Like many horror fans, Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite writers of all time. I’ve read almost all of her books and short stories. One of the most interesting things about her writing is analyzing how her own life impacted her stories. Going into this movie, I thought that would be the major theme. Spoiler alert: Shirley wasn’t actually about Shirley Jackson, the real-life horror author. It’s a psychological drama that uses the names of Shirley Jackson, Stanley Hyman, and a few of her short stories. But was it still good?
If it’s not a biopic, then what is it about?
The story portrayed in Shirley and the novel that it’s based on is completely fictional. The movie starts with a young couple, Fred and Rose, on a train to Bennington, Vermont. Fred is an academic, and has just gotten a job helping Professor Stanley Hyman with his research. The professor has offered for the couple to stay in his home. He is very warm and friendly, the life of the party. His wife, Shirley, on the other hand, is incredibly cold, rude, and very clearly depressed. Stanley asks Rose to basically become his housekeeper in exchange for free room and board. Pressured by her husband, Rose agrees. Soon, her husband and Stanley are gone all day at work and she is stuck in the house cleaning, cooking, and talking to Shirley. Fred is out late every night, advising the campus Shakespeare Society.
The two women start off with an antagonistic relationship (Shirley somehow guesses that Rose is pregnant, reveals it to everyone at the dinner table, and accuses Rose and Fred of having a shotgun wedding), but they soon grow close. Shirley is obsessed with the recent disappearance of a Bennington College student, and Rose agrees to help her investigate. This becomes the basis for Shirley’s new novel (you guessed it), Hangsaman.
As Shirley and Rose grow closer, Rose starts to realize how similar her own life is to the author’s. Both women are pretty much confined to the home while their husbands cheat on them with their undergraduate students. This is especially true towards the end of the movie, when Rose has her baby and must take care of the child on top of the house. The film culminates in Rose having a breakdown after Shirley reveals that there is no Shakespeare Society, and that Fred has just been using that as an excuse to sleep with his students.
What the movie got right
This film has one of the best aesthetics I’ve ever seen. The cinematography perfectly captures a gothic vibe. I’m even using one of the screenshots I took as my computer background because it’s so creepy and beautiful. Building off of that, the soundtrack for this movie was incredible. Tamar-kali, the composer, did a fantastic job of setting the paranoid, sad, haunted tone of the film. The soundtrack really highlighted the characters’ difficult emotions. I will definitely be turning this playlist on the next time I’m writing gothic horror.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the performances. Every single actor in this film did such a great job. Odessa Young as Rose gave a really compelling performance of a character that could have ended up being quite boring. Elisabeth Moss was phenomenal in her portrayal of depression, agoraphobia, and dissatisfaction (although, to nitpick, she didn’t do a good impression of the author’s voice). The scenes where Shirley interacts with her husband are so nuanced and real. She was hard to watch, in a good way. Another standout was Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley. He toed the line really well between being warm, manipulative, and predatory. All of the actors should get awards for this movie, in my opinion.
The themes in the film were fascinating. Ultimately, Shirley is about the horrors that women face in a patriarchal society, of how terrifying it is to remove yourself from the outside world, be forced to run a household by yourself, and still be invisible. This film is very claustrophobic and delves deep into the profound loneliness that these women feel. Further, it connects these feelings to the novel Hangsaman, which you should read. For that reason, I think Shirley is definitely worth watching.
Finally, there were a lot of fun easter eggs for us fans of Shirley Jackson’s work. Obviously, there are plenty of references to Hangsaman, from a stern Stanley determined to read and critique Shirley’s writing to a wild masquerade party around a bonfire. There’s also a scene featuring something no fan of We Have Always Lived in the Castle would miss: death-cap mushrooms.
What it got wrong
As the title states, this movie is not a biopic. So, I don’t fault the movie for not being true to life. However, I do think it’s interesting and important to talk about what Shirley Jackson’s life was actually like during the time the film takes place.
Shirley takes place in the late 1940s or early 1950s, after Jackson published her infamous short story The Lottery. The film portrays the author as a depressed recluse who is alone all day and obsessed with writing a novel based entirely on a real-life disappearance. In reality, Shirley Jackson’s life at the time was very different. I am by no means an expert on this woman’s life, but here are some facts that I do know about my favorite author.
Jackson was actually raising four small children in suburban Connecticut during this time period. Obviously, I understand that there are legal issues that could have prevented the filmmakers from including Shirley and Stanley’s children. But, by most accounts, Shirley seemed like a fun, active mother. You can even read her own reflections on parenting in her popular memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. According to her children, at the time the film takes place, the house was always full of play, visitors, and pets. I doubt that this real-life element would have contributed to the gothic, sad tone of the movie. And, to be fair, Jackson never loved being a housewife and did have a pretty rough marriage. Still, it was a little bizarre to see someone who was described by most people who knew her as lively and kind, if reserved, to be portrayed as brash, unhinged and downright cruel at points.
While Jackson did suffer from depression and agoraphobia after writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she actually seemed to have been pretty stable while writing Hangsaman. Furthermore, the film treats Hangsaman as though it’s some sort of true crime novel based on the disappearance of Paula Welden. That’s not really true. While Jackson did get some inspiration from the case while writing the novel, she wasn’t utterly obsessed with it as the character of Shirley was in the film. For a while, the movie took on this weird almost detective story tone as Shirley sent Rose to investigate the case. That was kind of jarring and had no basis in reality.
One of the worst parts about this film was that it didn’t involve Jackson’s actual writing when it could have. Throughout the movie, Shirley reads lines from her Hangsaman manuscript. These lines aren’t actual lines from the book. It was really bizarre to hear these made-up quotes when they could have just quoted the novel itself and it would have worked better. This choice I really do not understand. Hangsaman is a great book that perfectly fits the themes of the movie. Why not have Elisabeth Moss read lines from it?
Oh, and this is pure speculation but I’m pretty sure Shirley Jackson didn’t have the X-Men power of guessing when a woman was secretly pregnant.
This is a haunting, interesting film. It deals with the dread and horror of women grappling with being forced into a subservient, domestic gender role, mistreated by their husbands but unable to do anything about it. It’s about “lost girls” who live on the margins and disappear. But it is not biographical. I would really hate for people to come out of this movie thinking that it was a completely accurate portrayal of Shirley Jackson’s life. Her story was actually more empowering in reality: she broke free from a bigoted, repressive family, wrote some of the greatest horror fiction of all time, and found joy raising her children even though she had a difficult relationship with her husband. That story, to me, is more powerful than the one portrayed in Shirley, and why I didn’t love the film as much as I wanted to.(3.5 / 5)