Friday, November 20, 2009

Haunting of Hill House

I've just finished reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and found it somewhat spooky, and definitely worth the read. I'll try to keep the rest of this post as spoiler-free as possible, but if you have any intention of reading the book, you may want to do so first. Try it in a quiet place with the lights down for the best effect.

Upon finishing the book, I immediately went to the web to see if I could find some other opinions about it. I immediately came across mentions of the two movie adaptations: one in 1963 and one in 1999. It sounds as if the 1963 version is fairly faithful to the novel, while the 1999 version may have been written by someone who read a one-page summary of the novel and decided that it could use some spicing up.

In fact, it's difficult to imagine a modern movie being made that was faithful to Shirley Jackson's original story. There's just not enough gore and death in the book to capture the attention of a major studio. It's a psychological story, and in some respects an in-depth character study. It's the sort of story that would be done very well by an independent studio, get rave critical reviews at Sundance or some such, then get remade by a big studio as something far less intelligent.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule; I haven't seen Paranormal Activity, but from what I'm reading about it, it's fairly free of blood spatters and chainsaws and what not. I also see that Paranormal Activity is an independent film that rose to success from the ground up, in a way. I sort of hope that the constant advances in technology and communication will put more power in the hands of independent artists, so that folks with cool ideas can get them out to a wide audience without having to pander to the demands of large media corporations.

My other thoughts about Haunting of Hill House are that the book would also be very difficult to do in the venue of a roleplaying game. Roleplaying games should be marvelously suited to psychological horror, since, after all, there is no visual gore or scary soundtrack (unless the gamemaster delivers these things in the way of props). But the horror in the Haunting of Hill House is not about what the house does to its inhabitants physically, it's about what it does to them mentally and spiritually. If you took the supernatural events from Haunting of Hill House and threw them at a typical group of roleplayers, you would probably wind up with a rather lackluster adventure. It's not the reaction of the characters to the supernatural displays that makes the story effective; it's their reaction to each other, and this is very tricky to simulate or influence in a roleplaying game.

Again, I know there are exceptions to this (for instance, I understand that John Wick's Curse of the Yellow Sign adventures are supposed to be fairly successful in producing a collapse of rationality and order) but still, I believe that you would need the right GM and the right players in order to create the right atmosphere. My gamemastering style has been fairly traditional so far; I throw bad guys at the players and they knock them down. I like to encourage drama and roleplaying, but I've never really tried for outright horror, and I think I'd have to see another gamemaster accomplish it successfully in order to see how it's done.