Columns > Published on June 10th, 2020

Book vs. Film vs. Reality: "Shirley"

Today marks the release of Shirley, the new film from surreal filmmaker Josephine Decker (Madeleine’s Madeleine, Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, Butter On The Latch), adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell (read Cath Murphy's LitReactor review of Shirley here). Starring Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale fame, the narrative explores one of author Shirley Jackson’s most tumultuous periods in her life: a prolonged bout of depression, agoraphobia, and writer’s block, exacerbated by her philandering and often overbearing husband, once-renowned scholar Stanley Edgar Hyman, portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Call Me By Your Name).’s likely we cannot ever know the real Shirley Jackson, because it seems even Jackson was never quite sure who she was either.

Rather than focus specifically on Jackson, however, Decker’s Shirley, as well as the book upon which the film is based, studies the real-life person through the viewpoint of a fictional woman, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), a young, pregnant housewife to-be who lives with Jackson and Hyman for several months with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman), a wet-behind-the-ears professor taken under Hyman’s wing at Bennington College in Vermont. Rose and Shirley engage in a fraught, psychologically-twisted friendship reminiscent of the relationship between Alma and Elisabet seen in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, all against the backdrop of a pseudo-murder mystery concerning the true disappearance of Paula Jean Welden twenty years prior. 

It’s a fascinating premise, executed well both in Merrell’s original novel and Gubbins’s and Decker’s adaptation (though they’re ultimately much different stories). But how much of the real Shirley Jackson lives within both the novel and the film? Did the author and filmmakers do their homework and present the writer accurately? What of Stanley and Jackson’s home life in general? Will consuming either book or movie bring one closer to the simultaneously maligned and lauded author?

Let’s start with the film.

The Film

Director Josephine Decker admits straightaway that audiences shouldn’t enter her film expecting a biopic of Jackson, despite what the title and Elizabeth Moss-focused promotional materials—including the film’s trailer—might indicate. Decker told Deadline:

We were not making a film that we ever thought, ‘Oh, we’re making a film about the real Shirley Jackson’. In fact, the script really meshed up a bunch of timelines in the real Shirley Jackson’s life, so it absolutely was a fiction. None of the things that are in the film could have happened in real life because of just the way that the time worked out… I think we were very clear that this is definitely a fictional person that we’re creating. And so that gave us a lot more freedom.

In the same interview, Moss added that she and co-star Michael Stuhlbarg simultaneously aimed to capture Shirley and Stanley as they were, but also to transcend the real-life figures: 

We really wanted to be as honorable to Shirley and Stanley as possible and portray them as they were but at the same time, at a certain point, we had to acknowledge that we need to also play our Shirley and Stanley and capture the essence of their relationship... There was a process of learning all of the physical mannerisms and their history and all these letters and stories about them and it was so fascinating. And then [we] looked at each other and we’re like,’ alright, let’s let that go now and let’s do our thing. And so it was an important part of the challenge.

The Jackson we see in Shirley is a complicated, manic, beguiling, sometimes cruel and manipulative, vulnerable and sad woman, simultaneously a dream and a nightmare. She informs Rose that people believe her to be a witch, but outside of psychically knowing Rose is pregnant, a hallucinatory tarot reading, and some quasi-pagan mushroom consumption in the woods, Shirley never acts particularly witchy—unless one considers the uncanny psychological grasp she wields over her young houseguest as an offshoot of witchcraft. (Mind you, there isn't really one right way to be a witch.)

The film also features the faintest suggestion of sexual attraction between Shirley and Rose, “a brief episode of lesbian dalliance...that surfaces and then vanishes without any apparent effect on the relationships in the film,” states Laura Miller, writing for Slate. Miller speculates the inclusion of these practically PG-13-rated scenes might be an allusion to the rumor the real Jackson was secretly gay, given the inclusion of queer characters in The Haunting Of Hill House, hints of lesbianism in Hangsaman (Shirley works on this novel throughout the film, though in reality Jackson published the book thirteen years prior to the film’s setting), and the fact many read queer undertones in We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Then again, as Miller suggests, perhaps the moments of sexual tension between Rose and Shirley are fantasies representing their broader sexual frustrations, born from their uninterested, cheating husbands—an interpretation that makes more sense for Shirley, given that Rose enjoys a fairly robust sex life with Fred, even if he is screwing his students on the side.

If it’s possible Shirley dreams up a “brief lesbian dalliance” with Rose, it’s equally plausible Rose is entirely a figment of Shirley’s imagination, given that she embodies an archetypical Jackson heroine, a “lost girl” who “goes mad” from the chasm between her internal desires and her external “feminine duties,” her independence versus domesticity, issues with which Jackson herself struggled. Without giving too much away, the film ends on a bit of a nebulous note that could indeed indicate Rose was nothing more than the main character of Hangsaman, only Rose in an early draft perhaps (the real protagonist of Jackson’s novel is Natalie, who, incidentally, invents an imaginary companion named Tony); or possibly Hangsaman in this fictional universe involves a woman named Rose, whose story is similar to Natalie’s; or it could be that Rose is a manifestation of Shirley’s creative process, leaked out into reality to help her research and write her next masterpiece, then vanish when she is no longer needed. Decker isn’t telling, and likely audience interpretation is a key component of her storytelling approach, creating an overall narrative that, true to her goals, is less about Shirley Jackson and more Shirley Jackson-esque, an homage to the author and her work rather than a straightforward exploration of both.

The Book

While Gubbins and Decker’s adaptation is intentionally ambiguous and anachronistic, the source novel aims for a more precise representation of Jackson’s actual life, albeit still through a fictional lens. Author Susan Scarf Merrell initially set out to write a biography of the literary giant, but those plans eventually shifted, as she explained to Fiction Writers Review interviewer Ellen Prentiss Campbell:

...there’s no getting around that I’m a maker up of stories. So after eight months of research for the biography, instead I started writing a memoir of me searching for answers to questions Shirley Jackson’s work raises for many women about being a woman and a writer. That didn’t feel quite right either. I wanted to write about why Jackson mattered, yes, but even more I wanted to use what I had learned from her work and from her life to create what I guess you’d call an homage to her. And I really struggled—how to tell the story, what the story really was—for a very long time. Until one day, taking a walk in the woods with my dog, this vision of Rose sprung to life fully formed, without any warning!

...It was as if I knew her, and then I knew. I’m writing a novel. And it’s her story. What she sees, because of who she is and where she comes from, because of the limitations that her life story provides.

Given this, Merrell’s Shirley is a much closer and more factual representation of the woman than the character featured in the film. She isn’t working on Hangsaman, for instance: just as in reality, it published over a decade prior to Rose entering Shirley’s home. Most prominently, Merrell includes Jackson’s four children, who are excised completely in the movie. She also tackles the question of Jackson’s sexuality head-on, though unlike in Decker’s work, Rose insists there isn’t a gay bone in Shirley’s body, making their relationship purely platonic, though no less obsessive and bordering-on-toxic at times, especially considering the clear mother-daughter undertones (Jackson’s mother Geraldine was notoriously distant and emotionally abusive toward her daughter). 

However, despite Merrell’s aim to interweave fact with fiction, a real woman examined from the perspective of a made-up one, she does present certain fictions (or perhaps it’s better said she makes suppositions) about Jackson and her life. Primarily, Merrell leans into the idea Jackson was a bonafide, spell-casting, psychic witch, one who may or may not have used her powers to vanquish Paula Jean Welden, the real-life Bennington College student who vanished in 1946, and the inspiration for both the short story “The Missing Girl” and, in a looser sense, the novel Hangsaman. Though it remains a mystery, Rose suspects that Welden was Stanley’s lover, and Shirley, enraged at the affair, somehow made the young woman disappear, either via supernatural methods, or by more direct, earthly means. Depicting Shirley as a potential murderer, albeit possibly an accidental one, is an odd way to honor the author, but at the same time, it perversely works. Merrell’s homage is more Jackson-esque than Decker’s, precisely because it’s spellbinding and heady in the Gothic tradition, while the film is a bit more indebted to the aforementioned Bergman and a smattering of David Lynch, as well as possibly Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which Decker cites as an influence on her previous films Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, the former of which also features an intense friendship between two women. By crafting a first-person narrative from a woman who effectively wants to become Shirley, Merrell gives readers a novel that very well could have been written by Jackson, and in reading it, the book certainly gives the impression of familiarity, of a personal closeness to the author.


Of course, the best means of “getting to know” the real Shirley Jackson is through a proper biography, and Ruth Franklin’s 2016 Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is, as of now, the most definitive text on the author’s life. Franklin primarily examines those midcentury domestic expectations placed upon women, mentioned above, and how those outmoded but no less potent expectations clash with personal artistic aspirations. One way Jackson grappled with this conflict, Franklin asserts, was by outwardly maintaining a different sort of “feminine mystique” than the type criticized by Betty Friedan in her groundbreaking study of ennui, dissatisfaction and angst bubbling within every housewife in America. She writes:

Some writers are particularly prone to mythmaking. Shirley Jackson was one of them. During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: the biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she had used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny... 

Look more closely, however, and Jackson’s persona is much thornier. She was a talented, determined, ambitious writer in an era when it was still unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. She was a mother of four who tried to keep up the appearance of running a conventional American household, but she and her husband...were hardly typical residents of their rural Vermont town—not least because Hyman was born and raised Jewish. And she was, indeed, a serious student of the history of witchcraft and magic: not necessarily as a practical method of influencing the world around her (it’s debatable whether she actually practiced magical rituals), but as a way of embracing and channeling female power at a time when women in America often had little control over their lives.

Sarah Churchwell, in her review of A Rather Haunted Life for The Guardian, sums up Franklin’s argument thusly:

Jackson’s lifelong interest in rituals, witchcraft, charms and hexes were, Franklin convincingly maintains, metaphors for exploring power and disempowerment. (She pretended to be a witch, and was once labelled ‘Virginia Werewoolf’.)

Merrell especially and Decker to a lesser degree present Jackson’s supposed witchery as both genuine and a source of fear among the author’s friends. But if Jackson was not a real witch, as Franklin insists, she may still have relished in the spooky reputation it afforded within her social sphere, causing Jackson to appear more formidable than most other housewives of the time. As Franklin observes,

No writer since Henry James has been so successful in exploring the psychological reach of terror, locating in what we fear the key to unlock the darkest corners of the psyche. ‘I have always use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work,’ Jackson once wrote in a line that could be her manifesto. In our fears and in our crimes, she believed, we discover our truest selves.

While Franklin refutes the assertions of Merrell and Decker that Jackson had any supernatural or uncanny abilities, she somewhat sides with Decker concerning the question of Jackson’s sexuality. Or at least, she acknowledges the possibility Jackson might not have been completely straight, even though there isn’t much concrete evidence of queerness. All we have to suggest Jackson’s bisexuality or outright lesbianism are the previously mentioned characters in Hangsaman, The Haunting Of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived In The Castle, as well as a college-era journal entry in which she acknowledges that people believed she and her close friend Jeanne Marie Bedel were romantically involved. In the course of this musing, Jackson states she’d like to “write stories about lesbians and how people [misunderstand] them,” then surmises that “the man she loves” rejects her because he believes she “was a lesbian”—or perhaps the sentence could be read that Jackson believes herself to be gay. It isn’t clear. However, Franklin further notes,

...although characters who may be lesbians appear more than once in her fiction, Jackson—typically for her era and her class—evinced a personal horror of lesbianism. It’s possible that the relatively extreme way in which she would later disparage lesbians reflects some repression on her part, especially considering that she and Hyman had several close male friends who were homosexual. But that is conjecture only.

This disparagement refers to Jackson’s disdain at her inclusion in Jeannette H. Foster’s Sex Variant Women In Literature, “now considered a minor classic of lesbian critical theory,” according to Franklin. Foster referred to Hangsaman as “an eerie novel about lesbians,” which set Jackson reeling and actively hampered her writing of We Have Always Lived In The Castle, as she worried audiences might misread the women in her novel as queer (which they eventually would anyway). Could this vehement aversion to same-sex attraction be a “demon in the mind,” a concept over which Jackson obsessed throughout her career? This demon, according to another of her many journal entries (which she wrote in all lower case letters), 

...finds guilts where it can and uses them and runs mad with laughing when it triumphs; it is the demon which is fear and we are afraid of words. we are afraid of being someone else and doing the things someone else wants us to do and of being taken and used by someone else, some other guilt-ridden conscience that lives on and on in our minds, something we build ourselves and never recognize.

Again, the possibility of sexual repression is there, but we will never really know for sure. And this is true concerning every aspect of Jackson’s life. Consider that Jackson, in her girlhood and on into college, tried out “different personas” with multiple diaries, each containing distinct voices, writing styles, and preoccupations. This combined with Jackson’s penchant for self-mythologizing both through her witchy affectations and her subversively wholesome articles on domesticity she published in ladies’ journals of the time—pieces eviscerated by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, apparently unaware they were meant to be tongue-in-cheek, semi-autobiographical parodies of jolly, Rockwellian family life. 

Given all this, it’s likely we cannot ever know the real Shirley Jackson, because it seems even Jackson was never quite sure who she was either. And in a roundabout way, that makes the depictions of Shirley by Merrell and Decker just as valid, just as real, as the woman Franklin explores in her heavily-researched tome. 

Buy Shirley at Bookshop or Amazon

Buy A Rather Haunted Life at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at

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