The Profound Grief of The Haunting of Hill House

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Spoilers below for Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and its ending.

Trauma builds walls. Left untended, they keep going up. Soon, you’re trapped in a house of its making: long hallways leading nowhere, empty rooms, doors that swing open and slam shut by the weather of your moods. You climb the stairs and shout through the windows, hungry for a way out, lost in the labyrinthine sinew of personal devastation. Some of us find an escape. Some of us don’t.

Netflix’s new ten-episode horror series, The Haunting of Hill House, uses Shirley Jackson’s famous novel as a road map to explore this house-as-body metaphor, and it does so with a profound and precise tenderness. Creator and director Mike Flanagan crafts a wholly unique haunted-house fable — abandoning the book’s paranormal investigation plot — using the hollow halls of a disordered mansion to tell the story of the disordered family who lives there. The hidden ghosts of Hill House aren’t nameless spooks trapped between spiritual realms; they are personal manifestations for the people they haunt, visual aids for the truths they must accept and vanquish. It’s not a paranormal story so much as a meditation on the distinct way grief and trauma maim the living. And it’s scary as hell.

Hill House follows the Crain family, who move into the eponymous mansion in the early ’90s with the intention of flipping it, selling it, and using the profit to build their “forever house.” Patriarch Hugh (Henry Thomas) is a loving, dedicated father and husband, and his wife Olivia (Carla Gugino) a dreamy free spirit with a maternal warmth that glows off the screen. Their five children — Steven (Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Lulu Wilson), Theodora (Mckenna Grace), and twins Nell and Luke (Violet McGraw and Julian Hilliard) — explore their new home, but are more trepidatious of it than their parents, feeding more directly off its malignity, seeing things only children might: specters in the dark, phantom bugs, rooms that shouldn’t exist. Hugh and Olivia initially chalk the kids’ anxieties up to childhood imagination, but Olivia soon falls under the same spell as her kids. One night, something tragic and mysterious happens — the exact circumstance is nestled in the show’s deliberately obfuscated storytelling — and Hugh flees Hill House with his children in tow, leaving Olivia behind. She dies, but we don’t know how because her children don’t know, and Hill House keeps us locked to their perspectives. The mystery of their mother’s final, fatal moments haunts them into adulthood. Her loss is the house they must escape.

We spend most of our time with the grown-up, present-day Crains. Steven (Michiel Huisman) is now the best-selling author of a book about his family’s paranormal experiences at Hill House, though he remains a skeptic. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician who lives in a funeral home with her husband and two children. Theodora (Kate Siegel), a child psychologist with psychometric abilities, lives in Shirley’s guest house, filling her void with booze and one-night stands. The twins have fared worst in their mother’s absence: Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is clinically depressed and manic, and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is addicted to heroin. The two weave in and out of their older siblings’ lives, burdening them with their sharper anguish. They were the only Crain children there for their mother’s final moments, and so they carry the weight of her absence.

The first episode of Hill House ends with a sting that sets the tone for the series. After scaring her father Hugh (played by Timothy Hutton in the present) with a chilling phone call, Nell turns up in Steven’s apartment. He’s annoyed that she’s arrived unannounced, but before he can fully chastise her, Hugh calls with bad news: Nell is dead. She killed herself in Hill House. Steven, frightened, turns to face whoever or whatever is in his home. Nell, suddenly right behind him, begins to scream, her face contorting into a grey, deadly vision before she disappears. Nell, who in her childhood was haunted by a disfigured ghost she called the “Bent-Neck Lady,” has become that ghost herself, the victim of an inborn phantom that lives in all of the Crain children, but most tragically in her.

Each Crain gets their own bottle episode, but Nell’s — episode five, named after the Bent-Neck Lady — is the crux of the series, an inevitable hour of impending doom that marries paranormal activity with psychological calamity. Nell, like her mother, is okay until she isn’t, happy until life grips her psyche and suffocates her sanity. We witness her evolution from a young, happy bride whose struggles with sleep paralysis are cushioned by her technician husband, to a widow undone by his sudden death. We watch as she spins out of control — enabling Luke’s addiction by buying him drugs, lashing out at visiting Theo, crashing Steven’s book reading and accusing him of trading her personal pain for profit. Lost in the depths of her mania, she flies from her Los Angeles home to just outside of Boston, back to Hill House, where she sees the ghost of her mother. “Mommy,” Nell calls out, her voice breaking. Olivia is scrawling “Welcome home, Eleanor” in red chalk on the wall, a clear link between a mental disorder shared by mother and daughter, the house as their meeting point. Nell then wanders through Hill House in a dreamy trance. She sees the mirage of a happy family; she dances with her husband. Then she hangs herself from the same staircase where her mother plunged to her own death two decades earlier, under the influence of mental illness or ghosts — ghosts that may or may not exist, but they are wildly real to the women they break.

Many shows tell stories about grief and mental illness — This Is Us, The Affair, A Million Little Things — but rarely with such an authentic gravity as The Haunting of Hill House. It’s the little things: the blunt way an adult Steven tells his father, “I miss my mom”; a model of the “forever home” that Shirley keeps in her office; the gloves Theodora wears to avoid her telepathic abilities, but also because they were her mother’s suggestion. A sober Luke clinging desperately to the female friend he made in rehab, looking for whatever vestige of salvation he can find. The way Hugh whispers to his dead wife as if she’s standing beside him, knowing full well she isn’t. Nell realizing she was the Break-Neck Lady all along, visions of her future suicide coloring the brighter days of her youth.

As the child of a dead mother, Hill House struck me in my core, especially in the show’s beautiful centerpiece sixth episode, “Two Storms.” As the Crains gather at Shirley’s funeral home for Nell’s wake, the brunt force of their grief boils over in ways anyone intimately familiar with loss will recognize. Filmed in a series of continuous long takes, the episode is suffocating: We watch in real-time as the Crain siblings bite at their mutual insecurities and shared grief, and air out their anxieties. “There were seven of us, and now there’s five, because two of us decided to die,” Shirley says through tears, condemning her mother and sister before circling back around to Nell’s pain. “I wish she felt like she could have talked to me.” Theo pours drink after drink, Steven and Luke share childhood stories of their sister, while Hugh wanders the halls of the funeral parlor, stumbling on a memory from their Hill House days that links his daughter’s suicide to the early stages of his wife’s paranoia.

Hill House makes great use of its setting and genre, with plenty of jump scares, ghouls, and gore to satiate horror fans. But its power is not in how thoughtfully it scares, but in how deeply it penetrates. It forces us to contend with our own buried thoughts and emotions, the family secrets that fester deep within, and it does so with an elegant and even hand, telling stories across two timelines: the Crain children’s time in Hill House, and their lives as adults, as they deal with the fallout of the psychological trauma they experienced there. Like HBO’s Sharp Objects, it shows that trauma and memory operate largely in concert with one another, inflicting the mind randomly, sometimes violently. “Two Storms” is the culmination of this principle, an episode that weaves together past and present, showing how trauma multiples and lingers, and how it pops back up when we least expect it — and when it feels so large it’s almost funny in its duplicity.

Everything — the stress, the trauma, the in-fighting — builds to a finale that is surprisingly cathartic; a bombastic and saccharine hour that lets the tension slowly from the family’s shared stress. They all return to Hill House to track down Luke, who has gone back to his childhood home to burn the place down. The house prevents its own destruction and puts Luke under its spell, causing him to overdose on drugs. His surviving siblings find him behind the Red Door, in a mysterious and impenetrable room they could never unlock as kids, the same room where their mother’s madness fully took hold. As he’s about to die, the ghost of Nell appears and saves him. She then speaks to each of her siblings, forgiving them for not saving her, letting them know it wasn’t their fault.

Nell’s monologue is long and a little bit silly, but I can’t deny the spell it cast on me, a person whose life — like the Crains — is stained by grief and mental illness. When a revived Luke tells Nell he doesn’t want to live without her, she responds with words so soothing, they brought me to tears: “There’s no without. I’m not gone. I’m scattered into so many pieces, sprinkled on your life like new snow.”

It’s fragrant language, bold in its message, and it won’t work for everyone. But sometimes grief is brash like that. Sometimes you need to wrap yourself in the comfort of forgiveness, in the broad-stroke melodrama that is life and loss and the enduring pain they conjure. Flanagan understands this, and has forged from the bones of Jackson’s work something personal, probing, and transcendent. Trauma builds walls around us, but The Haunting of Hill House shines a light on the exit.

The Profound Grief of The Haunting of Hill House