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Is Shirley a True Story?

June 8, 2020
4 min read

Shirley’ follows the story of Shirley Jackson while she is in the process of writing her novel, ‘Hangsaman’. She wants to write about a troubled young girl who mysteriously disappeared one day. However, when she finds it difficult to crack her motivations, she looks towards the women in her vicinity, the closest of whom happens to be Rose Nemser.

Young Rose had arrived in Bennington with her husband, Fred, who was to work for Shirley’s husband, Stanley. She strikes a friendship with the reclusive author, but fails to understand the manipulation taking place between them. The film focuses on their complex relationship and delivers a thrilling and disturbing portrait of the author and her surroundings. But could it be real? Is ‘Shirley’ based on true events? Here’s the answer.

Is Shirley based on a true story?

No, ‘Shirley’ is not based on a true story. It is based on the book of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. The film takes the novel as a cornerstone, but new things were added into the mix during the filmmaking process. Director Josephine Decker confessed that creative liberties were taken during the book-to-screen adaptation. The book, itself, is a fictional account of the life of the famous horror novelist, Shirley Jackson.

Who was Shirley Jackson?

Photo | AP

Shirley Jackson is known for writing novels like ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which was tagged by Stephen King as one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century. The film might not have plucked the events out of her real-life, but it did build its character quite close to the author. Just as in the film, real-life Shirley was also an agoraphobic, who spent the later years of her life shut inside the house. She was also a heavy drinker and smoker, and is said to have dabbled in witchcraft.

She met her husband, Stanley Hyman, while studying journalism in Syracuse University. She had written a short story in the college newspaper. Stanley was so impressed by it that he decided to marry the author when he hadn’t even seen her. Soon enough, they got married and, unlike in the film, had four children. Jackson had started writing novels and short-stories, but most of her income came from writing articles for women’s magazines. As time passed, her marriage lost its lustre, especially after her husband’s many affairs.

The film uses all these little details in her life to give a sense of authenticity to the story. It also takes liberties with the timeline presented in the film. In real life, Jackson had published Hangsaman in 1951. In the film, she is in the process of writing it and the year is 1964. The film also depicts a romantic spark between Shirley and Rose. In real life, however, there was no evidence of Jackson’s interest in women.

How did Shirley Jackson die?

Apart from her chronic agoraphobia, Jackson also suffered from asthma and heart problems, among other things. She is said to have medicated on barbiturates and amphetamines, which led to a further decline in her health. The problems in her marriage and the ostracisation from the townspeople in Bennington also added to her illness.

Despite these problems, she continued writing stories. She also received therapy which helped her get out of the house a little bit. It was while being cooped up inside the house that she wrote one of her best novels, ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’. She was also working on her new novel, ‘Come Along With Me’, but never got to finish it.

Shirley Jackson died in 1965 in her sleep at the age of 48. She had been at her home in North Bennington, and a coronary occlusion, most probably due to a cardiac arrest, was considered the cause for death. As per her wish, she was cremated.

Read More: Shirley Ending, Explained

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