The Haunting of Hill House
There’s a moment in this episode when Hill House looks almost cheerful, its hallways filled with workmen busily repairing things. Surprise! One of those workers — memorialized by Steve in his book about the house — is actually a ghost, as Hugh explains to Steve during their nighttime drive. Just like an old clock contains “witness marks” showing evidence of repairs that have been done to it, the house, too, bears witness to the things that happened there. “You see the marks,” Hugh tells Steve, “but you don’t know how to read them.”
They’re in pursuit of Luke, who disappeared at the end of Nell’s funeral with Shirley’s wallet and Theo’s car. Steve and Shirley assume he went in search of a fix — they get the short end of the stick in this episode, but anyone who’s known addicts knows that it’s a fair assumption. Instead, it soon becomes clear that he’s heading to the house, which — finally! — we can place somewhere in western Massachusetts. (At any rate, if you’re driving there from Methuen, where Shirley lives, in the far northeast corner of the state, you have to pass through Amherst in order to get to it.) His intention isn’t to commit suicide — as Theo cheerfully points out, suicides cluster in families, especially among twins — but to burn it down. When Nell pulled up at the house, the lights glowed a warm, welcoming yellow. When Luke gets out of the car, the lights glow red. The house is angry.
Of course, we don’t actually know that Nell’s intention was to commit suicide. The house may have somehow called her home. But to believe that, you have to believe that the house has supernatural powers, which is the focus of the debate between Steve and Hugh. We still haven’t heard Hugh’s version of how Olivia died, although we get Steve’s account from the police report, which implicates Hugh: cracked skull, bruises on her arms from being grabbed, a bruise on the back of her head from being shoved into a wall — all before she allegedly threw herself down the staircase. Steve blames Hugh for leaving her there alone when she was depressed; for not making sure she got the help she needed.
Thanks to Mrs. Dudley and her long institutional memory, we also hear a little about William Hill and his wife Poppy, who meet-cute at the mental hospital where their families have committed them, get married, and come to Hill House. This show, it should be said, draws a dire picture of mental illness. The idea that people can treat their disease and live with it peacefully does not find representation here. Even so, I was a little surprised to hear Steve give it as his reason for not wanting to have children — “It’s not the house. There’s something wrong with our goddamn brains.” Wouldn’t the trauma of his childhood be explanation enough?
Which brings me to this episode’s real revelation, which is that the family psychopath is actually Steve. Not only did he exploit his family’s tragedy for profit — as Shirley has repeatedly pointed out — but he strung along his wife for years of fake-trying to conceive, letting her suffer through all the charted ovulation and timed sex while knowing it wouldn’t work. What kind of person could do that? I’m still wondering if he had an affair, too — the guilty look over the last time he ejaculated, plus the woman’s face he sees in the window of the doctor’s office — but that seems like a smaller crime than letting your wife think you’re trying to help her get pregnant when you’re not.
Shirley doesn’t acquit herself well in this episode either, although at least she lets Theo sob through her explanation of what happened in the basement with Kevin. That speech is rough — Theo’s vision of death as “an ocean of nothing … just numb and nothing and alone” — and it hits again at one of the first things we heard Steve say in the first episode: that we trick ourselves into seeing ghosts because it’s better than reconciling ourselves to the idea that we’ll never see our loved ones again. The idea that anything is better than nothing is a staple of classic horror: Think of “The Monkey’s Paw,” one of the scariest fables ever, or Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, another horror story involving a family that very bad things happen to (the new film is coming in April, by the way). But Theo’s speech is affecting because no one in real life ever talks that bluntly about death. In the show, Shirley’s whole business is structured around maintaining the illusion that death is like sleep: peaceful, beautiful. In fact, we know nothing about what it really is. All we know is that it will happen to us and everyone we love.
Hugh gets all the best lines in this episode, from, “She was the kite and I was the line,” to, “Our family is like an unfinished meal to that house” (what a great image). I’ve been trying to like Shirley, if only because of her name, but she’s coming off nearly as badly as Steve. Still, I think there’s more to her than we’ve yet seen — remember Steve’s comment way back suggesting that she too suffers from the family malady. When she and Theo hear the banging at the doors and windows — a repeat of the scene when young Nell and Shirley cowered in bed in Hill House under a similar onslaught — Theo’s convinced it’s a haunting. But note that it takes place when Shirley’s in a state of great emotional distress. Could it be her own projection? Which reminds me that yesterday, looking back at the first episode, I noticed a detail that didn’t register on my first viewing: In the very first sequence, when we’re introduced to Hill House, there’s a picture on the mantel of adult Shirley with Kevin. (There’s also a child who I don’t recognize.) Is she somehow at the root of it all? That would be most appropriate.
• We’ve got only two episodes to go and only two of the house’s ghosts (the guy in the basement and the bent-neck lady) have been explained. How will Flanagan pack all this stuff in?
• I take back what I said about Shirley having some of the characteristics of the real Shirley Jackson. Whatever her issues, Jackson definitely wasn’t a control freak.
• It really didn’t make any sense that Hugh would build a treehouse when the family was only planning to be at Hill House temporarily. But how could it be Steve and Luke’s shared delusion?
• Is it mold that Shirley finds on the pieces of her forever house, or witness marks?
Fear Factor: (1: The Mummy–5: The Ring): 5