After countless friends told me that I needed to watch it, I finally made my way through the Netflix original series, "The Haunting of Hill House." I'm a fan of horror, but I'll admit, I wasn't in a hurry to watch ten episodes of what I thought would be predictable scares. I guess I felt like I'd seen all that there is to see about a haunted house. I was happy to be proven very, very wrong. I expected a horror series - a haunted house, a few good jump scares, a hint of family drama - but by the end of the last episode, I was left with the weight of much, much more.
"Houses... are alive. This is something we know. News from our nerve endings. If we're quiet, if we listen, we can hear houses breath. Sometimes, in the depth of the night, you can even hear them groan. It's as if they were having bad dreams. A good house cradles and comforts, a bad one fills us with instinctive unease. Bad houses hate our warmth and our human-ness. That blind hate of our humanity is what we mean when we use the word haunted." -Stephen King, "Rose Red"
*At this point, I have to preface that there may be spoilers in this post, so please refrain from reading on until finishing the series.
When it comes to storytelling, I am almost 100% driven by characters. A good plot helps, sure, but give me solid character development, and I'm sold. Maybe this is a naïve way to approach film, but it's how I've always been. Hill House is a setting - a catalyst even - but after the first episode, it's clear that this house is not just frightening from the outside, but disturbed in its own soul. It functions as both a place and a personality. Hill House quickly becomes a character all its own, and eventually becomes one that merits both fear and compassion, caution and care. Sure, it's haunted, but so is everyone that is a part of its life. Once I could see this place through the lens of character, I realized I was in the thicket of a very different story than I anticipated.
Aside from the exceptional production, unique scene transitions, and eclectic cast, the 10-episode series remarkably displays heavy themes in a necessarily uncomfortable manner.
I have incredible respect for a director who can take their audience outside of the timeline on which our conscious minds function. When a filmmaker can suspend my perception of time and allow me to engage on a different cognitive level, I'm truly immersed in their story, and I am an anxious consumer of their art. Hill House breaks the barrier of human time and operates outside of a linear timeline, offering a unique understanding of life beyond humanity - life in respect to the divine nature of the universe.
The Crain family is haunted from the beginning, and later discovers that the ghosts they encountered as children are their future selves returning to the house to confront their monsters.
Of course, they witness other ghosts and phenomena along the way, but as the audience learns more about the history of the house, the more present time makes sense. The past creates the present, and - the part we don't always recognize - the present creates the past.
Our perspective of the past is seen through the lens of the present, whether we've overcome trauma or been crushed by events. Where we've ended up almost always colors the way that our memories formulate the emotional nature of our history. While it is true that we can't change objective facts, our subjectivism is manifested involuntarily. This is what it is to be human. I use "emotional" in a way that refers to the mental and metaphysical state of being, rather than the external factors that build facts. It is fluid, rather than solid, and it is influenced, rather than caused. This facet of experience is also directly tied to the definition of "supernatural."
The youngest of the Crain family, Nell, experiences this reality in the most potent way. She watches as her older siblings rationalize their past to create a present that is more bearable, and she returns to face the truth that would be all-consuming. Nell learns for all of the Crains that reality, emotion, and the human experience cannot be contained within a human's understanding. These things are far bigger than our mental or biological makeup, and as full of sorrow as it may be, the truth is worth seeing in its wholeness.
"I thought for so long that time was like a line, that our moments were laid out like dominoes, and that they fell, one into another, and on it went - just days tipping, one into the next, into the next - in a long line between the beginning and the end. But I was wrong. It's not like that at all. Our moments fall around us like rain." - Nell Crain
Hill House forces its subjects to face the truth so that it can remain alive. It feeds off of human life, and like any predator, it uses fear as a tactic to trap and prey on those who are vulnerable.
The kids' mother, Olivia Crain, is the first to succumb to her fear and give in to Hill House. As she spends time inside its walls, that fear sprouts inside her, and she becomes increasingly horrified by the idea of sending her children into the world. The spirits in the house convinced her that they were all safe inside, and once they all "woke up" from such bad dreams, they would be at peace, unafraid. This fear waters that sprout and transforms it into something much stronger than her logic.
Accepting the truth in its wholeness requires courage in the face of inevitable fear. And yet, the truth is what brings peace. So, are fear and peace antitheses? Or is it fear and comfort that are at odds?
This question became more clear to me in a later scene, once Nell falls prey to Hill House and is "awoken" to the truth. Her spirit, mangled and broken from her death, is present in the funeral home, where her family prepares her service and listens to their father tell stories of the past. And in the midst of such a disturbing scene, her family cannot see her. It is horrifying for us, but for her family members, it is yet another occasion where fear of voices overpowers the ability to hear, and fear of sight overpowers the ability to see.
Why does this story work so well to evoke fear? Because it is a house, the place one should feel the most safe in the world. What happens when the house is the object to fear? The characters all search their entire lives to find what their childhood home could never offer them. Steven seeks a life where he can rewrite the story the way that he wants it to be, manufacturing security with a fictional understanding of the truth. Shirley seeks a career in comforting others in a way that she could not be comforted. Theo numbs the pain of being different with cynicism and sensuality that doesn't require commitment or true vulnerability. Nell finds her solace in her husband, a man that can help her combat the power the house has over her in her sleep. Luke self-medicates to cover the wounds of never being heard or believed. And Hugh carries his wife with him so he doesn't have to live without her, or wrestle with the conflict in his mind about whether he did the right thing.
Another question hit me - How often do we manufacture the missing pieces of our own history? None of the Crain children have a complete picture of the truth, and their relationships
suffer for it. No one can cope with the fear they've never really conquered. What could be conquered if we were willing to care for our fear or our doubt?
Ultimately, we fear loss. Loss of people. Loss of security. Loss of hope. That is why "The Haunting of Hill House" can so easily pull on the strings of fear and loss in its audience simultaneously.
By the last episode, we learn that the red room is the stomach of the house; it changes to fit the desires of whoever is using it to slowly consume them. It provides whatever solace is needed. Olivia needs calm, and it is her reading room. Stephen needs an escape, and it is his game room. Shirley needs love, and it is her family room. Theo needs self-expression, and it is her dance studio. Luke needs acceptance, and it is his treehouse. Nell needs companionship, and it is her tea party room. While the losses we carry leave us fearful of the unknown, evil finds its way in and preys on our vulnerability with a false sense of fulfillment, just enough to relax in and give our weary souls over completely.
In the red room, each can be his or her most authentic self. And despite the grief of losing a loved one to the trap of fear and desire for comfort, as the Crain family experiences on more than one occasion, the greater grief is the loss of self it took to get there.
In the end, the oldest of the children, Steven, is left with the burden of Hill House and the secrets it carries. As I watched this, it weighed heavy on me, because grief is not meant to be a constant, immovable object. It is meant to be shared, processed, and navigated like the sea. Storms are meant to pass, and grief is meant to ebb and flow, never truly disappear, but inhale and exhale.
Loss is a glutton, and what happens when we don't process it? We're haunted...The more we blindly offer it our time and devotion, the more it will consume us. However, when we can offer it enough time that it needs - and only what it needs - and the care necessary to integrate into our lives, rather than the other way around, it becomes a lens that allows for sight into the true depth of what it means to live.