Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House uses seven main characters to tell the story of how a house haunts the lives of the Craine family to keep itself standing. This article contains spoilers for all its twists, so read at your own discretion.
The story immediately presents the theme of death and suggests the evil intentions of the house when we learn of the mother’s death at the beginning. Through a series of flashbacks, we see Nellie haunted by “the bent-neck lady,” the family running from what we learn later to be their injured mother (Olivia), and a scene where their father Hugh personifies the house when he says, “The house doesn’t like it,” referring to a clogged chimney.
This statement mimics Olivia’s description of houses as people: she says walls are bones, pipes are veins, and rooms are organs. At the heart of mystery of Hill House is a locked red door into an unknown room. Nellie later realizes the room is what Olivia referred to as the heart of the house, but astutely calls it a stomach which gruesomely digests the house’s inhabitants.
The house touches every member of the Craine family. Nellie, the youngest of the family, is the first victim. Early in the first episode, we see her wake up at night, breathing quickly and shallowly. The camera pans to a tall woman steeped in shadow with a long, bent neck. Nellie cries out in fear. Her father, Hugh, says sometimes people, especially children, have nightmares. Later, as Nellie sleeps on the couch, the bent-neck lady returns, hovering over her in the middle of the night.
Adult Nellie remains haunted by the house, suffering from sleep paralysis and visions of the bent-neck lady. She meets and later marries a man who diagnoses her with sleep paralysis and gives her techniques to help calm her during these terrifying episodes. Nellie then witnesses his death. He collapses during one Nellie’s episodes. She looks over to see the bent-neck lady standing in the room’s corner.
Soon after this event Nellie seeks therapy. The therapist tells her Hill House is just a shell. Nellie visits the house to prove this is true. The house shows Nellie a warm home filled with light and the people she loves the most—her parents, siblings and husband. Nellie’s mom convinces her to hang herself, so she “can stay forever,” “wake up,” away from the world of “disease and suffering.” In a shocking twist, the hanged Nellie turns into the “bent-neck lady.” Her future self has been haunting her and driving her insane!
The house also haunts Luke, Nellie’s twin, as a child. During one episode, Luke finds a hat a little big for him, but that he loves all the same. He rests it on his bedside table while he goes to sleep. A tall, floating man carrying a walking stick (causing a creepy “tap, tap” on the floor!) enters his room. Luke sees him pick up the hat and place it on his head. This man haunts Luke as an adult, following him wherever he goes, facing away from him, but always floating closer and closer. Luke tries to cope with his fear and turns around to face him, but Steve’s car’s headlights blind Luke, and the man vanishes.
The fear Luke suffers from his entire life torments him wherever he goes. Perhaps the ghost is a personification of Luke’s fear. It leads to his drug addiction. When Luke visits the house after Nellie’s death to burn it down, the house leads him to the red room. There, Luke overdoses and almost dies. Nellie’s ghost pulls him back from the brink of death, saving him from Olivia and the house’s attempts to keep him there forever.
The house haunts Hugh and the other siblings in different ways. Theodora can feel memories and others’ emotions by touching them or objects they’ve touched, but cannot form personal relationships. Shirley spends her life attempting to “fix death” as a mortician; Steve becomes an author writing about hauntings in other places. And Olivia’s spirit haunts her husband, Hugh. He lives apart from his children to protect them from her and the house. He also keeps it a secret that she threw herself from the balcony after failing to poison Nellie and successfully poisoning Abigail.
After the house achieves its goal of the family returning to the house, the adult siblings all wake up in the red room after hallucinating how their life would be if they stayed in the “real world.” All the hallucinations are depictions of horrible and devastating futures; the house is eager to keep them “home.” Nellie realizes the room has been morphing secretly this whole time into rooms their childhood selves needed to be happy there: Theo’s dance room, Nellie’s toy room, Steve’s game room, Luke’s tree house, and Olivia’s reading room. Calling the room the house’s “stomach,” Nellie reveals how the house uses time’s “confetti” structure to control them; time is not linear, but falls around them like raindrops or confetti. The house haunts them with previous inhabitants and their own spirits and bodies, all to keep them in the house as food so the house can survive.
Although it lacks the symbolism of Jackson’s novel, Netflix’s adaptation makes up for in utter creepiness, at least in my easy-to-creep-out mind. What do you think?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ashley Yarbrough is a writer, mother, teacher, gardener, and many other things. She writes about it all here: https://mamahoodmemoirsblog.wordpress.com. Feel free to take a look!