The Haunting of Hill House
The Morrigan, Contributing Editor
Dir. Mike Flanagan (2018)
A deep dive into Mike Flanagan's The Haunting of Hill House. Streaming on Netflix.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
The Haunting of Hill House is the story of the Crain family, who move into a haunted house in 1992 with the intention of flipping it and making enough money to build their "forever house", but things don't go at all as planned when the family rapidly descends into madness.
The Haunting of Hill House
The story is told in two timelines, "Now" and Then". We are first introduced to the main characters in "Now", starting with the oldest, Steven (Michiel Huisman). Steven is a paranormal writer, who wrote his first book about his family's experience living in Hill House. His siblings are furious with him for exploiting their story for money. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician who takes on the responsibility of being the eldest (bossy, know it all and an obsession to be perfect). Theodora (Theo) (Kate Seigel) is a Doctor of Psychiatry and lives with Shirley. She has serious personal issues and wears gloves to protect herself from feeling other's emotions, something she learned to do as a child. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) are twins. Luke and Nell share a "twin thing" (more on that later) and are incredibly close. Luke is a long time addict, self medicating to forget his childhood memories and Nell struggles to find her place in the world, constantly haunted by her childhood experiences. Hugh, the dad, (Timothy Hutton) is the family pariah, all the kids believing that he's hiding information about their mother's suicide, as well as "lying" to the tabloids about what happened the night Olivia, the mom (Carla Gugino) died.
Crain family at Nell's funeral
Our first introduction to Hill House "Then" is with young Nell (Violet McGraw) screaming about what she she says she saw, a terrifying vision of a decaying screaming corpse. Her parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) obviously don't believe her and tell her she's just having a nightmare. When asked what she saw, Nell describes her as The Bent Neck Lady, and knows that regardless of her parents' dismissal, The Bent Neck Lady is very much real.
Nell pictured Now and Then being haunted by The Bent Neck Lady
All of the children have scary experiences within the house, but the house seems to have the most power over Nell and Olivia. It is Nell that as a child finds herself "lost", standing in the presence of her family, screaming for someone to see her, but she's invisible to them. This same narration is present in her adult life while she's frantically calling her siblings, in hopes of connecting with someone. It's here that she's sees The Bent Neck Lady once again, terrorizing her and willing her to go home. As she sits in her car with dense fog rolling in around her, she calls her father who seems to know she's in trouble, even though she lies and says she's at home in bed. He tells her to stay put and he will come to her, and as she says goodbye, the lights in the abandoned Hill House all turn on with a welcoming warm glow. The porch light even flashes twice, a sign her mother told her as a child was the signal to come home. Hill House claims it's next victim. When Nell is seen inside the house in Episode 1, we see Nell dancing with an invisible partner, interacting with people who aren't there, until we ultimately see her fall to her death, hanging from the staircase. Episode 5 (The Bent Neck Lady) fills in a lot of the gaps from Episode 1. We see from Nell's perspective that her family is waiting for her, welcoming her home, all reassuring her that they believe her, and they knew she was telling the truth all along. As she walks down the staircase after changing into a white gown, she sees Luke, healthy and off drugs. He steps aside and she sees Arthur (Jordane Christie), her husband, standing there, ready to dance.
Arthur was Nell's sleep paralysis tech when she was seeking treatment for her sleep paralysis. Nell and Arthur's story is told in a beautiful montage, playing Patty Griffin's Heavenly Day over their relationship milestones. The music is such a stark contrast to the near lack of music throughout the rest of the episodes, it's very jarring. It very successfully transports viewers into Nell's happily ever after. Sadly, Nell's happy ending does not last. One night when Nell is experiencing sleep paralysis, Arthur gets out of bed to help Nell and falls to the floor dead. Nell sees The Bent Neck Lady and is sure she killed him, even though his official cause of death is an aneurysm. Arthur's death sends her into a downward spiral, making her even more susceptible to the call of Hill House.
Nell and Arthur dancing in Hill House before Nell's death
Episode 6 (Two Storms) is probably most known for astounding camera work. The entire episode is filled with extremely long takes, with almost no cuts. The "Now" storm takes place during Nell's funeral, with the family trying to make sense of Nell's death. The power goes out, and makes for a very eerie atmosphere. In some scenes, we see The Bent Neck Lady standing in the background, unseen by the family; in others, we see some of the family members seeing a rotting Nell, reaching out to her family even in death. The entire "Now" portion of the episode makes you feel like you're in the room at Nell's viewing, as we see the characters move in and out of the camera's view, just as you would if it were from your own perspective. Just like any dysfunctional family, this is an excuse to air the family grievances. Steven and Shirley fight with Hugh, Theo and Shirley fight with each other, and on an on. It's clear that this family has a lot of secrets and a lot of pain, and no one is willing to be honest about anything. It seems to be only Hugh and Luke who understand that Nell didn't kill herself, Hill House killed her.
During the "Then" storm the family gathers around a chandelier that's fallen. While the same single take is used, it makes for a more warm atmosphere: a young family looking for flashlights in the dark, Olivia reassuring her children that it's just a storm and there's nothing to fear. It almost passes as a happy memory in the house, with a stark contrast. With all the chaos in the dark, Nell goes missing. The next few minutes are frantically spent trying to find Nell. When her family "finds" her, she says she's been there the whole time, screaming at her family to see her. When her family finally sees her, its in a near identical fashion as it is in Episode 5. These two timelines illustrate that the house has destroyed their family. In both of these scenes, the family is left lost and trying to make sense of what's happening. It should be noted that Nell is absent from both of these family events.
The Crain family reuniting with Nell after her disappearance during Two Storms
While the house has an obsession with Nell, it also revels in it's destruction of Olivia. Olivia describes herself as "sensitive", having the ability to feel and experience supernatural presences. When she realizes that Theo shares this gift that manifests in an empathic way, Olivia gives Theo gloves to protect herself when the feelings are too overwhelming. Unfortunately, Olivia doesn't have gloves to protect herself. At first the changes are subtle: she feels cold spots and wanders around the house aimlessly. As the architect to the house's renovations as well as the Forever Home, she spends a lot of time drawing. As she descends further into madness, her drawings don't make sense, and she's superimposed the Forever House over Hill House. As Olivia falls farther and farther into her madness, she starts talking to the ghosts in the house. One in particular, Poppy Hill, a psychopath murderer and the owner of the house, convinces Olivia the only way to protect her children is to "wake them up" aka kill them. When Hugh realizes what is happening, he takes the children out of the house and away from Olivia. A distraught Olivia can't bear the thought of her children being taken from her and decides she needs to "wake up," which she accomplishes by jumping off the staircase, dying inside Hill House, ensuring she will be trapped there forever.
Another major plot point is the "twin thing" between Nell and Luke. When they are kids, we see Luke telling Nell repeatedly that he believes her about The Bent Neck Lady. He's the only one who really believes her. They both tell stories about their experience with the twin thing. Nell tells a story when Luke was in detox, she had the worst "flu" of her life, with shaking, nausea and all the symptoms of withdrawal. Luke tells a story about a time when he broke his ankle and Nell, watching tv miles away, suddenly had pain and a swollen ankle. These stories, as well as how we see them interact with each other, both as children and adults, are setting us up for the saddest and scariest example of the twin thing yet. The night Nell dies, Luke sees her in his room at rehab and yells at him, "Go." Luke goes to bed and the next morning is met with chills and an overall feeling of dread. He finds out that his friend from rehab has left and he goes to find her. As the night goes on, he feels worse and worse, eventually shaking so much he can hardly talk, and keeps repeating how cold he is. It's when Steven finds him and tells him about Nell that he understands. He's cold because she's gone. She's cold. Steven tell him, "Nell killed herself," and Luke replies, "No. She didn't."
Nell and Luke
The Haunting of Hill House is a study in family drama and the effects of childhood trauma on adulthood. Hill House is the catalyst as children, but it's manifested as adults in Steven's arrogance, Shirley's need for perfection, Theo's intimacy issues, Luke's addictions, Nell's pain and longing to belong, and Hugh's guilt over his decisions surrounding his kids and his wife. I could write for hours about all of the hidden Easter eggs and what they mean, study scene by scene and break it down into it's deeper meaning to the overall story. I have tried hard not to give away too much, there are a few plots as well as reveals that are so shocking (literally jaw dropping), that I would be doing a disservice by exploring them here. What I will say is, The Haunting of Hill House is a beautiful and tragic love story, a story made dark and twisted by a house that feeds upon it's occupants. Mike Flanagan has given us a masterpiece both in the story and the visuals. The Haunting of Hill House creeps into your mind, and you find yourself wanting more while at the same time feeling the need to look over your shoulder for the ghost you're certain is there.
“A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see." - Steven Crain