“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?”
The Haunting of Hill House is a series of close-ended questions. Should they stay or should they go back? Should they ignore the past or deal with its consequences? Is it real or an illusion? Are they insane or is it the rest of the world that is?
These answers should be easy; but in the Crain’s complicated universe, they never are. The show starts off in a confusing manner: what is Hill House? Who are these people? Why do all these actresses look exactly the same? Flanagan’s retelling of Jackson’s classic novel isn’t in any hurry to give us answers. The dark lighting and obscure timeline doesn’t make it any easier to latch our attention onto: you have to fight for Hill House. At least until it invites us in.
The fourth episode of the show is a turning point in that respect. For the first time, the characters are not just a whole. They each get their own moment to develop into something complete independently of each other, with their own struggles and own traumas. The cleverness of the show lies in how little it wants to convince us of whether its ghosts are real. If you want this to be a ghost story, it can very well be. But if you want this to be about trauma, about mental illness and addiction and grief and all the terrible stories we tell ourselves to make them more bearable, it works just as well.
Families are almost impossible to understand from the outside, yet have a logic that is impossible to detach itself from for anyone inside. If the Crains don’t make much sense as we meet them, it is clear that they understand each other, as different as they may be. An unsaid vow unites them. In life and in death, in joy and in suffering, they are still the only people who can understand what they went through. Once Flanagan has explored each character individually is when they can come back as a group and start wondering what they want from life. Only confronting what got them here will get them to a better place.
Not all families are haunted by literal ghosts, but that doesn’t make Hill House any less of a powerful place for all viewers. Even in a place as secluded from the world as this one, the Crains’ actions have an influence on the other people that float around them. The Dudleys dedicate their lives to saving them by keeping the house from showing its true self, yet all they get back is suffering and loss. There’s too much evil waiting in these walls. Even worse, this is mainly evil that believes it is doing something good. This is when the show unleashes its last flash of genius: even the characters that cause the most hurt are sympathetic. There’s no real culprit outside of evilness itself. Injustice is the real enemy that the Crains have to confront to be free from their past. The problem was never the lack of answers; it was accepting that some questions are never meant to have one.
The Haunting of Hill House is as hard to access as it is to leave. The bleakness of the series slowly turned to sadness, and finally to the slightest bit of hope. The biggest scares of the show were not brought by the evil spirits of Hill House, but by love itself. This is an affectionate kind of horror, a different take on the infinitude of growing up. Not everyone will always be there, not every opportunity to do well will be taken, but despite it all, keeping on living is the best thing anyone can do. Hill House will always be there. Ghosts won’t always be imaginary. But it is our choice to decide when they stop haunting us. Years pass, anniversaries are celebrated, others are ignored. Memories remain. Others fade.