What Is A Ghost? An Exploration Of ‘The Haunting of Hill House’
“A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see. Most times, a ghost is a wish.” (Steven Crain, Haunting of Hill House, Episode 1 ‘Steven Sees A Ghost’)
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for Haunting Of Hill House in full detail, so if you haven’t seen the show, beware of them.
TW: Suicide, Drug addiction
Horror is a lot of things. There’s your typical monster creeping around the corner, or your slasher movie of the year. But done right is more than just jump scares, gory images and blood permeating every frame. It has the potential to be the perfect vehicle to explore various and diverse themes in ways you could never have imagined before.
In recent years, many people have used it in various ways as metaphors for more, and two of the best examples of that are Netflix’s two original series Haunting of the Hill House and Haunting of Bly Manor both of them created by Mike Flannagan for Netflix. However, in this article I will be focusing only on Hill House, mainly because Bly Manor deserves an article all its own.
Haunting of Hill House is a loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name. And I mean loose because while the book focuses on a group of people who spend the night at the “haunted” Hill House as part of a parapsychological study, the show focuses on the tribulations the Crain family faces during and after a summer spent at Hill House.
Even though the plots are completely different from one another, the show does take the book into consideration, mainly with our main character Eleanor “Nell” Crain (Vance in the book). In both the show and the book, Nell’s fragile mental state is what propels the narrative forward and lets us know there’s more going on in Hill House than meets the eye. The walls hide more than what the audience is initially presented.
One could say, and would be right to do so, that Haunting of the Hill House is a metaphor for mental health, especially with the characters of Olivia and Nell, perhaps even Luke with his struggles with addiction. But Hill House goes beyond that as well, because it also deals with the repercussions of what it is like to grow up with a mentally unstable parent while you, as a kid, are left in the dark. This type of upbringing has everlasting effects and a profound grief that provides a hurdle that is almost too big to deal with most of the time.
“I built a wall around a big part of my life and I hid behind that wall and I thought that wall kept us both safe, but walls don’t work that way.” (Steven Crain, Haunting of Hill House, Episode 10 ‘Silence Lay Steadily’)
The show begins with Nell struggling to cope with her memories of that summer spent at Hill House, having recently lost her husband and feeling isolated from her siblings, as they have troubles of their own. Nell, haunted by a ghost she named ‘The Bent Neck Lady’ since she was a child, decides to confront her ghost, an ill-advised but well-intentioned piece of advice from her therapist, and must return to Hill House to face it one last time. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for her.
From then on, her siblings started recollecting that particular summer and their own memories of what happened. As that summer resulted in the death of their mother, a tragedy they never got to recover from as they never really understood what happened in the first place. They try to reconnect the past with the present, as Hill House took both their mother and their little sister away from them, two apparent ‘suicides’ bereft of a second thought.
The show gives us the viewpoint of each sibling throughout the first four episodes, and we understand the world just as the siblings understood it back then. We have Steven’s denial of anything paranormal happening in the house, clinging to the belief that his mother was mentally ill and his father refused to help her before it was too late. We have Shirley and her anger at having lost control of what’s going on around her. Theo has a bargain with reality, in an effort to rationalize everything around her and decide who she lets in and out of her life. And, lastly, Luke with his addiction to heroin, using it as a means to escape the memories and horrors that he experienced in his childhood.
But it’s in episode five where we get the intertwining of the supernatural with the psychological issues, as we see Nell’s decaying mental health from the point of view of her siblings as well as her own. We see her go from a young woman who struggles with sleep paralysis and anxieties that have plagued her since childhood finding a support system in a loving husband. But, that’s ripped away from her as we witness her as a grieving widow who starts losing herself and her grip on reality as she finds no one to rely on. We as an audience see the ghost that haunts her, but her family only sees the outbursts, the accusations, the constant calls for attention. And, in a beautifully haunting scene, we see the contrast of reality with the paranormal when she takes her final steps within the Hill House walls.
In the first episode we saw Nell in what appeared to be a delusional state dancing around the house where she ultimately ends up hanging herself. But, in episode five, we finally get to see what she saw that night. She was dancing with the ghost of her late husband, greeted and welcomed to the house by her siblings who loved her unconditionally and apologized for failing to understand her and their absences when she needed them most. We see the ghost of her mother pushing her to her death, in the exact same spot she ended her life two decades prior, haunted by ghosts much like Nell herself.
However, what differentiated Nell from her mother was that the ghost that haunted Nell since she was a little girl was Nell herself. The ‘Bent Neck Lady’ was actually Nell hanging from the staircase of the house, following her younger self throughout her life in a horrifying sight showcasing how her future ‘suicide’ would be “hanging over her,” where she’d be unable to escape from it.
“I was right here. I didn’t go anywhere. I was right here. I was right here the whole time. None of you could see me. Nobody could see me.” (Nell Crain, Haunting of Hill House, Episode 6 ‘The Two Storms’)
Everything boils over in Episode 6 ‘The Two Storms’, as we’re hit with the pain and grief of their loss over Nell while simultaneously seeing them struggling as children with having lost sight of her during a storm. It’s during a series of long takes that we see the siblings throw their insecurities and failures at one another, their pain and grief exploding over and suffocating them, as they don’t know how else to deal with it. We see Hugh, the dad, go from past to present, trying to cope with the loss of his child while remembering the early stages of his wife’s decaying mental health. He talks to the ghost of his dead wife in order to reconnect with the children he let down after her death.
It’s in the second half of the show where we learn that Olivia, the matriarch of the Crain family, began suffering from migraines, huge gaps in her memories and a distinct loss of recognition of what was real and what was not. We’re shown she’s being haunted by ghosts who encourage her to kill her family in order to “protect them from the horrors of the outside world” and fears flood her mind of not being able to save them from their future pain and suffering. But her family only sees her losing her grip on reality, slowly making less and less sense as they interact with her, even witnessing her become violent at one point. They’re unable to understand what she’s going through, and it all culminates into one terrible night that would change their lives forever.
Each sibling is a representation of a stage of grief those being denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance which has been confirmed by the director and creator himself. Which when coupled with the events surrounding that fateful summer of Hill House, and Nell’s suicide, that knowledge exemplifies how exactly they deal with grief. Olivia’s actions, and Hugh’s “inaction,” left the children alone with the pieces to deal with it themselves. As such, those coping mechanisms bleed into their adult lives, shaping who they became and how they would interact with the world.
Steven is denial; being the oldest sibling and as such the one with the most memories of their mother, he sees Olivia’s deteriorating mental state and his father’s unwillingness, or rather inability, to get her help. He grows up afraid of “spreading the disease that runs in his family”, getting a vasectomy as soon as he could. Steven firmly believed that his mother’s death, as well as Nell’s, was caused by untreated mental illness. Their father refused to answer any questions the children had about the night their mother died, and he refused to do anything when Nell started showing signs of being unwell. Unresolved grief brought him multiple problems in his adult life, from estrangement from his siblings to a near divorce with his wife.
Shirley, a representation of anger, is forced into the role of the family’s matriarch after the tragedy and estrangement of their father. She focuses more on trying to fix everything and everyone around her, trying to control what happens in her life. She latches onto the desire to “fix things” becoming a mortician just like the man who “fixed her mom” for the funeral. She has also latched onto things from her past that remind her of the good times, like the forever house her mom always talked about having right after they left Hill House. She’s haunted by her mistakes, failures, and her lack of keeping control of the situation, which ultimately led to losing her sister.
Theodora, middle child and ‘sensitive to the supernatural’ in a more literal way, is bargaining. She has isolated herself from forming genuine human connections outside of her family as she experiences telepathic abilities/visions the minute she touches an object or a person, but she shields from those by constantly wearing gloves given to her by Olivia when she was a kid. She uses the last physical remains of her mother’s love to shield herself from the pain of the outside world. And when confronted with Nell’s loneliness, she tries to find something that would make her feel again.
Luke, personifies depression, being one of siblings who went through the worst in the house alongside her when they were nearly six years old and as such has tried to find ways to erase the horrors from his mind. He’s been in and out of rehab for most of his adult life, unable to come to terms with what happened to him as a child, being stuck in a constant stagnation and never changing. At least until Nell’s death, his twin and the only person who’s always been there for him, that’s when he decides to confront the past head on, even at the expense of his own life.
But it’s Nell the one with the most tragic fate, because while one could think that because she is acceptance she must have a happy ending, we’re hit with the fact that acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean happiness. Acceptance is merely understanding the undeniability of a fact. She had to die in order for her siblings to accept the supernatural and what truly happened in Hill House that led to their father’s estrangement and their mother’s death. She saves them from the house, forgives them for the fights they had and being unable to save her, telling them it wasn’t their fault. They come to terms with what happened, and they’re able to finally let go.
“Forgiveness is warm. Like a tear on a cheek. Think of that and of me when you stand in the rain. I loved you completely. And you loved me the same. That’s all. The rest is confetti.” (Nell Crain, Haunting of Hill House, Episode 10 ‘Silence Lay Steadily’)
Hill House’s ghosts aren’t nameless people. Well, for the most part, some ghosts are literally just there in the background to make you say “look! a ghost!” and there are jump scares present as it is a horror show. But, mainly, they are ghosts who haunt our protagonists for a reason, a reason that starts unveiling as the show moves forward in episode 6. They are personal manifestations of their fears, anxieties, guilts and lies, their past mistakes. Truths they must face in order to survive.
A ghost is a memory, a secret, a wish, a mistake from your past, a deep regret that you wish to bury or someone you wronged who you can’t go back to. But sometimes, sometimes you are your own ghost. And those are the scariest of them all.