Terrifying Family Trauma Is the New Thing in Horror
Netflix's 'Haunting of Hill House' is the latest horror series delving into terrible family history.
It’s been a year of Big Ideas in horror. This is no surprise considering the genre has always been a vehicle for commenting on cultural anxieties—everything from race relations to consumerism to war atrocities to surveillance to having your mouth sewn to the anus of another person.
However, it’s notable that during this current politically horrific and tumultuous era, very few horror films are addressing the inept, cruel, constitutional disregard from the current administration (except for the serviceable Purge movies, as well as David Gordon Green’s new Halloween, which could be argued is the perfect allegory for Antifa’s fight against the fascism creeping into our country).
Instead, the best horror this year has turned inward, focusing on the intimate traumas that are passed down through generations within families. Manifested trauma isn’t exactly new territory in horror, but films like Hereditary (the scariest goddamn movie in recent years), Syfy’s incredible series Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block, HBO’s Sharp Objects, and Netflix’s recent phenom Haunting of Hill House have the unique qualities of using horror to frame stories about trauma as a genetic disposition—evil, malice and hauntings creep through the family bloodline like cancerous cells.
In these films and series—especially Haunting of Hill House—families destroy themselves by unearthing the grief, abuse, mental illness, shitty parenting, and unaddressed tension buried in their lineages. Inherited family trauma is the new form of body horror—except instead of physical, it’s emotional. And unavoidable.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House might be the finest proto-analysis of mental health, depression, and anxiety in popular culture. Yes, it’s a “ghost” story about four strangers invited to the ominous Hill House to study its supposed haunting, but really it’s about the mental dissolution of the main character, Eleanor, whose emotional fragility is a result of a repressive family life, controlling men, and the sapphic—but cruel and gaslighting—relationship with the other woman in the study, Theo. There also might be ghosts, but who fucking cares? To anyone who suffers from anxiety, it’s obvious that Eleanor is anxious and depressed, but in a society that had only just started medically treating mental illness, ghosts were a more digestible stand-in for depression. It’s also worth noting that Hill House also predates the publication of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s seminal book on the subject, by four years.
There are a lot of bold decisions in Netflix’s reimagining of Jackson’s novel, the best of which is turning the characters from the book into a family unit—the Crane family—and alternating the action between past and present. We get to see the Crane family arrive at the ominous Hill House with intentions of flipping it (which is a dumb and sad plotline because it seems that not even Victorian mansions can escape late stage capitalism). Even before any ghost-y shit happens, it’s clear that tensions bubble under the Crane family’s sunny veneer. The mother, Olivia, gets migraines, becomes increasingly convinced that her life is a nightmare, and often fantasizes about killing her children. Her husband Hugh—in very male fashion—buries himself in his work and doesn’t provide affection. When Olivia’s issues manifest in troubling ways (Hugh wakes to find Olivia pressing a screwdriver into his neck, for example) he insists she take a vacation. He sends her away. Out of sight, out of mind.
But Hugh is quick to learn that avoidance is a very unhealthy coping mechanism.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that a high-stress and tension-filled environment culminates in the the mom’s self-inflicted death. This event deeply affects the five children—Shirley, Steve, Luke, Theo, and Nell—throughout the rest of their lives. Their memories of Hill House are so fragmented that they can only rely on what their unstable dad has told them and what adult Steve has made famous in his exploitive, tell-all book. They all grow up with some affliction as a result of their stay in Hill House, whether it’s Shirley’s compulsive righteousness, Steve’s avoidance tactics, Luke’s drug dependency, Theo’s literal and figurative fear of intimacy, and Nell’s depression.
When Nell dies in a similar fashion as her mother, all the tumultuous family history boils over. The trauma that’s been rotting underneath the lineage surfaces, and it’s then that Haunting of Hill House becomes something more subversive than a haunted house story (although, there are some pretty sick ghosts in this show). There’s a moment in episode six when Steve—despite being the most annoying character in the show—mic-drops a biting truth after their father keeps insisting that ghosts are responsible for their mother’s and Nell’s death: “I don’t know why this family has such a hard time acknowledging mental illness!” A couple episodes later, he breaks down the “Crane disease,” insinuating that everything bad that has happened to them is “in our genes,” which would have been just a little more poignant if Steve’s method of dealing with trauma wasn’t dissociation and scapegoating. Still, he’s got a point.
Ultimately, the Big Ideas in Haunting of Hill House and how it treats trauma as a genetic disposition are a lot more interesting than the show’s execution. Dialogue is often clunky, the scares feel canned, and actors overact to the point where you wonder if they thought they were in a stage play instead of a movie. Plus, the final episode nearly undermines everything by giving a redemption arc to Hugh and Steve while solidifying Olivia’s legacy as an unhinged B-word. Steve even co-opts Jackson’s iconic line from the novel (“whatever walked there, walked alone”) during the final voice-over: “whatever walked there, walked together,” thereby ensuring the cinematic Hill House will be forever haunted by eye-rolls and jerk-off motions.
We already know that trauma can be passed down through mouse genes, and there’s strong scientific evidence that humans share this trait. Perhaps what we’re witnessing in horror right now is not a commentary on a single anxiety, but a culmination of all the anxieties that exist in culture—the shit that’s built up, affecting generation after generation, especially women. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the focus of Haunting of Hill House, Hereditary, Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block and Sharp Objects have been women—mothers and daughters—who’ve internalized the brunt of trauma for so long and are only now able to channel it. This collective rage shines through in Theo and Shirley at the end of Hill House when they have to save Hugh, and Steve and Luke, who embark on a Scooby Doo-esque adventure to torch the house. The rage that stems from internalizing trauma (while coddling men) also drips from nearly every scene in Sharp Objects, and is perfectly visualized by Toni Collette literally crawling up the walls in Hereditary.
In another bold change from Jackson’s novel , the Crane kids in Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House fight back against their demons instead of succumbing to them. It’s an optimistic ending, one that wraps everything up in a tidy package. And that’s why it kind of sucks. Even in a show about goddamn ghosts, the idea that perpetuated trauma can be stopped—or that mental illness can be cured—is the most unrealistic thing about it.
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