Unpacking the Trauma in “The Haunting of Hill House”

*Warning — there are spoilers for the series The Haunting of Hill House in this article.*

What happens after enduring unspeakable terror is the same as what happens when you endure an unspeakable anything — you go on. You might not go on functionally, but you do the work of trying to stay alive. — Aurora Stewart de Peña

On the surface, Flanagan’s version of The Haunting of Hill House is a classic horror story full of ghosts and scares. But the true power of the show lies not with the ghosts, but with the internal hauntings of the Crain family.

What Flanagan does with the Crain family is something we don’t often see in television or movies very often — a true representation of how generational trauma, mental illness, and grief transform us. We see the manifestations of each family member’s trauma embedded in their personality and their life choices.

It’s telling that even though the central trauma is the same for all the siblings, (the haunted house, the death of their beloved mother and not knowing how she died, the feeling of abandonment from their father, just to name a few) they each internalize it in different ways.

The oldest sibling, Steven, is adamant that their experiences at Hill House were not hauntings but rather side effects of mental illness and hallucinations. In order to cope with his grief and trauma, he attempts to justify it away. Though he never says the words, I believe his actions and the things he’s not saying are a form of “if I can explain these things…if there’s a rational way to look at them, then I’m not on the hook for digging deeper to really identify the issues.”

Shirley, the second eldest and the pseudo matriarch after Olivia’s (the real matriarch of the family) death turns her obsession with the deceased into a full-time job as a mortician. Reading between the lines, I think Shirley’s frustration with the unpredictability of death is what makes her such a great mortician. Not only has she developed a rigid, predictable process for dealing with dead bodies, but she is able to exercise her perfectionism with the presentation. In a way, she gets to bring people back to life whereas she couldn’t save the people she loved in the past.

For me, personally, Theo is one of the most interesting siblings. As the middle child, Theo has the unique ability to relate to her older and younger siblings. She also has a unique gift. She can feel/sense the entire history of a person or an object. It’s both a blessing and a curse for Theo. It enables her to do very well as a child psychologist. She can empathize and approach treatment in a completely different way because of the innate knowledge of the trauma a child has faced. On the other hand, the burden of this gift is so immense that even as a child, Theo begins distancing herself from people. First, emotionally, then physically with the help of a pair of gloves. She closes herself off to almost everyone, but can’t seem to fill the void inside of her even though she attempts to do so with alcohol and sex.

That leaves us with the twins, Luke and Nell. Unfortunately, they have the hardest time with the trauma of their childhood. As the youngest Crain children, not only are they forced to endure the “ghosts” in the house more than any other siblings, but they are so young when they lose their mother.

Luke numbs the pain, grief, and trauma with drugs. Going in and out of rehab centers, letting his siblings clean up his messy mistakes — even allowing his fragile sister, Nell, to buy drugs for him. He’s so used to being the “screw up” that when someone outside his family reaches out a hand, he is determined to be her salvation instead of being the one needing to be saved.

Nell, on the other hand, is fragile and damaged and on the edge of a breakdown at every moment. She develops sleep paralysis — a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when you’re waking up or falling asleep — in the wake of her trauma. She’s frequently “haunted” by the “Bent-Neck Lady,” a ghost that turns out to be a manifestation of her own fate. Nell, more so than any other child, carries a direct link to her mother and the house via mental illness and shared fragility.

Speaking of Nell’s mother, Olivia, she is perhaps the most mysterious (and cherished) character of them all. Not only is she the doting, loving mother, but she understands her children’s wants and needs and attends to them in a very individualized way. She’s the perfect mother.

Until she’s not.

Olivia’s hauntings (or her mental illness…) become increasingly more difficult to justify away. As she sinks deeper and deeper into her neurosis and hallucinations, she begins to fear that her children will be taken from her. This is not only confirmed but instigated by a “ghost” named Poppy. She insists that the world is going to chew her children up and spit them out. That there is only one way to keep them safe and pure forever.

To kill them so they can all live in the house together.

She plots a tea party in the locked “red room” with Luke and Nell, and proceeds to fill their glasses not with tea… but poison.

Hugh saves all the children just in time but he’s too late to save the woman he loves. Not only is Hugh is traumatized by his wife’s actions toward their children, but when he returns to Hill House, he finds her dead at the bottom of the winding stairs. His beloved has jumped (so everyone believes). There are moments throughout the series where Hugh turns and talks to the “ghost” of his wife. And within those moments, viewers have to wonder if it’s a blessing or a curse as a result of the trauma he’s endured. On the one hand, he truly believes his wife is with him in those moments. On the other, he’s well aware that she’s dead and his children have suffered greatly because of it.

The greatest gift he gives his children though is a trade with his dead wife and the house. His life for his children’s.

In The Haunting of Hill House, the characters learn that the only way to heal from horror is to believe it happened. — Aurora Stewart de Peña

I love how Flanagan brought the Crain family all together for the last episode. In a culmination of tears and clarity — the Crain siblings begin to heal…but only after admitting to themselves (and each other) that their trauma was real. That they can no longer deny the devastation it’s had on their family and their lives. Their ability to realize the “truth” (or rather, their individual truths) allows them to begin the long road of recovery. Their healing doesn’t mean things are “fixed” or “cured,” but rather that they’ve done the hardest work of all: accepting the trauma in their lives and having a desire to heal. In the closing scene of the series, we see the remaining Crains’ (and a few others) huddled around Luke for his two-year “sober-versary,” and it’s a beautifully touching moment that reminds viewers (and the Crains’ themselves) that trauma and grief don’t have to kill us because we always have a choice to succumb or we have a chance to fight.