Every parent is terrified that they cannot keep their children safe. The idea that something awful might happen to a son or daughter is petrifying; the notion that you could be helpless to protect them from it is devastating.
The horror genre has exploited that fear repeatedly over the years. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, American Horror Story: Murder House, this year’s A Quiet Place and Hereditary: All of these play directly or indirectly on the concerns and inadequacies parents feel about their ability to be their kids’ keepers. So do the two most buzzy fright fests out right now: the Halloween remake starring Jamie Lee Curtis, currently the No. 1 movie at the box office, and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. Both focus on mental illness and inherited trauma, as well as mothers so consumed with worry about their children’s safety that they wind up separated or estranged from them.
Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, of course) and Hill House matriarch Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) may be fixated on the well-being of their offspring in a context that involves ghosts and murderous mental patients. But as parents contemplate the array of potential real-life horrors that may await their kids in the immediate or distant future, it’s easy to relate to these women as reflections of ourselves and our anxieties.
Typically, the best way to solve the problems that come with living in a haunted house is to get the hell out of the haunted house. The Haunting of Hill House subverts that idea by revealing early on that, despite having left Hill House years ago, the Crain children are still seeing specters and suffering psychologically well into their adult years. The series also presents Olivia as a mother who’s more afraid of letting her children stray beyond the Hill House property line than she is of keeping them inside, where all those hidden ghosts creep around.
That’s a basic parental instinct: The closer I keep all my little ducklings to me, the safer they will be. But the longer the Crains stay in that mansion in the summer of 1992, the more mentally and emotionally unstable Olivia becomes. Her husband Hugh (Henry Thomas) eventually packs up their five children and flees, leaving his wife there to die — she ultimately commits suicide — after she kills Abigail Dudley, the daughter of the Hill House caretakers, and nearly does the same to some of her own children.
The series suggests that Olivia is driven to this point by a combination of preexisting mental-health issues and the paranormal activity at Hill House that possesses her spirit. It certainly doesn’t help when she imagines her twins, Nell and Luke, laying out the circumstances of their futures — an early death for Nell, a slow poisoning for Luke that manifests itself in the form of alcohol and drugs — and blaming their mother for their fates.
“It was you that killed us,” little Nell tells Olivia in what reveals itself to be a hallucination, “because you sent us out there in the night, in the dark.”
“I always thought our whole job was getting them ready for the world,” Olivia says later to Mrs. Dudley (Annabeth Gish). “But I don’t know why — I look at my little ones right now and I just feel terror at them outside those walls.” She tries to assert control over these thoughts, breezily noting that this is just irrational anxiety talking. But Mrs. Dudley corrects her: “Stand firm between the world out there and these little souls, because the world out there has teeth. And it is hungry and it is stupid and it eats mindlessly. It doesn’t care that they’re innocent.”
Olivia takes these words, and the words she imagines Nell saying, quite literally. What she can’t grasp is that “the night” and “the dark” may not refer to what’s literally out there beyond Hill House, but how the world will feel to her children after she’s gone. The best thing Olivia could do to help them avoid that sense of doom is to loosen her grip and, first and foremost, remove all of them from this disturbing living situation. (Seriously: As soon as my kid got stuck in a dumbwaiter for more than five minutes, I would have been all the way up out of that house.) But like many overprotective parents, Olivia can’t see that. The greatest danger to the Crain children in that haunted house isn’t what’s in the basement, or the ghosts lurking around every corner. It’s what the house is doing to their mother.
In a sense, horror will find the Crains no matter what they do. If they stay in the house, they will be forced to fight for their lives against a mother who has lost her grip on reality. But by leaving, their father signs them up for a lifetime of grief caused by the loss of their mom, as well as his own eventual abandonment.
Inevitability also is a major theme in the new Halloween, even though there’s no haunted house from which to escape — there’s only Michael Myers and he’s going to find you no matter what you do. Laurie Strode knows this and has prepared accordingly, stocking her house with ammo and locking it down with some of the sturdiest bolts money can buy.
Laurie shares some things in common with Olivia, too. As a young mother, she was afraid of what might sink its teeth into her daughter Karen. She worried so much that she overstepped in her attempt to teach Karen to protect herself, giving her access to actual weapons and eventually losing custody of her. Laurie also has some mental-health issues of her own: She’s isolated, paranoid, and at least moderately agoraphobic. All of this has driven a wedge between her and an adult Karen (Judy Greer), who has lost patience with her mom’s behavior and makes it harder for Laurie to forge a bond with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). When we first encounter Laurie in Halloween, she’s like Olivia at the end of her time in Hill House: a woman left behind in her own home by her own family.
But where Olivia is fragile and jittery, Laurie is determined. While she’s concerned for Karen and Allyson, what fuels her isn’t fear so much as anger, and a desire to face the beast that she jabbed in the eye with a coat hanger 40 years ago.
What ultimately bridges the distance between mother, daughter, and granddaughter in Halloween is the night when Michael finally tracks down Laurie and her kin. It’s in that moment of fighting back against this disturbed psychopath who wreaked havoc on Laurie’s psyche that these three women come together as a family. This new Halloween has been characterized as the #MeToo Halloween, and nothing illustrates that more strongly than the reconciliation of Laurie and Karen, which only takes place when they are forced to form a united front against an abusive man.
The takeaway from Halloween differs from The Haunting of Hill House because this movie tells us that Laurie was right: right to be paranoid, right to turn her house into a fortress, and even right to make sure her kid knew how to use a gun, because Michael Myers does come back just like she always said he would. (#BelieveWomen. #AlsoAlwaysBelieveLaurieStrode.)
For obvious reasons, we shouldn’t take literal parenting advice from Halloween — teaching your kids to use guns, even if that pays off 30 years later, is not a good idea — or from The Haunting of Hill House, in which Olivia and Hugh repeatedly blow off their children’s concerns about the weird stuff that keeps happening in their blatantly spooky palace. But the best kind of horror always provides an exaggerated setting in which to process our own fears. Every parent worries about the dangers their children will encounter and whether they’ll be okay, and in both Halloween and The Haunting of Hill House (which ends on quite a hopeful and saccharine note for a horror series), we see that Laurie’s daughter and Olivia’s kids ultimately do find some peace and happiness. I hesitate to describe either of these stories as comforting, but there is some comfort in that.
There’s also a familiar sense of relief that sets in after watching horror stories like these, because at least you can feel confident that your children don’t have to worry about living in a haunted manor or trying to fend off a serial killer in a William Shatner mask. (I mean: probably.) But that relief is also met by a sense of dread, because the threats that exist in the real world and make us want to hold our children close — threats like mass shootings and climate change and, for many, the possibility that ICE could show up at the front door — are much scarier than anything lurking in the halls of Hill House or the tree-lined streets of Haddonfield, Illinois. Watching these worried moms acts as a release valve for some of those fears. But it also acts as affirmation. Laurie Strode and Olivia Crain are both in a heightened state of alert that makes us feel less alone and, particularly while watching Halloween, a little less irrational for feeling that way ourselves.