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This post contains spoilers for Season 1 of The Haunting of Hill House.

We all lived in haunted houses. Or, at the very least, every one of us knows the intimate horrors of family, whether through their haunting absence or the full-bodied specters that still stalk us today.

Each of our haunted houses is cursed by the eternal love a family promises. Their halls echo with the decay of words left unsaid, or reverberate with the angry word you can’t ever be taken back. In the walls, you hear the desperate banging of a child who needs to break free of its stifling confines, or a mother who trying to keep her children locked away and safe inside forever.  

The metaphorical meaning behind recent domestic horrors like The Haunting of Hill House and Hereditary aren’t hard to read: Family is hell. But actually unlike the traumatic grief in Hereditary, Hill House revels in the more pure and unintentional pain families often inflict. 

There is no lack of love between the Craines in Hill House. Actually, it is exactly the all-consuming familial love they have for each other that threatens to eat them alive — if they don’t learn to grow past it.

The familial horror of Hill House is, if anything, all about learning to let go of the picturesque, ideal dream of a loving household. 

This truly relatable terror is shown through the juxtaposition that makes up the series. The idyllic young family in flashbacks is constantly in contrast with the fractured, grown up family that lives through the hardships of life outside the family home.

The real conflict of Hill House, both as a series and as the living entity personified by the mansion, is laid out explicitly in the finale. 

Each of our haunted houses is cursed by the eternal love a family promises.

The house is not just some unfeeling evil, killing people who enter it with impunity. Nell explains that it’s like a living being, wanting to keep every family that passes through it frozen in time and togetherness, staving off the real world outside that will inevitably tear up their union. 

But what the ghouls and ghosts that haunt Hill House reveal is that, despite these best intentions, there is nothing more inhuman than that kind of stagnation. 

There is a reason why families must grow up, splinter, and find out who they are outside the family unit. And each monster who haunts the kids at Hill House can be seen as a confrontation of this natural progression, which as kids they experience as the horror of lost childhood innocence. 

The dead kittens might not be ghosts, but they're definitely a loss of innocence

The dead kittens might not be ghosts, but they’re definitely a loss of innocence

Image: Steve Dietl/Netflix

For example, the Bent-Neck Lady who terrified Nell is revealed to actually be her future self, warning her of what awaited her if she ever returned to the home that would eventually swallow her back up. As an adult addict, Luke is haunted by a tall man in a suit and bowler hat, this embodiment of grown up responsibilities chasing after him no matter how he tries to run away from it.

Meanwhile Steve and Shirley, the older of the siblings, always claim to never have seen ghosts. Their horrifying experiences in the house are grounded more in reality, like watching diseased kittens die, or young Steve realizing his dad is unsure about their financial future. 

The truly grotesque aspect of the decayed souls consumed by Hill House, then, is that they never moved on. They remain stuck in the family unit and domestic sphere, their re-animated corpses serving as a walking reminder of what happens to normal people who cannot cope with the real world.

The Crain parents’ argument at the end of the series’ also spells out this very realistic tug and pull we all experience, between the protection of familial bonds and the need to grow outside of it.

The Red Room is like the womb of the house, rebirthing still-born souls

The Red Room is like the womb of the house, rebirthing still-born souls

Image: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Olivia’s confused motherly instincts tell her to keep the children locked away, safe (i.e., dead), and hidden from the monsters that will get to them outside her domestic control. It’s a sentiment many mothers facing an empty nest can sympathize with, in some twisted way.

But Hugh begs his wife to understand how, “Even if they’re broken, or addicted, or joyless or, yes, even if they die, we have to watch it all. Because we’re parents. That’s the deal we make. Whatever that life is, we bear witness.”

Despite their instinct to protect, it is the job of parents to push their children into the unknown darkness of life outside the walls of a home. And it is the job of a growing child to take those steps into darkness, without resenting their parents for being unable to prepare them for every difficulty that would await them.

To refuse these duties is to become another lost soul, who wanders through life only in the shadow of what family truly means.

To refuse these duties is to become another lost soul, who wanders through life only in the shadow of what family truly means.

In her final moments with her siblings, Nell corrects a piece of wisdom that their mother used to tell them. Yes, a house is like a body — but the Red Room is not the heart of Hill House. It is its stomach, digesting the souls who fall prey to the idyllic fantasies that it creates to entrap family members in a waking dream.

The Haunting of Hill House, while occasionally a bit too on-the-nose, is a type of domestic horror we’re not used to seeing.

Unlike the familial trauma on display in Hereditary, The Ring, Paranormal Activity, Poltergeist, The Shining, Amityville Horror, Rosemary’s Baby, the evil is not from without. The family drama is not caused by a lack of empathy, love, or care. To the contrary, the deadly nature of the home appears to have very little malice in it.

The true domestic horror of Hill House lies in how it promises something we all crave: A place of eternal shelter, like a mother’s arms. And the real test is becoming brave enough to face life outside it.

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