Past & Present Colliding in ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

“You know it’s funny, Nellie was always trying to get all of us together in one place,” Shirley says the night before her little sister’s funeral.

It’s the blunt and bitter truth, isn’t it? As families we get together for birthdays, for weddings and anniversaries. We reunite for funerals, too. Cruelly. Painfully. Celebratory milestones have a way of bringing disparate people together, as does heartrending tragedy.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is out, and though I’m getting the hang of this dream-hopping season, I keep going back to The Haunting of Hill House. Hill House was my Marvel movie marathon on the way to Bly Manor, and inexplicably became my next Game of Thrones-level obsession. The two series are entirely different beasts, but Hill House’s portrait of an estranged family is the one that keeps me up at night.

We meet the Crain family as, well, not much of one. Phone calls briefly connect them just as quickly as it severs what little connection (and commitment) they have left. To chat for more than a minute would mean really engaging with one another, which would prompt reminders of a fateful summer at Hill House— and a fatal night that mysteriously claimed the life of their mother, Olivia. Hill House was supposed to be the last renovation, the final flip before the building of a proper “forever home” for the Crains. In many ways, Hill House claimed two victims that night: a mom, and a family that could’ve been.

Now, Hill House has claimed little sister Nell in an apparent suicide.

The shattered portrait of the Crain family is realized with brutal efficiency in episode 6, “Two Storms.” It’s the culmination of the series’ storytelling device of alternating between two timelines – THEN, with the Crain siblings as kids, and NOW with the Crains as adults – the two streams meeting literally in a series of ambitiously long takes.

The episode begins with Shirley and Theo at the funeral home awaiting the arrival of their brothers for a private viewing of Nell’s body. (On a dark and stormy night, of all things.) Pleasantries are exchanged as the siblings reunite, half-hearted words and gestures as empty as a passing glance from a stranger.

Like any family, there’s friction. Shirley and Theo are wary of their drug addict brother Luke, remarking among themselves that he’ll likely skim money from them to score dope. There’s the ongoing resentment between Shirley and big brother Steven who became a famous author by taking the traumatic events at Hill House and turning it into a paperback. And then there’s Theo hiding a ghost of her own, a secret that just might ruin Shirley a.k.a. the only close sibling relationship she has.

They’ve all made a quiet (and ultimately frail) agreement to put aside their grievances and honor Nell in this moment together.

Nell, sadly, wouldn’t get to see this.

She died alone.

*

The Crain siblings believe they’ve closed the chapter of Hill House in their lives. But as we explore their POV in individual episodes, we see the thin veil used as a brick wall to compartmentalize their trauma. Things happening in their present easily trigger memories of the past. Steven’s success as a horror writer is owed to writing about Hill House, so the past naturally has a way of coming up in Q&A’s at book signings. Or it can be as simple as Shirley’s husband putting up a framed photo, the sound of hammer and nail echoing the renovations that took place at Hill House. They’ve moved away and into different homes, some with spouses and kids to fill them. But mentally and emotionally, Steven, Shirley, Theo, and Luke are still stuck at the foggy edge of Hill House estate.

Their father Hugh shows up last at the funeral home and it’s when the two timelines converge and compound. The past and present were working in tandem prior, now they’re colliding in the same scene just as the Crains are all in the same room.

When Hugh walks in, the camera spins a careful 360 degrees, and we experience Hugh’s surreal sensation as a dad reuniting with his estranged family. He literally sees them as they were when they were kids. The kids even exchange lines of dialogue with present Hugh, blurring the effect. When the camera spin is complete, the Crain siblings are back to adults.

As a father, Hugh is still desperately trying to shield his children from the trauma of the past, and that past is roaring back. Hugh’s struggle to say something profound in front of his kids now is the same struggle he had back then. It all leads back to Hill House, and the episode does so literally in-scene as Hugh stumbles through the narrow halls of Shirley’s funeral home, and then finds himself back in Hill House’s long corridors.

Hugh treads back to a night of a torrential storm, when the lights go out and the Crains gather in Hill House’s nucleus. Hugh sees himself as he wants to be seen now, as someone who his kids look up to when things go wrong. All the Crain siblings see now is a deadbeat dad who still won’t tell them what happened to their mother.

*

The next long take charts the frailty of their reunion as the larger familial conflicts begin to spill over. (Family, am I right?) They each share anecdotes about Nell, about the shared experiences as kids when it felt like they could tell each other anything. And the hypocrisy comes pouring swiftly like Theo’s swigs of vodka.

“I don’t know why she [Nell] didn’t feel like she could talk to me,” Shirley says. The bitter truth is that Nell was reaching out, to a pair of sisters who lived across the country, and a pair of brothers who lived closer but were too preoccupied with themselves to care. Nell had just lost a husband and was seeing a therapist to manage her spiraling grief. Now she’s dead in full, plain view. Nothing can be done to prevent the outcome, yet they can’t be grownups and accept their faults.

Steven made his peace with a mother who, in his mind, was mentally ill. Less about the “truth” more than it is a convenient way for Steven to move on with his life. He treats Nell’s death the same way, saying she was “off her meds,” and, combined with an unacknowledged family history of mental illness, suicide was the only logical end to Nell’s story.

But the truth is more complicated than that. It’s true that Olivia Crain was seeing things at Hill House, that she had debilitating headaches and frequent fugue states. But mental illness wasn’t the cause; it was something exploited by Hill House and the malevolent specters within. This made her an ideal prey, just like it did Nell who was all alone in her depressive state. The evil that resides in Hill House preys on the uniquely vulnerable, or the ones that will hurt the most.

Even if the truth were to boil down to mental illness, that would mean there were times the Crains could’ve intervened but didn’t. Shouldering the blame would be too hard because that would mean taking responsibility. It’s easier for Steven and Shirley to blame their family tree than it is to accept their negligence as big brother and big sister.

They’re here for each other now, but they don’t know how to be here in this moment, all of them in abject denial. Luke refuses to believe his twin sister is gone, while Theo drowns herself in booze. The long-held tensions inevitably boil over. Steven blames a father for withholding the truth about their family’s hereditary “condition,” while Shirley calls out big brother Steven’s righteousness for smearing the family name in his books, and then Theo flares at Shirley for being a poor and icy replacement for their dead mother. The situation gets so far away from Nell that the deep-seated drama that has festered for 26 years becomes the main event, the real occasion for this terrible reunion.

The Crains neglect Nell even in death.

And then suddenly, the lights go out at the funeral home. The Crains are back to being in the dark, on the heels of another more potent storm.

*

The Haunting of Hill House might seem more like a family drama than a horror story especially in the case of “Two Storms.” But I’d argue that all horror stories are family dramas at their core. The Lutz family in Amityville Horror face grave financial hardship as things go bump in the night, similar to the Perron family in The Conjuring as they move into a new home. This is perhaps more visceral and truer in 2018’s Hereditary, where the skeletons of the Graham family tree wreak havoc on a disintegrating household.

The ghouls of Hill House come loaded with backstory, but we don’t learn much about them in the same way The Conjuring carved out an entire interconnected universe for their fiendish rogues’ gallery. Instead, we become more invested in the Crains and the horror happening in conjunction with the drama.

This is the slow-burning horror plaguing us too – the strained or estranged relationship we might have with our own families and not know it. After all, when was the last time we spoke, really spoke to each other? Family is more than sharing good news and funny stories around the campfire; it exists in the deep crevices between, too. These heartless voids leave the Crains ill-equipped to have a conversation that doesn’t end in a fight, to work together in getting the damn lights back on, or to mourn the loss of their own in solitude.

The Crains each have their own specters that haunt them beyond the boundary of Hill House, but it’s the broken promise of a family that proves to be their ultimate ghost in the end, the entity they all share.

*

As the Crains scramble to get the power back on, we follow Hugh again as he wanders the funeral home and winds his way back to Hill House once more— to the ghost of a father who thought he could fix everything, who had known what to do and what to say then and is now wordless to the bickering happening in front of him. At long last, he’s stumbled across something he can’t fix: his own broken family.

Back in the past at Hill House – the last time the Crains were truly together – little Nellie has gone missing, and this prompts a meandering search across Hill House’s ghostly maze. As mysteriously as she disappears, Nell miraculously reappears, claiming she’s been there the whole time. “I didn’t go anywhere,” she says, pointedly, “I was right here.”

The empty spaces, the missed opportunities and the lingering questions between the Crains metastasize as ghosts in and of themselves. What if their mother lived? What if they grew up in the forever home they always dreamed of? What if they answered just once when Nell called for a tea party or for someone to listen?

I was right here and I was screaming and shouting and none of you could see me. Why couldn’t you see me?

The surviving Crains may weather this storm just as they’ve done in the past, but nothing will mend them fully like before. There were 7 of them moving into Hill House then. Now there are 5, like a solemn countdown is underway. “A ghost can be many things… Ghosts are guilt, ghosts are secrets, ghosts are regrets and failings.” The Crains have been contending with the ghouls of the past. Moving forward, they’ll have to do battle with the ones they’ve created amongst themselves, and it’s the haunted house story that will continue long after they’ve reached the conclusion at Hill House.

Because they were there for Nell, but only when it was too late.

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