The Haunting of Hill House
Tag: opinion

The Haunting of Hill House and its portrayal of family dysfunction

Contributed by
Oct 22, 2018

In every shadowy corner of The Haunting of Hill House lurks a ghost. Some are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spirits, which will have you reaching for the remote to see if it was just your imagination. Others linger, tapping a walking stick or hovering above one of the Crain kids. Eldest son Steve (Michiel Huisman/Paxton Singleton) has a lot of theories about what a ghost is; in fact, he's made a whole career about writing about them.

Steve uses his family’s supernatural notoriety for inspiration, despite thinking the whole thing is nonsense cooked up by the mind as a substitute for something else — a memory, a daydream, or a way of processing trauma. Monsters are often manifestations of actions inflicted by a flesh-and-blood person.   

Major spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House below.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix 

Ghosts-as-trauma is a played-out metaphor — a spirit is often a stand-in for grief in horror. In Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, however, creator Mike Flanagan takes the location of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name and crafts something that is both terrifying and left me sobbing into the glass of wine that doubled as the object I hid behind (I have very big wine glasses). This version of Hill House explores the relationship dynamics of a dysfunctional family stemming from the real ghosts and personal demons that haunt them.

As with tear-fest This Is Us, there are two distinct timelines showing us the cause and effect of grief, something that at times threatens to envelop this family. The events of the summer of 1992, when the Crain family lived in Hill House, are revealed bit-by-bit alongside present-day sequences — as well as other significant moments in the siblings’ adulthood.

The Pearson siblings lose their father in This Is Us when they are 17; in Hill House, matriarch Olivia (Carla Gugino) dies during that fateful summer. The twins are only six, and Steve, the eldest, is barely a teen at the time. Not only does their mother die in mysterious circumstances, but they effectively lose their father in the process. Hugh (Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton) has always said he can fix things, but he is so utterly broken at the thought of raising his five children alone.    

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix 

Traditional gender roles are reinforced within Hugh and Olivia’s relationship; she is the artistic dreamer, he is the practical maker. The reason they are living in Hill House is so they can flip it and turn a pretty handsome profit. Of course, this doesn’t happen, but along the way, Olivia's dreamer tendencies are magnified, which in turn increases Hugh’s desire to fix everything. But he can’t solve the mold crisis that is threatening to financially ruin them, and he can’t save his wife from the sinister spirits preying on her fears. In the present day, Hugh still converses with his wife as if nothing has ever changed; here, she takes on a nurturing role, as she did in life.

Five children of varying ages attempting to process the events of that summer results in some pretty traditional coping mechanisms. Big brother Steve follows in his father’s footsteps; he wants to maintain some semblance of control, and he does not want to admit anything supernatural took place. He's temporarily put in charge of his siblings, but when it comes down to it, he sleeps through all of the commotions on the night, so instead, he tries to fill in the blanks with his book, which only severs those links further. He is repeating the sins of their father; however, Steve reveals too much when their father refused to explain what happened.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix 

Money has a habit of fracturing families — in this case, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser/Lulu Wilson) thinks her brother is picking over the corpse of their mother with his words. The substantial royalties he offers are akin to blood money, and at Shirley’s behest, they refuse his offer until they go behind her back to take the cash.

Nell (Victoria Pedretti/Violet McGraw) is the youngest of the five — her twin brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen/Julian Hilliard) is 90 seconds older — and she has suffered from sleep paralysis since the summer in Hill House. Luke uses drugs as a way to banish the ghosts which have stayed with him since their mother almost poisoned himself and his twin sister.

The bowler hat-wearing spirit — who looks like a cousin of the Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer — continues to tap his cane in Luke’s presence. Six-year-old Luke once counted to seven (one number for each Crain) as a way to ward off demons, and adult Luke does this as well, but heroin is his backup solution to this particular ghost-seeing affliction.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix 

Building walls is another metaphor employed by Mike Flanagan in this adaptation; as with other aspects of this show, this is both literal and figurative. This house takes each character’s anxiety and amplifies it; being scared of what horrors await your kids as they grow older is natural. If a solution is offered, then wouldn’t you take it — even if it sounds wildly implausible at first? The fear of being alone is not uncommon, but what happens when none of your family can see you? No matter your place in the pecking order, each sibling will likely have their own insecurities. As the youngest in my family, I know I definitely do.

Theo (Kate Siegel/Mckenna Grace) is the middle child of five, and she also happens to be the one who has a unique set of skills that set her apart from her brothers and sisters. When Theo touches another person or object, she is able to discern the history of an item or what emotion someone is feeling; she also feels constantly cold in Hill House, despite the blazing sunshine.

In “Touch,” her mother reveals the women in their family are “sensitive,” a euphemism for being able to sense things others cannot. For Olivia, her migraines reveal images, Shirley’s present themselves while she is sleeping and Nell unknowingly sees visions of her death. Because Theo’s ability cannot be shut off, her mother gifts her with the ability to choose when to feel; gloves stop this psychic connection. As the middle child, Theo is at times isolated, and her ability has made her hardened to anyone trying to penetrate the barriers she builds to protect herself.  

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix 

Jockeying for the title of Biggest Skeptic is Shirley. As with Steve, her career is directly impacted by that summer; she remembers the kindness of the funeral director in her moment of despair during her mom’s funeral and she follows this same path. She also puts her adult energy into crafting the perfect family — a concept that doesn’t really exist. Her mother never got to build the “Forever Home” of her dreams; it only exists in sketch and miniature form, but Shirley tries to keep this dream alive. Her perfect facade crumbles around the same time the “Forever Home” model is smashed to pieces.

The foreboding Red Room presents itself in different guises for each family member. In Shirley’s version she sees a perfect family room to keep her well-curated photographs. This blinkered approach is one way to ignore the cracks. Her parents’ happy marriage suffered a blip early on when it was just them and Steve. The man Shirley keeps seeing raising a glass to her isn’t a dude she accidentally killed in a DUI hit-and-run — this was my early theory. Instead, he is a guy with whom she had an illicit one-night-stand; to Shirley, admitting her shortcomings and potentially ruining her marriage is scarier than any spirit.

Ghosts can be scary, but feeling powerless against the things that threaten to destroy our loved ones is truly terrifying. The Haunting of Hill House serves up spirits aplenty, which will make you jump and shriek at your screen. However, what makes Mike Flanagan’s adaptation resonate long after images of the bowler-hat-wearing gentleman have (hopefully) disappeared is the way it not only captures painful moments threatening to break a family unit apart but how it also shows the strength in siblings standing together. 

Make Your Inbox Important

Get our newsletter and you’ll be delivered the most interesting stories, videos and interviews weekly.

Sign-up breaker