A new biopic casts horror writer Shirley Jackson as a villain — but it’s the forces that drove her to cruelty we should be scared of. Shortly after the trailer for Shirley, Josephine Decker’s new biopic about 20th-century horror writer Shirley Jackson, hit the internet, I found myself chatting with a friend about the movie.
“I worry that they’re going to portray Shirley Jackson as crazy,” she said. Having finally seen the film, I must say: The friend will not be pleased. The Shirley of Decker’s Shirley is unremittingly bonkers, a contagious font of mental illness, a vicious drunk, a corrupter of the young and innocent — in the words of one of those young, innocent people, a “fucking monster.” Yet, somehow, this doesn’t come off as disrespectful. Instead, it feels like the best way to honor Jackson’s work, which gave women’s domestic struggles gravity by imbuing them with terror.
Jackson is sort of a patron saint of misunderstood female genius. She became a writer in the pre-feminist 1950s, writing exquisite literary fiction about human greed, madness, and cruelty that was dismissed as pulpy horror. She was one of relatively few female writers to carve out a financially viable career, but her earnings were controlled by her husband, the critic and professor Stanley Hyman, who lived off them while he produced his own, much less memorable work (his 1947 book The Armed Vision, in which Hyman laid out his ideas for a more “scientific” method of literary criticism, was hailed in reviews for its “almost breathless irresponsibility and lack of judgment”). While footing the bill for Hyman, Jackson was also expected to raise their children, take care of domestic chores so that his highly unmarketable genius could be undisturbed, and tolerate his many, many affairs.
It’s enough to drive a woman mad, and that is exactly what happened to Jackson, who developed severe agoraphobia in her mid-forties and spent the last years of her life frequently unable to leave her house. She became dependent on massive amounts of alcohol and tranquilizers to quell her anxiety. At age 48, shortly after filing for divorce from Hyman, she died in her sleep. Jackson’s stories, in retrospect, all seem to be about her hellish home life; they either portray the world outside her front door as a place of chaos and terror (her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” is about the world’s worst block party) or center on fragile, housebound heroines who slowly reveal themselves to be raging maniacs. The Haunting of Hill House, the greatest ghost story of the 20th century, is about a woman whose house literally won’t let her leave.
Shirley operates in this same domestic-Gothic mode, with large dollops of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? mixed in with loose (and frequently inaccurate) biography. The plot centers on a fictional young couple, Rosie and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman). Fred is a junior faculty member at Bennington, where he assists Stanley Hyman (a terrifically smarmy Michael Stuhlbarg). In the interests of “mentoring” — read: exploiting — the young man, Stanley invites Fred and Rosie to live with him and his brilliant but vicious wife, Shirley (Elisabeth Moss). Instead of paying rent, Rosie is expected to work off her husband’s debt by doing the cooking and cleaning for Stanley and Shirley. She had planned to become a student at Bennington, but winds up being an unpaid servant.
Moss, as Shirley, is a creature of madness and malice, all stony glares and smeared lipstick and disheveled madwoman wig, voice perpetually trembling with an emotion that might be either terror or rage. It’s a showy performance, with a lot of capital-A Acting, but it works. Every time she shows up, you’re filled with the conviction that something bad is about to happen.
Balancing the demands of her genius with the demands of her marriage drove her to exhaustion and despair in ways men rarely if ever have to face.
In fact, something bad is happening, and his name is Stanley. He sexually harasses Rosie in front of the whole household. He devolves into fits of jealous rage whenever his young mentee requests any actual mentoring. He is fiercely possessive of Shirley’s writing, which he sees as his vicarious chance at greatness, and insists that he be the first to read all her work. Yet, when he feels threatened, he doesn’t hesitate to gut her, telling her that her ideas are “trite and trashy,” and that she’s “not up to” the challenge of writing a novel. He wants to be married to his intellectual peer, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice the privileges or comforts of a conventional marriage; he tells Shirley she’s a genius, then orders her to stop writing every night so that she can sit at the dinner table and keep him company.
Stanley Hyman is the sort of historical villain whose wickedness is difficult to name or pin down — outwardly progressive, outwardly supportive, yet profoundly toxic to the women in his life. He was not openly violent, or only rarely so (the real-life Jackson alluded in her journal to Hyman having once raped her — “he forced me God help me… now I’m so afraid to have him touch me” — but the incident is not mentioned here) yet he exerted inexorable, maddening dominance over Shirley, simply through his own resolute conviction that his needs should always come first.
Male writers’ careers have historically been enabled by nearly endless creative, practical and financial support from their wives; Sylvia Plath typed Ted Hughes’ manuscripts, sewed his buttons, and cooked his dinners in between writing her own work. Sofia Tolstoy not only transcribed War and Peace by hand several times, she fixed her husband’s grammar, breastfed his 13 babies, and made sure the house abided by his excruciating vegetarian diet. This kind of support was never available to Shirley Jackson, because her husband expected her to be his wife first. Balancing the demands of her genius with the demands of her marriage drove her to exhaustion and despair in ways men rarely if ever have to face.
Women live with men like Stanley to this day — consider the recently viral example of a household where a woman quit the business she founded to take care of her children, simply because her unemployed husband found childcare too tiring — and many have trouble saying that anything unjust, unfair, or violent is going on. Revealing the pain their relationships cause makes them sound weak or petty, and so, they never speak.
Jackson was brilliant at exposing the Stanleys of the world, and not just because she lived with one. Her work, at its best, got her readers to stop dismissing women’s “petty” struggles by framing them as a matter of life and death. She used the tropes of horror fiction to force her audience to see the world as she did, turning the suburban housewife’s gilded cage into a haunted house, and raising the stakes of domestic conflict by spilling blood on the floor.
Her heroines could be either fragile or feral — the haunted care worker in Hill House, the agoraphobic homemaker and/or murder suspect in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the split-personality-suffering heroine of The Bird’s Nest — but they were nearly always warped by a lifetime of repression and domestic drudgery, sublimating whoever they might have been into the cultural ideal of what a woman ought to be. Jackson wasn’t wrong about how deadly that ideal was. Though Jackson did not commit suicide, her addictions destroyed her health and led to an early death; one way or another, her unhappiness killed her.
Given that suffering, the idea of turning Shirley into the villain of her own life story does not on its face sound appealing. Yet it works here, simply because it’s the way Jackson might have portrayed herself, had she been the one to write this story — less an individual than a symptom of a broader cultural horror, not an isolated madwoman but an example of all the ways sexism drives women over the edge.
Rosie — the younger woman who becomes Shirley’s surrogate daughter, her creative collaborator, her lover, and her victim — is horrified by Shirley, yet cannot look away from her, because Shirley represents the end point of the process she’s begun by marrying a man and making herself into a “good” wife. It often seems that Shirley is trying to find someone who can understand her pain by making Rosie exactly as unhappy as she is, forcing Rosie to re-enact Shirley’s formative traumas until she’s stomping around in her own disheveled madwoman wig.
But then, Rosie might have wound up suffering anyway, because the true horror of Shirley is that Shirley’s misery was never confined to one person. Anyone can go mad, and, in Shirley Jackson’s position, most people would. The nervous wreck we see on-screen is what any reasonably bright and sensitive woman would be reduced to, after a lifetime of being mistreated, misunderstood, overworked, and overlooked, and for all we know about Shirley Jackson’s suffering, we will never know how many women suffered just like her, alone. We tell ourselves those problems are behind us, here in the 21st century. We say that marriages are more egalitarian, that men are more enlightened, and that women can be whatever they want. It’s a comforting story. If it were true, though, we would not be quite so haunted by Shirley Jackson.