In October 2018, Netflix released The Haunting of Hill House. When I finally watched it seven months later, I was genuinely angry I'd waited so long.
The series begins on "the last night," the night in 1992 when Hugh Crain gathered up his five children in the middle of the night, bundled them in the car, and drove them to a hotel, ignoring their questions about where Mommy was. Instead of remaining with his children at the hotel, he leaves, telling Steven, the oldest, to take care of his siblings while he goes back for Mommy. When Hugh comes back the following morning, only Nell, the youngest, is awake. She asks her father what is all over his shirt. "Just paint, honey."
The limited series is a master in horror, because it perfectly captures not only the ghost story, but the underlying horror we all feel at a number of things: dying, mental illness, losing someone we love.
The show leads the viewer deep into the mystery of Hill House and the wreckage it made of the Crain family's lives--the ones who lived. No one knows what happened to Olivia Crain, only that she died and her husband was briefly detained by police... but then released. His five children were raised by their mother's sister and all five of them burned with anger. The anger that their father refused to tell anyone what happened in the house that night.
The grief at being robbed of their mother, and even the truth of what happened to her, leads to different results. Steven becomes a best-selling author by writing an account of all the strange goings-on in Hill House, including a fictionalized ending of what he knew happened... even though he wasn't there and couldn't possibly know.
The anger of children at their parents is an overriding theme throughout the show. We see both sides, not only how justified the children are in their anger at their father, but also how they are angry about the wrong things. And they remember many things wrong. Because they were children.
We often get the idea from movies and tv shows that children are innocent and good, the ultimate arbiters of truth. We must believe the children, so many stories tell us. The Haunting of Hill House takes a more realistic tack. It is epitomized in a conversation between Hugh and Steven. Hugh tells Steven he read the book, and that many details were wrong.
When Steven scoffs at the idea he doesn't know what he saw, Hugh snaps back: "We never had a treehouse, Steve. I was working more than 15 hours a day to restore that house, you think I had time to build you a tree fort?"
Steven sat in that treehouse with his brother Luke so many times. How, then, could it be that there was no such place? For the first time, this sneering holier-than-thou cynic finally realizes that his experiences as a child were not those of perfect understanding. That his father is not the lying screw-up he'd imagined.
Hill House stands as a metaphor for the tricks our human brains play on us to drive a wedge in our relationships: the flawed memories of children, how we are warped by grief, the attempt to control the world around us through a variety of defense mechanisms.
Shirley, the eldest daughter adapts to the chaos of her mother's death by becoming a control freak so angry at her brother's use of their childhood as literary fodder that she damns her family business into financial straits.
Theodora, the middle child, builds walls so high around herself that not even her family is allowed in.
Luke, the youngest, becomes a good old-fashioned drug addict.
And his twin sister, Nell. My god, how the tragedy of Nell hovers over nearly the entire series. The title speaks of Hill House, but mostly it was Nell who was haunted, both in life and in death. It is she who must suffer visions of her own death, only to spend her afterlife watching her beloved family unravel, helpless to stop them.
It's been months since I binged the show and still I think about it. But why? I am lucky in that I have not suffered through a loved one's premature death. Or a drug-addicted sibling. I have been uncommonly blessed in my life.
So why? I can only speculate my strong emotions come from the relief of watching a show that makes you feel. One that doesn't descend into nihilism that infects everything.
I saw myself in some of the Crain children's defense mechanisms, mostly in Shirley. I too suffer the delusion that if I control myself enough, the world will do my bidding, but not to the point its become destructive (I hope).
But we cannot control what life brings us. We cannot trust our childhood memories of our parents, and the anger we inevitably hold, are the truth. We can only control how we react to what happens to us and how we treat those closest to us. The Haunting of Hill House is remarkable in that it got the family just right. In all its perfection and imperfection. The show emphatically declares, Yes your family matters. No, you cannot replace their love and dedication with casual sex or substance abuse or a group of friends.
Once they are gone, they are gone. So love them while they are here. And tell them you love them while you still can. So few of us get the chance for a parting message. Even fewer have a haunted house of their own, letting you speak to your family long after you're gone.