The Haunting of Hill House is a rip roaring amazing tale. So many great stories here, so many great morals, all while giving amazing scares and believable characters. IMDB
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I literally just put away the candy bowl, and helped clean up from kids’ parties freshly completed. And I also just finished watching the last few remaining minutes of The Haunting of Hill House – just in time. This entire October, I have spent inordinate minutes, searching, hunting pilfering the best scary/troubling movies I could find. Fantastic paranormal goodness like Rabbit, mental mind flips like The Jacket, and the cultic entropy in the movie Apostle, and even the movie Bad Times at the El Royale!! Normally not entirely my thing. But you guys threw me down this hole, and I just went with it apparently! hahah. So on we go, The Haunting of Hill House Explored and Digested…
There is one thing I do love about horror movies. Every single one, no matter how derivative or original, they are all about sin, forgiveness, and judgement. All of them. And these are topics one cannot talk enough about. So yeah, we may have a screaming Mimmie of a movie (sorry, stole a moment from Hill House there) with ghosts and blood curdling howls… and yet, that moment is just a front for our fears of our past sins and judgement. Judgement from others, judgement from family, judgement from friends, and ultimately judgement from God (whether you are an atheist or not, this is still a true statement.) And The Haunting of Hill House is literally no different. So, heck ya, I’m in. And trust me – you should be too because this series gets a ten on the THiNC. meter.
Alright, well, I have a bit of a bad feeling this might get digressive if I do an episode by episode review (my notes are over 15 pages) – so why don’t we look at the show a little differently. If you need a ep by ep review, there are plenty out there. Instead, I think a chronological walk through of the show would be a better use of our time. Currently unsure if it’s even possible – but I figure I’m up for giving it a try if you are.
From Here On Out – Spoilers!!
First, I have to say, that I can’t really rely too much on the book for answers and ideas on what exactly happened in the Netflix series. They are quasi-connected… I guess? But in the book, the story focuses on Dr. John Montague, and his desire to prove the existence of the paranormal/supernatural once and for all. You know, like Ghostbuster style ghostbusting with all manner of electronic equipment and scientific data gathering tools.
It is Dr. Montague’s team of lab assistants that catch the brunt of the house’s fury in the book. Eleanor Vance (a shy recluse who had cared for her invalid mother for years) and Theodora (a bohemian and self proclaimed psychic) agree to join in on the adventure and assist the doctor in his research. And the owner of the house’s nephew, Luke Sanderson, is pawned off on the Dr. as well, which finishes out the team. So yes, you see the threads there, but it’s decidedly different enough that we can’t reliably hope to glean much from the original source material.
Also, it is worth noting that Mike Flanagan, the screenplay author and director of Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House series, planned to create a fully fledged backstory for Hill House that was as intricate as it was spooky. But because of budget constraints Flanagan never crafted that backstory for us. Which means, much of the backstory to this show is lost to us. (Mr. Flanagan, mind sharing your original script with us?)
Chronological Hill House History
We don’t know much about the making of Hill House in the Netflix version. In the book, we know that the house was around a hundred years old. And we can surmise a similar timeline. I personally believe that the bowler hat grandfather clock technician is the man that originally built the house. But I literally haven’t got a single shred of evidence for this opinion beyond the fact that its a hunch. We also know that William and Poppy were both admitted to an asylum’s in their younger years. And it is then that they met and fell in love. Then after they were both released from the mental asylum, they were engaged and married. Most likely they ran the house in the 30’s and the 40’s, based on the dress and the timeline of the book.
We also know that Hazel lived there as well with William and Poppy. Hazel being William’s sister. We also know that Hazel had a daughter named Jacquelyn that lived there in the house as well. And during their time together, William, Hazel, and Poppy… they most likely didn’t get along well together at all. We know that Hazel considered Poppy a liar, and didn’t trust a thing she ever said. (Side note: notice something interesting here. William and wife Poppy. And William’s sister Hazel. Now notice this, Hugh and wife Olivia. And Hugh’s sister, Janet. Coincidence? Just seems like a pretty interesting echo if nothing else.)
We know that William and Poppy died at pretty young ages based on their ghost’s ages. And although we do not know how Poppy died, we do know that William killed himself by bricking himself behind a wall in the basement. And come on… after being found clinically insane, and having been admitted, you think William stood any sort of chance against the house? Absolutely not. Well, with Poppy and William gone, we know that Hazel spent her elder years stuck in her death bed, and cared for by their caretakers the Dudleys.
But the Dudleys are realizing that they are spending too much time at the house. Clara, aka Mrs. Dudley, isn’t doing well at all. They are trying to conceive, but nothing is going right. Until one day they realize that Mrs. Dudley is pregnant, but she ultimately loses the child. The house kills their baby. And that is when they tell Hazel that they’ll keep helping, but that they will not stay on after dark. And, if you ask me – and you didn’t – I don’t think that helped them stay sane, not even one iota. And if you had asked, and you didn’t, I would have told you that I actually believe that Horace (Mr. Dudley) is largely to blame for the perpetuation of chaos and death that has riddled the house since they came to work there years and years ago. But we will get to that later I’m certain. Thankfully though, after staying out of Hill House more, Clara is able to give birth to Abigail.
The Crain Hill House Flip Attempt
A few years later, the Crain family, headed by Hugh (played by Hugh Thomas of E.T. fame, and one of my favorite movies of all time, Legends of the Fall) and Shirley (played by Carla Gugino) purchase Hill House as a summer flip project. (I’m sorry, but does this even look like a flippable house? No. No it doesn’t.) And while a ton of craziness goes on, everything is heading towards the ultimate moment of Shirl’s madness, and the tea party in the red room.
Luke, Nell, and Abigail follow Shirley Craine up to the red room for a tea party. It’s pretty obvious that she has fallen prey to Poppy’s advice as to how to protect her children from the death and anger that is outside walls. And that is to kill them. We also know that Poppy has gotten that message through to the Dudley’s as well, because of how the lock her in the house. Regardless, Abigail swigs the tea, excited to participate… and she flops onto the floor, frothing as she dies.
Hugh arrives, and completely goes nuts… hauls the kids out to a nearby motel. He heads back to the house to find Shirl dead from a dive down the spiral staircase. The Dudley’s wander in looking for Abigail – who, isn’t an imaginary friend, but rather a very real, breathing, young girl. Or she was anyway. And when the Dudley’s realize that they will be able to always come to Hill House to visit their dead daughter in ghost form, they make Hugh promise he will say nothing and do nothing to harm the house.
Calling the police, he meets them at the hotel with the children. And unable to adequately tell them what happened Hugh goes to prison for the murder of his wife. This will be argued that I am wrong here, but there is no other real option. Why did Aunt Janet raise the children? It was because the police made him the prime suspect and convicted him for murder. After 10 to 20 years, he’s released and the second story line of the future begins.
Round Two of Hill House Chaos
“No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
Modern, Round Two of the Haunting of Hill House is 100% about figuring out why Nell committed suicide, and preventing Luke from following his twin into the abyss. All the while, the family needs to happen in the red room years ago. Right? So keep these competing details held firmly in your sites as we continue forward.
As the story winds its way to the modern portion of the story, we see that Nell is having trouble. Because the bent neck lady from their time at Hill House is back. Nell’s father tells her that he’ll be there soon. But she isn’t at her house, she’s at Hill House. Next thing we know, Nell is sleepwalking her way throughout the house. And with her mother’s help, “It’s time to wake up sweetheart”, she is putting on a necklace, and hanging herself from the spiral staircase in the library. And as soon as this happens, our solitary timeline blows up. But it was affecting us from the start of the timeline because when Nell died, she began appearing throughout the entirety of this show – because Nell is the Bent Neck Lady. And every time the Bent Neck Lady appeared to Nell, it was Nell tormenting herself.
And as we traverse the ten episodes, we watch as the carnage and psychological chaos of the events of Hill House shattered and permeated literally every sing area of their lives.
Nell – Luke’s twin, was similarly haunted by the ghosts of Hill House, most specifically the bent neck lady. And when she returned it was too much for her to bear.
Luke – not having been believed for the things he saw while at Hill House – the ghosts, the monsters, the chaos – has now become a haunted drug addict.
Theo – an empath, like her mother, sensitive to darkness all around her. Theo walls her self in with mindless sex and serial relationships.
Sherl – the control freak of the bunch, when she saw her mother in the casket, she decided she had to become a mortician as well.
Steve – an author made famous by his stories about Hill House has become a disbeliever in the stories that the family has told. And he uses the fear of others for his own gain.
But it’s Luke that is constantly in the most danger after Nell commits suicide. He attempts, time and time again to put his life together, but just can’t seem to manage it. Then one day, after 90 days of sobriety, decides he is heading to Hill House to burn it down. But the fire does nothing, and he is captured, and taken captive up to the red room.
As the rest of the family converge on the house, they are nabbed in turn and brought to the red room. Each unconscious and dealing with their own internal horrors and fears. When Steve wakes, he sees Luke, needle in arm, foaming at the mouth, dying. The house is determined to take another member of their family. He actually dies, and when he does, Luke appears on the ceiling of Nell’s bed, back when they were children. Luke slips the bounds of time. But then his siblings perform CPR and bring him back.
And then there is Nell, dead. A ghost. But standing there, talking to all of them, and I found the soliloquy gorgeous, so I’ll just throw it at you again: “Our moments fall around us like rain, or the snow, or confetti. So many times, and we didn’t know. Mom says, that a house is like a body, and that every house has eyes and bones, skin. This room is like the heart of the house. No not a heart, the stomach. It was your dance studio, it was a game room for Steve. Family room for Shirley, tree house for Luke, reading room for mom. It put on different faces so that we would be still and quiet while it digested…” and then moments later, “I learned a secret, there is no without, I am scattered into so many pieces, sprinkled onto your life like new snow.”
Did you catch that? We’ve been waiting the entire series to get into the Red room (I literally wrote in my notes, “the red door, reminiscent of It Comes At Night. The center of the maze. Picture of the soul. The unknown truth. The unsaid terror. We won’t see the door open until the final episode!”) and we find out that we’ve been in the red door room all along. It was the one big trick I didn’t see coming. Brilliant. And with that, their mother grapples with the lies that Poppy has sold her on. That killing the children isn’t safety, this, this is the real evil of the house. Lies sold as truths, sold for the destruction of the living.
And as the show ends, Horace helps his wife, who is dying, lay down in Hill House. Why? Because then she will be able to be reunited with her still born child, and Abigail, killed by liv in her rat poisoned tea party. And this is the really scary bit for me… that they have gone so far off the deep end that they believe this house to be the better end for their family. So much so that they will do anything to protect the house.
The Ending of Haunting of Hill House Explained
The first, and the most important thing you have got to get your head around is the fact that those who die are not bound by time. Like Nell said, she is like confetti, snow, sprinkled everywhere. Which means, the bent neck lady that scared Nell so badly as a child? Is herself. I know I mentioned that in my timeline walkthrough of the story, but I got make sure that bit is clear. We also saw this with Luke’s appearing to Nell on her ceiling in episode 5. There he is, grown, older, laying on the ceiling, with his arms spread wide (in a fairly Christ on the Cross like pose) and doing a great job of really freaking her out. He was only dead for a moment, but he traveled back in time there too.
Another key point we have to walk through? Abigail. Luke, for the entire series of 10 episodes continues to mention his friend in the trees. We see her. They play together. And everyone KNOWS that Abigail is his imaginary friend. Seeing ghosts throughout this series is so common that when we see her, and Luke asks his mother if Abigail can spend the night, we don’t give it a second thought. Oh, great, the ghosts are spending the night now. But she’s real. She is the hidden child of Horace and Clara Dudley. Remember, they too believe the same lies that Liv buys, that outside the walls are teeth, and knives, ready and willing to kill and destroy anyone dumb enough to leave the walls. And so Abigail, the real little girl, comes and joins the family for that fateful tea party, and dies a very real, a very horrible death.
A Story About Guilt and Regret
As I said back at the start, all horror movies are about sin, debt, and guilt. All of them. This one is no different. It is a story about guilt so deep, and so complete as to drive people mad. It’s about the pain of life drawing the living off to the land of the dead through the lies and the whispers the unknown calls out to us. But that is all they are, lies. But for those lost to grief, depression, madness, the lies are so beautiful. Siren’s songs calling out across the water to come wreck your ship on their crags.
Mike Flanagan attempts to turn the tide of the ending by giving Nell the gorgeous lines about snow and confetti. She tells us of their shared love even when they didn’t pick up the phone. She forgives for the missteps and the mistakes. And yet, that rang hollow for me on about a million fronts. First, their guilt wasn’t only directed at her. These siblings are dealing with pain and suffering from a wide variety of places and directions. Sure, their shared chaos in the house is one. But it comes from spouses, in-laws, parents, drugs, theft, lies, deceit. How is her letting them off the hook really going to do anything to assuage their real guilt? Meh. We all need a blood-payment that covers a multitude of sins… we need a savior that is bigger than our chaos. But that’s just me.
Did We Get A Happy Ending?
As episode 10 opens, we have Steve, with his wife, back together again. She’s pregnant (in spite of his vasectomy) and they are swimming in forgiveness and happiness. Except, that never happened. Steve realizes this is all just an illusion. And then he wakes to realize he is still separated from his wife, he doesn’t have a child on the way, and worse? His brother is dying on the floor in front of him. Mike Flanagan has given a number of interviews about this head fake and whether or not the ending was a happy ending or not, here is what he has said more than once:
“We thought Steven would reverse the vasectomy and that now he would be committed to having a family. But, um… One thing I can say is that we talked for a very, very long time about putting the Red Room window, that weird vertical window, in the background of this shot. And I ultimately decided not to. It was too cruel. But there was a lot of talk that this peace might not be real. In the version we ended up going with, I think it absolutely is real. We committed to that course of action. But the suspicion you had was exactly where we were, and that kind of makes me very happy. [Laughs]”
Personally, window or no window, I will not be dissuaded from my belief that the series’ ending was a lie. That Steve’s head fake of a baby on the way was the head fake before the real head fake of Luke’s surviving the overdose and their walking out together. I believe the house digested them whole. And until we get a Haunting of Hill House 2, and more evidence to the contrary I will not be talked down.
Seriously though, this was an amazing show. So many slow roll reveals, and hidden secrets through to the end. The jump scares were just brutal enough that I nearly punched the woman beside me on the plane connecting from Texas. But not too many as to become old. (My personal favorite jump scare was when Shirl and Theo were yelling at each other in the car and Nell, full ghost screams a blood curdling scream between the two of them to stop. So good. I may have even piddled myself. A little. I’m man enough to admit that. So good.