The Horror of Domesticity in The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House, a very loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name, combines both traditional and modern functions of the horror genre. The 10-part series depicts the Crain family’s summer residence in an old mansion, as parents Hugh and Olivia attempt to restore its derelict parts for real estate value. However, the family are tragically unaware of the house’s haunted qualities: the apparitions that manifest at night and the dreams that engross those who sleep in its beds.
Interwoven with this subtle yet quintessential haunted house narrative is a fragmented depiction of the family’s subsequent trauma twenty-six years later. It is, ultimately, a domestic drama shadowed by the past. Each Crain is haunted, both by ghosts that take physical form and the ongoing disintegration of their family, from the devastating suicide of their adoring mother to the shocking death of their youngest sister.
The Crain children process their trauma in very different ways, earning comparisons to the five stages of grief. Eldest child Steven, the most obvious example, is adamantly in denial for the majority of the series. He neatly and inaccurately categorises the rumours, stories and experiences of Hill House, including his own, into fact and fiction. In the process, he appropriates his family’s traumatic experiences for a dramatised, Stephen King-esque tale of terror to keep the ghosts at bay – or in this case, in a book. Steven’s insistent reasoning is not a mere character trait, but a universal mentality. After all, humanity is consistently terrified by the things it doesn’t understand.
But rarely is The Haunting of Hill House wholly literal. The very premise itself represents one’s inability to escape the psychological damage of their upbringing in later life. Similarly, Theodora Crain’s extrasensory perception of others upon touching them can easily be read as a supernatural exploration of her struggle with intimacy. Rejecting any girl who gets close to her and setting firm boundaries with her siblings, Theo employs empathy as seldom as she utilises her power. Undoubtedly a response to the catastrophe of her childhood, she fears, above all, feeling too much.
The flash forward reveals that the Crains, like many modern families, have grown apart. They fail to pick up the phone and forget to update each other on significant moments in their life. However, the character of Luke, suffering from a heroin addiction, shows the negative impact that a broken family unit can have. Families, we are told, are supposed to love unconditionally, and yet Luke is only accepted, supported, celebrated under the specific condition that he doesn’t relapse.
Shirley’s refusal to let Luke into his twin sister’s wedding after he arrives high proves this mentality. And rather than condemning Luke’s instability, the viewer cannot help but find his older sister’s attempts to conceal it invasive and suffocating. This artifice is quite literally applied in Shirley’s career as a mortician, where embalming techniques are practised to create an appealing appearance for the dead. Behind the constructed image, however, is a meticulously gruesome process and a sheer absence of life. Shirley, traumatised by death after attempting to raise a “diseased box of kittens”, cannot bare to observe its brutality. She covers it up, just as she does to any trace of malfunction in her family; even in herself.
The only Crain committed to the family unit, however dysfunctional it may be, is Nell. As adults, she is shown as simultaneously supportive and loving, but willing to confront the issues that all of the Crains face. Yet she is often unreciprocated; condemned, like Luke, for any outward sign of suffering. When it manifests after the death of her husband and the subsequent sightings of “The Bent Neck Lady” of her youth, Nell is encouraged by her therapist to return to Hill House. It is a tentative suggestion that revisiting past trauma can do more mental harm than good, as the house proves it is not “a corpse in the woods”, but a depraved and starving stomach, eager to consume.
Ultimately, both Hugh and Olivia’s individual attempts to protect their children are futile. Although the Crain parents are initially a white picket fence pair, a vision of careful parenting, their flaws rise gradually to the surface. The ‘forever house’ that Liv designs is the work of a caring matriarch envisioning a happy family unit, but it is also a sign of her overly protective nature. And eventually, it is a sentimentality that Hill House is able to corrupt. It does so until she is obsessively trying to bind her children to their home, leading them up a spiralling staircase and filling their teacups with poison.
Hugh, a fixer of things, recognises the danger that roams the hallways of home. He rushes the children out of the house and into the arms of a receptive but distant aunt. In doing so, Hugh abandons domesticity all together, and the family unit falls apart.“I was holding a door… because I knew there were monsters on the other side and they wanted what was left of our family. And I held it so hard, I didn’t have arms left for the kids. The monsters got through anyway.” Whilst Liv endangers the children by trying to keep them in the house, Hugh does so by trying to keep them away.
The infamous red room of Hill House, the door that Hugh tries to keep closed, most of all epitomises this paradox. Shapeshifting and imperceptible, the room appeals to each family member in different ways. For the children, it is a place to explore their individual interests. For Olivia, it is a silent and solitary retreat. And for Hugh, it is a sea of black mold; a problem that needs fixing. The red room knows the Crains better than they know themselves, which is why it poses such a threat. It is able to trap each of them with a false sense of security and carefully crafted, fear-inducing fantasies. Yet they continue to return to it, unknowingly and knowingly, throughout their lives. In more ways than one, it mirrors the family unit itself, down to its codependent core.
The Haunting of Hill House certainly makes the rather radical point that domesticity is an equally dangerous force as what lies beyond the front door. But it doesn’t, in any sense, condone the annihilation of it. Rather, it is depicted as a necessary source of ordeal, a kind of mad love. Whilst the series doesn’t pretend to provide any answers for the problem of family, it does suggest seeing it for what it is, darkness and all.
‘Silence Lay Steadily’, the tenth and final episode of the series is markedly uplifting, depicting the Crains at last dealing with their trauma and accepting the ghosts of their past. In an overall masterful, harrowing fictional series, the healthiest version of family is one that embraces its flaws, its mistakes, and the skeletons in the closet.