Hendersonville Theatre puts on a gothic ghost story
Sure, homicidal clowns and chainsaw-toting lunatics are frightening. They’re also cinematic, ludicrous, and (theoretically) possible to dodge.
But there’s no way to escape the dreadful claustrophobia of our own minds. This, says Hendersonville Theatre Artistic Director Victoria Lamberth, is what makes The Haunting of Hill House authentically nightmarish.
“The play builds a psychological, unnerving terror,” she tells Bold Life.
Written by F. Andrew Leslie, the script is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel which follows an occult scholar named Dr. John Montague. Desperate for evidence of the supernatural, Montague rents a purportedly haunted mansion known as Hill House for the summer.
He then recruits a trio of participants for his project: Theodora, a fickle and spiteful bohemian artist; Luke, the young heir to Hill House; and Eleanor, a repressed young woman desperate to liberate herself from her ailing mother’s reign.
As the story unfolds, Montague and his guests begin to witness strange events — odd noises, slamming doors, inexplicable bloodstains, writing on the walls. But it’s the naive and docile Eleanor who, “like a small creature,” is “swallowed whole” and possessed by the home’s shadowy history — although it’s hard to sort out how much the oppressive “haunting” arises from her own previous trauma.
What results is an unnerving “journey into each character’s mind,” says director Jonathan Forrester. “It’s a psychological thriller,” he promises, and one unlike anything Hendersonville Theatre has offered before.
Though Forrester and the crew have put on eerie shows in the past, including last year’s evening of Haunted Chilling Tales, this production is a more elevated foray into the most primal human emotion: fear.
As Lamberth explains, The Haunting of Hill House doesn’t “shock you” with gore, jump scares, and other trademarks of horror. Instead, it uses terror — the soul-crushing weight of apprehension, of awful possibilities — to get under your skin.
“I personally love a mystery with a supernatural twist,” says Lamberth, “and this show delivers on that like nothing I have ever read.”
Considered one of the best literary ghost stories published during the 20th century, it’s little wonder why The Haunting of Hill House was made into two feature films — one in 1963 and another in 1999. Netflix also reimagined the story into a ten-episode anthology in 2018, though “the series departs from the plot of the original novel,” says Lamberth.
Hoping to honor Jackson’s sinister tale, Hendersonville Theatre’s production will stick closely to the book, which is anchored by Eleanor’s slow, turbulent fall into insanity.
“She’s fragile,” says Allison Starling, who will be playing Eleanor. “The home uses [her] trauma against her.”
Watching from their seats, theatergoers will squirm as the protagonist surrenders herself to the purple plush and velvet drapes of Hill House. In that way, the Victorian mansion takes on a life of its own, playing the trope of a wickedly misunderstood villain.
“The house is very much alive,” says Forrester. “It’s the main character and the inhabitants — Dr. Montague and his guests — are simply existing in its domain.”
The Haunting of Hill House opens on the Main Stage at Hendersonville Theatre (229 South Washington St.) on Friday, Oct. 14, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 23. Performances are at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3pm on Sundays. Cost is $18-$25. For tickets and information, visit hendersonvilletheatre.org or call the box office at 828-692-1082.