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Hill House

07/06/06 12:00AM By Joe Citro
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(Host) Today Commentator Joe Citro joins us to talk about one of the scariest homes ever to be written about...but no one is quite sure where it is.

(Citro) Perhaps the most terrifying novel in American literature was penned right here in Vermont. While living in Bennington, Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. To some, it's the best haunted house thriller of all time.

It begins this way: "Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within. . . walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there walked alone."

You see, it's not a haunted house in any traditional sense. It's "not sane", contorted beyond nature by its builder's evil and madness.

Historically, Shirley Jackson had a life-long interest in the supernatural. She claimed to see apparitions. Later she experimented with ESP at Duke University. In Bennington she'd readily pack her kids into the car and head off to investigate any local ghost story. In 1956 she authored a book about the Salem witch trials; later professed to be a witch herself. In 1959 came The Haunting of Hill House.

Over the years, scholars and interested readers have speculated about the real-life inspiration for Hill House. Was it entirely a literary contrivance or was it based on some actual building?

Suspect houses have been identified in California, on Nantucket Island, and all over the New England states. Perhaps, some argue, it is a synthesis of many houses.

In a recent article, my friend Joe Durwin, identified a building much closer to home: Jennings Hall, on the campus of Bennington College where Shirley's husband taught. Long reputed to be haunted, this three-story, forty-room, nineteenth century mansion was visible from the Jacksons' home on Prospect Street. But, Mr. Durwin speculates, though Hill House's exterior could be patterned on Jennings Hall, maybe the interior was based on Shirley's own home, where weird things happened all the time.

A music box opened on its own and began playing in the middle of the night. A certain cabinet door refused to stay latched. Shirley's brother-in-law witnessed a human-like form running past a second-floor window. Her husband watched a knife float into the air and dash against the wall.

Often the family was awakened by sounds of running in the halls, untraceable laughter, stomping, and banging. Things got so weird that Shirley's husband, a skeptic, drafted a formal affidavit attesting to poltergeist activity in their home.

It appears as if the alchemy of these occurrences - along with the facade of Jennings Hall -- may have created The Haunting of Hill House.
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