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Shirley Jackson and the Horrors of Marriage

Josephine Decker’s film “Shirley” turns a writer’s life and friendships into a gripping psychodrama.

Courtesy of Neon

In 1938, the writer Shirley Jackson, along with her husband, Stanley Hyman, attended a séance at the home of their good friend Jay Williams, an actor, musician, and occult enthusiast. Williams claimed that he would summon up the devil in the form of “a beautiful woman riding on a tiger,” and that once the devil showed himself to Jackson in this shape, she would be able to request from him her heart’s deepest desire, “for a price.”

That Jackson went to meet the devil would suggest that she did long for something secret—for an end to her unhappy and lopsided open marriage; or the love and the respect of other writers; or a more appealing face so that her mother, an attractive socialite, would no longer consider her a “lumpish redhead.” Certainly, she was unhappy; certainly, she felt convinced that she was not like other women, but a pariah who had often been deserted or abused by those she loved. When the time came, Williams made them repeat something that, to Jackson, sounded like “mamaloi, mamaloi,” a string of “unintelligible words in a strange language.” Pointing to a shadowy corner of the room, their host seemed to suggest that he had successfully conjured something from the ether. Jackson, stunned by her own terror, cried and shook. The moment stayed with her forever. Williams, she later said, seemed to have a direct hotline to “all the borderline evil and the darkness in the world.”

In Shirley, Josephine Decker’s woozy and witchy psychodrama about Shirley Jackson, it is feasible that Jackson has been somehow cursed or haunted by the devil. She may also be the devil: vicious, almost insensitive to humanity or tenderness, enlivened by the act of ruining others’ evenings, others’ furniture, and others’ lives. It is somewhere around 1948, after the publication of her story “The Lottery” in the New Yorker, and a young associate professor and his pretty wife have come to Bennington to stay with Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg). We might think that the wife, Rose (Odessa Young), was a wide-eyed innocent, were it not for the fact that finishing “The Lottery” on the train—“they stoned her, Fred,” she breathes, “the whole town, even her children, it’s terrific”—gets her hot enough to have sex with her husband. We might think the young professor was inanimate if he did not occasionally grope his wife, or say something uninteresting about his job.

On the first night, there is a bohemian party at the Hyman-Jackson home, all bone-dry quips and slouching drinkers, and eventually Rose is so caught up in its welcoming bonhomie that she does the unthinkable and compliments Shirley on “The Lottery” to her face. She does not say, as she probably ought to if she is hoping to amuse the frightening author, that its final scene of stoning got her worked up enough for a little afternoon delight. “Rose, Betty, Debbie, Cathy—you’re all the same to me,” Shirley says, sneering, before adding apropos of nothing: “They didn’t tell me you were pregnant.”

Rose, who has not yet told anyone she is pregnant, is thus clued in to the fact that she is in the presence of a self-defined “amateur witch.” In Decker’s vision, motherhood turns out to be as much a harbinger of doom as any devil in the corner: an announcement of bad tidings for the mother, tying her to house and home or dooming her to death. In Hangsaman, the novel Jackson begins writing in the film, a co-ed disappears, perhaps having been killed, just after suffering a miscarriage. When Rose finally has her baby, it quickens her transformation into a long-suffering wife (“little Rosie,” she spits later, “little wifey”), while her husband goes philandering among his students. Most tellingly, Jackson’s four children have been erased from Decker’s film entirely, leaving her childless.

“Stanley Hyman’s lordly expectations of what he was due as the family patriarch were retrograde,” Zoë Heller wrote in The New Yorker in 2016, reviewing the recent biography of Jackson by Ruth Franklin, “even by the standards of the time. Jackson did the cooking, the cleaning, the grocery shopping, and the child-rearing; he sat at his desk, pondering the state of American letters and occasionally yelling at his wife to come and refill the ink in his pen.” Such pressures, challenging for even the most tirelessly committed housewife, were unlikely to prove ideal for a writer whose temperament, by default, was better suited to a life of solitude.

There is very little plot to Shirley—Fred and Rose move in; Rose forms a bond with Shirley while her husband is off at the university, eventually becoming something like a lover or a muse; Shirley begins to confuse Rose with the dead co-ed in her novel—so that what remains is something more like an examination, in the mode of Shirley Jackson, of two women tangled up in their unhappiness together.

“What’s on display most often [in the show],” the writer Andrea Long Chu once said about Sex and the City, “is a kind of same-sex eroticism whose job is to perform the sensitive caring labour necessary for keeping the dream of the heterosexual good life intact.” As unlikely as a link between that show and Decker’s spooky and elusive work might seem, Long Chu has nailed the way that heterosexual women in a certain kind of story tend toward forming a suffocating bond with other women, sublimating the love and desire they had once hoped to pour into distant and disinterested men into their girlfriends. It is unclear whether what exists between Shirley and Rose ever becomes literally sexual, but it does get flirtatious, bordering on queer. As in Paul Thomas Anderson’s kinky romance film Phantom Thread, there is a significant moment that involves a poisoned mushroom, a prop from a fairytale. If Rose does not make her way into Shirley’s life astride a tiger, she is certainly a beautiful young woman whose arrival is the catalyst for chaos.

“What happens to all lost girls?” Shirley murmurs, deep in thought about the ending of her novel. “They go mad.” Decker’s films often present themselves as full-blown horror movies, full of shifting narratives and evil omens, even if they might more accurately be categorized as psychodramas, mysteries, experiments, or what was once referred to—somewhat patronizingly—as “women’s pictures.” Butter on the Latch, her 2013 thriller about two friends reconnecting at a Balkan folk camp, begins with a scene that remains one of the most frightening sequences in modern cinema. The subject is a date rape. It suggests that its writer-director, perhaps by dint of her experiences as a woman, has a direct hotline to all the borderline evil and the darkness in the world.

“I have been so sad all morning,” Jackson’s own unloving mother once wrote to her in a letter, “about what you have allowed yourself to look like.” Much has been made of the lack of vanity in Elisabeth Moss’s turn as Shirley Jackson, the subtext being that it is alarming that she has allowed herself to look like Shirley Jackson: plain, a little padded in the middle, a hag by the standards of Hollywood women, and a woman by the standards of most novelists before the age of Instagram. Moss is arguably one of the most skilled actresses working, a viable heir to Laura Dern in her aptitude for depicting female breakdowns. (It surprises me that David Lynch has yet to cast her, although films like Queen of Earth have done their best to showcase her ability to play women with split personalities, to say nothing of her ability to cry extravagantly on a whim.)

There is one scene in Shirley, near the very end, in which we watch her waiting for her husband’s verdict on a manuscript, in close-up: The fear flickering in her face makes it appear that she is waiting to be guillotined or shot rather than edited, a feeling terribly familiar to most writers with even a passing care for the style and integrity of their creations. Michael Stuhlbarg, too, as Stanley Hyman, is terrific, perverting the benevolent beatnik professor he played to so much acclaim in Luca Gaudagnino’s Call Me by Your Name and adding something simmering and sinister, a sexist wolf in groovy clothing. For all of the film’s horror-adjacent styling, it is Stanley’s muted sadism, his bully-boy malignancy, that proves most devilish of all.

“Let’s pray for a boy,” Shirley tells Rose while she is pregnant, looking distant as if she is thinking back to something awful. “The world is too cruel to girls.”