The world of The Haunting of Hill House is, in some ways, deeply traditional. After all, what could be more classically scary than a haunted house filled with devilish and sinister spirits? And yet Mike Flanagan’s depiction of Hill House, based loosely on the classic 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, is also quintessentially modern. Like many of today’s most popular shows, from action series like Jessica Jones and Daredevil to prestige dramas like Sharp Objects, The Haunting of Hill House is most interested in the effects of personal and familial trauma. But while in many of these depictions, the lingering effects of trauma can be at least somewhat mitigated through therapy or the law, in the world of Hill House, the effects of trauma are inescapable – and they’re impervious to reason, logic, or science. We see each member of the Crain family pushed deeper and deeper into private psychological terrors that manifest as terrifying ghosts.
The Haunting of Hill House’s allegiance to feelings over facts seems to hit a particularly potent nerve in a cultural moment when many people feel increasingly powerless to enact change in a world that often feels cruel, overwhelming and downright scary. In one scene towards the end of Hill House, we see the father character, Hugh, holding his dead wife in his arms. Both are covered in blood. “I can fix this,” he repeats over and over again, as though saying it will make it true. It’s an idea that is echoed in the final moments of the series, when Hugh’s son Steve, always his father’s eager helper, apologizes to his own wife: “I just want to fix this,” he tells her, as she moves to embrace him.
Of course, in the world of the series, the desire for logic, reason, and order is simply no match for pain. Each of the seven members of the Crain family, who spend a terrifying and life-changing summer together in the regal and frightening manor known as Hill House, fits into a loosely defined group. There are the fixers, who try to deal with the madness they encounter with logical attempts to make things right. Then there are the flailers, who are able to articulate their pain vividly but ultimately succumb to the darkness. While the fixers try to make excuses for their encounters with the paranormal, the flailers lose themselves to drugs or mental illness, becoming the very apparitions they struggle to escape.
All of them see ghosts. It’s what they do with the knowledge that their metaphorical and physical home is being haunted that finally allows them to come together and cope with the past. If Hill House is personified as a monster that feeds on its inhabitants, the family unit itself is also personified as a kind of organism that thrives on suffering in the form of co-dependency.
The idea that family life itself is the hell we keep willingly returning to is at the heart the series. It’s the reason why many years after his wife’s suicide and the attempted homicide of his own children, Hugh still describes his relationship with his beloved as though it were gentle and balanced. He tells his son how his wife was the metaphorical kite, airy, drifting, ephemeral, while he was the line, steadfast, devoted, anchored to the earth. The story is a fiction that Hugh needs to believe in, even though his kids reject the sentimentality. Shirley sees her marriage as a kind of business; Steve secretly got a vasectomy so that he would never risk carrying on the family’s genetic legacy of madness; Theo is so afraid of human intimacy that she wears gloves everywhere to protect her against feeling things too strongly; Luke is desperately addicted to heroin; Nell suffers from night terrors that lead to her own suicide.
In many ways, it might be wise for a family this chaotic to deliberately disband, just as it would probably make more sense to burn down Hill House than allow it to remain. Yet one of the most seductive terrors of the show is its look at how we allow the things that haunt us to keep doing so precisely because the opposite is so much more frightening; or, as Steve puts it, a ghost is ultimately a wish. Throughout the series, the show makes the argument that it’s better to see the terrifying last moments of someone we love over and over than to never see them at all again, and, that chasing these ghosts is an inevitable part of the human condition, as bleakly solid as the fact that one day each of us is going to die.
This is an original and fascinating look at family drama, one that refuses neat and tidy endings and begs us to consider what we ultimately do with a home we can never truly leave. In the show, family is protection (both Nell and Luke use counting up to seven, the number of members of their family unit, as a kind of coping mechanism and a way to keep the ghosts at bay) but it is also a painful repetition of fears and anxieties that have no end in sight. For me, the show’s drift into sentimentality in its final few episodes wasn’t a confirmation that the Crain kids have learned the right way to ask for and receive love, but a creepy insistence that the family is primed to repeat the same patterns they once tried their hardest to resist. It’s this sense of the inevitable that drives a young Nell to be haunted by her visions of her future suicide, just as it convinces a father that the insane wife who attempted to murder two of their youngest children in a fit of paranoia is still the person he wants to spend eternity with.
After the family visits the mysterious red room together, we see an image of idyllic bliss in which Steve and his wife are expecting their first child; Theo and her girlfriend are warmly embracing one another; and Shirley and her husband are doing the same. At the center is Luke, with a cake that celebrates his recent attempt at getting clean. It’s a moment that seems as unreal as any of the ghosts that have haunted the Crain family, a fantasy of a forever-love that willfully rejects logic (the family has seen Luke try and fail to kick his heroin habit dozens of times before) and that also seems to ignore the fact that mental illness has torn their family to shreds. And yet, it’s the story of how things could be, blissful, gentle, kind, that keeps them going. In the world of Hill House, devotion to family is a tender kind of madness that exists just on the other side of mourning, a ghostly insistence that the love that binds us is also the thing that keeps us chained.