We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 2019. Directed by Stacie Passon. Screenplay by Mark Kruger; based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name.
Starring Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover, & Sebastian Stan.
Mighty Engine / Furthur Films / Albyn Media
Not Rated. 90 minutes.
Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Disclaimer: The following essay contains significant spoilers.
You’ve been warned.
Shirley Jackson is one of the great American authors to have ever lived. Her contributions to the horror genre will never be forgotten. Recently, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House brought one of Jackson’s most prominent works to audiences via a contemporary retelling by Mike Flanagan. His approach was not only effective and entertaining, it was innovative, in many ways.
Stacie Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, penned by Mark Kruger, is a much more direct retelling of Jackson. With the few minor changes, Passon and Kruger manage to not only give fans of the book a faithful adaptation, they also allow the timeless story of the novel to parallel the troubled sociopolitical times in which we currently exist.
The novel itself was an ode to Otherness. Jackson herself experienced the xenophobic small minds of rural America herself, when she and her professor husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in North Bennington, Vermont. Her literary canon consists of plenty stories involving the ugly traditions which carry on in cities and towns across the country to this day. It’s poignant to look at her work, in an era when anybody made to appear as Other continues to have to struggle in order to be considered human— we see it in stuff like her famously disturbing and powerful short story “The Lottery” and her equally powerful but not quite as famous story “Flower Garden.”
Following in the novel’s footsteps closely, Passon’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle examines the plight of the remaining Blackwood family— sisters Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) and Constance (Alexandra Daddario), along with their Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover)— who’ve experienced unspeakable tragedy, as well as ceaseless harassment, mistrust, and baseless rumours at the hands of the people in their insular village. The film’s most prominent theme involves the struggle of women to escape the patriarchal bonds which oppress them, at any and all cost.
Following the viewer’s discovery of the tragedy at Blackwood Mansion, it’s easy to see how the Gothic past of the family and their home has trapped them in destructive cycles. One of the earliest and best moments symbolising this theme is a shot of Constance on the edge of the property as she greets Merricat returning home from the shop. She’s standing in the foreground, with the mansion behind her, entirely draped in darkness. Merricat joins her and they stand together in the shadows. Both sisters are agoraphobic: Merricat actually goes out of the house; Constance is worse, never leaving the mansion’s grounds— in this sense, she’s a ghost, confined to the property, and the home becomes a figurative haunted house.
The ghostly memory of John Blackwood lingers in the mansion, too. Uncle Julian’s trapped by his brother’s memory, constantly trying to write a memoir and going over the most minute, insufferable details as a way to hopefully master the past’s pain. The father’s spectre hovers about the sisters’ lives to an uncomfortable degree. One piece of dialogue has Merricat telling her sister she heard her father “in his room.” There are many shots featuring the family portrait, specifically focusing on the patriarch, and the John’s memory continues to dominate Merricat and Constance’s lives even in death. His Gothic presence looms large symbolically throughout, deepening with the arrival of cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan). Before Charles arrives, Merricat claims she feels her father “coming back.” Their cousin takes on the patriarch’s role, on both a figurative and literal level, throwing the sisters back to a time from which they once fled.
Once Merricat and Constance reveal to the viewer the truth of the family tragedy, their struggle’s understood fully. The younger sister poisoned her parents to stop the abuse of her older sister by their father, and, we can assume, the complacency of their mother in the face of Constance’s personal horror. Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood represent the patriarchy and the internalised misogyny patriarchal rule instils respectively. Merricat’s violent act of parricide was an act of liberation to free the sisters from their patriarch.
Uncle Julian himself isn’t entirely innocuous, either. He tries to shield the sisters from swear words. He believes Merricat’s dead and doesn’t even recognise her identity in the house. Julian wasn’t spared the poison when Merricat killed her parents, surviving solely because he didn’t have a big sweet tooth that evening. He’s an example of a passive male in a patriarchal system: he doesn’t actively engage in misogyny or sexism, yet does nothing to stop it, and, in ways, helps to perpetuate it.
Worse, the perpetual system of patriarchy replaces one dead man with another. So after John dies, cousin Charles arrives “unbidden“— like all males who assume their fated place in the system— to offer “assistance” and “guidance” to the sisters, as if they can’t care for themselves. The dance with Constance to “Daddy’s Home” (by Shep and the Limelites) is a perfectly unsettling, on-the-nose scene. Charles even looks like John Blackwood, going so far as to dress in his clothes, sleep in his bed, sit at the head of the table, and use his bourgeois hair products. He’s a ghost come back to life, from John’s ethereal, dominant spirit to a corporeal male figure invading the women’s home. And, unfortunately for the sisters, their only option is to use violence to reclaim their autonomy. A significant scene depicts Charles getting physical with Merricat, dragging her upstairs. While they struggle, Passon features shots of the framed men on the walls— likely the male Blackwood heirs, or, in a broader sense, the male gaze of history— staring down on them, like the patriarchy keeping watch over the sisters in eternal paint.
“He was a very wicked man…”
After Merricat killed her parents and Constance was initially arrested for the crime, the townspeople ostracised them. The Blackwood family were always considered bourgeois, and it’s obvious the old patriarch looked down upon the working class of the village, calling them “trash” and “lazy animals“— even Merricat succumbs to this view of the villagers, to a point. After the Blackwood murders, the villagers viewed the sisters as witches. They made up nursery rhymes about them, treating the women like folklore rather than people. In a way, the Blackwoods became like figures in a folk tale. They receded into their castle— a garrison, where they isolated themselves and fortified their existence against the intrusion of outsiders. The castle itself is a physical structure representative of the sociological structures in the village, separating the so-called normal people from those they consider Other.
Jackson had her own experiences of Otherness with her husband in Vermont, documented in Judy Oppenheimer’s 1988 biography on the author, Private Demons. Joyce Carol Oates also mentions this is in her article “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson,” writing about how Jackson and Hyman, dubbed a ‘Jewish intellectual,’ had “aroused resentment, if not outright anti-Semitism, in their more conventional Christian neighbours.” A great inclusion in the film is pictured below, in a scene of Charles bathing while he sings to himself and reads. The magazine he’s reading is called the National View. The main article is titled “America’s Creeping Revolution.” Although the magazine and article are fictional, it seems to refer to an actual book by author John T. Flynn from 1949 called The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. Flynn wrote about what he and other
alarmistscapitalists saw as the infiltration of American politics by socialism.
This plays into the Otherness that Jackson focuses on, and on which Passon focuses, too. The film’s set before the 1960s, and after the 1940s given there’s no talk of WWII, making it safe to assume the story takes place in the ’50s. The decade’s important. It was also the time of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, a period when regular people turned on one another due to crooked politicians and shoddy media coverage. It’s within this context the plot occurs.
The greatest context remains the Otherness of women in a country that prides itself on men above all else. The film’s full of female imagery, reinforcing the theme of women seeking to escape patriarchal rule. Most obvious is the town’s gossip about the Blackwood women, labelling them witches— a historically misogynistic label— and, in opposition, Merricat practising what’s called sympathetic magic. In regards to the youngest sister’s witchcraft, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her essay on Jackson: “Witchcraft is a primitive attempt at science; an attempt to assert power by the powerless.” This is why Merricat practises magic— she’s attempting to heal psychologically / spiritually, and also trying to offer a lasting “spell of protection” for her sister. It’s interpreted by the villagers as Otherness to be avoided and, in combination with the poisoning of her parents, a danger to them. What Merricat does, and what she did to save Constance from their father, is all misunderstood, and misunderstanding is so often at the root of Otherness.
The biggest female symbol is the moon. Several times, Merricat and Constance talk of living on the moon, and the younger of the two often spends lengths of time by herself in what her sister dubs the “moon garden.” Since antiquity the moon’s been associated with women, from its visible cycles mirroring the bodily life of woman, to language— the Ancient Greek word ‘mḗn’ and Latin word ‘mensis’ correspond to the English word ‘month,’ and they both relate to a Proto-Indo-European word (*mḗh₁n̥s) meaning ‘month’ or ‘moon.’ This fantasy of the sisters fleeing to live on the moon, and Merricat’s secluded “garden of the moon,” are symbolic of them wanting to live in a world free of patriarchy. Ancient societies were once based on goddess worship and matriarchies, eventually giving way to brutal patriarchal rule across the majority of global society. Merricat and Constance wish to return to an age when goddesses and the moon were celebrated, far from 1950s America, where a man’s word and his money were worth more than a woman’s own body.
And has it all really changed? Not quite.
“The world is full of terrible people”
In the end, the agoraphobic Blackwood sisters are given tribute by the villagers, who have a change of heart after the fire at the mansion, realising how they’ve treated the women. Food is brought to their doorstep and left even by those who joined in helping to destroy the house as the fire raged. Suddenly, the misunderstandings that led people to believe the worst about Merricat and Constance have eroded.
This resolution is foreshadowed cryptically in the film’s opening when Merricat listens to a vinyl recording of Shakespeare’s Richard III, so bear with Father Gore as we unpack this important scene. The Bard created Richard III as a villain to serve the purposes of his story. Historically, and after a recent excavation, Richard III’s been understood by some historians as an atypical ruler in certain respects, whose image was crafted prominently by media, not unlike the Blackwood sisters who’ve endured the newspapers and gossip at the expense of a much more difficult truth. He was also physically different. In real life, his ‘hunchback’ was actually only slight and wouldn’t have affected him much in battle. This was exaggerated by Shakespeare, serving as one of the first of many villains in a long line of baddies portrayed as people with physical disabilities. Intentional or not, Merricat’s connection to the play Richard III furthers the idea she and Constance were portrayed in a certain light while, in reality, the truth was far more complex.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle does Shirley Jackson justice by focusing on the themes she was writing about five decades ago, which sadly have dissipated little since in the collective social consciousness of America. The few changes made to the novel in translation to screenplay help make these themes stronger. For instance, in the book, Charles comes by after the fire and he’s simply ignored by the sisters, whereas in the film he’s killed following his full-on descent into male violence. His death allows a more permanent cauterisation of the patriarchy by Merricat as she, once more, has to protect Constance, and herself, from the Man of the House. There’s a finality in this second murder, coupled with Uncle Julian’s death during the fire. The sisters finally fend off the advance of the familial patriarchy, and, symbolically, now live in a woman’s world.
Following the mansion’s partial destruction, the skylight in the foyer is now cracked and open to the sky. Merricat looks up through it, noticing the upstairs of their home’s been rendered inaccessible. Hard not to imagine the moon’s light beaming down through the busted skylight, pouring into their shattered castle no longer fortified and isolated but open to the world— like a garden.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson.” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 15, 8 October 2009.