The psychology of The Haunting of Hill House 

by Yuvthi Misser

The Haunting of Hill House holds more than just scary figures and paranormal happenings. It also holds metaphorical representations of grief, childhood trauma and depression.


The posters for the popular The Haunting anthology; The Haunting of Bly Manor (left) and The Haunting of Hill House (right). Photo via Netflix.

If you happen to catch yourself scrolling through Netflix South Africa’s new and popular list - you will probably come across The Haunting of Hill House (2018) or The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) which make up The Haunting anthology. As we are in the prime of Spooky Season, Netflix teased eager fans with the possible return of some of their favourite characters from The Haunting of Hill House with the countdown and impending release of its sequel, The Haunting of Bly Manor. As a result, many Netflix subscribers went back and re-binged the previous season in order to prepare themselves with some subscribers watching  it for the first time. 

However, upon closer inspection, The Haunting anthology may be scarier than originally thought. With the director, Mike Flanagan’s, vision of psychological terror, Hill House and Bly Manor will definitely leave its imprint on its viewers. The following contains major spoilers for the first of the anthology, The Haunting of Hill House, as we analyse the meanings, metaphors and symbolism in the chilling ten-episode series. 

The Haunting of Hill House follows the Crain family on two different timelines. The first being when the Crain siblings move into Hill House with their parents and the second being the aftermath of the youngest sibling’s death, Eleanor “Nell” Crain. The rest of the siblings’ names in order of birth are Steve, Shirley, Theodora “Theo” and Luke, who is the twin brother of Nell. Their parents, Olivia and Hugh Crain, who go through the ordeals with them eventually have Hill House take both of their lives (Olivia in the past and Hugh in the present). The story jumps back and forth between the timelines, essentially playing with time and merging the two together.

Why Hill House is different

The Haunting of Hill House fuses the psychological with horror and utilizes terror expertly. According to Stephen King, there are three levels of horror that factor into making scary films. These levels are known as the “Gross-out”, the “Horror” and the “Terror”.

The “Gross-out” refers to gore and unsettling images that a viewer would find unnerving and disturbing, and would invoke the basic human emotion of disgust. “Horror” alludes to the unimaginable being brought to life, as King describes, “monsters the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around…”. "Terror", which is the final tier, is the feeling the audience gets right before the scare, right when the music stops and you are clenching your fists together in order to prepare for the fright but it never comes. It is where the insinuated fear overwhelms the viewer, “when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there…”.

As Netflix UK and Ireland explain in their video titled “What Made the Haunting of Hill House So Scary?” , The Haunting of Hill House expertly uses all three with special focus on the terror tier. An example of such is when Theo and Shirley are on their way to find their brother Luke when Nell’s ghost pops out from the backseat while they are in the midst of an argument (you can find this scene here). 

When broken down further, one can see that horror is used as a metaphor and the ghosts and supernatural things that they all experience and their reality can be debated on. 

The five siblings of grief

The Crain siblings standing in front of Hill House. Pictured from left to right: Theo, Steve, Nell, Luke and Shirley. Photo via Netflix.

One popularised theory is that each Crain sibling represents one of the five stages of grief. Steve being denial, Shirley being anger, Theo being bargaining, Luke being depression, and Nell being acceptance. Steve is a best-selling author due to his book that he wrote describing Hill House and the events that occurred which culminated into the final night. Contrarily, he does not believe in the supernatural events that took place and emphasises the belief that everything supernatural has an explanation that humans simply have not come to scientifically recognise yet. This is a point of tension within the family as he has profited off of their suffering and mocked his own mother (by calling her mentally unstable) and his family, while also giving inaccurate information. 

Shirley represents anger because she continuously points out that she is unhappy with the fact that Steve profited off of their family’s ordeal to “jumpstart his writing career,” and is almost always angry at the fact that she feels like she takes the responsibility of being the eldest most of the time, due to Steve’s withdrawn nature. She also shares in the familial frustration towards Luke, who suffers from drug addiction. 

Theo, who has an empathetic/clairvoyant sense of touch and the mind of a psychologist, tries to understand why Nell committed suicide and why she would go back to their traumatic childhood home and touches Nell’s dead body. After she feels the way that Nell did, Theo does anything for a semblance of being able to feel anything other than all-consuming darkness and numbness (i.e. depression).

Luke represents depression, as he mourns his twin sister’s death because of their emotional connection. Upon arriving at the funeral, he cannot even look upon her body and begins to breakdown at the fact that his sister is truly gone. 

Finally, Nell represents acceptance because moments before her death she envisions a reality where all of her siblings are together, along with her mom and Arthur, Nell’s late husband. She finally accepts that she will be at peace with herself and the trauma upon her death. The siblings are born in the order of the stages of grief and all collectively mourn the loss of their mother who had died under mysterious circumstances in Hill House.

Nell Crain and the Bent-Neck Lady

Torn off wallpaper with the words “Come home Nell”, written in red crayon. Photo via Netflix of episode five “The Bent-Neck Lady” from The Haunting of Hill House (2018).

From the start, Nell is a character who we as the audience root for as we see her in her most vulnerable state as a child and as an adult during her final moments of life. In the first episode, we see a glimpse of young Nell screaming from her bedroom as young Steve and their father come in to comfort her. In episode five, titled “The Bent-Neck Lady”, we learn more about the ghostly apparition that has haunted Nell since she was a little girl. 

This ghostly figure re-appears throughout Nell’s life and is often accompanied by spells of sleep paralysis, and never truly leaves her until she meets the love of her life, Arthur, who is a sleep technologist. Arthur begins to coach her through her sleep paralysis episodes and as they fall in love Nell stops seeing the Bent-Neck Lady. However, eight months after Arthur and Nell’s wedding (and their beautiful love story montage) we see that Nell goes through two sleep paralysis episodes with the last having a special guest appearance of her favourite apparition. As Arthur goes to turn on the light he falls to the ground, immediately dying and Nell is left frozen in her bed. She sees the Bent-Neck Lady again, standing in front of Arthur’s dead body and she blames the Bent-Neck Lady and Hill House for his death even after the medical records state that Arthur had died of an aneurysm. After many months pass and Nell’s mental state starts deteriorating, she finally reaches a breaking point when she decides that she should go to the house to confront the “carcass in the woods”. 

Upon arrival, Nell calls her father to tell him that the Bent-Neck Lady is back in her life and lies about her whereabouts. Her father tells her to go to Steve’s house in order to keep herself safe and prepares to fly out to see her. During the frantic and haunting call, Nell notices the abandoned house’s porch light flash twice, which is something that her late mother told her means “it is time to come home.” She goes into the house and hallucinates a perfect ending to her life, one where her family is no longer separated or estranged, Luke is sober and her mom and Arthur are alive. She is whisked away by her mother who is happy to see her daughter back home and when given a necklace she was promised years ago it horrifically turns out to be a noose with which she is hanged. The horror persists as Nell is taken through all the moments in her life she had seen the Bent-Neck Lady, revealing that she was the Bent-Neck Lady all along.

This is one of the greatest and most shocking reveals to date and is a representation of how childhood trauma truly never goes away. Flanagan works hard to flesh out each family member by giving them their own episodes and it is because of this we feel Nell’s death and her struggle much harder. 

There are many times where we see Nell act out or reach out for help but no one else does. At the end of episode six, “Two Storms” we see the episode switch back and forth between the present and the past, connected by the storm and the family members. In the past timeline, Nell disappears and Olivia and Hugh set out to find her within the house.

Unsuccessfully, they come back to find that the children are downstairs and they see that Nell was never gone. She says that she was there the whole time, screaming and crying out to them but nobody could hear her. In the present timeline where the now older family is at the funeral and fighting with one another, Nell’s coffin falls to the floor rendering the room silent. The episode ends with a final shot of Nell’s bent-neck ghost standing next to her coffin with young Nell saying, “I was right here. I didn’t go anywhere. I was right here the whole time. None of you could see me. Nobody could see me”. This eerily mirrors the loneliness of depression and it definitely struck a heart string as you feel so much of sympathy towards Nell’s character.

We can see that Nell’s depression is a result of the childhood trauma and the grief that consumes her and her family members, often distorting and warping her reality. This is evident when Nell is talking to her therapist in episode five. She blames Hill House for the troubles that she and her family face, even though there is concrete, medical evidence that Arthur did die of an aneurysm.

The Bent-Neck Lady is not just a ghostly apparition because it is her. An expression of her trauma and grief that follows her throughout her whole life, and shows us that Nell’s worst enemy was herself and her mind. Her pain and her depression caused her to isolate herself and become so empty that the ghost consumed her whole. This is reiterated by a scene in episode 8 where after touching Nell’s dead body, Theo explains to Shirley that she felt like she was “floating in an ocean of nothing” and that it felt dark and despairingly lonely. She wonders if that's what “Nell felt and that's what [Olivia] feels” and it's “just numb and nothing and alone”. Her description is very similar to the experience of depression and makes it seem like Nell was already dead inside before they found her body in Hill House.

Nell’s ghost/the Bent-Neck Lady standing next to her coffin with the caption “None of you could see me.” Photo via Netflix from episode six “Two Storms”  from The Haunting of Hill House (2018).

The Haunting of Hill House is truly terrifying not because of the horrific images and ghosts we see, but because it is a metaphorical depiction of  how childhood trauma follows you throughout your life and manifests itself in different ways. With the realisation that the series represents realistic problems through the medium of horror, it becomes an even more thought-provoking, heart wrenching and terrifying series. The fusion of psychological reality elevated with horror elements truly make The Haunting of Hill House an emotionally raw horror series that you should definitely watch on Netflix. Its sequel, The Haunting of Bly Manor, is now available on Netflix South Africa. 

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