Shirley Jackson’s nihilistic short story The Lottery was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, and caused immediate outrage – readers cancelled subscriptions and Jackson received hate mail from readers appalled by the bleak portrayal of humanity featured in the story. In subsequent years, however, the story found an appreciative audience and is now acknowledged as a classic folk horror story. Similar to The Wicker Man, The Lottery is a tale of superstition and just how far rural communities will go to ensure a good harvest – a tale of sacrifice and scapegoating.
It’s the sort of story that you might have expected to see filmed for a series like The Twilight Zone, but in truth it was probably too bleak and brutal for that show at the time. It was, however, filmed for TV back in 1950 for Cameo Theatre, an early anthology drama series. But the most interesting adaptation of the story came in 1969, from an unusual source – the Encyclopædia Britannica.
As part of the company’s Short Story Showcase, The Lottery was an educational film, shot on 16mm by Larry Yust. By this time, Jackson’s story was an American classic, and this series of films – adapted from works of literature – were aimed at schoolchildren. What they made of this dark tale – a remarkably faithful adaptation of the story – is something that we can only guess at. To help contextualise the themes of the story, the film came with an accompanying film, Discussion of The Lottery, in which Professor James Durbin of the University of Southern California explored the themes of the film and the original story.
The Lottery is one of the most chilling short stories that you’ll ever read. And it’s one of the most chilling short films you’ll ever watch. Enjoy both this and Discussion of The Lottery here.