The Artist Studio

The Haunting of Hill House: An Exploration in the Fear of Illness

Meher Rakkar is currently interning with the Program for Narrative Medicine and Health Humanities at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix under her mentor Dr. Hartmark-Hill, where she is helping to curate student interest in the Health Humanities and the new Certificate of Distinction program for Narrative Medicine. She recently graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a BA in English and a BS in Physiology and believes strongly in the power of this intersection in better understanding the patient condition. She intends to further pursue this combination by using literary criticism and narratology to evaluate illness as a symbolic relationship rather than a direct combatant of health and well-being, and by exploring the effects of poetry writing and analysis on trauma healing. For more information on her work with Narrative Medicine, or to read her latest poetry.

What is it about horror movies that makes them such pop culture icons? From Halloween, to teen slumber parties, to cinematic fright nights, the horror marathon has stood the test of time and become nothing short of an American tradition. Something about the adrenaline rush of exploring and experiencing fear without the danger of confrontation lulls us into a sense of paradoxical security. Netflix, for example, has released its own set of original shows to pick up on this trend with Stranger Things, the recent revamping of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and The Haunting of Hill House.

How can we use these shows as tools for better understanding our patient’s fears about illness?

The Haunting of Hill House, a reworking of Shirley Jackson’s original novel of the same name, is one of the more recent additions to the Netflix library of horror shows and movies. The series centers around the Crain family as they attempt to reclaim their lives from the grasps of ominous childhoods shadowed over by their mother’s suicide and the haunting of the house they lived in. The show examines the life of each child both within the confines of the haunted halls of Hill House and as they venture out into the world as adults, only to be brought back together by the unexpected death of their youngest sibling, Eleanor Crain.

On its surface, The Haunting of Hill House (THHH) presents as the standard horror movie trope: an evil house filled with spirits wreaks havoc on a family, and one would expect no less considering the name. However, reading more closely, the word “of,” rather than “in” or “at” in the title presents a literary dilemma. Is Hill House the subject or the object of the haunting, or, more plainly, does the house haunt the family, or does the family haunt the house? A closer look at the text gives weight to the latter. But, in order to do so, we must begin at the beginning, which in this case happens to be the first paragraph of the novel that originated the story.

Borrowing from Jackson’s work is the following sentiment about Hill House: “Whatever walked there walked alone.” This expectation seems to pervade, and even invade, the text of director Mike Flanigan’s reworking. At its core, the inevitability of the house’s effect on its inhabitants is a function of the Gothic tradition, in which the setting of exoticism and unease lends the hero(es) to ruin. After the shared trauma of their mother’s suicide, tensions between the children begin to rise leading to a decidedly predestined isolation of each child. Steven, the eldest of the five, is ostracized by his siblings due to his decision to write and profit from the story of Hill House. Shirley, the next in line, is by far the most stable of the five as a wife and mother of two children of her own, but she is preoccupied with an obsession to “fix” deceased family members that lands her in financial trouble. Theo becomes a therapist working primarily with children and continually comments on the walls that she has built around herself to cope with the tragedy of her childhood that destroys every relationship she initiates before it can even begin. Luke, one of the twins, is a seemingly hopeless heroin addict that has lost the trust of his family because of his habit. And, finally, Eleanor, the second twin, is a long time sufferer of sleep paralysis that devolves into a deep depression after the tragic loss of her husband of two years.

To delve into one example of this isolation, we might consider Luke’s case. The show sets a precedent that Luke is irredeemable, introducing him as the brother who failed out of every rehab program he was sent to, and constantly leeching from his siblings. However, it is later revealed that Luke is actually 90 days clean at the time that we first meet him. What changed between his first attempts at sobriety and this one was the presence of a friend willing to work through withdrawal with him. Although each of his siblings explicitly expresses that they had a hand in supporting his rehab financially, none were willing to lend a hand when addiction reared its ugly head. As Luke says in episode four, “An addict alone is in bad company,” so it is unsurprising that his family’s inability to shed their prejudice led to his repeated failures. It seems that to “walk alone” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Crain family. But, another link exists between the five children – not one of the five was able to find a home for his or herself after Hill House.

Each struggles uniquely with this search for belonging. Steven alternates between book tours and being kicked out of his house by his wife; Shirley continues to dream and plan of a “forever home” to settle into; Theo can’t be bothered to move out of her sister’s guest house; Luke remains trapped in a constant cycle between rehab facilities and shelters; and Eleanor’s house remains a constant reminder of her husband’s untimely death. This metaphorical homelessness is further explored in a sub-plot within episode three. Theo, a child psychologist, works with an 11-year-old girl who appears to be seeing Mr. Smiley in the basement of her home. When Theo is visited by the specter of a similar description that night, she decides to conduct a closer investigation into the girl’s home life. After meeting the child’s foster father and examining the basement, Theo uncovers a disturbing reality of child-molestation. She comments on how this young girl had to “make up a monster, just to compartmentalize and cope” because her house was devoid of the safety that a home represents. Ultimately, each member is doomed to a life of isolation and a longing for a safe space, much like this girl. Thus, the apparent suicide of Eleanor Crain may come as no surprise, except for that it happened to take place in Hill House – but what drew her back to the setting of her life’s greatest tragedy?

The answer lies in the timing. At the time of Eleanor’s death, the family was at the height of its dysfunction – the siblings were in the midst of every variety of conflict, from financial to personal. With the loss of her husband, Eleanor’s support system crumbles from beneath her and she becomes wholly isolated from the rest. In her final moments, she attempts to call every member of her family but is answered only by her father who lives across the country from her. The only people who could have helped turned their backs on their sister. Only once her isolation is complete can the house claim its first victim. What succeeds in drawing her back to the home is a dream state in which her mother is revived, and she reconciles with her family. After the disillusionment of this dream, she finds herself standing atop the staircase with a noose in hand before being pushed over the edge by a final image of her mother. At the end of her life, she herself becomes the very thing that plagued her nightmares for over twenty years – the Bent-Neck Lady. So, when her therapist asks her in episode five, “How can a house, just a collection of bricks, wood, and glass, have that much power over people?” it is the question itself that is flawed. What Eleanor, and in fact every member of the Crain family, truly craves is not a house, but a home – a safe space and a support system that functions to alleviate the alienation and loss of self that illness can create.

Thus, in addition to the daring and supernatural entertainment factor that this series obviously contains is a deeply rooted commentary on a societal expectation of  caring for the sick  that has not adapted to accommodate aging or chronic illnesses, like addiction, cancer, and mental illness. With a history of shared trauma at Hill House, it should be self-evident that all members of Luke and Eleanor’s family would be consistently and readily empathetic, but the reality of the Crains is one that represents a fallible system that leads to irreparable damage. The prophesied diminishing of family support can collapse the whole foundation of an individual’s health. From this perspective, the show itself can be seen as an elaborate extended allegory of General Adaptation Syndrome that leads to the burnout of these support systems. But, THHH presents a way to reframe this inevitability within the confines of a single symbolic unit. By making Hill House the unique tangible object of the fear of alienation and destruction of one’s sense of belonging, the final confrontation of this entity brings a means of better understanding how to pinpoint and alleviate these same fears about illness.

In the final episodes of THHH, Hill House continues to prey on each member of the family in a similar way – through a series of dream sequences that act as opportunities for wish fulfillment, and at the root of each wish is the shared grief of their mother’s death. Steven says in the first episode of the series, “A ghost can be a lot of things…but in my experience most times, they’re just what we want to see.” In the finale of the show, the remaining Crains have completed drastic character transformations that are the direct results of their willingness to work towards strengthening their personal relationships with one another and the people around them. It is through this effort that they are finally able to reclaim their homes and finally accost the ghosts that have haunted them since Hill House. The house claimed its victims by showing them what they most wanted to see: reconciliation and closure. But, once the Crains allowed themselves to process their grief properly and reconcile in their own realities, the power of Hill House was lifted from their lives. Understanding these fears as direct extensions of the power of grief, guilt, and longing was the key to breaking the curse of Hill House, and may also hold the key to better understanding the patient condition in the long term. As time goes on, the fears associated with illness become more pronounced because the sentiments creating them seem farther removed and more unattainable. Perhaps the secret to unlocking a version of the role sckness plays that is better adapted to longevity is not in attacking the fears associated with illness, but rather in removing the power of these fears altogether.

Recommended Reads