Exhibit explores sexual ambiguity in Shirley Jackson's best-known novel
BENNINGTON — The idea that something is there, but its presence is not definite, is the basis for an exhibit opening this month at Bennington College.
"Queer Paranormal: (an exhibition concerning Shirley Jackson and 'The Haunting of Hill House')" explores an intriguing subtext in Jackson's haunted world — in which the paranormal has been interpreted to represent lesbian identity in "The Haunting of Hill House" and its 1963 film adaptation, "The Haunting."
"The group exhibition identifies queerness in themes including the uncanny and the stranger, with a particular interest in the haunted house as undiscovered country and object of desire," according to the curators. They conceived the exhibition, exploring relationships between artists, theorists, Jackson, and "The Haunting of Hill House," over a year of research and planning.
The curating team consists of a curatorial collective from New York and Vermont, Two Chairs, which comprises Jillian Brodie, Cindy Smith, and Rachel Stevens, as well as Anne Thompson, the director of Usdan Gallery at the college.
The finished product includes pieces submitted by 10 artists including painting, sculpture, video, sound and performance. Its footprint will expand outside the Usdan Gallery and into the Jennings Music Building, The Lens meeting and meditation space, and the fields between the Center for the Advancement of Public Action and the Jennings Music Building.
"For me, this seemed like a wonderful opportunity with so many connections to the community," Thompson said. "[Jackson] is connected to the town of Bennington in so many ways."
Jackson (1916-1965), best known for her short story "The Lottery," wrote the 1959 gothic horror novel, "The Haunting of Hill House" while living in North Bennington with her husband, Bennington College faculty member Stanley Edgar Hyman. The novel, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, has been hailed by Stephen King as a masterpiece of the genre. A film adaptation, "The Haunting," was released in 1963, and that film inspired the concepts behind "Queer Paranormal."
The curators said they were inspired by the scene in the 1963 film where Eleanor Vance reaches out for another female character, Theodora Crain, only to find that the hand she was holding was not Theodora's, but an apparition manifested by the Hill House.
The book also produced a stage adaptation and a 1999 remake of "The Haunting." And last year, Netflix released a critically acclaimed series using the novel as a jumping-off point and portraying Theodora Crain, played by Kate Siegel, as openly gay.
"Part of the reason the hints are so fascinating is that they're hints and Jackson meant for it to be that way," said Ruth Franklin, author of "Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life," an award-winning biography of the author. "Ambiguity is so much a part of her work."
Franklin said Jackson was interested in paranormal from her earliest childhood days — her grandmother was a Christian Science practitioner — and the writer talked about using a Ouija board and tarot cards.
As part of "Queer Paranormal," faculty member Senem Pirler crafted a sensory-triggering sound piece for the third floor of the Jennings music building to emit haunting noises.
While some pieces of the installation fit the paranormal category, others explore sectors of gender subjectivity.
One particular installation that the curators look forward to unveiling is a series of landscape plantings that are said to have spell-casting abilities — a contribution by the artist collective APRIORI. The plantings identify as having supernatural powers in the resistance of capitalism and artificial intelligence.
Anne Campbell's installation involves furniture covered in laser marketed text related to closeted lesbians and gay culture in the 1940s and 1950s.
"What's great about the furniture is that it looks like it could fit into Hill House. In the film and novel, there's writing on the walls things that tangentially fit with the theme but not for the theme," Smith said.
Artist Zoe Walsh painted pieces derived from visual archives pertaining to gay masculinity and exploring trans subjectivity through ghostly archives. Sasha Walsh uses sound and video to shed light on the AIDS crisis and, separately, reclaiming a woman's agency, similar to Jackson's internal struggle as a housewife.
The curators pulled inspiration from Olu Jenzen and Sally Munt and their introduction to a chapter on Paranormal and Social Change in "The Ashgate Research Companion to Paranormal Cultures." "Sitting aside — maybe astride — the normal, its parallel purpose is to be askew, to perform a queer reflection, to uphold a distorting mirror. It is therefore in perception that social change begins," the chapter reads.
Various artwork in the exhibition picks at society's take on queer culture, much of which Jackson touched on in her writing.
"I think there's the anxiety around queerness that Jackson's work picked up on," Franklin said. "You can feel the anxiety of her era radiating through 'The Haunting of Hill House" — sexual orientation is an aspect of it."
"I'm excited to see it all together because we've been visualizing all these pieces," said Smith. "The fact that you can walk around Two Chairs has tried to work outside conventional exhibition spaces and we're excited that [Thompson] was able to organize these other spots for us."
"Queer Paranormal" is on view from Oct. 29 through Dec. 7, with all events open to the public. The opening reception is on Thursday, Oct. 31 from 6 to 8 p.m. Artist Margaretha Haughqout of APRIORI will offer guided tours of their scattered plantings. Other tours by students and guides will cover the rest of the exhibit. At the end of the opening reception, patrons are welcome to view the 1963 film "The Haunting".
Other events associated with the exhibition include a lecture by Patricia White, film theorist and author of the essay "Female Spectator, Lesbian Spector: The Haunting," on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., and a film screening and discussion with artists Peggy Ahwesh and Susan MacWilliam on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m., both at Tishman Lecture Hall.
Makayla-Courtney McGeeney is a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.
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