The Haunting of Hill House: The Ghosts No One Is Talking About – Wisecrack Quick Take
Welcome to this Wisecrack Quick Take on Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House!
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Jacob S. Salamon and Emily Dunbar
The Haunting of Hill House: The Ghosts No One Is Talking About – Wisecrack Quick Take
What’s up, Wisecrack? Jared again. If you guys haven’t seen the torrent of tweets, Netflix’s new show The Haunting of Hill House is getting some serious notoriety. It’s got a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and some people are saying it’s so scary, they’re puking their guts out. Seriously. Which brings us to the question: in a genre as bloated as horror, what makes a story about another haunted house stand out?
While we could point to the casting, camera work, or one of the best jump scares I’ve seen we actually think it has to do with – wait for it – ghosts. No sh*t, Jared! Alright, I know. But what makes Hill House rise above shows like American Horror Story is a duality of the ghost metaphor that is incredibly smart. So, grab those adult diapers and join me for this Wisecrack Quick Take on The Haunting of Hill House. And yeah, spoilers ahead.
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Alright guys, first, a quick recap. The show follows the Crains during their stay at the haunted Hill House in the 1980s. While the parents, Olivia and Hugh, are trying to flip the home, — “Your mother and I, we have to finish fixing this house, then someone needs to buy it,” — fifty years before it was trendy, the kids spend the summer being irreparably traumatized by a series of terrifying events. This all comes to an end, though, when the father rushes the kids out of the house, one night. What the show portrays as some spooky haunting business from the perspective of the children is eventually revealed to be the suicide of the mother. Flash forward to the present, and all the children are still living under the shadow of their past. Steve, the oldest, is a successful albeit cynical author, writing about his paranormal childhood. Shirley is a tightly-wound, type-A mortician. Theo is a clinical psychologist with some serious intimacy issues. Luke is a junkie 90 days clean, and his twin sister, Nell well, Nell’s dead. And it’s her death that starts off a fresh batch of hauntings.
If those character descriptions haven’t tipped you off already, the heroes in Hill House aren’t the typical cookie cutter characters of other horror series. But to understand how they’re so different, we first have to understand an idea in writing called the “ghost,” which has been explored by author K.M. Weiland. As we’ll see, what makes The Haunting of Hill House so good is the blurry boundary between Weiland’s ghost-as-technique and the show’s ghost-as-oh-my-god-what’s-wrong-with-that-kitten. As for Weiland’s ghosts, the idea is this: at the beginning of a story, our heroes aren’t usually the greatest people. They can be jealous, like Woody in Toy Story, or selfish, like Ebinizer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
According to Weiland, at the heart of these personal failings lies a basic psychological mechanism, in which we “value survival in one aspect of our lives over survival in another”. In other words, we lean into certain beliefs, even though they might make us unhappy, just so we can survive. And the reason why we form these beliefs? Weiland calls this your “ghost” – though other authors will call it your “wound” or simply your past trauma. For Woody in Toy Story, his ghost or trauma is the knowledge that unloved toys are discarded, causing his jealously of Buzz, which blinds him to his unsavory behavior. For Scrooge, his ghost is the poverty he experienced in his childhood, which later causes him to be the penny-pinching man we all know, blinding him to the fact that he has ruined his life. Woody and Scrooge opt to protect their wound – fear and poverty, respectively – at the expense of everything else. In The Haunting of Hill House, it becomes clear that the actual ghosts are some kind of metaphor for the horrifying events the Crain family faces.
Showrunner Mike Flanagan expertly leverages each character’s past trauma, or “ghosts”, to explain why our heroes are so messed up as adults. Steve, witnessing his mother’s fraying mental state firsthand, rationalizes his whole childhood as a product of mental illness. In fact, he’s so convinced that his family has a genetic mental condition that he gets a vasectomy right out of college. “It’s not the house, there’s something wrong with our goddamn brains. So yeah, I’m never having children. I made sure.” Shirley, who takes in a box of kittens as a child only to have them go dead and crazy demonic, becomes fascinated with the way morticians “fix” a person, making a corpse seem alive again. “You fixed her.” “That’s what I do.” Unsurprisingly, she then becomes a control freak mortician.
As for Theo, her special ability to understand the essence of something by touching it backfires when she touches her mom and sees a rotting corpse. How does Theo turn out as an adult? She flexes her ability to help people in her day job, while wearing gloves in her free time and having shallow emotional relationships. And Luke, well Luke’s substance abuse stems from watching his mom poison and kill his childhood friend, and from the various obsessive coping mechanisms he developed to distract himself. Like any good story, though, the Haunting of Hill House builds out its conflicts by having characters confront their trauma. And this is the part where we get to the literal ghosts of the show. Now there’s a seriously large grab bag of ghosts in the series. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can see a random ghost lingering in the background of almost any shot. And while there’s a whole cast of ghouls that have nothing to do with our characters’ backstories, the most memorable ghosts are the personified embodiments of our characters’ past traumas.
In psychoanalytic terms, we could view these literal ghosts as an example of splitting, where people splinter off and repackage the negative parts of themselves or others in order to maintain a positive sense of self. It’s like Weiland said: it’s all about survival. Except, in the Crain family’s case, the unconfronted trauma manifests as actual ghosts. The literary ghost becomes a literal ghost. It’s in the Red Room where all these literal manifestations of trauma come to the fore. “This room is like the heart of the house. No, not a heart – a stomach.”
In the series’ closing episodes, all of our surviving Crain children converge in the Red Room where the house puts them each to a mental test. They must confront their literal and metaphorical ghosts. For Steve, he must confront his concern over his family’s tainted bloodline when he experiences a Room 1408 moment and is transported into the future where he got out of the Hill House alive – complete with a happy, pregnant wife. That is, until he realizes he never left the house, and his wife’s baby becomes a literal rot splitting open her stomach. Yeah, it’s pretty gruesome. Shirley, on the other hand, must confront her inability to “fix” everything, including her personal shortcomings. And she does so by reliving her own secret affair. “You did it, and you liked it, and you just decided not to look at it. Now, that’s you all over. Shirley never wants to look.”
Things are even worse for Theo, as she grapples with her self-imposed emotional isolation. While on the bed with her casual lover, Theo loses her ability to feel anything at all and a thousand hands drag her down. And Luke? Well, Luke, is transported back in time – back to the tea party with his mom, his twin Nell, and his childhood friend. Luke, glimpsing a life without the pain of addiction or the death of the three people closest to him, is tempted to sit down and give in. That is, until Nell saves him, — “Go.” “Why would you want your brother to go? He just got here. Have a seat.” “Don’t!” — exactly as she saves all the Crain children by pulling them out of their nightmares.
Now, some of you might think that Nell swooping in is a deus ex machina ending. But as story guru/Wisecrack favorite Dan Harmon would tell you, the characters in this portion of the story have “earned it.” By confronting the worst parts of themselves and their past, they’ve grown as people, and the universe is responding by throwing them a lifeline in the form of Nell. Case in point, Nell literally forgives each of one them, before stressing the importance of love. “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.”
After Nell disappears, the father exchanges his life in order to free his children, and the group escapes. Having conquered both their literal and metaphorical ghosts, the Crains then go on to lead fulfilling lives free of the supernatural. Steve reconciles with his expectant wife, Shirley comes clean with her husband, Theo throws her gloves away and commits to a real relationship, and Luke hits the two years sober mark surrounded by his siblings. In showing us these happy endings, The Haunting of Hill House is firmly making a statement that there is light in the darkness – that trauma can be overcome. It’s like what Steve said about fear, “We yield to it, or we fight it. But we cannot meet it halfway.”
And if surrounded by family or love, perhaps we can face it directly. So what do you guys think? Is The Haunting of Hill House really that scary? Or is its use of ghosts that much of a departure from the horror genre? Well, drop us a line in the comments and let us know.