The Haunting of Hill House
A “screaming meemie” isn’t actually a nightmare, as Poppy, the flapper who visits in the night, tells Olivia. According to the OED, the phrase originated in 1927 as a term for drunkenness or hysterics. (During World War II, it was also a nickname for a type of rocket fired by the Germans that made a screaming or shrieking sound, but the drunkenness meaning came first.) In the context of the episode, this actually makes perfect sense, because what Olivia experiences aren’t really nightmares. Whether her visions are hysteria brought on by a combination of stress, isolation, and her innate mental fragility, or are in fact somehow induced by the house, remains an open question.
Poppy! Catherine Parker makes her into a creation as brilliant and sinister as the terrifying twins in the film version of The Shining (who also aren’t in the original book). Dressed in a mint-green flapper dress and spouting a mouthful of 1920s slang — “They’re the elephant’s eyebrows, those two,” she says of Luke and Nell — she’s by far the most fun of Hill House’s ghostly inhabitants. From the story she tells, it’s not clear what happened to her children. Did they die of natural causes? Did she murder them? But whatever it was, her grief is real: It broke her, she says, to see her son’s crib empty. “You try and try to keep them safe,” she tells Olivia. “But it’s hard, isn’t it? And you can’t keep them safe forever.”
The paradox Mike Flanagan explores in this episode could almost be too familiar, but he manages to make it agonizing all over again. It’s the paradox of every parent: “If only they could stay like this forever.” All you want is to keep your child safe, not only because you love them but because one of the first things you realize as a parent is that if your child dies, you may not recover from the grief. And yet at the same time, you understand that you have to let them go out into the world. You do it a little at a time so that it’s not as scary, and you know that chances are, things will be okay. But you can’t ever again be really at peace without knowing your child is safe. And if something happens to you — well, we see the effects of that.
“I look at my little ones now and I just feel terror at [the idea of] them outside these walls,” Olivia says to Mrs. Dudley. It’s ironic, of course, because the children are in more danger at home in Hill House than away from it. We’re getting more signs of Olivia’s innate instability, most dramatically the poltergeist experience she had as a child: During her anguish over her father’s death, when she was 12, she apparently caused a storm that made it rain stones on her house. In the novel, Eleanor tells a similar story, which Shirley Jackson pulled virtually verbatim from a book called Haunted People by the psychical researcher Nandor Fodor. (Could there be a better name for a ghost hunter?) Fodor documented numerous poltergeist cases but ultimately took a skeptical approach, believing that they were caused not by supernatural forces but by pubescent energy seeking an outlet — most take place in children around the age of puberty. In 1958, while Jackson was writing The Haunting of Hill House, the New York media (including the Times) covered a similar case involving a 12-year-old on Long Island.
My favorite moment in this episode — which might be the best of the series — is when Nell’s corpse reaches for the nail scissors on the table next to her. Her aim isn’t to stab her mother, as we naturally assume, but to snip the wire holding her jaw shut so that she can cry out, “Mommy!” It’s a great example of how brilliantly Flanagan has been toying with our expectations of this genre, and almost always subverting them. There’s still just a little too much kitsch for my taste, like when Olivia says at the beginning of this episode, sleeping on the couch in Hill House with young Nell and Luke in her arms, “Pretty soon they won’t be caught dead like this” — har, har. (It’s a nice touch, incidentally, that Hill House doesn’t seem to have any comfortable furniture — that couch is too short for everyone who tries to lie on it. The only exception is the very cozy chair in Olivia’s reading room.) But I snickered out loud at her comment, “It’s amazing, in a house this size, it’s really hard to find a corner to yourself.” One thing Jackson really knew how to do was to lighten the mood with humor — there’s a very funny sequence late in the novel involving Dr. Montague’s annoying wife, a medium who tries to conduct a séance at the house, with predictably disastrous results.
We could use more humor here, especially because Flanagan has done with Hill House something I wouldn’t have thought possible: He’s made it even darker than the original. The show argues, brutally and constantly (also Freudian-ly), that we never truly get over childhood trauma; we just repress it and repeat it. That element was there in the novel, but it only really surfaced in Eleanor. Here, each of the five siblings plays it out in a different way — through depression, addiction, or other self-destructive behavior. There are still some real mysteries about what happened the night of the “tea party” — the biggest one being why Olivia only got as far as the motel before turning back. But after seeing Nell and Luke at the table in the tower room, it’s no wonder they were the most damaged.
I’m still hoping for more about Hugh and Olivia’s marriage. The scene in which he finally realizes how much trouble she’s in shows that while he may think she’s the kite and he’s the line, he’s not really up to the job of keeping her grounded. “I’m not me right now,” she tells him, which he’ll later repeat back to the kids: “That wasn’t Mommy.” It’s still not clear how much responsibility Hugh accepts for what happened — to her or to the kids — although him finally saying he was sorry in episode eight was a good start. In the last scene of episode nine, distracted by the kids fighting over the bedrooms, he misses the first premonition of what’s to come: Olivia’s heartbreaking final line. Still, the missing piece is what Hugh found in the house after he went back without the kids. Going into the last episode, my expectations are dangerously high. Will Flanagan manage to pull all the threads together?
• Considering the attention to detail in Poppy’s slang, it jarred me that Olivia uses the internet-speak expression “All the things,” which no one said in 1992. Is it the first such anachronism in the show? I also don’t think it’s coincidental that Poppy uses the phrase “a real tomato” to describe Olivia as an attractive woman. It’s an expression Jackson used for students at Bennington College, where her husband taught, who often appeared at parties on the arms of their much older professors.
• The book Olivia’s reading in her “reading room” is Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, in which a freakish, frightening new baby destroys a family. Here, technically Nell would be the fifth child, since, as we learned in episode seven, she was born 90 seconds after Luke.
• Mrs. Dudley’s character still doesn’t make sense to me. Some of her speeches are crazy, others are perfectly rational. It seems safe to assume that her “child” — the one who’s supposedly not allowed to set foot in the house — is her delusion about the baby who was stillborn. Are we meant to assume that the house has damaged her, too? Are she and Mr. Dudley both ghosts? I’m guessing the final episode will include some huge and awful revelation about them.
• Speaking of The Shining, in his novel Stephen King seems to have been paying homage to Hill House by borrowing Jackson’s central conceit: that the building itself was the source of the evil, not the people in it. Apparently he was annoyed that Stanley Kubrick changed that in the movie.
• Nandor Fodor served as a technical adviser on the Robert Wise film of The Haunting. Alas, I don’t see a ghost hunter in the Hill House credits.
Fear Factor: (1: The Mummy–5: The Ring): 5