Eliza Letteney

Haunted Households: Adaptation, Genre, and Gender Politics in Horror and the Gothic

April 3, 2021   /  

Name: Eliza Letteney
Major: English
Minor: Communication Studies
Advisor: Dr. Jennifer Hayward and Dr. Tom Prendergast (second reader)

My lifelong love of horror brought me to some of these horror classics from the 1970s. While I appreciated some, others disappointed me and I wanted to figure out why. That brought me to the books that these films were adapted from. I wanted to know if the books held the same (often conservative) views on women’s role in society. Despite common understandings of adaptation, the book is not always better and there is no need to judge a film adaptation by its faithfulness to the source text. I, instead, evaluate the novels and their film adaptations looking at how they use the gothic and horror genres to create an argument about gender politics. To clarify, horror fits under the umbrella category of the gothic. The gothic values emotion over logic, explores social norms, and supplies an ambivalent atmosphere. Horror is all of these things but uses violence and bodily harm more than typical gothic media. My books and films respond to second wave feminism (1960’s-1980’s), which challenged post-WWII understandings of family with men as leaders and women as passive homemakers. The movement argued for women’s freedom in society and increased educational, vocational, personal, and sexual rights, which produced some backlash from people wanting to protect the status quo. Writers and filmmakers used horror and the gothic to make arguments either for or against these changes. In my paper, I explore those themes three novels, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), and their respective film adaptations: The Haunting (1963) directed by Robert Wise, The Shining (1980) directed by Stanley Kubrick, and The Exorcist (1973) directed by William Friedkin.

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Eliza will be online to field comments on April 16:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST: 6-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

27 thoughts on “Haunted Households: Adaptation, Genre, and Gender Politics in Horror and the Gothic”

  1. Hi Eliza, what a fascinating analysis! I have a question about Dr. Markway in the film–personally, I like him, but I don’t trust him an inch because he is always ineffectually making the wrong decisions. I wonder, is there a gendered dimension to this, too? Markway’s masculinity vis à vis his wife or Luke or Theo?

    1. Hi Prof. Eager! I would agree that Dr. Markway makes wrong decisions but I also think that the film frames him as a good guy regardless. There are a few key moments, the ending, for example, where Wise alters the plot so that Markway does not send Eleanor to drive alone, to her death like Dr. Montague (from the book) does. I think that these moments where Markway is more capable than his book predecessor bolster his claim to masculinity. Other characters are positioned help with this too. Luke’s immature, sexually charged behavior only makes Markway’s gender expression appear logical and mature in comparison. Likewise, the love triangle around Dr. Markway definitely bolsters his masculinity in the eyes of the viewer–that two attractive young women are attracted to him. All of these claims to masculinity may help distract the viewer from the fact that Dr. Markway is still to blame for a lot of the film’s drama.

  2. Great project, Eliza, and an important contribution to the scholarship on gender politics in U.S. horror. Hope you continue to develop as a scholar in this field.

  3. Coincidentally, I saw The Shining for the first time earlier this week, so your analysis is actually very timely for me. In watching it, I also noted that Wendy was considerably more proficient with gadgets — two-way radio, snow tractor, etc. — than her demented husband, which was another reversal of stereotypical gender roles.
    Kudos to the director, and many thanks to you.

    1. What a funny coincidence!
      I agree, for all the criticism she gets, she is such a subversive character. Thank you for your thoughts!

  4. Congrats, Eliza! I enjoyed reading this analysis and now need to rewatch these films using these lenses! What do you think about how more modern films have portrayed the roles of women?

    1. Thank you! So glad you found the analysis interesting.

      I’d say that modern films are improved but not perfect. The American horror industry is still dominated by white male filmmakers but there are films like The Invisible Man (2020), Hereditary (2018), and Midsommar (2019), for example, that were written and directed by men offer sympathetic portrayals of women and their struggles. Even though the field is male dominated, there have been some modern great horror films directed by women from across the world. For American horror, my favorites are American Psycho (2000) and The Invitation (2015). These films all offer more complex portrayals of women and avoid objectification. I’m optimistic that these sorts of prestige horror films will continue to treat women with humanity and, hopefully, women will continue to break into the industry.

  5. I really enjoyed hearing more about your analysis, even as someone who does not engage with 1970s horror (other than, of course, our IS “rants” throughout the writing process). Thank you for arguing this important feminist angle, and congrats on a job well done!

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you approve of the evidence I used to back up my rants 🙂

  6. Congratulations Eliza!! This is so interesting, and an important lens to analyze these works. I’m curious what you think of the recent Netflix(? I think) adaptation of the Haunting of Hill House, if you’ve seen it! Obviously it’s outside of your time frame for analysis, but I’m interested in your thoughts if you happen to have them! Again congrats on such a cool project!!!

    1. Hey! Thank you so much!
      I mentioned the Netflix adaptation in my IS conclusion. I really enjoyed the show and I thought it was well written and acted. I do think, though, that the show offers a representation of family that is contrary to Jackson’s messaging. Jackson offers a harsh criticism of traditional understandings of the domestic, childrearing, and heterosexual marriage. The show, as an adaptation, has no responsibility to resemble the source text but I do think it’s interesting that the show presents the Crain family as a force of good and the show’s antagonists create drama by threatening that family structure. The show’s version of family may be more modern, with queer relationships and acceptance toward those suffering from addiction, but it still upholds nuclear family structures as an ultimate good, which presents an interesting contrast with the source text.

  7. Hi, Eliza! First I wanted to say congratulations! Second, thank you for this nuanced exploration on the differences between these genres and how they handle topics such as feminism. I knew that horror and gothic were distinct, but as someone who is not well-researched on them I could never explain the gut feeling that distinguished them in my mind. I also appreciate the distinction drawn between these films as adaptations vs independent works. This was very interesting to read!

  8. Congratulations Eliza, fantastic work both on this presentation and on your project overall! I have so appreciated your perspective on gender politics in the novel and film industries. If your audience here could watch just one contemporary movie that handles the Gothic or horror in more progressive ways, what would you recommend?

    1. Thank you Professor Hayward!
      I would recommend American Psycho (2000), an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel directed by Mary Harron. The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, embodies white male privilege and Harron uses comedy and horror to criticize men’s violence toward women.

  9. Congratulations on your I.S., Eliza!! This topic is both timely and urgent in feminist studies! I find it fascinating that you compared each movie with its original source.

    Do you have any more to say on how Blatty had a direct role in the movie characterization of Chris, as opposed to the other authors who did not have a role in the movie characterizations of Eleanor and Wendy? This is an intriguing comparison that I’m sure you’ve discussed more in your I.S.

    1. Thanks Erin!
      For me, Blatty’s control showed how each of the changes in the film were an extension of his intent in the original novel.

  10. Eliza, this project is so amazing and I loved hearing about it in class here and there. Thanks for sharing it with the world!

  11. Congratulations Eliza! The presentation looks great and I definitely learned a lot about the depictions of women and feminism within the horror film genre. I think it is really neat how you compared the book and film adaptions and I agree with your conclusion about judging the two independently. Really great topic!

  12. Eliza, I love the way you have set up your analyses of these different adaptations. Congratulations on a very successful I.S. project in a challenging year!

  13. Eliza, I love your project! It has so many things that I love and find interesting. I very much appreciate feminist critical engagement with horror. I really like what you said about the adaptation of these characters, specifically the representation of Wendy. Film Wendy is one of my favorite horror heroines so I was very disappointed when I actually read the novel. You do a great job articulating her heroine status in the two depictions of her (and for the characters in the other stories). So cool, I had a great time reading your thoughts!

  14. I love, love, love the Haunting. I watched it in Prof. Prendergast’s class last spring, and I’ve been obsessed ever since! It’s fascinating to look at this interpretation of it. This is a pretty simple question- but who was your favorite character in all the films you watched for this project?

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