Shirley: the true story behind Shirley Jackson’s novel Hangsaman

A new film puts Shirley Jackson at the centre of a strange and twisting tale. But how much of Shirley really happened? 

A still from Shirley, starring Elisabeth Moss as Shirley (left) and Odessa Young as Rose
Captivating: Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson and Odessa Young as Rose in Shirley. Image: Neon

The writing of Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson’s second novel, has inspired one of the most anticipated films of the year. Shirley, finally released in the UK last week after winning awards at Sundance Festival in January, is a psychological thriller that reflects on writing, womanhood and what it means to be a wife in 1950s America.

Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson herself with uncanny aplomb and her captivating performance enables Shirley to winningly blur the borders between reality and fiction, leaving the viewer with a sense of unease not dissimilar to that conjured in the act of reading one of Jackson's novel.

The film is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s Shirley, a psycho-thriller published in 2014 that combines real events from Jackson’s life – such as her relationship with her academic husband, the university town they live in and her battles with alcohol, prescription drugs and agoraphobia – with a fictitious story about two students coming to live at her home while she wrote her second novel. 

The film’s director, Josephine Decker, admits that Shirley was never intended to be understood as a biopic. “Many of the details of Shirley’s life are inaccurate, and kind of purposely,” she has said in interviews. “We were much more focussed on putting the audience into a Shirley Jackson-type story, rather than replicating her life.”

Nevertheless, there are intriguing parallels between the Jackson portrayed by Moss and the one who has inspired fascination since her death in 1965, at just 48. Here are a few – and the gaps left between the film and reality.

The era

The filmmakers haven’t specified exactly when Shirley takes place, but Decker has spoken about the costumes dating from the Forties. Moss has described her character as being “at a place where The Lottery has come out, and she’s dealing with this newfound fame”, and the film opens with a shot of the infamous short story in The New Yorker. In actuality, Jackson started writing Hangsaman in 1950 and it was released 1951 – indeed, in the wake of the success of The Lottery which was published in 1948.

Arguably, a few years shouldn’t matter. But the time in Jackson’s life is further muddled by a few key omissions: Hangsaman is dedicated to three of Jackson’s four children (her youngest, Barry, was born in 1951), none of whom appear in the film. “Having the kids was very complicated, so we took out her children,” Decker told Vox.

The location

Shirley and Stanley

For all that Shirley is a film about an author’s unexpected relationship with Rosie Nemser, the younger woman who unexpectedly comes to live with ther and Hyman with her student husband, it is also about the constraints of marriage. Particularly, Jackson’s marriage. Hyman, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, appears on screen as a lascivious, manipulative and petty academic, whose mistresses interrupt family dinner time with their phone calls.

Unfortunately, this really wasn’t wildly far from the truth: Jackson and Hyman's marriage was not a happy one, and Jackson’s increasing frustration with it fed directly into Hangsaman. “On one level it is unmistakably a document of Jackson’s rage at her husband,” Franklin writes in her biography, adding that Jackson’s years in Westport were when she first considered divorce. Was he as bad as the film purports? It would appear so: Hyman spent a couple of days a week in New York City, playing poker and potentially meeting other women, all the while failing to finish writing his own book. Another point of accuracy, though, was the delight that Hyman took in Hangsaman, which he called “a beaut”.

The true crime story

Ticking away in the background to Shirley is the absence of Paula Weldon, a Bennington student who has gone missing. While Hyman brushes Weldon’s disappearance off, Jackson becomes fascinated with it, poring over the “missing” posters that scatter campus and pouring her imagining of Weldon’s inner monologue into her manuscript. Throughout the film, we hear slices of the narrative from Moss as a voiceover of Jackson’s train of thought.

While Hangsaman’s protagonist is called Natalie Waite, not Paula, she was inspired by a real missing person case – that of Paula Jean Weldon – who disappeared while walking on Vermont’s Long Trail route in 1946. Before Truman Capote invented the “nonfiction novel” with In Cold Blood, Jackson was folding true crime into her work.

As those who have read it will know, Hangsaman’s narrative structure isn’t particularly clear and the final third of the novel descends into a shapeshifting ambiguity that left some critics at the time rather confused. But this is where Shirley really comes into its own in illustrating Jackson’s potential thought process behind the novel. “So what will become of your heroine?” asks Hyman, to which Jackson replies: “What happens to all lost girls: they go mad.”

'Do not tell me I do not know this girl, don’t you dare'

What Decker does so well is to reflect the extent to which Jackson sees herself in figures like Paula or Natalie, in one particularly potent conversation near the film’s climax: “There are dozens and dozens of girls like this littering campuses across the country,” she tells Hyman. “Lonely girls who cannot make the world see them; do not tell me I do not know this girl, don’t you dare.”  

By entwining the narratives of all four women – Shirley, Rosie, Paula Weldon and her fictional counterpart – Shirley paints a more rounded, and chillingly universal, picture of frustrated womanhood.

The folklore

Ritualistic dancing, folk songs, bonfires and bacchanalia weave their way through Shirley. As depicted in the film, Hyman was a fan of bringing folklore and mythology into his critical practice. But what wasn’t dwelled upon was Jackson’s own fascination with the world of witchcraft, tarot and mythology – which was significant enough for the bio in the back of her first book to describe her “perhaps the only contemporary author who is a practicing amateur witch”.

Some of this funnelled into Hangsaman, which is named after an obscure old English folk song, in which the singer pleads with different members of his family to spare him the rope.  Natalie shares her surname with Arthur E Waite, an occultist since known for the Waite-Smith deck of tarot cards, and the book’s concept of disappearance and return winks to familiar folkloric trope of death and resurrection.  

The visitors

While Hyman and Jackson kept a famously sociable household (Ralph Ellison finished most of The Invisible Man there while Jackson finished off her page proofs for Hangsaman), they didn’t host a young student couple like Fred and Rose from Shirley. Parts of Rose’s narrative arc can be found, though, in the breakdown of a live-in maid named Emma, whose husband’s infidelity caused her to have a nervous breakdown. As Franklin wrote in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, the episode scared Jackson: “Sweet, reliable Emma, whom the children had come to love and depend upon, had turned, literally overnight, into someone unrecognizable. And all it took was a combination of infidelity and drink – two things which Shirley, too, was well acquainted.”

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