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“SHIRLEY,” “HANGSAMAN,” and the Art of Writing With a Broomstick

Wednesday, April 26, 2023 | All of Them Witches, Deep Dives


The 2020 film SHIRLEY is not a biopic. Josephine Decker’s dreamy film reimagines details from the life of author Shirley Jackson and explores the tumultuous months spent writing her second novel HANGSAMAN. Despite historical inaccuracies, SHIRLEY speaks to more emotional truths and draws a line between the author’s own life and her most autobiographical work of fiction. Both HANGSAMAN and SHIRLEY follow writers who use witchcraft to find their voices in communities with rigid social hierarchies. Protagonists Natalie Waite and the fictional Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) use the tarot to conjure versions of themselves more equipped to survive in their challenging worlds. They harness the power of specific cards and use their words as spells to manifest stronger versions of themselves. 

Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, SHIRLEY is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The story meets its famous subject at the eclectic home she shares with her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) sometime after the publication of her dark short story “The Lottery” and before drafting her 1951 novel HANGSAMAN. A literary critic, writer, and professor at Bennington College, the pompous Hyman has arranged for protege Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) to stay in a spare bedroom until they find a place of their own. Stanley convinces Rose to abandon her own studies to help around the house and look after the erratic Shirley as she struggles with agoraphobia, anxiety, and writer’s block. The two faculty wives grow to depend on each other as they struggle to maintain their humanity in a society insisting they do little more than accommodate their husbands. 

Jackson’s HANGSAMAN also follows a young woman nearly destroyed by her proximity to professors. Natalie Waite is the daughter of an esteemed writer striving to develop her own voice under the watchful eye of his sharp criticism. Recovering from a sexual assault, she enrolls in a Bennington-esque women’s college and befriends Elizabeth, the young wife of a popular professor. Recently a student herself, the lonely young woman whiles away the days drinking to quell fears that she no longer interests her husband. Natalie alternates between sympathy for Elizabeth and disdain for her weakness, seeing uncomfortable connections between the young wife and her own timid mother. The novel’s final act sees Natalie befriend an enigmatic classmate named Tony. The girls go on a series of escalating adventures as Natalie slowly overcomes her troubled past and finds the courage to rejoin the world.

SHIRLEY may be a fictionalized retelling of Jackson’s life, but the character’s use of witchcraft is pulled from reality. In her excellent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin notes that the legendary writer began her occult practice in college with deep dives into James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Émile Grillot de Givry’s Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy. She also began studying cartomancy and was known to give tarot readings for friends. Jackson was candid about her spiritual practice and often told journalists that she had used magic to break the leg of an unfriendly publisher. Though this story was likely told with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, it’s notable that Jackson embraced this bit of notoriety during the 1950s, a time of deeply held conservative ideals. 

Publicity for Jackson’s work also embraced her magical abilities. The biographical information for her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, described her as “a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.” While this is a rather dated description of modern witchcraft, Jackson initially encouraged the lore developing around her. In the wake of her polarizing story “The Lottery,” profiler W.G. Rogers noted that “Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but with a broomstick,” a quip that would follow her for the rest of her life. As the years went by however, Jackson became frustrated with this notoriety and feared she was being reduced to a morbid curiosity and horrific caricature. Like many modern witches who publicly acknowledge their practice, she lamented the stigma accompanying her “rather haunted” reputation.

Shirley and Rose get off to a rather chilly start. At first assuming she’s another student with eyes set on her husband, Shirley dismisses the younger woman, refusing to even learn her name.  When Rose informs her that she and Fred will be houseguests, Shirley abruptly switches attacks and complains about Rose’s pregnancy somehow sensing her condition before Rose has announced it. Early conversations between the two women are combative and Shirley seems determined to put Rose in her place. Feeling defensive, She pulls the mother-to-be into her library and searches the large collection for a book of spells to aid pregnancy. She casually offers to give her a spell for “the other thing,” though by now she knows Rose wants the baby. Her argumentative demeanor and insistence on dazzling Rose with witchcraft may be a way to assert dominance over the younger woman now taking a domestic role in her home. 

Exploring the library, Rose picks up a tarot deck and Shirley insists on giving her a reading. More detailed than standard playing cards, a tarot deck is divided into four suits, Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, with the addition of 22 Major Arcana cards representing a life’s journey. What follows is a strange blend of authenticity and impossibility. Rose cuts the deck with her left hand, believed by some to offer a more intuitive separation. Shirley lays out a three card spread, one of the most common patterns for simple readings. There are an infinite number of three card spreads, and interpreting this formation depends largely on the witch, but the most common delineation is Past, Present, Future. Each of the three cards drawn relates to a different aspect of the subject’s life and offers guidance in interpreting events, actions, and feelings. 

We never learn what spread Shirley is using, but the cards she pulls: the Hanged Man in each position, are impossible. This anomaly could be an example of a repeater card, a coincidental drawing of the same card in subsequent readings thought to indicate a season of life or powerful message. Sometimes called stalker cards, these coincidences occur over time, however, and as each card in the deck is unique it cannot be pulled more than once in a single reading. When turning over the cards, a sense of awe overtakes Shirley and she sees Rose through new eyes, suddenly finding an essential element of the novel she’s been struggling to write. Using the Past, Present, Future interpretation, this spread indicates an all-consuming connection to the Hanged Man and a window into her next novel.

The title of HANGSAMAN is partially inspired by the lyrics to a folk song included in the text, but the story itself is heavily indebted to tarot. Not only is Natalie’s last name a reference to Arthur Edward Waite who (along with artist Pamela Smith Coleman) designed the iconic Rider Waite Smith deck, the title refers to the twelfth card of the Major Arcana. The Hanged Man symbolizes a period of consideration and waiting in preparation for a significant change. This card precedes the 13th card in the series, Death, interpreted by most practitioners as an important transition or spiritual rebirth. Therefore the Hanged Man refers to the period of waiting before this transformation, an often painful time of reassessing outdated patterns and preparing old skin to be shed. Both SHIRLEY and HANGSAMAN follow protagonists struggling to enter a new phase of being. Natalie returns to college seemingly healed from the wounds of her past and unafraid to face her harshest critics while Shirley finally completes her most ambitious novel to date and proves that her wildly popular story was not a fluke. 

The final act of HANGSAMAN includes a fairly lengthy section involving the tarot. Natalie spends time in the room of a classmate named Tony who is playing solitaire with the magical deck. The girls leave school and wander around the neighboring village naming cards and using their meanings to make sense of the world around them. We later learn that Tony is not real. Foreshadowed by her singular card game, she is a manifestation of Natalie’s neurosis; a game the distraught freshman plays with herself. Describing her imaginary friend, Natalie connects Tony with the Page of Swords. Symbolized by the deadly blade, the suit itself refers to conflict with others, reflective of the catty girls who live in Natalie’s dorm. Jackson’s real life college experience was similarly stressful and one could imagine the lonely teenager playing this solitary game during her unhappy years at Rochester University. 

Interpreting the specific card also allows us a window into Natalie’s psyche. In her book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness, renowned tarot expert Rachel Pollack, connects the Page of the Swords with separation and detachment, an observation of life from a distance. The card can also be said to call in energetic energy and friendly connection, both characteristics of the gregarious Tony. Caught in an environment threatening to swallow her, Natalie retreats into delusion and creates a friend she can trust when there are none to be found. It’s no coincidence that the girl she manifests also possesses the social skills Natalie has been struggling to cultivate. She uses a manifestation of the Page of Swords as a window to view her new environment from a safe distance and imagine herself as a more confident person until Tony finally gives her the strength to rejoin life on her own terms.

Though Decker’s film is less explicit, it’s likely that Shirley has manifested Rose as well. After this uncanny and impossible reading, Shirley begins to see the young woman as the main character in her new novel and uses Rose as a conduit through which she interacts with the world. The reclusive writer asks Rose to run errands for her understanding that due to rumors of her witchcraft she has a decidedly sinister reputation in the small town. She also uses her younger houseguest to confront her unfaithful husband Stanley. Franklin describes Jackson’s frustration with her libertine husband and the heartache caused by her reluctant agreement to an open marriage. Elizabeth’s husband in HANGSAMAN is a thinly veiled approximation of Stanley and one can feel the author’s pain bleeding onto the page. HANGSAMAN ends with Elizabeth becoming pregnant, but SHIRLEY follows this narrative thread to its logical conclusion. Upon discovering Fred’s many affairs, Rose confronts him on the college green. She takes the baby and walks out, only returning after Shirley convinces her to stay. 

If the two characters are one and the same, Rose’s reaction could be interpreted as Shirley’s struggle to come to terms with Stanley’s infidelity. She is the one to rather cruelly tell Rose of the affair, a gesture that reads as self-loathing scorn for putting up with these repeated insults. Though Franklin recounts several times when Shirley considered divorce, she ultimately decided to stay with her husband for the remainder of her life. Rose too returns to Fred, though she rejects her domestic prison and calls life as little more than his wife madness. Through Rose, the fictional Shirley finds a vessel to channel her anger and a way to safely consider her complicated marriage from a distance. Decker similarly uses the character to address one of the most significant challenges of Jackson’s life. 

As HANGSAMAN is Jackson’s most autobiographical novel, the card she identifies for main character Natalie serves as a window into how she views herself. Natalie chooses The Magician, the second of the Major Arcana and one of four basic archetypes Pollack uses to organize the worldly sequence. The essence of manifestation, Pollack describes the guidance offered by the Magician as “making something real out of the possibilities of life.” This figure could also be called a conjurer, sorcerer, or witch; a fitting description for a woman who used words to cast captivating spells of terror and delight. Both versions of Shirley, the fictional protagonist and the author, channel the energy of this powerful card and use the act of fearless l creation to write into being the lives they want and make real the dreams that began as mere possibilities. 


Jenn Adams
Jenn Adams is a writer and podcaster from Nashville, TN. She co-hosts both Psychoanalysis: A Horror Therapy Podcast and The Loser’s Club: A Stephen King Podcast. In addition to Rue Morgue, her writing has been published at Ghouls Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Certified Forgotten. She is the author of the Strong Female Antagonist blog and will gladly talk your ear off about final girls, feminism, and Stephen King. @jennferatu