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A review on “The Haunting of Hill House”

By: Masood Sabet

A prehistoric hunter has followed the trail of the wounded prey for hours, and the night is falling upon him. Now he is at the heart of a dense jungle and knows that returning to the colony without game is not an option. He is well aware of the real threats in the dark befalling him. He is terrified. He has seen numerous men fallen by venomous snakes, devoured by fierce tigers, or beaten to death by an agitated gorilla. He has heard the stories and learnt some lessons; which ones to avoid, which ones to fight, and which ones to run from. In the pitch-black night of the prehistoric jungle, with its impenetrable grasp which blocks even the palest ray of moonlight, our hairy ancestor is surrounded by all sorts of monsters lurking around him. He is afraid of what he has seen, but horrified by what he could imagine. His boundless power of untethered imagination is playing tricks on him. It is the curse accompanying every blessing. Man has always been terrified of being abandoned. This actually has driven him into forming societies and consequently, with this unraveled skill among other species, was able to conquer the world. Man is highly apprehensive about the idea of being left alone with himself, for he knows what his elaborate mind is capable of creating: gods, ghosts, fairies, spirits, and countless demons. But are these mere figments of his abstract imagination, or materialization of what is actually lurking inside of him? And it’s the latter that horrifies man the most. It is the real horror. Every horror filmmaker has a choice to make: take the blue pill for blissful ignorance and enter the world of so-called supernatural, or the red pill and opt for the realm of reality and psychological horror. The former gives the director an expansive playground, but hardly goes beyond a form of entertainment, and the latter is potentially more rewarding and transcends the work to a form of art.

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Every seemingly supernatural event in the haunting of Hill house has the potential to be explained in clinical terms.

The main narrative of the haunting of Hill house is a skillful dramatization of a grim phase in the life of a family susceptible to mental disorders, along with the story of how each one of them coped with the tragedy, in multiple sub-narratives. Most of the story is narrated thru the eyes of the eldest son, Steve, who now as an adult is a writer of ghost stories. The first book of his, as it transpires, is loosely based on the events surrounding the tragic death of their mother on a mysterious night. Every member of Crain family has sought a way to propitiate their demons or harness their inner monsters awoken by the traumatic event. A dire genetic spell is cast upon them thru their mother, who evidently suffered schizophrenia. Steve is the healthiest sibling, for he has transformed this threat into an opportunity, which has manifested itself in the form of artistic creativity. The narrative has two skeleton timelines: present time and the time which pivots around the mysterious night. The latter is narrated as if an adaptation of Steve’s first book, “Hill House”. This actually has given Flanagan a wider playground to maneuvre on. Every seemingly supernatural event in the narrative has the potential to be explained in clinical terms. If something ever gets out of hand, which occasionally does, the blame for breaking the seal of realism falls upon Steve, not Flanagan’s narration. This is one of the most ingenious plans the creator has devised to develop a powerful, high-quality drama.

Mr. Dudley and his wife, Clara, had served the Hills and thanks to their generosity, they live in a place of their own near the house. Now they serve the new owners, the Crains. After a powerful storm hits the house on a horrific night, Hugh Crain and Mr. Dudley are trying to remedy the damage, which seems to be graver that what they had thought in the beginning. Some cavity walls are flooded, and they are both desperately looking for the source. To facilitate this arduous endeavor, Olivia Crain has produced an updated blueprint of the house. A blueprint which astonishes both men at first sight. She has repeatedly drawn a floor plan of their dream house, about which the couple had been dreaming and talking for years. The horror of the stormy night has triggered an irreversible degradation in Olivia’s state of mind. When Mr. Dudley sees the blueprint, he launches into an eerie speech to convince Hugh to send his wife away for a while. This scene epitomizes the ubiquitous confrontation of the two opposing forces driving the narrative forward. On one hand, Hugh is the voice of reason. He vehemently believes and constantly asserts that he can fix everything. “Prayers are not really our thing.” Says Hugh to Mr. Dudley, who on the other hand is a man of faith with an unshakable belief in saints and spirits. The narration, like a pendulum, sways back and forth between the two interpretations. The writer has a plan for everything and has meticulously arranged the scenes as steady drips of revelation. Besides, he has Steve’s book as a fail-safe, and also as a means to sensationalize the story without consequences in real life.

Steve has never seen a ghost in his life, but his book is apparently infested with them. When he, as a young boy, renovates an old vanity to cheer up his troubled mother, he first-hand witnesses a severe case of visual schizophrenia. And later when he finds her in the twins’ bedroom talking to herself, he’s having an encounter with an auditory twist of his mother’s grim disorder. What his mother sees in the mirror, and her exchange with imaginary twins in their bedroom have both passed Steve’s imagination before they reach our eyes. Nelly and Luke in the mirror are not what his mother actually had seen (or imagined having seen to be precise), but Steve’s rendition of the incident.

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“One of her eyes turned red as blood, and she’d shake, she’d shake so bad the bed would shake, and when she started shaking, it went fast. She dangled. She died.”

Olivia’s latent schizophrenia and her childhood tragedy of losing her father, when she was only five, provides the substrate for her ensuing dementia. Now, crushed by frustration, she only needs a nudge to succumb to a complete detachment from reality. A nudge which would be faithfully provided by one Mrs. Dudley. For she, too, has gone thru the unbearable grief of parting with a beloved one, in her case, a stillborn baby. As if this is not terrifying enough for Olivia, Clara has lots of gloomy stories to share with her about her former mistress, Mrs. Poppy Hill, who would be the dream companion of Olivia’s to her doom. “What’s scarier than losing a child?” “Nothing!”

Mrs. Dudley has perfectly accomplished her mission by planting the seed in the fertilized land of Olivia’s mind. Then she goes on to water it by telling her about Poppy’s children and their ominous fates. Clara doesn’t even spare Olivia with the gruesome details of the story. “She was choking on her own body for no reason. Just trying for air, like the room was under water. And shaking like she was in the hot squat…and I held her little hand and sat on her side, and it took days, it took weeks, for her to quit gulping that watery air, quit gaping at me like a fish on the beach. But finally, she did. She breathed ragged and hard and she went stiff. One of her eyes turned red as blood, and she’d shake, she’d shake so bad the bed would shake, and when she started shaking, it went fast. She dangled. She died.” Poppy’s children had died of prevalent diseases at the time, but Clara casts an accursed vibe upon the story. Olivia can’t survive another parting. She needs to take matters in her own hands.

Why do the Crains think the house is haunted? Because they have simply heard it from the locals. In order to reinforce this foundation of his narrative, Flanagan introduces an outsider. A police officer comes to Hill house to investigate the remains of an old corpse Hugh had found inside a cavity wall. As it transpires, the body belonged to William Hill, who had bricked himself in the wall as a result a full-blown dementia. “Folks around town always talk about this place. Is it [haunted]?” Says the police officer. “Yeah, a few of my kids sure think so.”

Despite Clara’s obvious role in pushing Olivia over the edge, and also fueling the children’s curiosity and wild imagination, she is not cast as a villain. She’s simply a narrow-minded woman who’s naturally biased in favour of supernatural angels and demons. She has long been in a struggle to repress her anguish over the death of her baby. She may not have the faintest clue that her stories might have been awakening some real demons, who eventually place the fate of a whole family in peril and claim two lives.

Nelly and Luke are the most affected by the incident. They were only sex years old at the time and they could never recuperate from the last encounter with their tranced mother, and her subsequent sudden and enigmatic death haunts them forever. Luke resorts to Heroin to ease the pain and Nelly suffers sleep paralysis and schizophrenia. The bent-neck lady is represented as a reflection of her own macabre fate, but bear in mind, the real bent-neck lady has passed thru Steve’s imagination. Nelly meets Arthur, a sleep technologist, and they get married short afterwards. Arthur’s knowledge and patience and Nelly’s intense love for him, hand in hand, manage to restrain the monsters deep down in the dungeons of Nelly’s unconscious. However, luck is not on her side. She’s “doomed”, just like her mother. Arthur dies of aneurysm one night, and this brings back the bent-neck lady into the picture, more powerful than ever. This is the last straw for Nelly, after which she staggers into a full-scale depression, from which there’s no return.

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Nelly and Luke could never recuperate from the last encounter with their tranced mother, and her subsequent sudden and enigmatic death haunts them forever.

Nelly’s death brings back the dysfunctional family back together. But what actually brings them closer to each other is not her death per se, but the guilt they all have been bearing since. There are many potentially detrimental psychological reactions to the death of a loved one. The survivors tend to reinforce critical negative thoughts and attitudes towards themselves representative of their past association with the deceased. This seems to be a natural mental reaction to reduce death anxiety. They blame themselves for whatever she’d blamed them for. Moreover, the circumstances of her death don’t leave room for their convenient exoneration from one blame: neglect.

The guilt has manifested itself in the form of a horror, shadowing the lives of the survivors. After all, as Theo’s lover tells her in a dream, “guilt and fear are sisters.” The guilt of the Crains over Nelly’s death is too much to bear. Steve comes to help again. This time he’s here to redeem not only himself, but the entire family. He writes another book: They all return to the house to confront the old ghosts, and they all get a second chance to beg Nelly for forgiveness, for whatever they had felt guilty since she was gone. Nelly lives on long enough in Steve’s imagination to unburden them of the cross they have been carrying on their shoulders and set them all free of the agonizing horror encapsulating their lives.

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