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The Haunting of Hill House and the Madness of Family

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix/Steve Dietl/Netflix

See Mother. See her glow, bathed in light as if touched, beckoned by a being far more benevolent than the one who consumes her in the end. “Everybody alive?” she asks — Carla Gugino’s first line as Olivia Crain — during an unspecified then at Hill House. The words trail out as though said in half-sleep, and soon enough Olivia will wander about as though sleepwalking, caught in the “strangest dream.” The question — everybody alive? — is a true question, its punctuation quiet but no mere suggestion, denoted in the closed captions of The Haunting of Hill House, just like the inhale (“[inhales deeply],” a reverse sigh) Olivia delivers once she knows everybody is well. It happens again in episode six, while everyone in the family is worried about everyone’s safety during a terrible storm, congealed as a Crain blood clot in the center of the foyer in refuge from windows and ghosts alike. “It’s seen plenty of storms and worse than this. It’s gonna keep us safe,” Olivia says of the house. “I thought you hated this house,” Shirley responds. Her mother: “[slight chuckle] [sighs deeply].”

See Father. Like all the Crains besides Olivia, Hugh’s character stretches between two bodies. There is young Hugh, played by E.T. legacy Henry Thomas, who charges himself with fixing the physical ailments of Hill House — the Chip Gaines to Olivia’s Joanna in this Fixer Upper situation. Timothy Hutton plays the foil, the present-day Hugh who once again assigns himself the job of mending the emotional gaps turned fissures between his children. Where Young Hugh is full of exhausted vigor, ready with quirky words of wisdom and recyclable affirmations his offspring can take to bed (even if they are cold comfort), Older Hugh is just plain exhausted and too sad for words, unable to string so much as a sentence together. Ellipses haunt his every thought. He rides coach to his daughter’s funeral while his sons sit in first class. “He insisted,” Steve, the oldest, says. “It’s not like we were really talking each other’s ears off before that.” At the wake, Hugh fumbles over platitudes his younger self would’ve delivered with ease. “You have a beautiful home,” he greets Shirley, who lives in a separate residential side of the morgue. Hugh sighs. “It’s been a minute,” Theo offers. “Yeah, it has …” Hugh responds. “Longer than a minute. Or a long … minute. I’m not sure … which.”

Parenting ain’t easy, as the refrain goes. Sleepless nights, awkward conversations, constant worry — the tally adds up and the difficulty doesn’t end when everybody grows up. A parent is a parent, always parenting, per another cliché. Parenting is hard for all the tangible reasons: the money reasons, the physiological reasons, the only-24-hours-in-a-day reasons. Parenting is also hard because being a person is hard, living is hard. Modern life means submitting to external forces and bodily betrayals outside our control, coming out with a version of the self we can at least pretend to be comfortable with. This state of being gifts parents an eternal paradox, tasked with taking wholesale responsibility for other, littler beings that grow bigger, more autonomous. How do you promise safety in an unsafe world? How do you create a haven when your body and mind is far from a temple? Hill House taunts the elder Crains with this knowledge, and it finds worthy prey in Olivia.

As Lindsay Romain writes, The Haunting of Hill House is “not a paranormal story so much as a meditation on the distinct way grief and trauma maim the living.” And as the show’s dueling timelines attest, grief and trauma are states not only occasioned by death. Grief lurks in the interstices of our most optimistic attachments. In the nonchronological timescape of Hill House, endings comes first and vice versa. The penultimate episode, “Screaming Meemies,” blends Olivia’s suicide with the Crains’ first encounter with the house as a family. Hugh wrests open one of those immense double doors and everybody leaves the sunshine, stepping into the shadowy perma-darkness native to the House. It is all high-pitched exclamations and smiles, Mom’s aspirations (“You know, Dad and I have a lot of work to do, but once we sell it …”) and Dad’s promises (“… we’re gonna be rich!”). Slot any number of summer-vacation comedies here, the scene beckons. See the family. Happy. American. It’s a taunt of its own, complete with those heavy-handed last words: “You guys go on without me,” says Olivia as the kids rush upstairs. “How could we?” Hugh responds dutifully.

The Crains will be torn apart not long after, but even this precursory glance is a myth. As Steven is informed in the previous episode, his parents’ marriage was imperfect. The details, vague as a matter of memory and just as likely male ego (“I made some stupid proclamation and that was it”), sound like all the usual relationship things, more common to the institution of marriage than anything sold by Hallmark or Target. “I don’t even know how we got there. I just know we fought,” Hugh says. His distress and sighs and furrowed brow can’t distract from all the unsaids. Not this time, not anymore. What was the Crain marriage really like before Hill House? The longer Hugh monologues, the more doubt wedges between each pause, each sigh, each insistence it was “different” after husband and wife’s two-week separation, after the addition of another child — Shirley — though such an event is known to accompany more stress not less. But the Crains “were back at it,” says Hugh, proud. They kept adding until, fatefully, subtracted.

Nature or architecture? Illness or something else? The toggle chases every anomaly in our culture that threatens to invalidate the nuclear-family ideal. And science isn’t an exact science, you know. The biggest mystery of Hill House is enacted in the crawling trickle truth, like so much confetti, of what happened that famous final night. Olivia, more absent with each subsequent appearance, is clearly unwell. Her migraines intensify, painting black her mind’s eye like the mold reaching across the basement walls. Day looks like night and night is filled with “these constant dreams,” the strangest dreams — mother’s worst fears visualized and repeated on loop. “Well, both of us have been feeling a little loopy lately,” Hugh offers one evening. “You’re just tired,” he says later, one of many trite rationalizations: “You’re tired,” “You’re stressed about the flip,” “You’re stressed,” he repeats. His tone finds its way into Olivia’s speech. “It’s just anxiety,” she assures Mrs. Dudley in that way we, women so usually do, deprived a language for falling apart that wouldn’t also see us stripped of home, work, and family. “Do you think there’s something wrong with me? Like … like … like, really wrong?” she finally asks Hugh, her rock. Gugino skillfully conveys so much panic and dread it’s almost too much to bear as her character can just barely bear being herself. Hugh, the fixer, sighs and takes her hand. Kisses it. “I think maybe Monday’s a little late for your trip.” It sounds like a euphemism.

The best part about metaphor is its many commitments along the scale of reality and fiction, troubling our steadfast biases about both. As any critic or buff will tell you, horror is both about the ghouls we know and what goes bump in the night, and especially the place where those two become one. When Hugh and Olivia reunite for real — that is, outside his own memory (“Oh love that wasn’t me, that was just you”) — they both reach for metaphor. “What were you doing all this time away?” Olivia asks, reading age, her only sense of time, on his body and in the pills he takes. Hugh looks at the Red Room entrance. “I was holding a door. Holding a door closed. I had my back against it and my arms out wide, because I knew there were monsters on the other side and they wanted what was left of our family … The monsters got through anyway.” Says Olivia, “That’s what monsters do.”

Two parents, one alive and one a ghost, standing in a house full of ghosts of meals past make monsters out of the facts of life — sadness and illness and addiction. In turn, the misery of parenthood and illness come through most poignantly in the mouth of a ghost. “It’s a horror,” Olivia asserts. Momentarily buoyed by the promise of having it all without pain, she is afraid once more. “I’ll be alone again.” Parenting is hard because living is hard — before death, after death, or somewhere in between. No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

The Haunting of Hill House and the Madness of Family