This post discusses mental illness and suicide. Reader discretion is advised. This post contains spoilers for the series The Haunting of Hill House.
“Fear…is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” – Shirley Jackson
I love this time of the year. Halloween means eating extremely unhealthy amounts of candy, dressing up as some of my favorite characters, and most importantly, watching scary movies and TV shows. Every year, I try to watch the classics (like Halloween, The Ring, and Friday the 13th) but I also try to find new horrors. This year, Netflix released a show that immediately piqued my interest: The Haunting of Hill House which centers on the Crains—Hugh and Olivia and their children: Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke, and Nell.Hill House exposes the monster inside of each of us.
The Haunting of Hill House puts a fresh face of horror amongst slashers, possessions, and campy TV. It delivers an intense, meaningful story with thought-provoking fear rather than overwrought clichés. The way it does this, however, is where things get scary: rather than being chased by a crazed killer or a hungry demon, Hill House exposes the monster inside of each of us. It takes the things that anguish our minds and creates its own haunted versions. As I progressed through each episode, three themes continued to be brought to light as the Crain family tried to battle their personal ghosts.
As I write this article, I am patiently waiting for the moment—which could be at any time—when my first child arrives in this world. (Editor’s Note: Between the writing and publishing of this article, Baby Morris was born!) As a husband on the cusp of parenthood, I have no idea how to prepare to raise a child. I’ve read up on some parenting material and have my own parents for inspiration, but that doesn’t comprehensively prepare me to be a father myself. Sure, at first, it’s dirty diapers and mashed peas, but what about when a child begins comprehending the world around them? What about when they experience failure, shame, regret, or loss? How do I handle those situations?
As I watched the season, I tried my best to place myself in the shoes of Hugh, father of the Crains. Where do you start when it seems like everything has piled on at once? When your wife starts to exhibit signs of schizophrenia and then commits suicide? Or when another person’s child dies in your house? What do you do when your children keep seeing ghosts? As adults, most of the tension between the Crain children and Hugh lies in the fact that he withheld almost all of what took place the night Olivia committed suicide. He explains that he didn’t tell them because he wanted to protect them. It’s these blurred lines of “protection” that worry me as a soon-to-be parent. Will my best intentions be my worst mistakes?
We’ve all been there: rejection, a hard break-up, or the death of someone close. Grief is inevitable and devastating. It can hit us in a fleeting moment, or consume us for years, leaving us empty and directionless. The Crains are no stranger to grief. We quickly learn of the apparent suicide of Olivia, the matriarch of the Crain family. The full story of her death is not revealed until the end of the season, a deliberate move to highlight its impact on the rest of the family. We are as much in the dark as the Crain children.
As adults, the Crain children exemplify the five stages of grief. Their grief defines who they are and what they’ve grown to be. Because of their father’s choice to withhold the details of their mother’s death, they’ve received no closure, no end to her story, only ambiguity. Their grief is something they can’t escape. The youngest Crain, Nell, is haunted as both child and adult by a greasy haired, shadowy figure she calls The Bent-Neck Lady. When the hauntings start to get worse, she reaches out to her siblings for safety and solace. Finding none, she returns to the house hoping to confront the source of her fear and instead is overcome by it. In the moment of her suicide, she travels back through every scene where the Bent Neck Lady made an appearance. The entire storyline comes full circle as we come to understand that Nell’s grief and anxiety were haunting her the entire time.
Director Mike Flanagan creates a haunting, yet stunning metaphor to symbolize mental illness through the season. The split narrative between the young Crains when they are living in Hill House versus when they are adults kept me guessing about the haunting mystery of the mansion. As the episodes progressed more ghosts loom over the family, even long after they had moved out of the house. While you could say that each of the ghosts and events symbolize the struggles of each of the Crain members, we’re told that Hill House fed off and exaggerated those illnesses.
Viewers occasionally get a sneak peek of Olivia acting strangely or mentioning that her constant migraines give her visions. She often talks about how she and Hugh are like a kite—she is the sail and he the string. But it wasn’t until she said, “Thank goodness I have Hugh. I’ve always needed someone to keep me grounded,” that I truly understood her mental state. We’re told that before moving into the house, Olivia had no signs of mental instability. Her short time there caused a rapid shift in her mind, and the same applies to the children. As adults, they are left with memories and imprints the house left on them. Their baggage ranges from addiction, depression, guilt, anxiety, to a deep-seated fear of mental illness. Whether they were in the house or not, the hauntings never stopped. Mental illness is not something you can leave behind as easily as moving out of a house.
What leaves a lasting fear in me even after I’ve stopped watching is the unknown power the house had over the family. In the end, The Haunting at Hill House doesn’t answer the question of whether the ghosts were real, but I think that’s sort of the point.
If you’ve recently had suicidal thoughts or just need to talk to someone, you can speak to someone by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by texting HOME to 741741, the Crisis Text Line. Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.