MHAM: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and the Journey of a Family Through Trauma

I’m sorry I didn’t talk, and I’m sorry I didn’t listen, and I’m sorry I wasn’t there. And it’s the regret of my life, I’m so, so sorry, that I couldn’t fix it.”

The Haunting of Hill House, has left an everlasting mark on the horror genre. With its ten episodes oscillating back and forth between past and present, we discover the story of the Crain family. Director Mike Flanagan explores the complicated emotional dynamics of family relationships, in which every heated conversation and every word unsaid are part of a much bigger puzzle. At the beginning, upon moving into the Hill House manor for the summer, the Crains are a harmonious family, composed of the parents Olivia and Hugh, and their children ; Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke and Eleanor, who all have very distinct personalities and different ways to envision the world.

What these characters have yet to find out is that the house is but a dangerous force that will influence their lives forever.

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people, or for love, or for hope.”

The Haunting of Hill House is a mastery of storytelling and psychological horror. What was first promoted as a haunted house, poltergeist type of story ends up entangling you in a family’s journey through trauma. The ghosts haunting the characters turn out to be not only spiritual manifestations of lives past, but metaphors for all the pain the family went through; grief, anger, guilt, but also memories and daydreams. Everything that these characters experience in the house, they proceed to carry with them as they grow up and the ghosts reveal themselves to be the impact of these occurrences on their adult life.

Image courtesy of Netflix
Still of the entire family gathered around Nellie (Violet McGraw) inside the house, looking worried

When I first started watching the series, I expected a good scare and maybe a couple of nightmares, and while there were some solid daunting, hair-rising-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments, I found myself navigating through a disconnected family’s hardships, heartbreaks, and all that was left unsaid. Anticipating the fear to linger on after finishing the series, I was left with a longing heartache at the reality of everything that is portrayed.
The true horror element of the series turns out to be the trauma that the characters accumulated, and that is what truly haunts them. The cryptic depiction of mental illness is unexpected but all the more welcome.

Grief, Anger, Guilt

The show first uses grief as the baseline for its exploration of mental health. During the summer they spent in the manor, Olivia is chased by the manor’s ghosts, former inhabitants of the house, who toy with her conscience and plant in her mind the idea that her children are not safe in the outside world and that she won’t be able to protect them from all the evil and hurt they will experience in the future. After fighting against her motherly instinct, she eventually relinquishes and ends her own life by jumping from a three story staircase, pushed to the brink by her growing paranoia and by the spirits feeding into her fear.

After this event, the lives of every Crain member are forever changed. Her husband Hugh is falsely accused of her murder and loses custody of the children, who are taken under their aunt’s wing. The kids are thrown into a foreign environment and have to deal with the grief of losing both their parents without any explanation. However, Olivia wasn’t the only one in her family to come across these malevolent manifestations. The youngest of the group, Theodora, along with Luke and Nellie, were targeted by mysterious spirits when they were children – Luke being woken up with a tall man with a hat, and Nellie being followed around by the Bent-Neck Lady -, and are still haunted by them during their adult life, thus originating the debate as to whether it truly is ghosts the characters are dealing with, or a hereditary tendency for mental illness

Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino), image courtesy of Netflix
Still of Olivia (Carla Gugino) outside the house, carrying a purple box

The Crains’ family is one of support, understanding and communication, where each member finds their place. But after the loss of their mother, that very balance is put at risk. In the present, the Crains are but a mere shadow of what they once were. They have grown apart rather than together and there is an evident lack of communication, which stems from the fact that their father never got the chance to – and made the decision not to – explain what truly happened that fateful night. While the subject of Hill House and their childhood is often thrown into the conversation, it is plagued with what each of the siblings hide from each other, what they have buried deep and refuse to face.

I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”

Steven is the oldest of the children, and when he was younger, he took his responsibility as a big brother very seriously. He was the one who took it upon himself to comfort the twins, Luke and Nellie, whenever they woke from a nightmare. He was the one to soothe their fears and, taking after his father, the one always willing to help out and fix what needed fixing.
Being the oldest at the time, he seems to be the one who remembers the most about what happened after the tragedy, such as appointments with his father’s lawyer, the nefarious media coverage of their family’s misfortune, and eventually, the loss of his father. Hugh, in order to hide the truth from his children, has led them to imagine a reality of their own, willing to take the blame of their mother’s death upon himself.

Steve ends up growing up with the idea that what caused it all was his father’s failure to make his marriage work, and this leads Steve to sabotage his own. Contemplating what mental illness has put his family through, he decides he doesn’t want to see children of his own turn out that way, and gets a vasectomy, which ends up ruining his marriage with his wife, Leigh.

Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman), image courtesy of Netflix
Still of actor Michiel Huisman playing Steven

He is the one who, as an adult, isolates himself from his siblings the most. Convinced that he is the only one who didn’t experience anything supernatural during their stay in Hill House, he denies its existence and blames it instead on a hereditary condition. Steve feels rejected, unable to connect with his siblings’ consensus of shared trauma and  estranged himself from his family, all the while growing an insidious obsession with the paranormal.

Steve dedicates his life to writing about haunted houses and poltergeists, one of them being about Hill House, although still denying the very existence of these things. He harbours it all within a realistic, cynical perspective and abandons his big brother role, leaving it up to Shirley to fix what is broken among them – and she never misses the opportunity to remind him of that.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

As a child, Shirley was very solitary and independent, always needing what her mother describes as “Shirley space”, but that didn’t stop her from being compassionate, willing and considerate towards her family. As an adult, this exacerbates, when she takes upon Steven’s role as the big sister, paying for Luke’s numerous rehab visits, answering Nellie’s nervous phone calls, all the while maintaining her life as a married woman, mother of two, and owner of a mortuary center.

She is determined, opinionated and a woman of authority. The cold exterior that she had built for herself expands, she is not the kind to confide or share her feelings, following the precedent set by her father for all these years. Her frustration with him, with her siblings’ slip ups and with the enormous unresolved hole in the middle of her life where her childhood should be turns into built up anger. Shirley tries to keep up with the image of the perfect woman, the perfect big sister, who has her life all figured out, hoping to set an example for her siblings. But this image is also used as a defence mechanism, a safe grounded image that she can reflect back to herself in times of doubt. Unfortunately, all of the responsibilities she faces cause this facade to eventually break, and it leads her to make mistakes she doesn’t dare admit to herself. She is haunted by the face of the man she cheated on her husband with, a crack in the facade, an unforgivable mistake she bears with her.

Shirley Crain (Elizabeth Reaser), image courtesy of Netflix
Still of Shirley sitting at her office desk

Shirley’s unwillingness to open up and own up to her mistakes stems from a feeling of being unsupported, of being the only one holding her life and the lives of the ones around her together. Fearing that it would all come crumbling down if she’d ever let herself be vulnerable, she persuades herself to keep it all hidden.

I’m sorry I didn’t talk.”

Theodora is the middle child, which influences a great deal of her personality. She balances between her two older siblings Steven and Shirley, both highly rational, mature and who lead with reason, and the twins Luke and Nellie, both highly sensitive and imaginative. Growing up, she struggled with her place in the family, looking after the twins and trying to take after Steven and Shirley, all the while becoming her own person. Theodora is a very understanding, bold and strong-willed child, who grew to develop these traits into womanhood.

In her childhood, Theodora sometimes suffered with being misunderstood herself, or not being able to express how she felt, not daring to wear her emotions on her sleeve. She grew secretive, reserved, but that doesn’t necessarily make her closed off. She is easy-going, forgiving, attentive and protective, and she will let you in, but as soon as it becomes too much, the wall will come up and she will ice you out. She knows exactly what she wants and goes after it, but also knows what she needs and is very protective of her own space and intimacy, priding herself in being able to draw boundaries where they are due.

Theodora Crain (Kate Siegel), image courtesy of Netflix

Losing both her parents turned her into a very self-sufficient woman, independent and relying only on herself to make the right decisions. In the present, she has a PhD in Psychology, collects one night stands, and seems overall satisfied with her carefree lifestyle. Shirley, however, wishes for her to find something more stable than a different woman every night, someone to settle with – something Theodora isn’t ready for. Once again, she oscillates between her two older siblings, married and settled into supposedly good lives, and the twins, young enough to still be figuring things out but too troubled to be able to. She still needs to experience things, and find the right person that will bring that wall down and let themselves in.

And it’s the regret of my life.”

Luke was always looking up to his siblings as a child, very dependent on the people around him. He was very fearful, of life and of what he experienced in the house, and that didn’t change as he grew up. He is deeply traumatized by the ghosts that followed him around, still seeing some of them in the present. The death of his mother and the loss of his father at such a young age left an everlasting mark on him, and he has a great deal of trouble finding a safe place to land.

Luke Crain (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), image courtesy of Netflix

He develops an addiction to heroin, and basically anything that will get him through the day without being crippled by his ominous anxiety. No matter how many times he checks into rehab, or how hard he tries to make it work and stick with it, his coping mechanisms aren’t enough to uphold him, and he ends up relapsing. For all his life, he has latched onto people and relied on them to keep him safe and sane. But as life goes on and his older siblings build lives of their own, there is less and less place for him, and he can’t figure out how to live life alone.

His siblings sacrifice a great deal for him and he shelters himself in excuses and promises to repay them. But he lives with the ongoing impression of being a burden and a disappointment to all the people who root for him to succeed. Except for Eleanor.

Since they were born, Luke and Nellie developed what they call the “twin thing”, a bond that enables them to feel what the other is feeling at all times, both psychologically and physically. They came into the world together and lived all of their childhood tied to the hip, both dependent on each other, which made it difficult to build separate lives. Nellie grows equally codependent, and her bond with Luke turns a bit toxic when he gets involved with substance and relies on her to ground him. Nellie is just as fearful and sensitive as her brother and is similarly haunted by a childhood ghost, the Bent-Neck Lady, and struggles with sleep paralysis. When she finally meets her to-be-husband Arthur Vance, a sympathetic, funny and grounding presence in her life, she finds a way to get over her past fears and grows a confidence that she had been lacking for so long. But after his sudden death, Nellie is sent spiraling back into fear and isolation.

Eleanor “Nellie” Crain (Victoria Pedretti), image courtesy of Netflix
Still of Nellie in her wedding dress looking up at Steven

Her fear grows into paranoia and depression, she seeks professional therapeutic help and goes on many treatment trials for her disorders. But with her life in free fall, feeling unsupported by her older siblings who have busier lives to attend to and by Luke, who is too set into his own struggles to help her out with her own, she ends up taking her own life, lured by the supposed spirit of her deceased mother and the hope of reuniting with her husband.

I’m so sorry that I couldn’t fix it.”

Steven is the only one who finds out the truth about his mother’s death from his father. We as a viewer, go through the journey of figuring out the events, but it is unclear if his siblings ever get to know what truly happened. But the thing is, that is not what truly matters.

In the end, Nellie’s death brings the whole family together for better or for worse. Communication seems impossible, and the consequences of all these years of silence come to light, but it is the loss that puts things into perspective. The misplaced anger and resentment they accumulated dissipates once they are faced with the pain of losing each other. They learn to be accepting, open to each other’s’ flaws and ways of coping with what they individually went through, and learn to respect it in order to grow back together.

Image courtesy of Netflix
Still of the siblings and their partners gathered around the table, Luke is at the center in front of a red cake with a “2” candle, celebrating his sobriety

The Haunting of Hill House deals with ghosts, creatures of the night hidden under your bed, mysterious knocks on the wall and whispers along corridors when no one is actually there. But it also delivers an incredibly nuanced depiction of mental illness and family dynamics, of the influence of childhood trauma on growth. It deals with acceptance, asking for help and being vulnerable in the face of hardships.