Shirley Jackson loved calling herself a witch. It's said that this was a recurring joke she shared with her husband. However, when she became a famous writer, Jackson (1916-1965) accepted she was obsessed with witchcraft and the pagan rites that took place in the New World. She even believed in the power of spells and incantations. Her obsession was so huge that she even accepted she owned a Ouija board and Tarot cards. Moreover, she once said that since she was a girl, she was already experienced in enchantments and curses. For this American writer, the unknown wasn't only the blurry limit between the visible and invisible, but also an anonymous force capable of destroying and creating.
Perhaps this was the reason why Shirley Jackson wrote about horror and explored fear's capacity to show our humanity. Hers was a groundbreaking perspective that gave a new dimension and identity to a very popular genre. For this writer, darkness wasn't fully related to the supernatural —which she sometimes introduced as a casual, accidental, and even spontaneous phenomenon—, but it was more associated with human nature and circumstances.
Moreover, Jackson was a mysterious woman surrounded by a strange personal story that made her as unsettling as any of her characters. Shy, distant, and with a weird cynical sense of humor, Jackson distanced herself from the submissive image of the fifties woman. Her personality and free spirit were shocking and strange for the people of the time. According to her and the testimonies of people around her —a selected group of people who accompanied her throughout her life—, Shirley was a "sinister" woman. Her colleagues at The New Yorker and Woman's Day Magazine, where she collaborated for more than two decades, never suspected that the woman who wrote hilarious articles about her everyday life could also write about horror, death, and the unknown with a peculiar narrative to discuss the dilemmas of people living in small towns. The contrast was highly terrifying for most of the people around her. All of a sudden, this pale woman with glasses was no longer as innocent and common as many had thought.
That ambiguous personality was a constant in Jackson's life, even after she became a symbol of the common middle-class American woman due to her articles and thousands of readers. Jackson narrated what happened in many American suburbs with a particular sensitivity, good taste, and elegance. Then, in 1948, she published "The Lottery," a short story that broke the delicate balance between her mysterious public image and her literary ambition.
At that moment she had already published the sinister novel The Road Through the Wall (1948) and other short stories, but "The Lottery" was such a shock that broke the idea her readers had about her. The story isn't only a great horror text, but it also analyzes the genre from an innovative perspective that's very upsetting due to its rawness. Jackson creates an unhealthy and lurid setting based on details, a characteristic signature of her domestic narratives. Moreover, the story manages to build an unexpected macabre dimension. It's a primitive and sort of painful fear that shocks for its effectiveness. "The Lottery" is a folk horror story written with the tricky appearance of a wholesome matter that manages to transmit pure horror.
At first glance, there's nothing outstanding nor especially dangerous in the small and peaceful town described by the author. One can notice an everyday atmosphere in the trivial dialogues of the characters, and even in the innocent sense of humor they display when they joke. However, all of the sudden the narrative takes a wicked twist very hard to digest. Horror and malevolence hit you as a wave and go through all the setting to transform it into an ode to horror. It's a masterpiece that turned her into one of the most important writers of her generation.
Houses were Jackson's greatest obsession. We can see how she turns buildings into complex replicas of human psyche and its deepest fears. Jackson's haunted houses are terrifying and complex labyrinths that hold horror, frustration, and existentialism. Actually, due to her complex setting construction, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is much more than a simple horror story. Jackson's notion of evil and houses as the main source of horror where the limits of reality and fantasy fade away is way deeper than what we perceive in the first reading. The writer analyzes the idea of the domestic as an expression of the ego (the organized part of ourselves that negotiates between our instinctual drives and the social patterns we must follow). Through this concept, she explores how fear and pain can be humanity's deadliest traps. Jackson's haunted houses aren't just mere buildings, but extremely beautiful tools to produce horror and psychological torture. They become a way to understand the vulnerability of the human mind that hides behind incredulity and existential anguish.
Jackson used to laugh at herself. She frequently stated that she not only perceived evil as an idea, but she also believed in its power. For Shirley Jackson, the idea of being a witch was much more than just a cliché. When her husband joked with the press by saying that he had "married an evil woman, a witch", the tabloids took it very seriously, and so did the author. With her particular and sardonic sense of humor, Jackson admitted that she had practiced voodoo in her childhood. Every time she stated something related to her supernatural qualities, the audience would freak out in a mixture of admiration and fear.
Perhaps the only way to understand Shirley Jackson is by seeing her as a divided person. On the one hand, she's the typical wife and mother, on the other, a sinister woman who played with the fear and horrors of the human mind. She created gloomy settings inhabited by smiling monsters and huge houses whose doors lead to the unknown, with rooms bigger than what they appear to be, and where horror lurks with a dark grin. It's an eerie combination between fear and ordinariness that only Jackson could create.
If you're a lover of horror movies and wish to move into literature, we recommend this list of Horror Books That Will Frighten The Bravest Of Hearts. Also, you should check these 10 Nightmare-Inducing Horror Movies Based On True Stories if you want to experience a sleepless night.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards