Sunday, January 06, 2019

Haunting of Hill House: A Deeper Dive

Longtime readers know often I'll dive into a film or TV series long after they're released. Often I do so because I'm waiting to select particular screenshots, oftentimes something simply flew under my radar and other times I wait until everyone else has seen something so I don't have to worry about spoilers. 

So if you haven't seen Haunting of Hill House yet and you want to, bookmark this page and come back later. 

Or read part one of this series, which is like an Internet campfire in which your humble host and his always-erudite readers trade real-life ghost stories. So do check out the comments on the post, there are some incredibly compelling accounts on offer.

So yeah, I really, really enjoyed Haunting of Hill House. It's not perfect by any means but it is several cuts above the usual flood of generic Netflix gibbledy-goo. I mean, how many "strong female lead" sci-fi thrillers with vague, one-word titles can you actually make? 

I'd never heard of Hill House creator (and fellow Masshole) Mike Flanagan (originally from Salem, of all places) before and hadn't seen his other films but he's definitely one I'm going to keep an eye on.


What impressed me most about the series is the way in which two entirely separate storylines (1992 and current-year) weave in and out of one another until all the mysteries and enigmas of one timeline resolve the mysteries and enigmas of the other. It's an amazing conceit and a logistical masterclass in execution. 

I love jigsaw puzzle stories, meaning stories in which a bunch of random pieces floating in the middle of a story are eventually stitched together by the end.

Having seen thousands of horror movies I can't say most of it actually scared me, outside of the Halloween scene at the funeral parlor. And as I covered before, that could well be a question of projection.

And I may be projecting when I say this as well, but it really should have been a 70s-90s timeline, since so much of the source material, mood and visual approach draws more on 70s (and 80s) antecedents than contemporary ones. 

That being said, there is quite a heavy Conjuring influence at work here (itself a retro-fest), but not nearly as over-the-top as that film.

But the hippie earth-mother matriarch and James Franciscus-worthy dad feel a lot more 70s to me than 90s. And having lived through both decades, I'd say an upwardly-mobile WASP family with five kids feels a bit more 70s than 90s to me as well.

Adding to the retro flavor, albeit more of an 80s strain, were Henry Thomas of E.T. fame* and Brat Packer Timothy Hutton (who's looking uncannily like Kelly's Heroes-era Carrol O'Connor these days). God, I'm old.

Both played the Crain family patriarch Hugh, which speaks to either a stunning stroke of serendipity or an incredibly clever casting director. Some of the other cross timeline casting choices were equally impressive, especially with the Crain girls.

The casting gets quite meta in this regard as well. Henry Thomas reminds us that E.T. ran concurrently with Poltergeist, an obvious touchstone here.

Timothy Hutton reminds us that his dad - who died way too young - played the husband in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a 70s classic very much present in spirit during Haunting of Hill House.

Speaking of retro-vibes I'm sure a lot of X'er geeks like yours-truly were very happy to see Carla Gugino in the mix. I'm generally a fan of her work but I thought she absolutely hit it out of the park with a role that called for a lot of sudden shifts in personality and mood.

I'd say of the entire cast Gugino's role was by far the most demanding. And she just nailed it to the damn floor. At no point did she come across as being precious or over-studied. Just an absolute master-class in stagecraft.

And forgive me for saying so, but she's still absolutely gorgeous. Damn.


For my money, a paranormal drama or thriller can only be truly great when it presents a viable and compelling counter-argument to a supernatural explanation.

I don't know exactly why this is, but these kinds of narratives only really soar when you're left guessing at the end. Maybe because that's the way the paranormal really works in Meatspace.

I bring this up because I've read a lot of different interpretations about Hill House, but I think there's a very strong argument to be made that it's all the inner fantasies of a family driven to collective suicide by trauma and mental illness.

Or conversely, it could be the inner fantasy of a mother driven to murdering her children because of an overwhelming terror that, as Olivia Crane says, the world outside will poison them and then consume them.

What is so fantastic about Gugino's performance is that she really sells herself as a mother who loves her children so goddamn much that it literally drives her insane. It drives her insane because she realizes that one day they will leave her and she won't be able to protect them from being hurt out in the world.

I don't know how many of you reading this have children of your own, but if you do I'm sure all this carved up your insides as much as it did mine. 

Since Sunners realize that everything everywhere eventually leads back to Ten Thirteen Productions I do have to say that this theme reminded me very much of "Covenant," one of the most emotionally-wrenching episodes of Millennium (which is saying something) in which a devoutly-religious mother kills her children and then herself when she finds out her husband was screwing around on her.

She didn't do this out of spite but out of an overwhelming sense of despair that the world would tarnish and corrupt her children, whom she literally saw as angels incarnate. The title comes from a passage from the Book of Isaiah ("We have made a covenant with death") that the woman writes in her own blood.

Gah, I'm verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves.


I've read a number of articles and I know that Flanagan is (more or less) claiming that the Crains survive their ordeal and live happily ever-after.

That's a total crock of shit. They're all dead.

Now I know exactly why Flanagan would say such things. Netflix was looking for another Stranger Things with Hill House and you're going to lose a lot of the mainstream audience if you end your series on a bummer.

Now, Flanagan has been a bit coy about it and actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen seems to have been tasked with planting the seed of ambiguity in the media, but the corporate party line seems to be accepted by the masses

The masses are asses. The Crains are all deader than Mark Zuckerberg's soul. And I might add they're definitively dead by the rules set down by the storyteller themselves. 

Dead, dead, dead. You ain't foolin' me, Mickey-boy.

Consider this: 
We clearly and unambiguously see Luke dead from injecting himself with rat poison.

He stops breathing and his heart stops as well.

He isn't taken to the hospital until long after he dies.

So how exactly does he return to life now?
Because Young Nellie pushes him out of the Red Room? Is Nellie Jesus Christ now or something? Where do her fancy resurrectin' powers come from exactly? Where do see-- even once-- that a ghost can revive a dead person?

A dead person who injected himself with frickin' strychnine, no less.

No, Luke is dead, the Red Room manipulated him into killing himself in a way that would be absolutely unsurvivable even if there were a team of paramedics standing by watching him do it.

We see him return to the Red Room tea-party Olivia held in order to kill the twins. The three characters we know for sure are dead-- Olivia, Nellie, and Abigail-- are there to greet him and his mother tells him he's awake, which in Hill-Housese means he's dead.

We get a strong foreshadowing of this in flashback when we see the twins sleeping on the couch with Olivia. But are they sleeping or is this a premonition of their death??

The weird blackout Olivia has would argue the latter, especially when we see Hugh--also definitively killed by the Red Room-- carrying Young Luke. So does this story really take place in two different timelines or is it just one delusional fantasy?

Submit your theory in the comments.


The explicit Red Room fantasies are signaled by something prominent being red, a shirt, sneakers, what-have-you. And it's the same with the "happy ending,"  which is just another Red Room fantasy.

It starts when Steven returns to his house.

Note the ominous red trunk-light. If you squint it's all you see. Note as well the porchlight and the darkened window overhead.

Steven tells us that he is home, or so he "thinks."

But why is he home? 

Why did he return to the home that his estranged wife threw him out of? When exactly did they reconcile? I don't remember that. Do you?

Maybe I missed something but the last I saw those two she gave him a sick brush-off. Why would he show up at what is no longer his home with his luggage?

Surprise! Because he's dead. Good riddance, too. Hated that guy.

So yes, by the rules the show itself lays down, Steven is now dead as well. His apparent reconciliation with Leigh is just another comforting illusion furnished by Hill House.

Remember that Olivia tells Luke that he's "home" when he has clearly, unambiguously and visibly died. 'Awake' and 'home' mean dead. You know it, I know and Mike Flanagan most certainly goddamn-knows it.

Shirley-- easily one of the most intensely-dislikable characters I've seen on TV in recent memory-- has the happy-ending fantasy that she confesses to her simpering cuck of a husband that she cheated on him once when she was at a mortician convention or some such nonsense.

This might be a sidebar but I don't buy for a second that a brittle shrew like Shirley would feel anything at all--never mind guilt-- over a one-night stand way back when. It's just totally out of character.

This is total fan-theory, but my reading of this is that Shirley was stepping out on this wuss all across central Massachusetts, and in her death she would only allow herself to acknowledge one teeny-weeny slip-up. 

Either way, notice that red book's spine standing out like a sore thumb behind Cuckolded Kevin there. Subtle, right?

Theo is nearly as loathsome as her older siblings. She's slightly redeemed by her psychic powers, even if I felt those were a bit under-explored. However, she also loses points for being a stereotypical U-Haul Lesbian. You know the old joke: What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul.

Moreover, I don't really buy that Theo would be pairing up with Trish, whom she thought was clingy and neurotic. That being said, we do get a nice, big, juicy splash of red from the U-Haul, seeing through a window for bonus points.

One thing you need to pay attention to are the lyrics to the song played during the so-called "Happy Ending." The way the lyrics are juxtaposed is essentially telling you what is actually going on onscreen, that the house has trapped the Crains inside and won't ever let them go.

"This house, she's quite the keeper..."

And a lot of folks have pointed out that ostentatious red cake laid out for Luke's two-year sobriety. By itself, it would be just a tease, but given the other red objects and the treacly, out-of-character happy ending it's basically the coup de gras.

Now, I liked Luke and Nellie as much as I dislike the other Crain children. With Nellie, it was my tall-guy thing for petite pixies.

With Luke it may have something that he looks uncannily like my younger son there. 

I mean, holy crap, already. Unsettling.

Compounding the fantasy is that Leigh is pregnant despite the fact that Steven had a vasectomy several years prior.  

My money's on that it was Luke that done the deed, if his doppelganger is any indication.†


One fan theory that Mike Flanagan has actually signed off on is that the Crain children represent the Stages of Dying theorized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
For those unfamiliar with the five stages of grief, they are as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 
As to who each of those stages applies, think of it as descending order of the Crains, from oldest to youngest: Steven (Michiel Huisman) is denial, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is anger, Theo (Kate Siegel) is bargaining, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is depression, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is acceptance.

So why would a writer as meticulous and detail-oriented as Mike Flanagan have his characters represent the stages of dying if they themselves were not in fact destined to die here?

Answer: He wouldn't. They're all deader than Emmanuel Macron's re-election prospects. Deal with it.


I haven't heard Flanagan's verdict on this one yet, but another interesting fan theory is that the Crains are personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Luke- Gluttony. His heroin addiction and constant need to consume more or it.

Theo- Lust. The most sexualized member of the family. Confirmed that it may be a problem when found with Kevin.

Greed- Steve. He used his families tragedy for monetary gain.

Sloth- Nell. Nell is never seen working and most of her story revolves around sleep.

Wrath- Olivia. Olivia is seen taking out aggression on her children, often yelling or punishing them for little reason. (Nell's writing on the wall)

Pride- Hugh. He never admits his faults relating to the house, or in regards to communicating with his children. Even at Nell's funeral he neglects to give them the answers they want. 
Envy- Shirley. She is often seen criticizing her family on everything they have or don't have. The biggest example being Steve and his writing career. She also has green eyes.
This one isn't as compelling as the first but it's pretty close nonetheless.



If you're like me, you can't hear the words "Red Room" without thinking of Twin Peaks. There are a lot of interesting if not tangential connections between the two series, most of all the timeline-fucking.

But one of the prevailing theories out there is that Cocteau Twin Peaks: The Return was all an elaborate fantasy that the Red Room was using Laura Palmer to plant in Dale Cooper's mind. In the end, the horrible truth is revealed: Coop is still trapped in the Red Room and Laura Palmer is still whispering in his ear. And so it shall be until the end of time.

After a rewatch over the summer I'm willing to sign off on that theory. Not to mention a number of others. The great thing about Twin Peaks to me is that it was so sprawling and so layered that a whole host of interpretations could be equally true.

I admit I lean towards the "trapped in the Red Room" theory more than some of the others, but maybe because I'm such a pessimist.

But you know what the legendary Surrealist Andre Breton once said: "In the future, all streaming TV series will be meta or they will not be at all." I think he said that in 1922. I'll have to check.

I hate you, Time.


With the introduction of the black mold coming from the Red Room in Hill House, I do have to admit some major X-Files bells-and-whistles starting going off. Namely, the wildly under-appreciated Season Six masterpiece, "Field Trip."

In this classic, Mulder and Scully investigate the mysterious death of two hikers connected to the Brown Mountain Lights. Mulder goes to survey the area while Scully autopsies the remains and discovers that the hikers are still alive.

Mulder follows them into a cave, not realizing that all of this is a hallucination and that he's being lulled with interesting dreams while being consumed by an gigantic underground mushroom.

Scully goes to investigate and is herself trapped by the mushroom. She too is lulled with vivid dreams, dreams she tries to wake herself from. The writers brilliantly mess with your expectations, using multiple fakes to leave you wondering if they are actually still trapped at the end and the rest of the entire series is all just a hallucination.

I haven't seen anyone mention this obvious parallel, but I have seen fan theories that the black mold is responsible for the ghostly goings-on in Hill House and that it eventually drives them all to insanity and suicide.

Not my favorite theory per se, but a nice one nonetheless. Especially now that MKULTRA 2.0 the "new wave of hallucinogenic research" is becoming such a big deal in some quarters.

Maybe there's a cautionary tale in there with the black mold being LSD and the Red Room being the Deep State or something. A stretch? Sure. But stretching's what we do here, slugger.

There's another scintillating connection between Hill House and X-Files, coming to us via the Season Nine ep, "Scary Monsters."

The X-Files did all kinds of ghost stories from the jump, but usually tried to futz with the conventions a bit. In "Scary Monsters" we have what looks at first to be a classic haunted house creeper, then it turns into a creepy psychic kid yarn, then into Vince Gilligan venting at all the 'shippers who were constantly trash-talking Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish on the Internet. Good times.

Hill House has all kinds of interesting details in common; the haunted house (ish), fungible reality, the spooky kid making spooky drawings...

...the dead cats in boxes...

 ...and another interesting and rather specific parallel; the guy about to burn down a house with gasoline....

...that never actually ignites. Annabeth Gish, who seems to have dashed over to the Hill House set as soon as she wrapped on X-Files. Work ethic, innit?

It wouldn't surprise me at all if Flanagan were a major X-head given his age and interests. I don't know if he was paying conscious tribute to TXF or if this all seeped in through osmosis but I certainly got a big kick out of it all.

Well, sorry to bring all this to a dead stop but that's all I have to say for now. Seeing how I'm mentally sick with OCD and the rest, I'm sure I'l rewatch it several times again and post on it again when absolutely nobody cares anymore. 

'Cuz that's who I am and that's how I do.


* I first became aware what a pedo-problem Fandom had back in 1984 when friends of mine at the Kubert School discovered that one of their roommates kept an explicit crush journal about Henry Thomas.

† No, seriously. Remind me to tell you about his brother's and his cousin's weddings sometime.

BONUS FACTOID: "Field Trip" guest-stars Jim Beaver, who'd go on to star in Supernatural, a role he carries to this day. Supernatural is probably the most direct heir to The X-Files but instead of a hot dude and a hot dame you get a hot dude and a weepy Ogre clone.

I've seen pretty much episode on account of desperately yearning to get even a faint trace of a whiff of that beautiful Vancouver-era TXF bouquet.

I read somewhere in the Bible that when you die you go back to the Nineties. But only if you are faithful and pure. It was either the Bible or The Urantia Book.