Culture/TV

Netflix’s The Haunting Of Hill House forces us to confront our biggest fear: Death

What happens to us when we cease to exist, and what happens to those left behind? The Haunting Of Hill House is at its best when it doesn’t answer that question.

November 26, 2018

Netflix’s The Haunting Of Hill House is eerie. The series, which premiered in October, is first and foremost a reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name. Straying from Jackson’s source material (sometimes, as critics have noted, in less-than-tasteful ways), the series documents the Crain family, from their traumatic time in Hill House to the present day, where each continues to grapple, to some degree, with the emotional and spiritual damage visited upon them in that house.

As others have observed, Hill House, like this year’s critical-hit horror Hereditary or HBO’s Sharp Objects, returns an overwhelming sense of sadness to the genre. The grief and pain the Crain family suffers is in many ways the most disturbing element of the series—perhaps more accurately, watching them struggle to piece together and reason with their trauma. It’s difficult to witnessbecause, in one way or another, we know this pain deeply and intimately.

Hill House achieves this uneasy familiarity because out of all the fears the show weaponizes, the deepest and most effective one is also the most obvious: death. It is the catalyst that opens the very first scene and closes the last episode, and the binding tie that runs through the 10 episodes of the first season—even when we don’t know it. While horror has traditionally been a reliable format for chaotically unpacking this fear, Hill House’s approach is remarkable precisely because it isn’t overactive. It is at its most effective when it’s still as the grave.

There are, of course, explicit manifestations of this fear. Some of the series’ most harrowing and white-knuckle scenes are those in which Shirley Crain, a mortician, prepares her sister Nell’s body for burial. These scenes are terrifying not just because we wait, hand over mouth, for Nell’s corpse to snap awake and grasp her older sister. They are terrifying because she doesn’t. Shirley simply tends to Nell’s body, draining it of fluids, removing its organs, sewing her mouth shut. The depiction is unflinching and graphic. It is both the most disconnected and most personal moment of the series.

It’s explained, in a Shirley-focused episode, that ostensibly she took up her profession in part as a response to an upsetting first encounter with death. The implication is that Shirley, in her new profession, is exercising some power or control over death, like some strange abstraction of terror management theory.

But the scenes with Shirley working on Nell’s corpse are among the few where nothing supernatural is at play. It is a perfectly-executed rendering of Jackson’s original employ of terror over horror; that is, the anxious, unsettling anticipation of something frightening happening, rather than the revulsion we feel when it does happen. Except in this case, the script is very nearly flipped: it would be more comforting if something did happen.

For all Hill House’s ghoulish apparitions and supernatural scares, the series posits that these, while frightening, actually in some way pacify our ultimate fear: that when we die, nothing happens.

This is in step with Steven’s driving theory behind humankind’s experiences with ghosts and his own skepticism on the topic. His ranting on the subject, though priggish (and prickish), is astute: “A ghost can be many things,” he says to a grieving widow. “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But in my experience, most times, they’re just what we want to see.” The widow retorts, “Why would I want to see my Carl like that?” Steven shrugs, “Because it’s better than never seeing him again. Most times, a ghost is a wish.” The implication is that the “wish” is for there to be something after death; that death isn’t as final as it feels. (It ought to be noted that despite these anchoring remarks, Steven is the absolute worst character on Hill House.)

This is the crux of Steven’s argument, and of the first season. For all Hill House’s ghoulish apparitions and supernatural scares, the series posits that these, while frightening, actually in some way pacify our ultimate fear: that when we die, nothing happens.

This fear is expressed brutally by Theo Crain towards the end of the first season. Theo, endowed with psychic powers that enable her to experience another’s feelings by touching them, crumples as she explains what she felt when she touched her dead sister’s body: “I felt nothing. It was just this dark, empty black hole… I’m just floating in this ocean of nothing, and I wonder if this is it, if this is what death is: just darkness and numbness and alone.”

Like the sequences where Shirley is working on Nell, Theo’s outburst is discomfiting, mostly due to its honesty: these conceptions of death are ones we can hardly think about ourselves, let alone express to others. Hill House roots itself in these discussions, and the primal fear that is, at its origin, a fear of the unknown. In conversing with this fear, it also destigmatizes it to an extent. If the consuming anxiety we feel about death is located in the unknown, then knowing and exploring this anxiety is a partial neutralization of it.

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Hello, Shirley.

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By the end of the series, Hill House actually balks and tries to assuage this fear. It ultimately shows the titular house to be a place of preservation, where people that die on the grounds get to continue living on forever. In the last 10 minutes of the final episode, two characters intentionally die in Hill House, with the promise of a new, ghostly existence with their loved ones.

This glossy, admittedly moving ending is almost disappointing given the show’s dedication to pressing on the fear of death. Early in the season, Steven theorizes, “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” He’s suggesting that people rationalize the existence of ghosts to comfort their fear of death. In the end, this is exactly what Hill House does. It devises an ending that erases the legitimate, gnawing question bubbling under the entire first season: what happens to us when we cease to exist, and what happens to those left behind?

The Haunting Of Hill House is at its best when it doesn’t answer that question. The final episode’s resolution is comforting, but it is hollow: it purports to know that which it has prodded us all along for not knowing. It is frightening to not know the answer, especially to something as puzzling and endlessly fascinating as death. Hill House reminds us there is no easy way to understand it, only that reconciling with that fear is essential if we want to really live.

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