When I think back on my childhood, the most dominant emotion that resurfaces is powerlessness. Unstable finances, frequent moves, and sick loved ones who perpetually wavered between life and death didn’t lend themselves to a healthy upbringing. To cope with the instability as a child, I sometimes created little rituals to soothe my anxious mind and give my day the structure that reality seemed to lack. If I finished my cereal with an even number of bites, if a song finished on the radio right as we reached our driveway, if I remembered to tuck my dolls into their dollhouse beds before I went to sleep – these, I decided, were all omens foreshadowing good luck.
But routines only carry you so far. And they rarely prevent the fear and powerlessness that come with tragedy and the realization that we control so little.
I discovered mystery novels at a very early age, devouring most of the Nancy Drew series before I reached double digits and tearing through as many ghost stories as I could get my hands on. The very essence of mysteries, of the supernatural and horror, is the element of the unknown. In mystery stories we often find the answers to obvious questions – who did it, and why? But in the horror genre, these questions run deeper – the most obvious being, what happens when we die? Morbid, maybe, but it is at the heart of the supernatural. When your routines and agency fail, what is the next best thing? Familiarizing yourself with the unknown as much as possible. There’s a sense of power in reading horror. As if with every new encounter we read, a small piece of that unknown chips away.
My love for Shirley Jackson began by chance when I watched the 2018 film adaptation of her 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What was meant to be background noise for my Spanish homework ended up being something life-changing. I was glued to my seat. I sobbed. I rewatched it almost immediately and sped off to the library to pick up the novel. Because that was me, on the screen. I saw myself and my sister in Merricat and Constance – two sisters from a deeply troubled family, survivors of traumatic experiences who rely on each other to make it through the day. I’d never before seen horror tropes like isolation and rituals portrayed as coping mechanisms. This was the horror movie I’d always wanted: one where the unknown and the supernatural was ultimately a source of comfort, not fear.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a mystery novel that follows Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, an odd and imposing eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. It takes place six years after a horrific incident that left Julian permanently disabled and claimed the lives of the girls’ parents, younger brother, and Julian’s wife. The townsfolk blame Constance for their deaths, and their suspicion morphs into hatred and resentment towards the Blackwoods for their wealth and privilege. The girls become recluses, with only Merricat’s biweekly trips to town for groceries and library books tethering them to the outside world.
Merricat is one of the most intriguing fictional characters I’ve ever come across. In the novel’s opening paragraph, after a brief introduction of name and age, she tells the reader what is important to her: “I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” Merricat’s world is one of magic, and that magic is a system of her own invention. She invents a personal brand of protective magic designed to keep her loved ones and her unstable world safe. Ordinary objects assume spiritual significance: coins, family heirlooms, and spoons touched by townspeople are talismans that protect her home. As long as they remain undisturbed where she buries them, no harm will come to her or her remaining loved ones. From any narrative perspective besides Merricat’s, she would be an ominous oddity and likely deemed a witch for her peculiar mannerisms and disdain for anyone who is not her sister. However, because we are privy to her secret fears and her earnest desires for safety from the masses, we are endeared to her. We root for her and her love for her sister.
In fact, the core of the novel is Merricat’s relationship to her elder sister Constance, who drifts from day to day in a dreamlike state, harvesting vegetables in her garden, cooking dinner, and living in constant terror of returning to society. When the opportunity does come for Constance to return to the human world, Merricat panics. Her carefully constructed world of routines and safety shatters when a distant family member arrives and throws their peaceful life into chaos. A battle of wits ensues. Perspective is key to interpreting what happens: is Merricat tormenting her cousin and preventing her sister’s happiness, or protecting her home and her sister from more unnecessary pain? Do we side with her because she is right or because she is simply the one telling the story?
Part of Jackson’s charm is her unique approach to the supernatural. We are afraid of the supernatural because it is foreign, and alien to us. In most media, that difference is perceived as a threat. To Jackson, it’s home. Jackson’s charactersHer characters find wholeness and welcoming, as morbid as it may seem, in the supernatural.
Jackson’s biographer Judy Oppenheimer called the novel “a paean to agoraphobia”, and it is, but it is also a paean to otherness. It’s no mistake that Jackson’s protagonists are largely social outcasts. Merricat Blackwood is misanthropic, violent, and one might argue, the villain of her own story. We never find out what exactly drives Merricat to murder her family, but the evidence suggests a dire need to create a safe environment for her and her sister. They are isolated from both the town and the other members of their family, and so Merricat turns to the darkness within and around her for comfort.
Unlike so many gothic writers, Jackson’s version of the supernatural represents a preferable alternative to life for her characters. Merricat and Constance both gaze into the unknown and willingly step into it. Because to Jackson, the unknown is preferable and safer than the obvious horrors of humanity. In a sick, twisted way, We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends almost happily. The sisters reject civilization in favor of a ruined home. The second floor is too ruined to use, so they are confined to merely the kitchen and the living room. They prefer the shadow of their old home and old life to the daunting task of re-entering society, and forge a new peace. A world of their own.
The human world is messy. People are unpredictable and hostile and oftentimes sadly unsurprising. In Jackson’s world, the human characters are deeply flawed and often hostile towards these socially awkward protagonists. That’s why, when facing the unknown and the supernatural, the characters step willingly into the darkness because it is preferable to the predic. Merricat becomes a powerful if antagonistic force. She fully turns her back on civilization in favor of the world she can control, with the few comforts that bring her peace: her sister, their family home, her pet cat, and the woods in which she hides.
Even the novel’s setting and atmosphere are subjected to the will of the characters. No rogue spirits or hostile creatures haunt the woods surrounding the Blackwood mansion – only Merricat, who roams them as comfortably as if they are her bedroom. She sleeps on a bed of leaves beneath the tree and walks without fear because she has power and agency in this world. If anything haunts the grounds of her family property, it is her. She is the haunting.
The other day I was searching for yet another horror movie to watch but found myself scrolling disinterestedly through Netflix titles for almost an hour before ultimately giving up. Eventually, I realized the problem: it’s difficult to find good horror content that doesn’t revolve around violence and gore, especially towards minorities. How many times have we seen the Token Black Character be the first to die, or the sole LGBT character singled out, or watched countless women brutalized, stalked, and graphically murdered by psychotic men? I found myself longing for Jackson’s world, where the women who are subjected to the usual tropes of hauntings and social isolation ultimately win in the end. They leave this unfair world for one of peace and find their homes in the unknown.
I can’t fully explain exactly why I love horror and gothic novels so much. I don’t know why haunted houses, family secrets, and generational trauma are so intriguing, or why I willingly turn to these dark places. Maybe it’s a sense of camaraderie. When darkness invades your life it becomes familiar. Jackson’s protagonists – most of them mentally ill, reclusive, or otherwise abnormal women – reject society in favor of the unknown. These heroines find power in things traditionally rejected by society: in solitude, in private rituals, in death and the beyond. It is terrible, but it is also beautiful.