Gendered Trauma in The Haunting of Hill House

By Taylor Hunsberger

Credit: shwerns

The 2018 Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House centers around the Crain children traumatized by their childhood and the loss of their mother while growing up in a haunted house. When the youngest of the Crain children, Nell, returns to Hill House, she suffers the same fate as their mother, and the rest of the family is forced to come together to grieve her death. The series follows the lives of each family member as they confront their past and present ghosts. As the series unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that there is an overwhelming presence of grief and trauma that haunts the women of the Crain family. Due to their privilege and male entitlement, father and son (Hugh and Stephen) have the ability to turn a blind eye to the experiences of the women in their family, furthering harm and violence against them.

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The Anxiety of Motherhood

Throughout the series, Olivia, the mother of the Crain family, is haunted by the adult futures of her twin children, Nell and Luke. In one flashback, she walks into a room where she sees the ghost of Nell being prepared in a morgue while Luke is lying on the floor having overdosed on drugs. Olivia tells her husband Hugh about these ghosts she’s seen in the house, and, rather than comforting her, he assures her that it was only a dream and that her fears are all in her head. Olivia begins to believe this, telling their caretaker Clara she is thankful that her husband keeps her grounded and reminds her that her anxieties about Nell and Luke are fictional. To this Clara responds: “No, I’m sorry, but if you’re worried about your children…You don’t let anyone tell you to relax, especially someone who didn’t carry those souls in their core, feel them growing.”

Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) sees the ghost of her adult daughter, Nell (Victoria Pedretti), being prepared for her funeral. Credit: Netflix

The ghosts that Olivia sees are manifestations of the anxiety she has over her inability to protect her children from the terrors of the outside world. When she explains her anxieties to Hugh, he does not have the same ability to see these ghosts, as they are specific fears to Olivia having been the twins’ birth mother. In this case, the House itself is no different than the outside world and mimics the same horrors that lie outside its doors. Hugh leads his wife to believe that this could not possibly be the case by gaslighting her as she tries to care for their children.

Since Hugh is dismissive of Olivia’s fears and experiences as a mother, the House introduces her to a new spirit: the ghost of Poppy Hill, an original owner of the House. Poppy provides a listening ear, something that Hugh could not, and empathizes with Olivia’s fears for the future of her children. She explains to Olivia that the only way to truly set her children free of all the horrors of the outside world would be to kill them. Because of Hugh’s lack of support, Olivia is seduced into the ideas presented by Poppy, and in the end, attempts to poison Nell and Luke. Finally, she jumps off the balcony to her death, all because she believes that death will set her family free. If Hugh had only believed his wife in the same way that Poppy had, she would have lived and continued to care for their children into adulthood. His actions and his privilege to ignore Olivia’s concerns leads to her downfall, which in turn impacts the fate of the remaining family members. In the end, the children are on their own, and Olivia is never able to save them from harm.

The Impossible Vision of the “Ideal Woman”

After the death of her mother, and as she became an adult, Shirley, the oldest Crain daughter, is placed into the position of trying to fill Olivia’s shoes as “the ideal woman” of the family. She does everything she can to live up to the impossibly high standard of being the perfect wife and mother to her nuclear family, satisfying the expectations of a patriarchal model.

Shirley Crain (Elizabeth Reaser) paints her sister Nell’s body to prepare her an open casket ceremony. Credit: Netflix

Years prior to the later events of the series, a married Shirley has an affair with a man at an out-of-state conference. Later, this man is seen as a ghost that haunts her, presented as a manifestation of her guilt. For a brief moment in time, Shirley is unable to live up to the expectations placed upon her and so she hides this guilt from her husband.

Meanwhile, she is hyper-critical of her family’s failings while refusing to recognize the ways she has failed her family and herself. When Shirley is finally able to confront her past and confess her indiscretion to her husband, she describes herself saying that she is “fixed and pretty, but underneath she is a horror.” We see this physically manifested in her profession where she paints corpses to make them presentable for open casket ceremonies. It is only when Shirley accepts her failures and confronts her husband about her affair that she’s no longer haunted by the impossible vision of womanhood that she had placed upon herself.

Gaslighting and the Trauma of Male Entitlement

As an adult, older brother Stephen gaslights Nell by following the same pattern their father used when denying their mother’s experiences in the past. Although he claims disbelief in the ghosts that the Crain women see, Stephen writes a novel about the family’s supernatural experiences in Hill House. At an event for the release of his second book, Nell publicly confronts him in front of paying patrons and asks why he continues to profit off the same stories she’s been telling — the same stories that he had called her “crazy” for telling.

The Crain Family (Hugh, played by Timothy Hutton, in the foreground) is gathered all together for the first time in years to mourn the death of their youngest sister and daughter, Nell. Credit: Netflix

When Nell returns to Hill House to confront her past, she calls Stephen who then ignores her by not answering his phone. Stephen’s neglect and denial of Nell’s experiences lead her back to the house where she follows the fate of their mother and, as a result, hangs herself from the balcony. As this occurs, we are shown a sequence of her falling through time where she is revealed to be the ghost known as the Bent-Neck Lady. Nell’s ghost remains present for the remainder of the series and haunts the family as they are reminded of their neglect and Stephen’s gaslighting, both of which led to her death.

The male entitlement and privilege afforded to both Stephen and Hugh allowed them to deny the lived experiences of the Crain women, ultimately bringing about death and trauma. Both men blame their sister/daughter and mother for the violence brought upon them and thus sets them up for failure. While the House may be haunted, what is most terrifying are the realities the Crain women face, realities that are comparable to the violence against women in the broader sense of society. The Crain women are haunted by the patriarchal forces surrounding them and what is uncovered in the end are the ways in which this violence could have been prevented if only the men had believed them.

About

Taylor Hunsberger is a pop culture writer who largely focuses on the representation of violence against women in film and television. She’s written for The Validation Project, Buzzfeed, and others. She also writes children’s theater and poetry. Visit her website taylorhunsberger.com.

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