“I briefly lived in a haunted house…” – Luke Crain, “The Twin Thing”
We did, my brother and I, or at least we think we did. He a fair bit more than I. But I was raised in a very Eastern European and Catholic family, so there was never really a question of if ghosts or spirits and the like were real or not. They just were. Everyone always acted as such and talked as such with all the nonchalance of discussing the weather outside or a piece of mud hiding in the treads of your boots; even if you couldn’t see it, it was naturally there somewhere, just out of sight. As a result I grew up around ghost stories, read ghost stories constantly (I have ratty copies of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark still with me after decades), and eventually moved on to books like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. So when Netflix announced an adaptation, I freaked out and all but counted down the days to when I could watch some scary ghosts in a scary house that would make chills go down my spine. I got more than I bargained for. A lot more.
As well as being very used to the idea of ghosts and hauntings in abstract, I also grew up abundantly aware of death. My dad and his co-workers were homicide detectives and I had the misfortune of being in the upstairs apartment of the duplex my immediate family occupied as my grandfather fell and eventually died. I easily saw more of the event than I should have, and while I don’t remember it in any vivid way (I was barely nine years old), I do remember in the years after the fact, when alone in the apartment, hearing the voice of a man calling my name from the hallway near the bathroom where he had fallen. My grandmother, in all her wisdom, barely registered me telling her such things and simply instructed me to not follow the voice. Children have odd ways of coping with trauma, and burying it deep enough to manufacture a ghost akin to the child in the third episode manifesting hers via “Mister Smiley” seems to be how I dealt with mine. However, down the line, my demons, and my brother’s (whatever they may have been), would come out stronger and meaner in time than a voice in the night. Like Luke, he spoke, and still does at times, of seeing a man in a hat in the windows of our childhood home that followed him all the way to the house he lives in as an adult. I myself, in the throws of what I didn’t know at the time to be panic attacks as a child, would see shadow people out of the corners of my eyes in the dark; a sensation and experience that Hill House replicates remarkably well in the ghosts hidden just out of frame in nearly every episode of the series.
However, while the first few episodes were still enjoyable and spooky and only vaguely similar to my childhood and my mental idiosyncrasies, it all went out the window once episode five and beyond began to hit. Less than ten years ago, my brother’s best friend whom I had considered a surrogate brother for my entire life, committed suicide in extremely violent fashion following years of struggling with both alcoholism and, likely, depression. It hit me so hard that I buried even speaking about him for over a year, and throughout the anniversary month of his death I would fall into a depression so deep that I became surprised in time that he hadn’t taken me down with him. I began to see him at night as the month would wear on, in my nightmares, in my half awake periods in the twilight hours, a wreck with gunshot damage to his face and his jaw wired shut; a cold, blue, ruined and deeply sad figure of a man that I had loved very dearly and tried so hard to not think about in the aftermath. But, like Steven Crain says when talking about ghosts and trauma, “When you push that stuff down, it comes out at night.” Effectively, I had continued to ignore the warning signs and instead buried everything down as deep as I could until I haunted my own head like the shadows and becoming voices of my childhood.
Even with the “ghost”problem, this tactic worked well enough for me to keep ignoring my head, even though I kept getting sadder, more despondent, and cried all the time whenever I got a moment alone. I would then burden other people with the crying and the increasing hypersensitivity of my emotions as I became a thinner and thinner shell of a self.
Flash forward to 2018 and my tactics had not altered, and I had worsened. By the time The Haunting of Hill House released on Netflix, I had gone through three of my friends committing suicide, one of which had reached out to me with a long apology and farewell immediately before following through. After the first, and also sped along by other factors of my personal life at the time, I had started to shut down emotionally and empathetically. Pain wasn’t worth feeling, being attached to people was not worth the agony of their loss, caring about people and reaching out to people only made strings that could be broken and ammunition for people to destroy me with at their whim at any time. I walked around with invisible gloves on that covered more of my body than Theo’s covered hers, and as a result I was on the fast track to becoming a monster; a rock solid wall of fear and, honestly, cowardice that was guaranteed to hurt people with my behavior a lot more than I would have been hurt by almost anyone at that time.
Then I saw Nell Crain. I watched her go through her life spiraling out of control, out of help, and out of sanity. The instant her husband Arthur, the one person who believed her and understood her implicitly, dies on an aneurism on their bedroom floor, she systematically sabotages every stage of her recovery and invites the looming specter of the bent neck lady back into her live with new ferocity; she lies to her therapist, flushes her medication down the toilet and allows her symptoms to grow and fester. In doing so she sets off on a self-fulfilling prophecy of paranoia and avoidance that culminated in her either exploiting or isolating the only loved ones she had left and plunging herself into the lonely and depression-haunted isolation she had always feared. It was incredibly painful to watch, and entirely too familiar. I watched her last moments reenacting her wedding night and thought of my dead friend at the wedding of my brother, and when the rope was going around her neck my subconscious heard a gun being loaded. I went numb, my body felt so tight, and when she jumped off the ledge to her death into her incredibly slow and graphic end scene that I was sobbing in my seat making the sort of broken animal sounds I had made at three in the morning the night I learned he was dead; the same sounds I had made with each stacking and subsequent suicide of every friend I had lost right down the line to the long goodbye. It felt like the show was screaming at me: look at it, fucking look. And the more I looked the harder I cried and the more I started seeing not only them, but myself, the thing I had become, haunted by the ruin of my life that I was on the road to causing. It hit like a sledgehammer to the gut, and from then on I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t look away.
In the aftermath of that emotional flaying I started waking up, though slowly, and few characters fed into that more than Olivia and Theodora. Olivia was the end result of the person I had been on my way to becoming, so crippled by the fear of feeling pain or causing pain in others that she ultimately destroyed and damaged her entire family on multiple levels with her inability to accept death and suffering as something unavoidable in human life. Rather than confront what worried her and try to cope with it in a way that would allow her to care for others and herself regardless of outcome, she instead chose the route of an avoidance of real empathy that reached toxic levels. What appealed to me a few hours prior, now seemed so profoundly selfish as well as sad. Her refusal to voice her concerns in ernest to anyone but her own nightmares, her willingness to murder a child that wasn’t even hers out of a warped view of mercy and fear of the children leaving her, her need to ruin and end her own life before anyone else could do it for her. It felt like a dark reflection and made my skin crawl, and I grew to despise Poppy Hill with a venom I’ve rarely felt for a fictional being as she morphed into a representation of every lie and foolish siren song my mentally ill brain had whispered to me in my worst moments. They’ll just leave you, watch them leave through the big window and know they hate you and are afraid of you and the world will kill them and you and how horrible and how easy would it be, how better would it be to just end the whole thing and all your relationships on your terms, don’t you want that? And no, I didn’t want it. In fact I wanted to fix it. I didn’t want to die alone in the dust in the dark with the abiding knowledge that I had forced everyone from me and caused anyone pain out of my own useless fear. I didn’t want to be in a toxic relationship with my own head’s version of a Poppy Hill.
If we exist in a world that devours us infinitely and absolutely as Hill House devours its residents, where pain is assured and we live to see almost everyone we know rot and die, I would rather work on myself and work to feel and be fully present in the time I have with others, even if I suffer for it. I would rather, like Theo, take the gloves off and throw them away. She was right, in the end, speaking from experience I almost wish I had never known. Feeling nothing, shutting off whether voluntary, forced, or by forces outside of your control, is worse than feeling. I, as she, would rather feel pain and fear and guilt and shame and all the things that exist in tandem with everything good you could possibly know rather than “floating in this ocean of nothing” that is the void of living behind cold, thick mental walls. Her gloves in the garbage, her re opening to caring for others in a deep way regardless of fear, made me cry out of happiness for the only time in that series as well as for the first time in my real waking life in such a long time.
It’s both upsetting and impressive on many levels both that it took The Haunting of Hill House to nail this into my head, and that it was able to so deeply and with so much impact that it made it impossible to ignore. It is, without a doubt, the most a piece of media has ever resonated with me. I’m surprised the impulse for this essay even existed at all; but here it is, complete with me butterflying myself on a slab like a body in autopsy.
Maybe this is my fearless mental inventory.
Tags: Annabeth Gish, Books, Carla Gugino, Charise Castro Smith, Elizabeth Ann Phang, Elizabeth Reaser, Henry James, Henry Thomas, Horror, Jeff Howard, Kate Siegel, Meredith Averill, Michiel Huisman, Mike Flanagan, Netflix, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Rebecca Klingel, Scott Kosar, Shirley Jackson, The Newton Brothers, Timothy Hutton, TV, Victoria Pedretti