The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

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First published in 1948 in the New Yorker, “The Lottery” is Shirley Jackson’s dark look at what happens when ordinary life is injected by the macabre. In many ways the story is a tale of Jackson’s troubled life. Jackson was a prolific writer at a time when women were not expected to be anything besides a mother and homemaker. And while “The Lottery” made Jackson a household name and earned a significant amount of money for her family, she was still expected to prioritize her household duties. In many ways, Jackson’s writing can be seen a reaction to the world she lived in, a staple of horror authors to this day.

One of the more striking details about the fallout of the short story is that the New Yorker audience was unsure whether the story was fact or fiction, thus essentially proving Jackson’s point that humanity was capable of such an event. There is a direct correlation between that aspect of the story and the found footage genre that dominated horror films in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Starting with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, found footage movies challenged audiences’ perception of what was real. Blair Witch, the first of its kind to make it to the mainstream, was a cultural phenomenon. One of the main factors for this, was that at time not everything was on the internet, and people were not sure if what they were watching was real or made up.

The ending of “The Lottery” is what gets remembered, and it's easy to make tie-ins to films with shocking endings like 1964’s The Planet of Apes or any of M. Night Shyamalan’s film catalog, like The Sixth Sense and The Village. However, that is too simplistic of a reading of Jackson’s work and what the ending means. In fact, a better connection to the ending can be made to the previously mentioned Psycho. Hitchcock’s decision to kill off the film’s star Janet Leigh just 20 minutes into the film subverts the audience’s expectations in the same way Jackson’s ending does. In fact, Jackson herself said that one of the reasons readers were so upset with the story was because they expected [spoiler removed]. Her ability to play on the audience’s expectations would influence further films in the decades to come.

source: Galea, Matthew. "How Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' Influenced Movies From 'Psycho' to 'Get Out'." Collider, 21 May 2022.

The Lottery appeared three weeks after Jackson’s agent had submitted it, and there was instant controversy: Hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions and wrote letters expressing their rage and confusion about the story. In one such letter, Miriam Friend, a librarian-turned-housewife, wrote “I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?” Others called the story “outrageous,” “gruesome,” and “utterly pointless.” “I will never buy The New Yorker again,” one reader from Massachusetts wrote. “I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like The Lottery.” There were phone calls, too, though The New Yorker didn’t keep a record of what was said, or how many calls came in.

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