The Haunting of Hill House Elizabeth Reaser

The Haunting of Hill House's Elizabeth Reaser spent a lot of time angry and looking at corpses

Contributed by
Nov 3, 2018

Don’t the actors playing the Crains in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House all share an uncanny resemblance? So uncanny, in fact, that Elizabeth Reaser’s own father once mistook his actress daughter for another member of the Hill House cast.

Although Reaser became part of director Mike Flanagan’s revolving troupe of actors in Ouija: Origin of Evil, she didn’t team up with him on his next film, Gerald’s Game. But when her father saw a poster for the film, he got upset that his daughter hadn’t told him about this latest gig— even though the woman he saw on the poster was actually Carla Gugino. “I’m incredibly flattered,” Reaser told us, laughing. “If there is someone to look like, I’m happy for it to be her.”

Gugino, of course, now plays Reaser’s mother in Hill House, and the young actress who played Reaser’s daughter in Ouija now plays the younger version of her character, Shirley Crain. “It’s convincing that we are a family,” Reaser said. “And when it’s believable, then you become invested in these characters.” Reaser chatted with SYFY WIRE about the angry, guilty, and morbid side of Shirley Crain.

I don’t know if this was something you guys talked about on set, or if you even realized it at the time, but each of the Crain siblings seems to represent a different stage of grief, according to birth order: Steven is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Yeah! Someone told me about that recently, but we never discussed it. And I don’t analyze scripts that way. I sort of have more perspective on it now, months later, but at the time, it never would have occurred to me. But it’s so interesting. It’s interesting to see how audiences and people like you who are critical thinkers sort of interpret it, especially for me just having been inside something where I have no way of having an outside perspective on it, and then to come out the other side and see how it’s received.

I think it’s interesting dramaturgically and from a writing standpoint. It’s something to ponder. There were so many different things that I experienced in Shirley’s grief, and yes, it’s truly very angry at times. One of the things that I love about her is that she’s sort of unapologetically angry, and I don’t think we see that very often, and it was really fun to play. I just loved that about her. I felt like it was really honest.

But I also felt like she was really broken. I think she was trying to just survive. And of course, when you’re dealing with your family and the things you grew up with, you can regress. It can be impossible to express yourself sometimes, when you’re with your family. But at the same time, you can express yourself more truly in other ways. In the course of the series, we captured Shirley for about three days, save for the flashbacks.

And those three days, apart from her mother dying and losing her father to his own grief, are probably the worst three days of her life. So she’s going through something that could not be more heightened or devastating. I’m fascinated by how people respond to her – and her anger.

Shirley is a mortician, yes, but part of her job is also counseling people. Do you think that contributed to her outpouring of emotion, that’s she had to repress her own feelings in service of others for so long?

Oh, absolutely. I think that’s absolutely what was going on, and that’s what I was playing, because I think most people who are not actors don’t want to have emotion. I think actors are more comfortable with it. But most people want to resist feeling anything bad. And a big part of her job, as you mentioned, is helping grieving families. That’s as much a part of her job as it is embalming corpses and doing makeup on dead bodies. So she’s taking in all that grief on a daily basis, while also running a business and being a wife and mother. So she’s kind of ready to blow when this all comes down! [Laughs]

I’m really interested in how people behave when they’re trying not to fall apart. When they’re trying to survive situations that are horrific without falling apart. And then falling apart, which we all do. But she’s been trying desperately not to, her whole life.

Let’s talk about her nightmare vision in the Red Room, which reminds her that she cheated on her husband and takes her to her own funeral, where the funeral director reminds her of all the horrific things that go into “fixing” someone to look presentable for an open casket-service.

Yeah. I mean, that’s one of the really interesting things to bubble up from her unconscious, as part of her nightmare or Red Room experience. As soon as I was cast, they sent me just the most insane amount of embalming videos. I don’t even know how to describe it. Just terrifying. And so I watched embalming videos and autopsy videos, and I looked at photos of decaying bodies, how they do the makeup and all that stuff. In a way, I wish I hadn’t, but I also felt like it was my responsibility to do that. I wouldn’t recommend it, let’s put it that way. It was so awful, but it was unlike anything I would have ever put myself through, obviously.  

I also worked with a mortician in Georgia, who told me about the smell. She talked about the smell a lot. It was always just disgusting, working with dead bodies. Because I thought, maybe it’s overpowering, but maybe it lessens, or doesn’t hit you like that. And she said, “No, it never gets any better.” There are things in that work that are so grotesque and just beyond my imagination, things you don’t want to think about.

I can imagine. It’s not the same, but I’ve watched videos of surgeries being performed, and those can be intense and grotesque.

Oh god, yeah. It’s like watching a horror movie! And it’s worse when the body is decomposing! And depending on where the body is found, and what the temperature is inside or outside, and how long it’s been decomposing. It could be in various stages of decay, obviously. And that is really horrific, and just when you open up a body and see those things… I mean, I remember the mortician saying that she is a very healthy person, in terms of what she eats and her exercise regiment, because she has seen what fat looks like inside a body. I won’t describe it to you, but it was awful.

It’s just the kind of thing you would never think about. Why would you? But it’s interesting, the people who work that close to death. I admire the courage that they have, because my brain really can’t carry that around for very long without going crazy. I mean, you start to get sick thinking about it.      

So I thought it was really an interesting thing for Shirley to connect all that imagery with her own guilt, because she’s been carrying this guilt around that felt like, to her, as if she had murdered someone. In her mind, it was like that. For Shirley, that betrayal was equated with the death or murder of someone – her husband, herself, her own self-esteem, her personal integrity. It’s a lie she had lived with. Maybe some people don’t think it’s that big of a deal? But I think for her, for me, for someone who can connect to that, it’s that idea. It’s really horrific.

So it’s interesting that it took her into her own funeral. It all goes back to the house, and her mother, and all the stuff that Shirley wanted to pretend wasn’t happening. She’s tried to escape from that sort of knowledge. Did you notice Shirley had that sleeptalking thing?

Yeah…

It went largely unexplored in the script, but there was the idea that she was sleeptalking. That Shirley was way more tapped into these things happening in the house than she realizes.

Are you a sleeptalker?

Yeah. I’ve actually been known for that my whole life, which is so weird. I used to go to sleepovers, and my friends would always laugh. My dad sleepwalks, but I’m a sleeptalker, and from what I understand, I still am.

Same. It’s always weird when people tell you back what you said in your sleep. Or worse, record it and play it back for you.

Oh, man! I would be so terrified. [Laughs] I mean, the idea that you could reveal something is so, so scary. But maybe it might be revealing in a good way. Revealing something about your subconscious. I think that stuff is fascinating. And it can be tricky, for the other person. It can be really scary. Or funny. [Laughs]

Well, it seems to be connected to the Red Room, because the Red Room taps into that same subconscious space where your dreams, your fears, and your shame reside.

It’s all wrapped up in that, and there’s no logic to it, in a way. I mean, it all makes sense, but the idea that I can go from being in that bar scene where I’m remembering the betrayal, to the thing where I have my own funeral, to seeing myself in the casket. It’s horrific. And it all makes sense. That was so intense to shoot, as you can imagine.

What was it like ripping your own face off?

[Laughs] I mean, it was crazy, because obviously some of it is effects, and a lot of it, I had to be doing in my own imagination. But it was really intense. There were different variations of prosthetics on my face. Like there was the time when there was nothing on my face, and then there was something to play with. Not to play with, that sounds gross, but to rip off with my own nails, to scrape with my fingernails. That was really gnarly. [Laughs] That was a scary thing to shoot, because you can’t fake that stuff.

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