Author Shirley Jackson might not quite be a household name, but her work has been haunting American psyches for decades. Both Stephen King and Neil Gaiman cite her as an influence, and novelist Susan Scarf Merrell was so captivated by this literary figure that she penned an entire novel about her, Shirley, in 2014. It has now been adapted by Director Josephine Decker into a darkly meditative psychological thriller filled with the kind of slow-building existential dread that is a hallmark of Jackson's work.
(Mild spoilers below.)
The protagonist of Merrell's novel is the newly married (and pregnant) Rose Nemser, who moves to Vermont with her husband, Fred, a graduate student at Bennington College. They end up staying with Fred's mentor, Stanley Hyman, a famed literary critic, and his equally famous wife, Shirley Jackson. Fred becomes increasingly caught up with his academic life, while Rose forms a tenuous connection with Shirley, who is struggling with anxiety and agoraphobia and self-medicating with prescription drugs and alcohol. But Rose is increasingly troubled by strange late-night phone calls and tales of a female student who went missing long ago.
While the novel is set in 1964, later in Jackson's life, Shirley takes place in 1948, right after The New Yorker has published Jackson's most famous short story, The Lottery. Otherwise it seems to hew pretty closely to the source material. Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson, with Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Hyman, Logan Lerman as Fred Nemser, and Odessa Young as the increasingly fragile Rose Nemser.
To fully appreciate Decker's film, it helps to have at least a passing familiarity with Jackson's 1951 gothic novel Hangsaman, since it plays such a central role in the film. The title is a reference to an old folk ballad, and a little extra sleuthing turned up "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," recorded in 1939 as "The Gallis Pole" by the folk singer Lead Belly—the same Lead Belly tune Hyman plays to his classes at the start of each semester in the film.
While Jackson has always defied traditional genre boundaries to some extent, Hangsaman is technically a bildungsroman, centering on a young woman, keen to escape her oppressive home environment, who enrolls in a liberal arts college and gradually descends into madness. Jackson was partially inspired by the real-life disappearance of a young Bennington College student named Paula Jean Welden in 1946, who went hiking one afternoon on Vermont's Long Trail and never returned.
Sticklers for accuracy might not care for the handful of liberties taken with Jackson's life. Most notably, her struggles with anxiety and depression, and corresponding abuse of prescription drugs (barbiturates, amphetamines) and alcohol, occurred much later in life than depicted in the film. In the 1940s, she and Hyman were known as gracious, lively hosts who counted Ralph Ellison in their social circles. They also had four children together, and by all accounts Jackson enjoyed motherhood, even though she felt alienated by the ladies of Bennington. There are no children in the house in the film at all.