Rock and a Hard Place: the Mental Illness/Paranormal Disturbance Parallel in The Haunting of Hill House


Although the 2018 re-imagining of The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story, one of the major underlying themes is that of mental illness. It is the level-headed way some of the Crain family members explain away the supernatural events they endured decades ago, and it is the justification for most of their current setbacks.  

This debate splits the Crain family in the middle, with half of them refusing to consider any reasoning that isn’t concrete and based in provable facts, while the other half focuses solely on the many ghosts that have haunted them and ruined their childhoods. 

And while the show, in its own way, tries to navigate between one and the other, I think that the answer lies squarely in the middle, depending on how metaphorical one is willing to get. In other words: looking at the Crains’ individual arc through these dual frames of reference doesn’t make the story more unfocused — on the contrary. It heightens it, offers a more nuanced, and more profound understanding of the grief at the heart of this tragic story.

So: is this one long metaphor for mental illness, or is The Haunting of Hill House just a very nuanced ghost story?

Hugh Crain, the patriarch of the family is seemingly the one who has had the most dramatic reversal throughout the series. As a younger man, he is absolutely skeptical that Hill House might be haunted, even as all the members of his family try to tell him otherwise. By the end of his life however, he is one of the most ardent, and the most vocal about how evil the house supposedly is.

The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story: Hugh is the oracle of the Crain family, the one who comes to truly understand the implications of the house, perhaps because he was, seemingly, the one least affected by it at the time. His trauma, then, is retrospective, but it is no less real. He witnesses his wife slowly succumb to the power of the house, hears the Dursleys’ firsthand account of their own traumatizing experiences, watches his children become terrorized. The fact that he couldn’t enter the infamous Red Room while the rest of the Crains could underlines this idea of obliviousness (it has been suggested that all of Hill House was his Red Room, a testament to his perpetual obsession with fixing things). If The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story, Hugh Crain is undeniably haunted by his inability to help his children reconcile with the things they have seen.

The Haunting of Hill House as an allegory for mental illness: seen this way, the man’s arc is much simpler, and paints him in a different light. Hugh, who was a tad condescending and dismissive in his younger years, is suffering from the consequences of his actions. He has become a hypochondriac (the “heart medicine” he takes toward the end is never truly specified) who worries about the children he cannot be a father to because they don’t have a relationship. Having checked out emotionally after the loss of his wife, he is now regretting the closeness he took for granted with his kids, all the while being unable to let go of the past. His death in Hill House at the end of the series underlines his inability to prioritize his children over the memory of his wife, as well as his feelings of deep denial regarding the darkness at the heart of his family.

Olivia Crain, the matriarch of the family, and arguably one of the most fascinating vessels of this dichotomy (mental vs. supernatural) has a chilling arc that takes drastically different connotations, depending on the angle from which it is viewed.

The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story: Olivia is immediately affected by the presences in Hill House, and becomes a target and victim of Poppy Hill, the malevolent ghost who drove everyone she came in contact with insane. Perhaps because Poppy knew which buttons to push (appealing to Olivia’s overprotectiveness), the latter ends up succumbing to the horrifying delusion that her children are in danger, and she must kill them to protect them from a life of evil. This ends tragically for Olivia, as Poppy pushes her to kill herself in the end. Olivia’s affinity with the supernatural isn’t completely sinister, however: at one point, she reveals to her daughter Theo that the women in her family have always been attuned to the otherworldly and are able to interact with the psychic realm with their high sensitivity. She tells Clara the caretaker that one time when she was young, and feeling particularly unwell, it started to hail black stones, the more despondent she became. Even her frequent migraines look like the product of an overactive susceptibility to the metaphysical. Clearly, Olivia is no stranger to the paranormal, and hence would always have been able to sense Hill House’s ghosts.

Many a seemingly caring mother has thought of killing her children when tipped past the breaking point.

The Haunting of Hill House as an allegory for mental illness: if she is mentally ill, Olivia’s arc is downright heartbreaking. One could argue that hers is simply a case of emotional exhaustion and cabin fever pushed to the extreme. She is an overworked mother of five, she has a huge job on the line (flipping an enormous house) from which the financial fallout could be monumental, she has crippling migraines that bring about drastic mood swings, and she sometimes feels vulnerable in the face of a loving husband who has a tendency to downplay her concerns. Olivia’s adult son Steven frequently claims that she was schizophrenic and suffered from dissociative episodes. Although that remains to be confirmed, the truth is that Olivia’s behavior doesn’t contradict those diagnoses, especially as she gets increasingly worn out. Toward the end of the series, her anxiety erupts, and she loses touch with reality at last; her constant yearning to protect her children and her controlling tendencies have soured into something shockingly sinister. Many a seemingly caring mother has thought of killing her children when tipped past the breaking point.

Seemingly, Steven, the eldest of the Crain children, is the most ferociously well-adjusted of the bunch: but in reality, his trauma runs deep, if not deeper in many ways, than his siblings’.

The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story: Steven is like his father, in that he isn’t initially as persecuted by Hill House’s ghosts as the rest of his family. In fact, the two men are very alike, in their apparent skepticism, their pathological need to ”fix“ things and people, and their desire to think things through rationally. That said, he is plagued by visions he turns a blind eye to (and some, like the clockmaker he doesn’t even know are visions), but he is so staunch in his denial that he almost manages to keep that terror at bay. His neuroticism, however, is rooted in that very denial: the harder he tries to pretend that he is normal, the less normal the world around him becomes: he sees his dead sister’s ghost, hears his dead mother, experiences the Red Room’s visions… It is interesting that despite Steven’s commitment to avoiding the superstition and supernatural tendencies he has resented all his life, he has made a living as a writer on the paranormal.

The Haunting of Hill House as an allegory for mental illness: Steven’s agitation takes on a much more sympathetic edge when seen through this lens. This is a man who has witnessed his entire family devastated by mental illness, and he is terrified to succumb to the same (he goes as far as to get a vasectomy to ensure he will never procreate). This is probably rooted in the desire to please and appear perfect he has harbored since childhood (probably a symptom of First Child Syndrome). He has an inferiority complex that taints every one of his relationships: he must appear in control and rational at all times, he must not be like his deadbeat father. He takes pride in his career, in his marriage, in his status, even though those are all falling apart. He denies that he is sick, that he is exhausted, which not only sabotages his happiness, but also exposes his hypocrisy. Despite the image he wants to convey, Steven is a coward, he is unreliable, he is judgmental, he is pathologically selfish, is unkind to his siblings. Even if this is just a front for how sad and lonely he is, it is a regrettable front to behold.

Like Steven, Shirley appears to have her life together. But she is no less touched by her family’s generational curse — with her, however, it is all about subtlety.

The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story: the interesting thing about Shirley is that apart from a few misadventures here and there, her childhood has not been rife with haunting. It’s in adulthood, however, that she is latently followed by the ghosts of her past. This, in the form of her little sister Nell and her mother Olivia, as well as the ghost of a one-night infidelity she committed a few years prior: and this is the other interesting thing about her. The man Shirley is haunted by is not dead, but her arc is about guilt and secrets, rather than death and anguish. Unlike the rest of her siblings however, Shirley has not tried to avoid the terrifying topic of death: she runs a mortuary with her husband, and thus, has a stoicism about life and the afterlife that has, on some level, ensured her better coping skills.

The Haunting of Hill House as an allegory for mental illness: Shirley isn’t totally immune to her family’s traumas. Like Steven, Shirley wrestles with perfectionism, and it dictates every aspect of her existence. She has had her life together since childhood, displaying mothering and caregiver tendencies, as well as people-pleasing and responsible inclinations toward adults and children alike: it follows that she has grown into the sort of adult whose perfection comes at the cost of inflexibility. But as Shirley starts to crack, one sees that she is, in fact, barely holding on. Like Olivia, she has always taken on more than she could, and like her father Hugh, she has always been incapable of displaying vulnerability or weakness. Her tumult comes out in bursts: her affair, the way she shuns her father, the way she condemns Steven for profiting from their traumatic childhood, the way she kicks out her sister Theo when she learns that the latter has taken her share of Steven’s royalties… Shirley has clearly strived to become nothing like her parents, and ends up doing just that: namely keeping secrets and brewing anger.

Middle child Theodora ”Theo” is interesting, not least because she is the vessel of many contradictions, the character who most represents the dichotomy between the supernatural, and the rational.

The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story: like her mother Olivia, Theo is “sensitive”, so to speak: she can sense a person’s aura, their thoughts and emotions, by touching them. When this power becomes too overwhelming for Theo, Olivia gifts her a pair of gloves that will wall her super senses away from others. It’s a form of self-preservation. What is more, Theo has not only seen ghosts as a child, she has also felt them, and was once not so quick to dismiss them. As an adult, she tries, like Steven and Shirley, to pretend she isn’t occasionally haunted, but her lasting reluctance to touch people proves that on some small level, she does actually believe in ghosts.

The Haunting of Hill House as an allegory for mental illness: Theo is a riddle: she is highly empathetic, but is also very emotionally unavailable; she is incredibly understanding, but often displays stunning levels of callousness. While Theo has always been a solitary and fiercely independent child, she has clearly evolved into a traumatized adult, judging from the way she navigates her life. Through this lens, her reluctance to touch and be touched comes across as worrying; she pushes away the only woman who could break beyond her walls; she is frequently sarcastic and cutting with her siblings; she never speaks about her mother, and she has had a rough patch with her father in adulthood; she rejects proximity and vulnerability, having seen how it has destroyed her mother and siblings; there is also the suggestion that alcoholism runs through her mother’s side of the family, and this is something Theo is seen to rely on heavily, on occasion. One can point her interest in children and psychology as an attempt to reconcile her dysfunctional childhood and her marred views on marriage, as well as a thirst to help other children overcome that.

Luke is one half of the most tragic Crain pair. While most of his siblings transition between their childhood and adult trauma, Luke remains almost child-like, in an endless loop of anguish.

The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story: as a child, Luke has been scratched, snatched, chased, tormented by ghosts. In particular, he is pursued by the ghost of William Hill, otherwise known as the “bowler-hat man” or the Floating Man, who has always been a mere few steps away from him, even in adulthood. Luke has walked alongside the darkness of the home, and unlike his more practical older siblings, his fears are often dismissed as the ramblings of a young, imaginative child. Only his twin Nell believes that what he has seen are not fabrications. His family’s skepticism ends up breeding isolation, two of the most aggravating factors in his subsequent struggle with drugs. If The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story, then Luke’s addiction is a symptom of having grown up in a haunting environment. 

If, as Steven fears, this neuroticism is hereditary, then Luke has gotten a very short stick indeed.

The Haunting of Hill House as an allegory for mental illness: this way, the entire storyline becomes about a sensitive, sheltered, imaginative boy’s transformation into an adult who has not acquired the tools to deal with the calamities of life. If one delves deeper, the path to his addiction seems even less surprising. Here is a boy who has never been close with his adult siblings — except for his twin Nell —, who has had to deal with frequent moves with his family, his mother’s descent into madness (and attempted murder by her hands), in addition of losing her to suicide. If, as Steven fears, this neuroticism is hereditary, then Luke has gotten a very short stick indeed. In this vantage point, Luke’s addiction, while also a symptom of his isolation from the rest of his family, is also an issue in and of itself. Addiction, after all, creates its own set of obstacles, including the dissolution of relationships, of any semblance of a stability, and leaves behind a trail of broken trust. The haunting is symbolic of lost childhood, and innocence gone very, very sour.

Eleonora ”Nell” Crain, like her twin Luke, is a tragic figure in the story, not only because of her equally doe-eyed approach to a world that is as harsh as it is unsympathetic, but because she is the first, and only one of the Crain siblings, to be claimed by Hill House (some conspiracy theories might argue with that).

The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story: Nell’s brush with ghosts is relentless, and when one looks at her mother Olivia, it is clear she never stood a chance. Like Olivia and Theo, like all the women from that side of the family, it is suggested that Nell is “touched”, that she has a natural ability to tap into the paranormal. This shows in how easily she comes into contact with the Hill House ghosts as a little girl, including the infamous Bent-Neck Lady who has chased her since. When it is later revealed that Nell’s future self is, in fact, the Bent-Neck Lady, it closes the vicious circle, adds an underscore to that feeling of cataclysmic inevitability that has always followed her character.

The Haunting of Hill House as an allegory for mental illness: through this more practical lens, Nell’s story is more straightforward, but no less wretched. As the youngest one of the Crains, she has grown up looking up to family members who are as damaged as they are emotionally unavailable. Like Luke, losing her mother so early (a mother who tried to kill her, no less) has affected her. She subsequently loses her husband, feels abandoned and unprotected by her father and siblings, sees her twin brother get ruined by addiction. This, coupled with her own sensitivity and propensity for internalizing her pain, has led her to be lost herself. Here, the Bent-Neck Lady she’s been pursued by all her life could be a metaphor for suicidal ideation, for the fixation on death Nell has grappled with all her life, for anxiety and obsession about her own demise. Although she dies in the very beginning of the series, what the others subsequently say about her, and what little we grasp from flashbacks reveals an aimless and confused young woman, struggling with her own identity. She is literally terrorized by her own mind and the disasters it spells out for her. If this story is one of ghosts leading lost people back to their childhood home, it is a preventable, senseless tragedy. But in this case, Nell’s death is exactly what it looks like: a suicide.

Mental illness and horror are an old pair. They have gone hand-in-hand as long as people have tended to sensationalize suffering, and as long as people have attempted to rationalize the unexplainable. I have written at length about the damaging correlation therein, but when it is thoughtfully done, pairing horror and mental illness can be way for audiences to not only appreciate horror in a much more palpable way, but also for them to gain better insight into the emotional struggles some people deal with everyday.

It is a testament to The Haunting of Hill House’s richness and depth that the story could be interpreted in many ways, but that the chilling misfortune at its core does not lessen either way. The Crains are either the unluckiest family to have come across ghosts, or a family too damaged to cope with its many emotional implosions — or both: either way, theirs is a tragedy to behold.