At the beginning of The Haunting of Hill House—the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel upon which Netflix’s 10-part series is based—Eleanor Vance takes a car (her sister’s; stolen) and sets out on a journey with the scantest possible information. She has been invited to a house, possibly haunted, by a man she doesn’t know, because she had a childhood encounter with a poltergeist.
Unlike Netflix’s family-centric adaptation, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House involves the meeting of four strangers—Dr. Montague, who has contrived the trip; Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House; Eleanor; and a young woman named Theodora—who find themselves in a house beset by escalating psychic disturbances. This is a ghost story in which ghosts are seldom seen; a horror story without gore. If horror relies on acts of transgression to deliver its chills, then The Haunting of Hill House is uniquely attuned to the transgressive implications of wearing another person’s clothes.
Eleanor sets off to Hill House armed with gloves, a pocketbook, a light coat. These are sensible items, appropriate to her dull New York City life. She’s someone who would choose neutral, non-assertive hues. Camel, maybe. Dark brown. Navy blue. But on the back seat, concealed in her suitcase, are clothes Eleanor has bought herself specifically for the occasion. They are clothes that embody the kind of person she wishes to be: a bright red sweater, red shoes, and even—“excited at her own daring”—two pairs of slacks. This impulse is a familiar one. Who hasn’t, on the precipice of a holiday, recklessly bought a wardrobe’s worth of aspirational clothing? You imagine you will be different. More relaxed. You will be lighter, prettier, more at ease. You will be the kind of person who drinks brandy. You will make new friends. It’s easy to be seduced by this kind of thinking. New clothes offer the possibility of reinvention.