The Haunting of Hill House and the Ghosts of Trauma
So, I’ve just recovered from watching The Haunting of Hill House a few weeks ago and boy, do I have some shit to say. From sensational performances, amazing cinematography, fabulous direction, and the only jumpscare that actually got my bowels to twitch in terror, this is quite simply one of the best horror shows I’ve ever seen in my life. No, scratch that – one of the best pieces of horror media I’ve ever come across. Following the interlocking stories of the Crane family, the show investigates both the past of the Cranes, living in the haunted Hill House as children and parents, and their lives after the haunting at the hands of the Hill House ghosts as adults. If you haven’t seen it, off you go and watch it now – spoilers ahead, and I don’t want to ruin anything for you.
But the real power of this show lies not in the fact that it is scary, which it obviously is, but in what those scares represent. The Haunting of Hill House doesn’t just present ghosts, because it’s not interested in ghosts as just steps towards jumpscares. No, in this show, the ghosts are the haunting remains of trauma, and that’s much more interesting.
There’s been a lot of television in the last couple of years about processing trauma and the effect that has on the characters we follow – off the top of my head, Bojack Horseman, Patrick Melrose, Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects – and some of them do use horror tropes as a way to explore those notions. But Haunting of Hill House using them in such an explicit way, ghosts as literal embodiments of lingering trauma and the effect trauma leaves on the ever-fragile human mind.
The central point around which Hill House revolves is the illness of the Crane family mother, Olivia, after what appears to be a psychotic episode triggered by living in Hill House for just a few months. I love the way the show structures the reveal of everything that happened on the specific night that drove the remaining family members from the house – the visits to the house are sporadic and traumatic, often seen through the slippery reality and unquestioning trust of the eyes of the children. But though the actual details of the night of Olivia’s suicide are horrible, it’s the echoes that spin out from the event that really turn the show into the compelling masterpiece that it is.
Really, a lot of Hill House feels like an epilogue to the story of the family living there in their younger days, but, for me, that’s one side of horror that is rarely delved into in any kind of satisfactory way. All five of the Crane children and their father were inescapably traumtatised by the events that took place during their stay in Hill House, and what the show is interested in is touching on how they’ve coped – and how they eventually come to terms with the burden of what happened to them.
The ghosts come into play here as manifestations of the trauma that occurred in Hill House, their actual presence rarely as threatening as what the characters do to escape them – from suicide, to addiction, to repression, to emotional lock-down, to outright denial. The ghosts aren’t there to scare us, but rather to force the characters to drastic, unsettlingly relatable measures to survive what haunts them. On their return to Hill House, they do not overcome their trauma and walk away cured, but simply come to terms with the reality of what happened and face outward towards finding a way through it. Some people found the ending cheesy, and I can understand why, but for me it worked as a acceptance of the impossibility of trauma, and what it looks like to begin to search for a way through.
And, for me, that’s just sensational storytelling. The ghosts that haunt us in real life are rarely supernatural, but the spirits of the things that won’t leave us. That’s what makes The Haunting of Hill House truly terrifying to me: the bleak, brutal reality that no matter what traumas we carry with us – and almost everyone has something – navigating them can be just as painful and destructive as living through them in the first place.
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(header image courtesy of Vox)