard Pascal’s essay, “Walking Alone
Together: Family Monsters in The Haunting of Hill House,” he claims, “’whatever
walks there, walks alone’ (Jackson 3). In conformity with Gothic narrative
convention, the "whatever" appears to be unidentifiable, even with
regard to whether or not it is a single entity or a plurality - or somehow
both” (Pascal 465). Pascal’s insight mimics uncertainty that American
households struggled with during the 1950s as they waited for a Russian nuclear

            For this to be the environment that
Shirly Jackson emerged from to publish The Haunting of Hill House speaks
to the book’s underlying foundation of fear and stress. The pressure to follow
propaganda pushed many women to the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s
that relinquished the bonds of imposed motherhood, baby-making, and domestic
duties. When women tried to leave the home to join the workforce, employment
institutions rejected them and blocked them from entering. The physical
rejections, psychological isolation felt by housewives forced to stay home, and
the deep-rooted fear for an unseen threat sculpts the plot of The Haunting
of Hill House 
and sets it up as the most realistic of horror stories. 

            Like most contemporary ghost
stories, The Haunting of Hill House shrouds the danger that threatens
the House’s visitors: Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague. The
uncertainty of the threat is acknowledged by Eleanor in the first few pages
when she says, “The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words doming
freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at
once” (Jackson 29). Eleanor’s initial fear begins when she faces Hill House for
the first time and notices that, “the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a
watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a
cornice” (Jackson 30). The prospect of the House and its structure as a large
family home reflects the institution of marriage. It represents the
organization of the household and their relationships with one another, but it
also implies an invasion of privacy in a place that should be inherently

House makes it clear from the beginning that it will supervise whoever lives
inside it. It becomes a dominant force in the power-hierarchy of the novel. The
characters will live for the House and the image that the large family home
represents. The House, “seemed somehow to have formed itself…under the hands of
its builders” (Jackson 30). Before Eleanor has even stepped into the House, the
House has made it clear that it expects to watch her and judge her. The outside
façade of the building is impressive when it represents the perfect American
family, more sophisticated than the perfect Russian family, but the inside will
reveal the reality of a family dynamic during the 1950s. Hill House acts as the
American propaganda machine that ran 1950s Cold War culture. The threat of
surveillance and expectation of perfection, in order to beat the Russians in
the culture war, sets Hill House’s inhabitants up for failure.  

            When Eleanor enters the home, her
first interaction is with the odd housekeeper and married woman, Mrs. Dudley.
Mrs. Dudley proves to be an important manifestation of Hill House’s
expectations for women. She cares for the house in the family’s absence and
looks after guests when they come to stay. She is a good homemaker who serves
breakfast, lunch, and dinner on schedule everyday and, “she walks without
making a sound” (Jackson 40). She repeats herself in a strange robotic tone
that reveals nothing about her to her guests. To outsiders, she is everything
that she needs to be and nothing more. Even behind closed doors, she remains
ingenuine because it is not the guests that she fears, it is the watchful eyes
of the house. In a house that, later revealed by Dr. Montague, disposes of
women who do not fit its housewife model, Mrs. Dudley has miraculously
survived. Jackson implies here that Mrs. Dudley is the key to survival for the
women who come to stay at Hill House. 

            If readers are to assume that Mrs.
Dudley is the model for survival by the House, then the other female guests can
be compared to determine their survival. Eleanor and Theodora are unmarried
women who display homosexual characteristics which Jackson hides behind
innocuous language, “Theodora… plunged blindly, wantonly, into a violent
quarrel with the friend with whom she shared an apartment” (Jackson 6).
Already, Eleanor and Theodora are not like Mrs. Dudley, who fades into the
background of every scene. They wear bright colors like red and yellow and draw
attention to themselves. They run, “downstairs, moving with color and light
against the dark woodwork…Mrs. Dudley watched them in silence” (Jackson 43).
Eleanor and Theodora are ostracized from the beginning. When they go outside to
explore and prop the front door open, they come back to find the door firmly
closed again. Hill House rejects Eleanor and Theodora with a physical barrier,
deciding that the women will not live up to their intended roles like Mrs.

            The first morning in the House
presents a false sense of security to its guests but Eleanor still notices how,
“the room came clearly alive around her; she was in the blue room at Hill
House,” (Jackson 87). The House watches them as the guests wake up and employs
the use of its doors to manipulate their direction for the day. The doors serve
as physical blockades, sometimes to keep Eleanor and Theodora in, and sometimes
to keep them out. The doors are left open by the men of the house but as
Eleanor and Theodora try to join them for breakfast, they find them all closed
and impossible to navigate. Doctor Montague finds them saying, “you will never
believe this now, of course…but three minutes ago these doors were wide open…
we watched them swing shut just before you called” (Jackson 90). In this scene,
the doors want to keep Eleanor and Theodora from finding certain rooms by
keeping them out and disorienting them while inside the common areas of the

the women find the kitchen, Eleanor remarks, “our good Mrs. Dudley likes doors
doesn’t she?... I wonder, actually, just what Mrs. Dudley is in the habit of
meeting in her kitchen so that she wants to make sure that she’ll find a way
out no matter which direction she runs” (Jackson 104). Here, Jackson
illustrates the kitchen of Hill House as the functioning heart of the House
with its numerous connecting doors, leading in and out. The kitchen for Mrs.
Dudley, as pointed out by Eleanor, is a place where she can find her way in and
out easily. It is the only room in the house that connects everything else like
the heart organ and its veins and arteries. The House has set it up in this way
where the women of the House function within the heart, it leads them to
believe that their freedom depends on the kitchen. Although the kitchen allows
multiple paths of exit, like the cardiovascular system, the paths always lead
back to the heart. 

Dudley survives under the vigilance of the House because she stays inside her
realm, the kitchen. Her schedule is run by the kitchen and her responsibility
to make food for the family, clear the dishes, and begin again. Furthermore,
Doctor Montague and Luke never find themselves inside the kitchen of Hill
House. The doors surrounding the kitchen, while they may open, are there to
keep women in. The House encourages the women to find the kitchen and remain
there because they feel disorientated when they are not. The kitchen isolates
them into a small, monitored place where their roles are clearly illustrated
and efficiently enforced as Mrs. Dudley shows. The odd housekeeper fades so well
into the background of the House that Eleanor says, “she probably watches every
move we make, anyway; its probably part of what she agreed to” (Jackson 43).
Mrs. Dudley becomes an extension of the House and its manifestation. 

Cold War’s pressure for couples to become pregnant is another aspect of The
Haunting of Hill House 
that Jackson stresses. The image of a happy, full
family was essential to the survival of the U.S.A against Russia and so it
becomes a necessity for survival in Hill House. The guests find the old nursery
in the House and discover that it is boarded up. Doctor Montague wonders aloud
to no one in particular, “I wonder who slept in the nursery… Do you suppose
that they shut it up, once the children were gone” (Jackson 111). This moment
by Jackson is supposed to leave readers in a bind of anxiety and sorrow; a
feeling that is like a mother losing a child or suspecting a loss. The totally
shut-up nursery represents a rejection of motherhood and an abandonment of the
possibility of motherhood entirely. The guests of Hill House notice the heavy
feeling of neglect in the doorway of the nursery and Eleanor thinks, “even Mrs.
Dudley’s diligent care might not bring her across that cold barrier” (Jackson
111). The events that led to the shut-up nursery is never disclosed, like the
House doesn’t even wish to acknowledge it but it still knows as Luke points
out, “over the nursery doorway, two grinning heads were set,” and the doctor
adds, “everything is worse…if you think something is looking at you” (Jackson

            The abandoned nursery makes Theodora
uncomfortable to the point that she doesn’t wish to be left alone in the room.
The heads above the doorway are, “captured forever in distorted laughter,” like
they are mocking the loss (Jackson 111). The absence of children seems to be
the House’s core source of anger and resentment for the women of the House. The
House is disappointed and that is scarier than the spirits that Jackson
suggests still reside on the property. The Cold War of the 1950s witnessed a
baby boom in the US when families had a desire, “for normalcy after 16 years of
depression and war,” and other historians have argued that the baby boom, “was
a part of a Cold War campaign to fight communism” (HISTORY). The expectation
for baring children causes even more stress when it comes from the US
government. Failing to meet the request of the government and patriotism was a
mark of failure for women during the 1950s. So, like the nursery in Hill House,
historian Elizabeth Garner Masarik says in her podcast “Miscarriage in
Twentieth Century America, “miscarriage lives in this hushed, sad silence…” (Masarik).

House consumes the women of Hill House and locks them away into the home. The
expectations for housewives are inescapable for Jackson’s characters and for
the women of her novel, they are trapped inside the home forever. The constant
suppression and surveillance inside the house drives women to suicide and
spares few. Doctor Montague tells the guests on the first night that the first
wife to live in Hill House died before passing the front gate. The second wife
died soon after by falling down the stairs. The third wife died of consumption
and Mr. Hill died before returning to the house. The two daughters left behind
grew up with a governess. The first daughter died of pneumonia later on in her
life and her maid committed suicide. Her sister lived in constant turmoil and
finally lost possession of Hill House. 

Those the House cannot kill;
it punishes with mental turmoil. By killing these women, the House collects
housewives that will not change, mature, or grow to be self-aware. They will be
watched until the end of time to ensure that they do not divert from purpose
and duty. 

Works Cited

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of
Hill House
, 1959. Penguin Classics. 

vol. 46, no. 4, 2014,      pp. 464–85. JSTOR, Accessed 15 May 2023.

“Mrs. America:
Women’s Roles in the 1950s,” PBS. Accessed on May 12, 2023.               roles-1950s/.

“Baby Boomers,” by Editors. HISTORY. Last updated June 7, 2019.   .          1. Accessed on May    15, 2023

“Miscarriages in
Twentieth Century America,” by Elizabeth Garner Masarik. Published on            February 10, 2019.  century-america/.