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Focus on the Frightful: Shirley

*All opinions expressed n this post are mine and mine alone*

I have always been uneasy when an author uses a real person, not for inspiration but for an actual character for their fiction novels. It feels like fan fiction to a creepy degree and, in my opinion, can border on the unethical. Particularly if that person’s name is used to mischaracterize and malign them.

I’m not saying that the person presented has to be shown as an absolute angel, but people are complicated and interesting enough to not have to shade their character even darker. It feels as though the author doesn’t think their story can stand on its own merits without dragging someone more well known along for the ride.

I feel like that’s what happened with Shirley. I did not know that Shirley was a book by Susan Scarf Merrell. It just popped up on my Amazon Prime radar the other day. So I will be going strictly by the movie.

At least in the cases of Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe you could make the argument that they lived and died over a hundred years ago. They have no close family living to be hurt by how they might be characterized. It’s still on the unethical side to me but you could make a case for it in the positive. Shirley Jackson died in 1965. Sixty years ago. She still has children living. Children who could be hurt by how she has been portrayed. Which, if you read her biography (I found Ruth Franklin’s biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life very interesting if a little heavy on details that weren’t necessary about her husband – you can check it out here).

So, yes, I went into the movie with a bias in place but I did try to give it the benefit of the doubt, keep an open mind and try to enjoy it for what it was. That lasted all of ten minutes. I’ll give you the review below and my follow-up thoughts. The review will be spoiler-free. If I go into any in the follow-up thoughts I will give a warning before I do or hide them under a spoiler tag.

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Shirley Review

A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.

Title: Shirley | Release Date: June 5th, 2020 | Country: USA | Runtime: 1hr 47 min | Genre: Biography/Drama/Thriller | Emphatically Unstarred

“You know how I abhor mediocrity. If it had been terrible at least it would have been interesting”

Stanley Hyman – Shirley

It’s like the movie almost became self-aware.

I know Shirley Jackson wasn’t an angel, domestic goddess, or a fervent temperance advocate but holy sweet Cthulhu. If this movie is to be believed Shirley Jackson is nothing more than a depressed, moody, psychotic, hard-drinking toddler. Everything feels so awkward and uncomfortable (which may have been the intention) and everyone is portrayed in the most negative way possible.

The scenes shift in such a jarring and abrupt way that what story there is there is buried under random disconnected scenes. It generally flows like this: Shirley behaves like she’s insane and cannot function in society – Rose doing errands and being mentally fucked with by Shirley – Stanley acting like a pretentious weirdo – and, oh yeah, Fred’s a character and he and Rose sometimes have sex. Rinse, repeat and you’ve got the whole movie.

I think the cinematography was going for an effect of trying to make things slightly off (an effect done much better in one of Shirley Jackson’s own movie – Robert Wise’s The Haunting) but only makes things confusing and jagged. The music, as well, just did not seem to fit. I didn’t care for the license songs used as even though the lyrics fit most of the time the tone did not. Which is an issue throughout the movie. The score does not work. There will be lighthearted music at intense times and somber, scary music when not much is happening. I did enjoy the colour saturation and subsequent fade-out at appropriate times.

And good lord, for all of the psychological head games, contrived creepiness and murder mystery lurking in the background it was boring. There were a few brief scenes of Jackson writing that were interesting and I do have to give it credit for one or two decent lines. The actors were decent but the dialogue and actions are so unnatural and pretentious that I can’t think of an actor or actress alive that could have made it flow well.

This movie was dull, lifeless and insulting for all it tried to be mysterious and aggressive.

Final Thoughts

I think this movie is unethical as hell. It’s insulting to the people this is about and to their children. I’m assuming that it was vetted for libel claims but it’s got to be toeing the line pretty closely. If the author had wanted to make a Jackson-esque book she could have done so without actually using the characters of Shirley and her husband Stanley. They may not have been perfect people but they deserved far better than this portrayal of them.

My theory is that Fred and Rose are possibly imaginary and are a product of her imagining out the Hangsaman story. I could be wrong because they are shown somewhat interacting with other people but, again, in such a way that it’s possible they are not real.

I think this is a good example of fan fiction going too far. It’s creepy to ship real people together (and force them to read about it) and it’s creepy to create a story about real people doing creepy, manipulative things and (going by what I’ve read in reviews) insinuating that she might be implicated in a murder/disappearance. That just feels wrong to me. And it might become even less of an issue if it weren’t tagged as a biography and biopic. It makes me wonder if some people will take it as fact and that is very unfair.

Published inFocus on the Frightful


  1. I’d always heard that you can’t libel or slander the dead. And a search on the topic generally backs up that notion, although there are a few caveats: 1) some suits have been launched claiming damage to the publicity value of a celebrity’s reputation; 2) Rhode Island allows for suits if the person hasn’t;t been dead more than a few months; 3) there apparently are other laws on the books that do make libel of a dead person actionable, but they haven’t been much used and some have been struck down in the courts.

    • That makes sense. I always did wonder how an actual person could be a character in a book without some kind of action by the relatives or estate. I believe that the estate of Walter Sickert was considering suing Patricia Cornwell for her Jack the Ripper book

      • I know that in Britain, the family of a dead politician got around this by publicly insulting the author of a scurrilous book about the politician. The author sued the family, which turned the case into a review of the dead politician’s character. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the politician involved; I believe they won the case, but only for nominal damages . . . and vindication of their relative’s honor.

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