There’s not a lot of good horror television right now. Aside from Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, which at the best of times is childishly amusing and far from subtle, the rest of the mainstream shows fall into subgenres that really aren’t that scary.
You have shows about vampires, shows about zombies, shows about murder, Hulu’s recent Castle Rock scratches the itch of small-town horrors, but when was the last time we got a good ghost story? How many of them employ the kind of scares that leave you on the edge of your seat?
The Haunting of Hill House is a story about ghosts, beneath all the family drama and subplots. And although the show does not lack at all regarding the meat of the story — the Crain family and the tragedies that befall them — it is also chock full of ghosts.
The camera forces your eyes to linger down empty hallways, into dark corners, through distant windows. When you finally learn the truth of the house, it becomes evident that Hill House is a living, breathing thing that consumes the people inside.
Haunting is far from the first series to utilize the trope of the haunted house, but series creator Mike Flanagan gets every bit of use out of this trope. The ghosts aren’t just ghosts, the rooms aren’t just rooms, and the family is not just your typical lambs to the slaughter. Hill House is the unexplained monster and its victims become the ghosts who haunt future inhabitants.
As a result, the house leaves a void in the hearts of those who escape its clutches. Each in the Crain family is left with an emptiness as a result. They have been eaten alive and they don’t even know it. They grow up avoiding and trying to forget or searching for answers.
It isn’t until they return to the house that they come to realize the truth of the events that came to pass when they were children. The disjointed and dysfunctional Crain family are immediately intriguing. Grown up, the series slowly unfolds aspects of each of their lives, detailing just how the house as ostracized and set them apart from regular people.
What Haunts the Crain Children?
Steven (Michiel Huisman) has splintered from his family after sensationalizing the story of their tragedy, having spent his life as a skeptic and actively rejecting his younger siblings’ claims of ghosts and spirits. He’s made his living off of the stories that he’s doubted his whole life, and it’s a good living.
Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), a skeptic as well, has become tightly wound, running a funeral home with her husband and family, where she is mired in death daily. It is a place where she can control how the dead appear to the living. After her own brush with death and her fear of funerals, this is her coping mechanism.
Theo (Kate Siegel), an empath gifted with psychometry, suffers from the burden of her abilities, unable to touch without absorbing memories and feelings. The traumas she faces are a result of her sponge-like quality, where she bears the pain of seeing things that no one else can. Although she uses her abilities to help children as a child psychologist, she is emotionally distant. She keeps everyone at an arms reach, keeping her walls up and gloves on.
Then, there is Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti). As twins, they are the youngest children of the Crain family. They are not only empathetically connected to one another, but psychically. Luke, a lifelong addict, suffers from the traumas and terrifying events he’s experienced in Hill House. His inner demons have a physical form in the tall ghost that stalks after him, keeping him in a waking nightmare. When we meet him as an adult, he has lost the trust of his siblings and struggling to keep his 90-day sober streak.
On the flip side, Nell, a spiritual person, has seen ghosts since they first entered Hill House. Although she manages to have some semblance of a normal life with her husband Arthur, his death sends her down a spiral of depression. Struggling with sleep paralysis, she is haunted her whole life by the terrifying bent-neck lady. It isn’t until she is lured back to Hill House, where she commits suicide that she comes to the horrific realization that she is the bent-neck lady.
The series jumps back and forth between timelines, revealing Hugh (Timothy Hutton) and Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) originally moving into Hill House in order to restore it and flip it. As the fictional Chip and Joanna Gaines (of Fixer Upper HGTV fame), the couple split the duties of the job. Olivia designs the houses and Hugh builds them according to her drawings.
Almost immediately, the family recognizes something odd about the house. Olivia and her daughters all seem to have some measure of psychic ability, Theo immediately saying that the house feels cold — a traditional indicator that there’s a ghost present — and not long after they settle in, the spirits start to appear.
The family is tight-knit. Before Olivia’s death, the children lead normal lives. Luke and Steven are close, Nell and Shirley are carefree and fun-loving, and Theo is guided by Olivia as she recognizes her daughter’s abilities. Hugh and Olivia love each other and form a strong family unit, but as the Hill House begins to consume them, everything changes.
What is Inside the Red Room?
The mysterious Red Room, which seems to be attracted to Olivia and her children (having never opened for Hugh) draws them in, disguised as something different for each of them. Nell explains to her siblings that the Red Room acts like the stomach of the house, digesting them while they spent time there. For Theo it was a dance studio, for Nell it was a toy room, for Luke it was a treehouse, for Steven it was a game room, for Shirley it was a family room, and for Olivia it was a reading room.
Indeed, there are moments when these rooms are mentioned during the series and there’s a moment of confusion. Mrs. Dudley is confused as to where the game room is, Hugh tells Steven he never built a treehouse for them, and he and Mr. Dudley seem unsure where Olivia’s reading room is.
Just like the Crains were digested, we can assume that the same happened to the members of the original Hill Family, who appear throughout the series as horrors to viewers. Abigail Dudley, who died within the Red Room after being poisoned by Olivia, similarly remains in the house as a ghost. Nell and Hugh remain with Olivia, having all died within Hill House. Despite the catharsis that Hugh and Nell find with Olivia after death, the house is still malicious.
After the family’s final escape from the house is done, Hill House still stands. It is frozen in time, like the marble statues that populate its interiors, like the ghosts who can never move on. The house remains, like a hulking beast, always waiting to consume again. It becomes the wicked embodiment of permanence. Nothing changes in the house, and it is only after the Crains survive the house as adults and leave it that they are able to move on. Their abrupt escape as children was like a placeholder, keeping them arrested in the past — half-eaten.