The Ghosts of the Past that Haunt Us Still

By Tim Winterstein

The Haunting of Hill House is probably the most philosophical ghost story you’ll ever watch—except for maybe A Ghost Story, but that one is not scary. Hill House (10 episodes, streaming on Netflix) definitely has its share of cover-your-eyes moments and horror commonplaces. But, as with the best of them, those elements are just a device to deliver something far more important than jump scares. The layers of the show (and of the House) are multiple and heavy.

These are probably more impressions than a coherent evaluation. They aren’t linear, but more like snow falling or confetti. This is one that’s going to stick in my brain for a long time. And I wonder if the “of” in the title is subjective or objective. Is it the House that is doing the haunting or the House that is being haunted? We speak of past events or experiences that “haunt” us. Hill House takes that seriously. And maybe it actually gets closer to the porous intersection of physical, material things and spiritual, intangible things. Perhaps we do ourselves a disservice by pretending that there are firm and immovable walls between the spirit and the flesh. Whatever the nature of that interaction, Hill House makes the intangible fears that stem from guilt and regret tangible precisely so that they cannot be rationalized away.

Not that I believe in ghosts, in the sense that there are unsettled souls inhabiting particular physical spaces. But Hill House is not really about the ghosts anyway. Once the ghosts and supernatural (or “preternatural,” as Steve prefers) are stripped away, this is simply a family drama—though not simple—uncovering the layers of a family poisoned by its past. When we see the young family in the House, they seem relatively happy. And so the House stands in for every kind of trauma, grief, guilt, illness, and problem that can occur within a family. Two parents and five kids allow for any number of psychological and physical problems.

This is a typically American, irreligious, and well-educated family. Some of the children are in denial, some just want to be heard and acknowledged and believed, and some have buried their character-shaping experiences so deeply that it takes more than one additional trauma to bring them back to the surface.

What makes us who we are? Our fears? Our loves? What about when love makes us fear? Is the enemy out there, or in here? Hill House explores that contrast. Obviously, there are horrible things in the House. But are they any scarier than what is out in the world, waiting to devour the children sent out into its maw? Perhaps the polarity itself—between in here and out there—is false from the beginning. It’s outside of me inside the House, or it’s outside of me outside of the House. In either case, the evil remains outside of me.

But I am not an innocent, corrupted or devoured by insidious, external forces. I am the insidious force. In order to forestall the evil getting in, I might, like the original owner of the House, wall myself in. But the sisters, Fear and Guilt, are inside with him and cannot be walled out. And that’s what drives him insane. And in the scenes where Eleanor discovers who the Bent-Neck Lady is, it becomes clear that the haunting is not from without, but from within.

Everything we experience, every choice we make, every fear and every love makes us who we are. And sometimes those experiences come upon us, while other times we bring them about. But what good does it do to blame our childhood, our parents, our traumas, or some unavoidable pitfalls? We are who we are, and we can either come to terms with it or live in falsehood and self-deception.

Though, of course, as with most contemporary fictional accounts, Hill House cannot come all the way around to Christian hope, it gets half the story right. Certainly, half the story makes the story false in the end. Happiness is depicted as amorphous self-awareness and self-discovery. Further, at least in outline, the idea is present that suicide is an escape into a better place. But that seems to be the resolution of a problem that can’t be resolved.

In this case, the diagnosis is far more accurate than the outcome. Liv and Nell, for sure, are overcome by their hopeless positions. Liv cannot handle the terror of allowing her children out into the world as they grow. For Nell, the lethal combination is psychological problems, exacerbated by the lack of beneficial drugs, compounded by grief. But to believe that Hugh, Liv, and Nell are somehow released into peaceful companionship is wishful make-believe.

The aspect of the finale that gets much closer to the truth, at least of repentance in the Christian sense, is the laying bare by Shirley to her husband and Steve to his wife of their selfish, and therefore self-destructive, actions. These two intertwined vignettes make visible their own “ghosts,” which are their adultery and selfishness, distorted and excused in their own minds by long self-justification. It is only the horror of the Red Room that forces them to face what they’ve done.

What The Haunting of Hill House does best is make manifest all the ghosts that haunt each one of us. Every sin, every self-justification, every grief, every fear, every hidden motivation or secret lust—all of them remain with us. And if the “Law” (in this case, the actual ghosts of Hill House) does not tear down all our walls of rationalization that the (sinful) flesh constructs to protect itself, then those ghosts will finally consume us eternally.

But now a righteousness has appeared that is not our own, not from us, unlike the evil. And in the face of that righteousness, there is no boasting. Every mouth will be shut and there are no more excuses, no more angry defensiveness. All will be held accountable. No boasting in myself, but there is, finally, boasting only in the righteousness and purity that comes from outside me and is given to me as a gift. It is a relinquishment of Me and an acknowledgment that I can truly live only within another. To live within myself is to die. And that’s far more horrible than any specter on the screen.