Shirley Jackson was a horror genius, and the film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle (which Kristy reviewed out of the Bentonville Film Festival, and which is currently playing in limited release around the U.S.) is a big-screen adaptation that hews close to her spooky, paranoid, distinctly female energy. Unlike Netflix’s miniseries version of The Haunting of Hill House, which transformed Jackson’s novel into a story about patriarchal responsibility that only used female trauma to further male guilt, We Have Always Lived in the Castle distills Jackson’s work into a story of female rage in response to male abuse.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Jackson’s original novel and the film adaptation of WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
1962’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s final novel, begins with a supremely spooky first paragraph:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
Mary Katherine, or Merricat, serves as the narrator of the book, and shares with readers the story of the Blackwoods, a once-powerful and wealthy family who lives in isolation, away from villagers, in their manor tucked inside the woods. The villagers hate the Blackwoods and the Blackwoods hated them back, led by Merricat’s father, John, who didn’t trust banks, hid money all over the house, and thought of the common people as animals. Some of those practices trickled down: Merricat can’t stand to be around other people, aside from older sister Constance, who is in her late 20s, and she dreams of killing the villagers (“I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true”). In her ideal world, only she and Constance would exist.
How did they come to be alone? Because 6 years ago, someone poisoned the majority of the Blackwood family, including father John, mother Ellen, younger brother Thomas, and aunt Dorothy, by sprinkling arsenic on the blackberries served for dessert. Constance didn’t take sugar, and so wasn’t poisoned; Merricat had been sent to her bedroom without dinner, and so wasn’t poisoned; and Uncle Julian, who only took some sugar, was left paralyzed but not killed. Constance, who prepared the meal, was assumed to be responsible, and so the family was further rejected by the nearby villagers, and the three were left alone, by themselves, in the Blackwood estate.
That bubble of privacy, the one in which Merricat is devoted to Constance and tolerant of Uncle Julian and utterly disinterested in everyone else, is punctured when cousin Charles arrives. Charles is a smooth talker, a wheeler and dealer, a man sure of his own authority only because he is a man. He has nothing else to offer aside of his masculinity and his youth, so he bulldozes Uncle Julian, charms Constance, and is disgusted by Merricat. He has his eyes on the manor and on the boxes of silver dollars buried around the property, and he dresses himself in John Blackwood’s clothes and starts sleeping in his bedroom, and assumes the role of the head of the household when the role itself was no longer needed.
So Merricat fights back, destroying his belongings and refusing to mimic Constance’s appeasement of him, and in her rejection of him, the elements of what happened to the Blackwoods come into focus:
Charles: “Go and rest where?” he said and he was still angry. “I am not going to stir out of here until something is done about that girl.”
Constance: “Merricat? Why should anything be done? I said I would clean your room.”
Charles: “Aren’t you even going to punish her?”
Merricat: “Punish me?” I was standing then, shivering against the door frame. “Punish me? You mean send me to bed without my dinner?”
Who poisoned the Blackwoods? Not Constance, but Merricat. Who took her revenge out on her family for their rejection? Not Constance, but Merricat. “I can’t help it when people are frightened; I always want to frighten them more,” she says to her sister, and it becomes clear at the end of the novel that Merricat, who dreams of being a werewolf and who practices magic spells to protect her sister and who aspires to leave this world for the moon, killed her family. And her refusal to allow Charles in spreads to Constance, too; after a fire that Merricat unintentionally sets destroys portions of the Blackwood estate and helps cause the death of Uncle Julian, the sisters barricade themselves in. They keep Charles out.
“I am so happy,” Constance said at last, gasping. “Merricat, I am so happy.”
“I told you that you would like it on the moon.”
Many questions remain unanswered in Jackson’s source text: Why does Constance fear leaving the Blackwood home? What about their parents enraged Merricat so? What was Merricat being punished for that essentially pushed her into murder? And the strength of the film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle from director Stacie Passon and writer Mark Kruger is how it offers answers to these questions without deviating from Jackson’s intentions. Their expansions add layers to the novel that Jackson suggested but left ambiguous, and the space they make for female anger is quite absolute.
In the film, Taissa Farmiga’s Merricat is as unsettling as she is in the book, a wide-eyed, hunched-over girl whose body language screams, “Do not approach!” Her boxy shirt and long shorts are in contrast to Alexandra Daddario’s Constance, whose fit-and-flare floral dresses and ’40s pinup curls keep her frozen as an upper-class woman making her debut. Merricat scowls as often as Constance smiles, but the two are tied together, initially like a mother and daughter and later like partners in crime. The filmmakers add in a subplot for Constance that involved her wanting to run away with a young man from the village before father John Blackwood learned of the plan and ruined the man’s life, and that altercation is suggested to be what caused John to lock Constance away, and one of the reasons why Merricat poisoned her family.
It’s certainly foreshadowed in the film that Merricat is the poisoner—she rattles off various toxins as a way of introducing herself to strangers—but the male abuse suffered by the sisters is obvious, too. Constance’s accommodation of Charles (Sebastian Stan!), who is mentioned more than once as looking quite like John Blackwood, feels like a learned behavior. Her smiles are wide but not entirely genuine, and yet how she dresses up for Charles—even putting on her mother’s pearls to entertain him—smacks of an attempt to please an abusive figure. Merricat, as is her way, directs all of her loathing and resentment to Charles, not only for taking Constance away from her, but because he treats her just as their father did. He attempts to punish her, too, even going so far as to tackle her, drag her outside of a room, hold her down, and keep his hand on top of her mouth—and in that altercation, the sisters call Charles “Father.”
It’s a scene added for the film that precludes what comes next, in another situation when Charles throws himself physically on top of a Blackwood woman and tries to dominate her. What does Merricat do to men who try to impose rules upon her, who try to charm Constance away? She kills them. “He came unbidden, and I will drive him away,” Merricat vows, and after their house burns, after the men of the village come to the Blackwood estate and seize their chance to victimize the Blackwood women—in another change from the book, dragging them apart and circling Constance in a way that makes it seem like she is about to be sexually assaulted—Merricat gets her opportunity. In the novel, Charles returns to the house and the women refuse to let him in; in the film, he breaks in, confronts Constance in the kitchen, and shoves her down, threatening her with “Nobody’s gonna love you.” In this other instance of potential rape, Merricat will not stand by and let it happen—she grabs a snowglobe and smashes it over Charles’s head, driving a shard of glass into his head and killing him.
Now with another murder to unite them, Merricat and Constance bury Charles in the woods near their home—the same forest that Merricat considers her haven and her protection, where she cast so many spells—and return to the Blackwood castle, boarding up windows, barricading doors, and settling inside together. The film ends with the women scaring away a pair of young boys who had come to harass them, with Constance in a plain dress no longer performing her debutante femininity (“Must be terrible to be so afraid,” she says of the boys), and with Merricat expressing her desire to eat one of those bullying children. When Constance tells Merricat that she loves her, it’s the first time Merricat smiles in the film, and why not? All of their male abusers have either been killed by Merricat or died as a result of her actions (Crispin Glover’s Uncle Julian dies during the fire). Any interest Constance had in assimilating into the village is gone, now that she’s been put on display by those attackers and understands that a future of violence would probably await her with any of those men. And so the sisters come together not only in their isolationist desire but in misandry as caused by a legacy of patriarchal abuse, a concept made clearer by a film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that honors Jackson’s source material while allowing its female characters much-needed revenge.
Image sources (in order of posting): Brainstorm Media, Brainstorm Media, Brainstorm Media