Capturing the Gothic Life of Shirley Jackson on Film

I finally had the time to sit down and watch the 2020 movie Shirley (currently on Amazon Prime), based on a novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. While the plot is a fictional imagining of author Shirley Jackson's process of writing Hangsaman (1951), the film highlights a number of accurate biographical elements of Shirley Jackson’s life.


The plot follows Rose Nemser and her husband Fred, quickly married because she is pregnant, who are invited to stay with Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman. Stanley, a lecturer, is supporting Fred as he begins his career at the local university. As the two men spend more and more time on campus (presumably fraternizing with the female students), Rose and Jackson grow closer in a way that is both horribly co-dependent and romantic. Of course, with Jackson’s mercurial mood and temperamental writing process, friction reaches a crescendo for all parties involved.

The great triumph of the film is that it is a lovely homage to Jackson's style of off-kilter storytelling. It gives the reader an eerie, unsettling feeling, just as if you’re reading “The Lottery” for the first time and you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Director Josephine Decker builds this unnerving feeling by presenting us with shots that appear just askew or uses mirrors to limit the frame of our gaze. There is a slowness to the film, but scenes butt up against each other in stark cuts, creating a disconnect between events and dialogue, as if what isn’t said and shown is what matters in the relationships between characters.


Elizabeth Moss is fantastic as the titular character. From her appearance to her cadence, she has the ability to deliver the protagonist's anger with the intensity of her gaze alone. With her aggressive sneer and her bitter laughter, Moss portrays the complexity of Jackson’s desire for connection with others and her fear of, and scorn for, that basic human desire. There is a fantastic scene where Jackson has forced herself to leave her home for the Dean’s house party and it is obvious that Jackson struggles to connect with these people as she is the smartest—and least deceptive—person in the room. She is as thorny as she appears, not hiding behind smiles and flirtation.


Jackson’s agoraphobia and depression are not only authentically portrayed by Moss, the audio and visual representations throughout the film bring the viewer in to experience her mental health struggles firsthand. These episodes juxtaposed with Rose's fulfillment of domestic roles reinforce Jackson's biographically-stated feelings towards the stifling nature of 1950s housewifery (which certainly led to her repeated representation of houses as psychologically damaging prisons in her oeuvre).


The film also portrays the complex and destructive marriage between Jackson and Stanley. Both intellectuals, it is clear they share a cerebral connection, however, the way he speaks to Jackson and his support (or lack thereof) of her mental health makes the viewer uncomfortable. It is difficult to determine if Stanley has embraced the era’s misogyny or if he is a sympathetic husband at the end of his patience.


The Jackson-Hyman house is visually a writer’s paradise; a gorgeous ivy-covered abode crammed with books and booze. And the period outfits are quintessential 1950s. The film is not only visually appealing, it is an audio one as well: I highly recommend watching the film with headphones. The soundtrack is multi-layered and adds a sensory experience from the clack of the typewriter, the creak of wooden stairs, or the ever-buzzing cicadas.


This is a film that will certainly be enjoyed by fans of Shirley Jackson and her work, those who enjoy the Gothic, and visual art lovers.

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