Shirley Movie True Story: How Much is Real (& What's Made Up) (2024)

Shirley,Josephine Decker's semi-biographical drama film,is a unique blend of fact and fiction. Based off Susan Scarf Merrell's novel of the same name, Shirley blurs the lines between author Shirley Jackson's real life and the embellished story of the writer's process and inspiration.

While Merrell's novel and Decker's film tell a largely fictional story, there arekey elements of Shirley Jackson's actual lifeembedded inthe narrative. The prolific horror author attended Syracuse University where she met her husband, literary critic Stanley Hyman, who was later hired to teach at Bennington College. Jackson rejected the role of "faculty wife" and spent most of her time at home, writing and hosting eccentric literary gatherings for students and school staff. Best known for her writing in the horror and mystery genres, Jackson published six novels and just over a hundred short stories throughout her career.

Related:Shirley Jackson Adaptations Ranked, Worst to Best

Shirley takes placesoon afterthe publication of Jackson's now-canonical piece of short fiction, The Lottery. Published in 1948, the bone-chilling story solidified Jackson's placewithin the literaryhorror genre. While both the novel and film adaptation of Shirleydocumentaspects of the writer's life, thecentral narrative of Rose and Fred Nemser, a couple who moves into the writer's Bennington home, is completely fictional. Viscerally inspired by a real life missing persons case, Jackson, played wonderfully by Elisabeth Moss, works on her novel Hangsaman, using Rose as a tangible stand in for her story's protagonist. The film, book, and true story are an interesting mixture of reality and fiction that puts a twist on the book-within-a-book narrative.

Shirley Is Based on A Fictional Book, Not A Biography

Shirley Movie True Story: How Much is Real (& What's Made Up) (1)

Author Susan Scarf Merrell’s bookShirleywas published in 2014, and tells the story of a young academic couple who stay with Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, in their Bennington, Vermont home. Merrell's novel follows Rose and Fred Nemser growing close tothe couple while living with them as Fred assists Stanley with his lectures and Rose inspires Shirley's writing. Although easily misconstrued as a biography, Shirley is a fictional telling of Jackson's writing process while working on her 1951 novel, Hangsaman.Jackson's novel wasinspired largely by the actual disappearance of Bennington College student Paula Jean Welden in 1946.

What Shirley Gets Right About The Real Shirley Jackson

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Both the novel and film tell a fictional storywhilesprinkling inthe factual actualitiesof Jackson's life. True to reality, the story shows her marriage to literary critic and Bennington College professor, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), as a complex one. As seen in the film, Shirley and Stanley's relationship was often volatile due to his persistent infidelity as well as him being sociallyand financially controlling. Due toStanley's multiple affairs,some of which were with his students, Shirley reluctantly agreed to an open marriage.Shirleyalso accurately reflects the beginnings of Jackson's fatal health decline which was largely caused by her excessive smoking and regular use of barbiturates which were prescribed to ease her anxiety and burgeoning agoraphobia.

What Shirley Makes Up About Shirley Jackson

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The fictional side of Shirley centers on Rose and Fred Nemser (played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman), a young couple whom*ove in with Shirley and Stanley and must grow accustomed to their unconventional life. Quickly falling into Stanley's charismatic grasp, Fred shadows him both in his academic career and extracurricular affairs. Shirley, who dramatically rebels against the idea of being solely aprofessor's wife encourages Rose to do the same, seducingthe expectant mother with her writing and wildness. In the film, Shirley uses Rose as a surrogate for Paula,a young womanwho was attending Bennington College at the time of her disappearance. Seeing Rose and Paula as women trapped in their own circ*mstance, Shirley gains an empathic interest in both, relieving her ofwriter's block and leading to her novel,Hangsaman.

Related: AHS Roanoke: Nurse Sisters' True Crime Story Explained

The Real-Life Mystery Case Behind Shirley

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Shirleyfollows the timeJackson worked on her novel,Hangsaman, whichtells the story of lonely and increasinglyunhingedcollege freshman partially inspired by Paula Jean Welden, a Bennington College student who went for an afternoon walk along a section of Vermont’s famous Long Trail and never returned. In the winter of 1946, Welden hitchhiked to an entrance and was seen on the path by another group of hikers, confirming that she made it to her intended trail. Paula did not bring anygear or nighttime provisions, indicating that she only expected to be gone a few hours.Since Welden's body was never found the case remains unsolved, though both murder and suicide were speculated at the time. Eerily, the location was the site of four other vanishings between 1945 and 1950; it was dubbed The Bennington Triangle. The insufficient investigation by the local sheriffs was highly criticized and the poor handling of the case led to the creation of the Vermont State Police.

More:Shirley Review: The Haunting of Shirley Jackson's House

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Shirley Movie True Story: How Much is Real (& What's Made Up) (2024)
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