This post contains spoilers about the ending of The Haunting of Hill House, so read on at your own peril.
While the tale of the Bent-Neck Lady and the hell she was trapped in was truly frightening, The Haunting of Hill House made it very clear that family trauma is the true horror. Yes, ghosts are absolutely terrifying, but the residual dysfunction after the violent death of your mother and devastating childhood pain? THE REAL NIGHTMARE FUEL. No Crain makes it out of Hill House unscathed, but the series does end on a positive note, with relationships mended, sobriety maintained, and walls coming down. While it may not have perfectly matched the tone of the rest of the series, I for one enjoyed seeing the Crain family find some happiness. After all that they had suffered and lost, don’t they deserve a little g*ddamn peace?
While the series has been largely lauded for its masterful directing, mind-blowing twists, and excellent performances, there were many who suggested that the series became “This Is Us with ghosts,” complete with the tragic death of a father while saving his children. After the family is drawn back to Hill House, they learn the true nature of the ominous Red Room: It had in fact been opened and had fashioned itself into the ideal space for each Crain, like a sinister Room of Requirement, in order to suck them into the House forever. After a violent struggle, the four remaining Crain children are able to escape the Red Room and leave the House behind for good after years of being haunted by ghosts both real and metaphorical.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, show creator Mike Flanagan explained why he chose a relatively upbeat ending for the Crains: “We toyed with the idea for a little while that over that monologue, over the image of the family together, we would put the Red Room window in the background. For a while, that was the plan. Maybe they never really got out of that room. The night before it came time to shoot it, I sat up in bed, and I felt guilty about it. I felt like it was cruel. That surprised me. I'd come to love the characters so much that I wanted them to be happy. I came in to work and said, ‘I don't want to put the window up. I think it’s mean and unfair.’ Once that gear had kicked in, I wanted to lean as far in that direction as possible. We've been on this journey for 10 hours; a few minutes of hope was important to me.”
A short fast-forward in time showed a family that was healing, with Steve (Michiel Huisman) and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser)’s formerly crumbling marriages back on solid ground, Theo (Kate Siegel) finding lasting love, and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) reaching two years sober. Was it a little too tidy? Maybe. Could Luke really have survived overdosing with rat poison? Um, probably not. However, if we can suspend disbelief enough to believe in ghosts, we sure as hell can accept happy endings for these characters that we’ve come to care about.
After nine episodes of the Crain family suffering, the fact that the finale offered them a modicum of peace was not unearned. After the loss of Olivia (Carla Gugino) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) to the dark power of the House, it would have been absolutely crushing to realize that the sacrifice of Hugh (Timothy Hutton) to save the rest of his children had been for nothing. While the realization that they are still in the Red Room would have been an arresting visual and an emotional knife to the gut, what would have been the long-term message? That no matter how hard you fight, you’ll never escape the pain that you’ve been dealt?
If they had never escaped from the Red Room, Nell’s quest to save her siblings and her final speech would have been unbearably devastating. The sensitive girl who had lost so much just wanted her family to know that she loved them despite everything (I fully expect to tear up whenever I see confetti now) and wanted to save them from the House’s horrible “stomach.” Having her fail in that venture would have been needlessly cruel. The House had already consumed so much. It was time to leave it to starve.
Not to make everything political (an increasingly difficult task in 2018), but the world is exceedingly harsh right now. For the horror of Hill House to remain unrelenting until the very end would have been a little too on brand for the times, so to speak. I’m not sure when hope became uncool, but I am more than willing to accept a few tonal shifts in service of the ultimate message. The emotional payoff was certainly earned and didn’t feel cheap after all of the turmoil. Yes, life can be absolutely awful, but there are still moments of grace. The fact that the Crains actually get to live to see that grace sets the show apart from the bleakness of so much current pop culture that the twist manages to even feel fresh. I am all for television reflecting how the world is, but sometimes it’s refreshing to see how it could be.
Instead of leaning into the soul weariness caused by nearly ten hours of dread, Mike Flanagan chose to leave us with a little peace. Should we be looking for happy endings in horror? Probably not, but it sure is a balm to find at least one.