"Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?" So goes the question Eleanor Vance asks herself in Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor, along with a few other intrepid (or maybe naive) folks, has volunteered to spend a few weeks in the most haunted house in America. As the days go on, Eleanor finds herself falling under Hill House’s spell. While watching the ingenious Netflix adaptation of the book, which arrives to the streaming service on October 12, you may find that you're asking yourself the same question. Are you walking into a show that maybe you should be running from, and choosing lighter sitcoms instead?
The answer is no. Come inside. Take off your shoes. Make yourself comfortable. You're about to spend time in a house cut off from the outside world, so leave those outside world worries behind. The show follows the hapless, naive Crain family over the course of the summer they spend in Hill House, and then tracks the repercussions those months have on the rest of their lives. Here, we’ll be recapping the episodes of The Haunting of Hill House. Let's go.
So, you’ve come to watch a haunted house show. I hate to disappoint you, but The Haunting of Hill House is really a show about a family. Yes, there’s a very spooky house involved. But the sinew the binds the show together, between jump scares and gray-hued ghost creatures, are family ties. Get ready to fall in love with the most beautiful doomed family on TV since the Fishers on Six Feet Under. This is what the spooky version of This Is Us looks like.
The Haunting of Hill House is a ten-episode series created by Mike Flanagan. Though it’s based on a work of horror by Shirley Jackson, Flanagan took major liberties with the story. Fans of the book may groan about the show’s lack of period costumes and paranormal investigators. Flanagan preserved the character’s names and general personality traits, but cast them in new roles entirely. The story is now about a family, not a group of strangers all participating in an experiment to prove the existence of the paranormal, as in the book. What Flanagan rendered so accurately was Hill House itself: That creaky and exquisitely wallpapered house that had “good bones,” as my mom would say, but also has a wicked heart.
The first few episodes of The Haunting of Hill House are told from the perspective of one of the nearly identical members of the Crain family. They’re related, yes, but do they have to look like a dysfunctional brunette army? Let me introduce you to the key players so you don’t stumble around the show, and this recap, like one of those gray-hued creatures:
Liv Crain (Carla Gugino, aka Spy Kids Mom): All of her kids are comfortably aware of the fact that their mother will forever be more effortlessly cool than they are. She’s a long-haired moon goddess.
Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas when Young, Timothy Hutton when old): He has no idea how he manage to marry the Moon Goddess Olivia; is appropriately adoring.
Shirley Crian (Lulu Wilson when young, Elizabeth Reaser when old): Shirley magnanimously forgave her parents for naming her Shirley. Shirley, clearly unable to shake off an ingrained appetite for the macabre, now works at a funeral home that she owns with her perpetually in-over-his-head and left-out husband.
Luke Crain (Julian Hilliard when young, Oliver Jackson-Cohen when old): Young Luke is anatomically the cutest kid alive; sorry to all your nieces and nephews. He grows up to have a drug problem. He’s celebrating his 90-day sobriety mark in the first episode.
Eleanor “Nell” Crain (Violet McGraw when young, Victoria Pedretti when old): Eleanor – well. Eleanor is best summed up by her brother Theo: “One foot on crazy, one foot on a banana peel.”
THE HOUSE! The final, silent, most important character.
Episode one is told from the perspective of Steven, who, as an adult, is a persona non grata among his siblings. Steven found success via turning his younger siblings’ traumatic childhood experiences in Hill House into a bestselling novel called The Haunting of Hill House. The book made him loads of money and turned his family into legends. The only issue? Steven adamantly doesn’t believe in ghosts. He just scoops up other people’s stories and makes money off of them by turning them into books. His siblings won’t accept the royalties earned from his book of lies.
The siblings’ current dynamics stem back to their experiences in Hill House. As a kid living in Hill House, Steven assumed the role of Valiant Older Brother, and he had to assume this role often because of the sheer number of horrors they all encountered. Essentially, Mama and Papa Crain initially moved the family to Hill House for another one of their ambitious home “flipping” projects. They expected to fix a few pipes, swipe out a few carpets. That’s not what happened.
As children, the Crains are all haunted by their own personal visions, which evolve in each episode of the show. Young Nell sees a woman called the bent neck lady. Young Luke has an imaginary friend named Abigail only he can see who plays with him in the treehouse. The kids also see a red door that’s locked.
Eventually, the hauntings culminated in one Very Big Bad Night, which we first see from Steven’s perspective. On that night, Steven’s father carries him out of the house in the middle of the night, making sure Steven keeps his eyes shut. The six of them drive away — notably, without Liv. Liv dies that evening of an apparent suicide. Despite losing his wife, though, Hugh refuses to sell the house. Instead, he demands that the house stay empty forever. The Dudleys, the house’s caretakers who seem to be transported from the ‘40s, are the only people allowed in the house.
In the present, the adult siblings are swirling back into each other’s lives because Nell, the youngest sister, is making contact after a period of isolation. One by one, she’s calling them on the phone. On the phone to her father, Nell claims the “bent neck lady” is back. Clearly distraught, she drives back to Hill House — the site of all the horrors. When she enters the Red Room, all the siblings are woken up from their sleep, as if connected by some genetic string. Eventually, Nell shows up in Steven’s house. But she’s not Nell anymore. She’s a ghost.
Nell, like her mother years before, has taken her own life in Hill House.
What we know about Hill House: The Hills built the house years ago. The townspeople avoid it religiously. Aside from the Crains, the Dudleys are the only people who go into the house, and they go home at night. No key will open the door to the Red Room. It definitely has a high heating bill.
Lingering mysteries: What’s the bent neck lady? Who’s Abigail? What happened to Liv? Why did Nell commit suicide? Why is Steven such a fun-sucker? Why/how does Steven look so damn foxy in old man’s glasses? Why is Steven having marital problems with his wife, Leigh (Samantha Sloyan), the show’s only non-brunette? Why was Luke robbing Steven?
How does time work in The Haunting of Hill House? Seemingly, the show pivots back and forth between two distinct timelines. In the past, the Crains live in Hill House for the course of one summer. The present-day events seems to generally take place over the course of the same few days, with each sibling treading and re-treading the same events from their own perspective — save a few flashbacks. But don’t get too comfortable. Events could potentially get more confusing, timeline wise.
Episode 2 belongs to Shirley, the second oldest sibling. Through looking at their adult life paths, we can see how the Crain siblings have processed their respective pasts. After living in a haunted house as a child, Shirley has chosen to literally live in the most sterilized version of a haunted house: A funeral home. Every day, she “fixes” dead bodies and renders them to a clean, preserved state, so they stay frozen forever. Essentially, Shirley makes ghosts that stay in place, unlike the very unpredictable dead beings in her past. Shirley is so at ease with death that she’s able to clean up her dead sister’s body which frankly, is unthinkable. To her, death is a job. It’s like she’s comforted by the finality of it.
In Hill House, the boundaries between living and dead waver. It’s a porous border, where the dead cross over to the living side. Prime example: Shirley finds some kittens in a shed (after one of the show’s scariest jump scares). The cats all die, marking Shirley’s first real encounter with the permanence of death. But just as she’s dropping the kitten into its grave, the kitten opens its eyes. Later on in the episode, Nell awakens in the funeral home basement, as if the effects of Hill House were bleeding out into the real world. Like the Ironborn of Game of Thrones say, “What is dead may never die.”
Hill House is textbook haunted, beyond just the weird statues, graveyards, and gargoyles. It’s not a “oh, maybe it’s just in their head” situation. As kids, Shirley and Theo are plagued by a series of intermittent, strong knockings on the door. No wonder Shirley and Theo live together as adults. That shit bonds you.
Despite their fights, the adult Crain siblings really are close. No one understands the siblings like each other — not even Kevin (Anthony Ruivivar), Shirley’s husband. In episode 2, Crain siblings all appear together for the first time in the show in a mini-flashback. At this moment in the not-so-distant past, Luke is checking himself into rehab. This is before Steven has made his millions, so Shirley’s footing the gargantuan bill. Clearly, after their mother died, Shirley supported them all emotionally. She’s the mom — and the bad cop on occasion. When Luke arrives to Nell’s wedding high, Shirley kicks him out.
Shirl’s been holding it together for everyone for ages. When’s she going to crack?
What we know about Hill House: The Crains are planning to turn the profit from flipping Hill House to build their “forever house,” where they’ll live in peace forever. Olivia is working on the designs. There’s a graveyard in the back of Hill House. Also, Shirley sees Abigail, which means she’s a real presence, not limited to Luke’s imagination.
Lingering mysteries: Who’s that man (yet another handsome brunette) who appeared in Shirley’s living room holding scotch? Why does Shirley’s husband have a separate checkbook? What’s up with Liv’s headaches? Are they a new brand of Sinister Migraine?
Meet Theodora, a queen in sleek navy turtlenecks. Theo is suave, persuasive, and definitely the most appealing of the Crain siblings. She’ll make you want to run away with her — as Theo did with the maid of honor at Nell’s wedding.
Each of these preliminary episodes are like extended character studies. The Crain siblings show us who they are — and how they came to be. We uncovered the root of Steven’s stubborn skepticism (the dude definitely is just jealous he didn’t experience hauntings); we learned why Shirley is so protective. In this episode, we understand why Theo has closed herself off to the world, and why she refuses to get close to her new lover, Trish (Levy Tran). Theo’s so self-aware she can verbalize her tactics of self-preservation to her young patient: “When I was scared, I’d imagine building a brick wall, all around me, until that wall was so thick and so strong I knew I’d be safe forever,” she explains.
Theo, we learn, is too sensitive. If she let the world in, she might be overloaded by feelings. So she wears gloves to dull her powers, closes herself off. It all goes back to Theo’s hands. What do those hands do, exactly? Think of Theo as a super-feeler. When she lays her hands on people or objects, she’s able to feel their embedded traumas and history. Theo’s acute power of perception is demonstrated in two incidents involving basements — one in the past, the other in the present. Should we read “basements” as a symbol for buried trauma? We’d be delusional not to.
First, the past incident: While living at Hill House, Theo sees as Luke is sent hurtling toward an unmarked floor by a demonic dumbwaiter. Though the basement doesn’t exist on a floor plan, Theo discerns the precise location of the hidden basement crawlspace. She essentially opens up a whole new wing of the house, leading to the old bootlegging basement where alcohol was brewed in the house.
We also see how Theo uses her hands to become a Superhero Psychologist. A young patient describes being tormented by “Mr. Smiley.” Theo asustely suspects something’s amiss in the patient’s new foster home. When she peels off her gloves and lays her hands on the basement couch, Theo has her confirmation: The girl is being sexually abused by her foster father. She gives the father a long, hard handshake. Theo is correct: The man crumples under investigation and admits to his crime, and the girl is removed from his care.
Theo’s built-in capacity for empathy makes her an exceptional child psychologist. In fact, we’d say she’s far more understanding with children than she is with adults. Like these kiddos, she’s been through shit, thanks to that traumatic summer in Hill House.
Finally, Theo is the show’s only typical “middle sibling.” Nell and Luke are the youngers; Steven and Shirley, the olders. Because of her positioning, Theo understands the nuances of morality the best and the “shades of gray” best of all her siblings — especially Shirley. The sisters’ differences come into play when it comes to Steven’s book. Six years ago, before the book was published, Steven promised 8% of the royalties of his book. Shirley, her husband, and the other siblings adamantly refuse. Theo, however, secretly takes the initial $15,000 check, ostensibly the first of many checks (Hill House is a big hit). Though she questions Steven’s authority in writing the book — he was asleep on that “last night,” as it’s alluded — she takes the money so that she can further her own life goals and get her PhD. This is a Big Family Secret. Don’t tell Shirley.
The episode ends with a final spiral. Theo touches Nell’s body, causing her to experience some awful, unexplained vision. Working theory: She felt how her sister died. Immediately after, Theo summons Trish over for a late-night booty call. She spills out the details of her no good, very bad day. Is this progress? Is this her way of letting someone in? The episode ends with Theo saying, “Touch me.” Just like that!
What we know about Hill House: Theo discovered a basement crawlspace. She also has a dance studio, which has a strange doorknob that seems to turn on its own.
Lingering mysteries: Did Theo see the future when she saw her mother’s dead body? Are all the Crains “sensitive,” as Liv says? Would anyone be haunted by Hill House, or are the Crains special? What did Theo see when she touched Nell? Why are Carlos and Theo in cahoots?
When it comes to sweet, sweet, bespectacled Luke, The Haunting of Hill House is determined to draw a stark, defined connection between his childhood experiences at Hill House and his present struggle with addiction. Luke says so himself: “Mom never came back, but other things when I was a kid — they came back. That’s why I started using in the first place. To keep those things away.” Luke’s haunting has never ended.
As a child, Luke’s moony-eyed claims of ghost sightings and Hill House’s evil aren’t taken seriously. No one believes that Abigail, his imaginary friend, is real; no one believed the basement was real, either, until Theo — a more credible source – uncovers proof. More concerningly, his father denies the existence of the monster Luke (and the audience) saw in the basement last episode. Essentially, his particular experiences (and visions) are not believed by his family members, save for Nell. Luke is an island. An adorable, naive, hapless island, with a vocal inflection that could literally crumple an adult’s defenses. That’s how he is as an adult, too.
Now an adult, Luke is, once again, living in a house with unusual quirks and particularities. This time, it’s a rehab center with stringent rules. Luke has just marked his 90 day clean mark, largely thanks to the support of Joey (Anna Enger), his friend and — if there weren’t rules against relationships in the center — would-be lover. Luke’s cut off from his family and doubts that Steven would even believe he was sober.
How does Luke’s credibility problem tie back to his particular haunting, a tall man in a top-hat? The ghost, who floats a few inches above the ground and uses a cane to push his body forward, first appears in an exquisite, near silent sequence at Hill House. The ghost retrieves a top hat in from Luke’s room and puts it on his head (who knows — perhaps the hat had once been the ghost’s). Obviously, there’s symbolism in this image. Earlier in the episode, Luke’s father put the top hat on Luke’s head and said, patronizingly, “Big boys know the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary.” But Luke never did learn the difference between real and imaginary, because the imaginary (aka ghosts) are real to him. He turned to heroin and created a world of his own. In order to continue his habit, Luke eventually burnt out his relationships: He cheated his siblings out of money and missed his twin sister’s wedding. The top-hat man is the spectre of Luke’s “grown up” self — the stand-up, responsible individual he never became.
But he’s trying to become a reliable guy, in his own way. When Joey runs away from the rehab center, he sets forth find her — even though it means he won’t be admitted back into the center. What follows is an odyssey through the streets of Los Angeles in which Luke is constantly confronted by his greatest temptation, heroin, among other travails. He’s beat up. He’s robbed. However, Luke is determined to help Joey the same way she helped him when he first arrived. See, Steven! Luke did change.
Unfortunately, Luke’s family isn’t there to help him — and at this point, they rarely are. Flashback to when Joey and Luke come for dinner, and Steven condescendingly tries to undermine the entire rehab system, calling it the “definition of insanity” because you’re trying to get people to knock their well-trodden habits. Clearly, after a decade of Luke behaving a certain way, Steven doesn’t think he’s capable of change. When he sees Luke at his doorstep stealing his electronics, that only confirms his preconceived notions about his brother: He’s a thief and a liar. Now that he’s an addict, Luke’s credibility problem is of a different variety than his childhood ravings.
Until now, Luke always had one Crain on his side: Nell. As children, Luke developed a method of calming him and Nell down when they saw visions (him, the top-hat man; her, the bent-neck lady). They would count seven buttons, one for each of the family members. “That keeps you safe,” Luke said. Now an adult, Luke counts to seven as if it’ll help form a protective shield against everything that’s haunting him on the streets of L.A. — from ghosts to heroin.
This little protective hex makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. So far, each episode has had a moment of reveal of Nell’s suicide. For Luke, the premonition of Nell’s death arrives earlier. For reasons he can’t explain, he’s freezing. His limbs feel like blocks. The show has established that Luke and Nell are psychically linked — here, we see that Luke is experiencing Nell’s death. Since he experienced her death, he knows something no one else does: Nell did not die of suicide. This brings up the possibility that the malevolent presences in Hill House could actually be murderous, too.
What we know about Hill House: Hill House is home to a whole host of scary ghosts. The reflection of an old woman appears in the metal bell. The top-hat man comes out at night.
Lingering mysteries: Where the HECK did Joey disappear off to? Why does Luke count to the number “seven” to calm himself down?
Going into the fifth episode, we don’t know that much about Nell, aside from the fact that she ran away to Hill House and died of mysterious circumstances. She’s always been “one foot on crazy, one foot on a banana peel,” as Theo put it. She’s married. Aside from that, we don’t know much. But by the end of the episode, we know two things: Nell is the lynchpin of our grim tale, and The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant show.
It all goes back to the Bent-Neck Lady, who is woven throughout the episode and Nell’s life like a twisted motif. Just as Luke is always haunted by the Top-Hat Man, Nell is tormented by the Bent-Neck Lady. It’s always the same. Nell wakes up, her body paralyzed, eyes fixed on the Bent-Neck Lady’s long brown hair draped over her. After decades of this particular torture, a sleep-deprived Nell visits a sleep doctor, where she hopes to use science to cure a paranormal visitation (good luck with that).
At that visit, Nell finds a temporary cure, though it’s not the cure she expected. She meets Arthur “Dreamboat” Vance (Jordane Christie), the sleep technologist who actually listens to Nell instead of writing dismissing her pain, as past doctors — and even her family members – have. If the Crain family disbelieves Luke, then they outright dismiss Nell. But Arthur takes Nell seriously. Fast-forward a few months, and their genuine, crackling chemistry leads to an engagement at New Year’s Eve and a wedding later on. Arthur, above all, is Nell’s protector. He coaxes her out of those terrifying episodes of sleep paralysis. Finally, at last, one individual in the show is in good hands.
Well, she was in good hands for about five minutes. That calm doesn’t last. When the newlyweds Arthur and Nell relocate to Los Angeles, the Bent-Neck Lady reappears and Nell is, once again, caught in the claws of Hill House. This time, the Lady is no passive presence. She’s a harbinger of death. When Arthur gets up to comfort Nell, he has a sudden aneurysm and dies.
Was it the work of the Bent-Neck Lady? After being dismissed and told she’s crazy her whole life, Nell naturally chalked the Bent-Neck Lady up to being a product of her own mind. After this tragedy, Nell has official proof that the Lady is no nightmare or hallucination. She’s real. By the end of the episode, we agree. We know what the Bent-Neck Lady is: A rip in the fabric of space and time. She’s proof that in Hill House, time curls on top of itself in a malevolent loop. The Bent-Neck Lady, you see, is Nell.
At the end of the episode, we see how Nell’s timeline curves n spectacular fashion. The weirdness officially begins when the words “Nell, come home” appear written on the wall. A haggard Liv blames Nell for graffiting the house. When Nell returns to Hill House as an adult, she sees a ghost version of Liv writes those notes on the wall. Nell is reunited with everyone she ever loved, and all versions of them, too, kind of like a macabre version of the ending of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. There’s young Shirley and Theo, there’s ARTHUR! (If you didn’t cry during their spectral wedding dance, maybe get your pulse checked.)
In this sequence, we see Nell slowly melting into the haunting; growing comfortable with the supernatural. The house is trying to seduce her into staying. Eventually, Liv — who seems to be the leader of the Haunted Mansion Parade — orchestrates her daughter’s official homecoming. Liv coaxes Nell up the stairs for a tea party with Luke and Abigail (just as Luke mentioned earlier in the episode actually happened). The only way for Nell to stay, of course, is death. Liv pushes her daughter from the ledge so she hangs herself. As Nell hurtles down from the staircase, Nell also begins to fall through her timeline, stopping at every sighting of the Bent-Neck Lady. This time of course, she’s the lady. And she’s just as scared as her younger self.
The time-travel twist forwards the show’s premise big time. But the character work this episode also fills in our understanding of the Crain siblings. Each of Nell’s siblings abandon her after Arthur’s death. There are major abandonments — Luke goes to rehab, Theo flips out on her, Steven tries to gaslight her into thinking she’s crazy, then sells her story. Then, a subtle demonstration of her place in their lives: When she calls everyone, only her dad answers her phone call. In this familial vacuum, Dr. Montague swoops in and influences an already unstable Nell. Dr. Montague’s character is based on the Dr. Montague in Shirley Jackson’s book, who leads the expedition into Hill House. “The problem is that you haven’t confronted your past,” he says. “It always comes back to one thing: The house.” He encourages her to revisit the house and show that it’s “not a monster,” but just a building. Montague’s comments spur Nell’s return to Hill House — and her death.
Who’s to blame for Nell’s death? Was she fated to return home to Hill House? Was it Dr. Montague's prodding? Was it her family’s abandonment of her? Either way, her death is the start of the rest of our story, and the Crain family’s closure.
What we know about Hill House: Nell finds a tea-set in the “toy room,” which Mrs. Dudley (Annabelle Gish) doesn’t seem to recognize.
Lingering mysteries: Where’s the toy room in Hill house? Where did the Hills, the creators of Hill house, disappear off to? Can we get a tattoo of Mrs. Dudley’s phrase, “Insist on your cup of stars?” What was Luke’s comment about having a tea party with Abigail, Nell, and Liv in the Red Room all about? Is Abigail even real? Why are some ghosts blue-skinned and others, like Liv, well-preserved? How does the house know everyone so well?
How can Hill House follow up that time-traveling extravaganza of an episode? Easy: By grounding the next one entirely in the everyday trauma of regular family life. The truth is, deep-seated family rivalries and inter-sibling grudges can be just as destructive as the perils of a haunted house.
Nell’s funeral is the setting for a Crain family collision. “Nellie was always trying to get us all in one place,” Shirley tells Theo, just as the siblings from the other West Coast – Luke and Steven — are walking into Shirley’s mint-green sitting room, with grim humor. Let’s take a quick pulse check to see how the Crains are handling the situation: Shirley is tough; Theo is guzzling booze; Steve is falling apart and seeing ghosts; Luke, slack-faced, looks like got run over by a train. They sit in the aisle seats of the funeral home, like passengers in a train hurtling toward confrontation.
And Hugh? Hugh — who we’re seeing as an older man for the first time — can’t quite believe his kids are grown. When he walks into the funeral home, he’s greeted by the younger version of his kids (including Nell — so sad). This is a man who hasn’t moved on from the past. On the same night, he lost his wife and then was doomed to miss out on his kids’ childhoods.
The timeline of Hugh and his kids’ relationship, essentially, ended abruptly in Hill House. They have no shared history beyond Hill House. So, given that fact and Nell’s death, Hill House is very much in the air during the funeral. Where there is a Crain, there is a haunting. The funeral home is suddenly imbued with the spirit of Hill House: We’re talking ghostly apparitions of Liv, strange knocks on the wall. These hauntings lead us to one conclusion: For the Crains to get over the past, they’re going to have to confront it. Otherwise, Hill House will keep following them, everywhere they go — and not just in memory.
Since this is mainly Hugh’s episode, the Hill House flashbacks are from the perspective of a man who’s trying to be rational in an house with a mind of its own. He’s trying to protect his family. Honestly, it might be more disconcerting to be Hugh than to be a Crain kid in Hill House. At least Nell and Luke can say, “We see ghosts!” Hugh, so convinced supernatural forces don’t exist, comes off as pitifully out-of-touch. How dad of him.
How has Hugh changed in the ensuing years? He’s become a believer, that’s how. Hugh has comes to terms with the house’s “involvement” in his life. He realizes the house had a will of its own. He believes in Nell’s story of the bent-neck lady – in fact, he and Luke know that Nell is the Bent-Neck Lady. Not everyone is so forward-thinking. Steve still thinks the family is plagued by mental illness and delusions (even though he saw ghost as a kid and sees them now), and believes Nell was responsible for her own death.
The fights culminate in two revelations. First, Shirley learns that Theo and Kevin (Anthony Ruivivar) both accepted payoffs from Steven’s book royalties. Shirley, so principled, is livid. Not accepting Steven’s money was her one condition — and the two people closest to her broke it. Then, they further break her trust when Shirley opens up the supply closet and sees Theo trying to kiss Kevin. The betrayal!
The majority of the tension in this episode stemmed from dialogue, not jump scares. The camera circles as two siblings duke it out verbally, before another sibling jumps in like it’s a prolonged and lethal improv exercise. The reason this scene works so well is because the Crains are already well-drawn characters. I feel like I know them intimately — because, like siblings, I know their childhood histories, I know what made them.
What We Know About Hill House: The place is brimming with ghosts, and frankly, we can’t keep track of them. New additions include an old woman confined to her bed (probably the same woman who Luke saw appear briefly in the gold bell) and a little boy in the wheelchair.
Lingering Mysteries: On the evening of the storm, what happens to Liv? She floats around and says she’s having a “strange dream.” What is the big dog that’s haunting the room? Who’s that guy with the whiskey glass?
One Final Thought: Did you notice the camerawork in this episode? It was constantly turning in circles, as if the camera, too, was looking over its shoulder. The circular movement also seemed like everything was going back in same cycle.
Hugh Crain is a haunted man, and he wouldn’t want it any other way. The Crain children are islands; their experiences from Hill House make it difficult for them to bond with other people. Hugh, ever the fixer, solved the problem of isolation by converting his memory of Liv into a living, breathing presence. She sleeps in his bed. She comforts him when he’s dismayed about his relationship with his kids. Ya know, all that “partner in crime, so happy to be marrying my best friend” shit.
In the flashbacks this episode, we see the show’s “big men” — Mr. Dudley, Hugh, and Steven – try to tame Hill House the night after the storm. Hugh so confidently declares he can fix all of the house’s problems. Narrator: He couldn’t fix them. What follows is a prolonged exercise in futility. Hugh toils away clearing black mold from the basement; the black mold returns. Remember when Steven was equating rehab to the definition of insanity? In actuality, trying to “flip” Hill House is the definition of insanity. House won’t flip. Hugh’s realizing that by buying Hill House, he bought a haunted money pit.
This episode marks a turning point for the season. Not only does Hugh realize the house is haunted — he realizes it’s affecting Liv, big time. While Hugh is busy in the basement, he gives Liv the task of mapping the house’s piping. She returns with a strange map. It’s just the blueprint of their “forever home,” where they hope to live after this, printed over and over again. The house is clearly driving his wife nuts.
It’s around this time that Hugh realizes the house is a force of evil. Mr. Dudley gently tries to talk some sense into the rational-minded Hugh by telling him why he and Mrs. Dudley decided to leave that no good, awful house at night. Essentially, Mrs. Dudley got pregnant while they were living there. She started getting awful nightmares (kind of like the headaches and nightmares Liv keeps having, and her “what a strange dream I’ve been having” throwaway comments). Mrs. Dudley has a miscarriage. Then, she became mentally unhinged. She felt better once she started staying away from the house. Eventually, the Dudleys had another child.
After Liv hands in her strange architectural fever dream and tries to stab him with a screwdriver in her sleep, Hugh knows he has to get her outta this hell house, and stat. It’s hard watching Liv decay into such frizzy hair and frazzleness. Oh, and that other little surprise doesn’t help give him faith in Hill House. Turns out that “scratch scratch noise is no rat infestation. It’s the animated skeleton of a man, William Hume, who literally bricked himself into the wall (wut!). So: The house is evil! And no one, not even Hugh, can make it better.
In the present, Hugh tries to mend another crumbling structure: His relationship with his estranged children. After that one last evening in Hill House, Hugh clearly was framed. You know Hugh is innocent. I know Hugh is innocent. Hugh stares at Moon Goddess with saucers of love in his eyes. But the police, who are not swayed by the magical thinking of former Hill House residents, want to frame Hugh for risky business. Something happened on that last night — and they blame him. This is a problem he can’t fix. The kids go to their aunt Janet.
Now, he’s bravely trying to move past all of his kids’ cold shoulders and forge a relationship with them. Often, these efforts manifest in giving them well-intentioned monologues about their screwed up lives. Some of his children are more receptive than others. Still, his presence seems to be — at the very least — helpful. The kids have to confront what they’ve been burying in the corner. Theo, for example, lets her very cool potential girlfriend a wee bit closer to her heart.
Despite his best efforts, Hugh can’t fix everything. He can’t fix Luke. At the end of the episode, everyone figures out that Luke ran off with Theo’s car and Shirley’s wallet. He’s headed somewhere — either for heroin, or maybe Hill House. Given the sheer number of hauntings that take place this episode (including Liv and Nell crawling out of her own grave), Hill House is headed for them in the meantime.
To conclude: This may be controversial, but Liv and Hugh are a better couple than This Is Us’s Jack and Rebecca. Sorry y’all, but Carla Gugino is forever the Cool Mom of my heart, from Spy Kids to Hill House.
What We Know About Hill House: Other people have been driven mad here, including that guy who buried himself into the wall.
Lingering Mysteries: What’s the “other body” that the policeman refers to on that Last Night? What the heck happened on that last night? Who styles Hugh’s hair? Speaking of hair, is Carla Gugino’s hair really that long?
This episode delves into the anatomy of a Crain marriage — and how Crain marriages end. Shirley and Steven, the two Crain children who are married, are both separated from their spouses. Kevin is living in a hotel following the incident with Theo in the closet. Leigh moved out after Steven lied to her about the vasectomy he had in his early 20s.
Steven’s tale is cautionary: Don’t trick your wife into doing fertility treatments just because you’re scared to tell her you had your tubes tied in your early 20s! Don’t tell your wife you want kids, when you don’t ever want kids! Steven, you see, is afraid of passing on the Crain family curse of mental illness. Despite a million and one hauntings, the dude’s not convinced ghosts are real — he thinks the problem is with the Crain Brain. Hugh, using tangible evidence, manages to prove that Steve actually had seen a ghost and accidentally embedded the story into his book. He’s been served.
Then, there’s the tragic way Hugh and Liv’s marriage ended. This episode, we inch closer to the events of that one Last Night — Liv’s last day alive, and the Crains’ last night in Hill House. From the way Steven describes the police reports from that night — ”her skull cracked like a melon, bruises on her upper arms because someone grabbed her pretty hard and a contusion from being shoved into a wall” — it seems like her death was Hugh’s fault.
But it’s not that cut-and-dry. What Steven doesn’t know is that Hugh really, really tried to save Liv. The flashback of this episode centers on Olivia’s last day in the house. Hugh has already enacted Operation: Get Olivia Outta There. She’s supposed to be packing for her sister’s. Instead, Liv is wandering around the house, going a bit mad. Steven catches her speaking to the twins even though the twins aren’t actually there. Woof! To try to cheer her up, Steve fixes up an old mirror in his game room. Liv’s not feelin it: When Steven presents her with the gift, she punches the mirror. Woman’s possessed!
The last relationship that’s fixed this episode, thanks to one helluva haunting, is Shirley and Theo’s. As girls, their bedroom had been surrounded by strange knocking noises. This happens again in the funeral home, just before they get the call that Luke is likely headed to Hill House. On their road trip to Hill House, Theo breaks down, tears apart her walls, and confesses why she kissed Kevin. Apparently, after touching Nell’s body, the super-empath Theo was filled with emptiness. She couldn’t feel. If you’ll allow me to get dramatic, she experienced the vacuum of death. That drunken pass at Kevin was her attempt to feel something. And it worked! Theo’s back. Her impassioned monologue works in turning Shirley to her team.
Hold tight, because Hill House is about to get funky, timeline wise. Small snippets from this episode will only make sense after you’ve watched through the series.
Whew! And all of that on the backdrop of the mint green coloring of this funeral home. It’s like the entire home was dipped into an Instagram filter and then left to curdle.
What We Know About Hill House: According to Hugh, Hill House is the most dangerous place in the world for the Crain family. They’re like an “unfinished meal” for the house. This isn’t the first time Hill House will be described using corporeal language. The house is like a body that feeds on souls. Steve’s account is skewed. His book is actually imbued with hauntings. Also, we learn that Hill House is inflammable! Luke tries to set the house on fire and fails. We also learn the windows can all turn red in tandem. That is a cool effect if you want to ward off intruders.
Lingering Mysteries: If Hugh didn’t build Luke the tree house — if there was no tree house in Hill House — then where is it? Who are Poppy and William Hill? How many people have died in this house?
Good news! You’ve been so patient these past few episodes, enduring all the tortured references to the Crains’ last evening in Hill House. This episode explains exactly what happened on That Night.
Naturally, episode 9 is all Olivia’s episode. While all of the characters emerge from this evening with wounds, stories, and fodder from the book, only three are the central figures in our tale: Olivia and the twins. Olivia’s oldest have already slipped from her grasp. The longer Olivia stays isolated in the house, the more she thinks: Wouldn’t it be nice to freeze them? Keep them here forever? And the house whispers back, “All right.” Because Liv knows what’s out there in the world, waiting for her babies. In a vision brought to her exclusivley by Hill House, Olivia sees Nell splayed out on the funeral home table and Luke dead of an overdose.
Was it a dream, as Hugh suggests? Or is it something more serious — a Hill House dream? If In Hill House, visions replace reality. And the reality that Hill House offers is one that Liv can’t pass up. This episode, Liv meets with another Hill House resident: The ghost of Poppy Hill, the “certifiably insane” woman who had lived in this house. With strange, manic monologues, Poppy manipulates Liv’s fears of losing her children, especially Nelly (though it doesn’t seem that her “dreams” are “dreams” — I think she really did kill her kids for real!). She seems to propose an alternative. The worst dream, the very worst “dream,” is the world outside Hill House which ends in their deaths. In a particularly harrowing sequence, Nell and Luke narrate their futures (which we’ve already seen). The dark of the outside world gets them, piece by piece (an apt metaphor for adulthood?). “It was you that gets us,” Nell says, awfully deadpan, “Because it was you that sent us there.”
The way to prevent that future is by waking Nell and Luke up, by keeping them safe. Hill House ends up perverting the idea of safety and the role of the mother. In Liv’s twisted mind, keeping Nell and Luke safe becomes — you guessed it! — killing them. To Liv, the real dangers aren’t in Hill House. The real horrors are lurking in the outside world. “It has teeth. It is hungry, and it is stupid, and it eats and eats mindlessly,” Mrs. Dudley says, inadvertently encouraging her to go through with her plan. Pay attention to this imagery, though: the same “eating” imagery is used to describe the house, too. It’s hungry.
It’s so funny to watch everyone, including Olivia, dismiss her pain and difficulties. Hugh is all, “You’re tired, you’re stressed!” At first, she’s all, “I’m just anxious.” Hello, you’re not anxious! You are haunted! This is a show about the terrors and isolation of motherhood and nothing less!
Before we move forward, let’s do a quick temp check: Are you, subconsciously, Team Luke or Team Crain? All this time, Luke has been talking about Abigail, his imaginary (or very real) friend. She lives in the woods. She looks like a sprightly blond creature. Did you believe Luke? Or are you, in your heart, a skeptical Crain? Team Luke won this episode — and with awful, awful repercussions.
This is what happens in the house that night. Liv returns from her “trip” to her sister, which she never really takes. She gathers the twins for a sleepover. Who do we see in there but Abigail — and Liv sees her too! They go to the (miraculously open!) Red Room for a tea party. The kids are understandably flipped out by their mother’s strange behavior. Then, Abigail has a sip of the tea. She is not a ghost, you guys. She dies of the rat poison that Liv slipped into the tea. Have you figured it out? Abigail isn’t allowed to leave her house. Her mom worries about her too much. She is none other than Abigail Dudley. The Dudleys! The poor Dudleys!
Eventually, the Crains are deployed into action when Shirley, steady Shirley, wakes Hugh up. He stops the tea party just as Abigail is choking. He gets all the kids out. He’s actually bringing them into the belly of the beast. Poppy persuades Liv to leap off the (dangerously high) spiral staircase, like Nell does later in the series.
In summary, Liv is the well-intentioned, tortured, manipulated villain of our tale. She kills a girl. And she is the victim of the House, and also the agent of its terrors. The haunting in Hill House is unique. The ghosts can’t hurt you. You can hurt you. In Jackson’s book, there aren’t ghosts. People just go slowly insane. While there are ghosts in the show, the scariest part is the malleability of the human mind.
The final exchange between Liv and Hugh is the definition of heartbreaking. Liv, watching from the foot of the staircase, tells Hugh, “You guys go on without me.” It’s their first day in the house and the kids have scrambled to choose their bedrooms. Hugh is off to supervise. He responds, “How could we?”
And how can they? They’ve been trying to go on without her for decades.
What We Know About Hill House: The house abides by the Ironborn saying, “What is dead may never die.” If a person dies within Hill House, it appears as if they live forever in sentient ghost form. According to the credits, there is both an “old Poppy” and a “new Poppy,” so I believe Poppy is both the young temptress and the old woman in bed.
Lingering Mysteries: Can someone define a “Screaming Mimi” for me please? And what is going to happen to Luke?
The Haunting of HIll House has always been hurtling towards this moment: The Crains, back in Hill House. The Crains, letting Hill House manipulate their darkest secrets and insecurities — and seeing if they can survive. This is the episode of hauntings, and of reckonings. And it’s one whopper of a finale, too. Bring tissues. There are some real good speeches ahead.
The entire episode (and show, maybe) hinges on the unveiling of one of Hill House’s great architectural mysteries: What is up with that Red Room? The Red Room can’t be opened by any key. However, the room can be accessed by people — and has been inhabited by each member of the Crain family. The Red Room disguised itself as different rooms for each member of the Crain family, like some twisted Room of Requirements. For Luke, the Red Room took the form of a treehouse. For Olivia, it was a reading room. For Theo, a dance studio. When Theo hears the doorknob jiggling in episode 3, we see it was actually Shirley and Nell jiggling the Red Room’s door.
This leads us to an important distinction: Hill House isn’t just “haunted.” That word is passive. It means that the house has ghosts inside it. Hill House is sentient. It lures people in, gains information about them, and then turns them into ghosts. As Nell explains, the Red Room is the “stomach” of the house, where it eats its victims.
After Steven, Theo, and Shirley run into the Red Room to find Luke, we see just how sentient and intelligent the house really is. Each of them are plunged into dream sequences that seem almost real. Since the episode starts with Steven’s “dream,” it takes a while for the audience — and for Steven — to realize it’s an illusion.
Let’s go over the sequences: Steven imagines a scene of domestic bliss. He and Leigh are together again, and she’s pregnant with a little girl they’ll name Eleanor. He’s working on a sequel to The Haunting of Hill House about the night he and his adult siblings tried to rescue Luke. Then, Leigh takes him down for “consuming” other people’s lives; only by writing their stories does he believe them. “I was always supporting player in your story, if we’re being honest,” she says, cuttingly. Leigh then reveals she’s giving birth to a pulsing demon creature. The takeaway: Steven doesn’t take people’s pain seriously.
Shirley finds herself at a bar in a funeral convention, flirting with a stranger (played by One Tree Hill’s James . He’s the man who kept appearing throughout the show. It turns out that years prior, she slept with this man, who was also married — and never told Kevin. Just as Leigh takes down Steven, this guy from the bar reveals the hypocrisy of Shirley’s self-righteousness in a stunning, deadpan speech. Her uptight exterior masks flaws just like the rest of her siblings.
Finally, Theo’s dream sequence mostly revolves around her intimacy issues. She’s in bed with Trish. She can’t feel anything, just like what happened after she touched Nell. (She also explains that story behind the skeleton in the wall in Hill House. A man was driven insane by fear and guilt. He bricked himself into the wall to find a space small enough where fear and guilt couldn’t fit. He could not. He died; when he was reborn, he was the tall man).
Finally, Luke imagines he’s in a hotel room with Joey, who magically never disappeared. She offers him drugs — and then he realizes he’s actually doing them. He’s overdosing in real life. Thanks to Nell, all the siblings are woken from their slumber and can rescue Luke. Luke, however, has to rescue himself. He seems to succumb to the overdose and “wakes up” at the tea party. While at first it seems idyllic, Nell convinces him otherwise — he shouldn’t stick around and put on his big boy hat. He should grow up. Being “fed” to the outside world is better than being fed to Hill House, because at least the outside world is real. Nell pulls him out of the dream.
Luke’s able to survive. All the siblings, except Nell, are. In the Red Room, hey’re given the ultimate gift of getting to reunite with Nell. She, from her ghostly wisdom, reminds the siblings that love is the important stuff; “the rest is confetti.”
But they can’t get out of the room until Hugh convinces Olivia to open the door. Olivia’s still horrified by the idea of them out there, suffering. “We’re parents,” Hugh explains. “That’s the deal we make. We bear witness.” This is one of the show’s most riveting exchanges about parenthood. Ultimately, Olivia lets them go because Hugh promises to stay. He takes his own life. “Journeys don’t end. Not if you love someone,” Olivia says. That is very literal in Hill House. Similarly, the Dudleys also chose to die in Hill House so they could stay with their daughter, Abigail. Steven promises Hugh that he won’t even sell the house. It’ll remain a ghost receptacle.
After this extended catharsis in Hill House, the siblings return home and fix their lives. All the expected resolutions occur. Steven writes another book. Leigh has a baby (and unfortunately remains a supporting character in his story). Luke stays sober. Theo moves in with Trish and throws out her gloves. Shirley tells Kevin about the one-night stand, and they reconcile.
Eventually, the Crain siblings gather around a dinner table. Even the light of the show has changed from green to golden. The walls have been dismantled. It’s a conventional happy ending, yes: But it was earned.
What We Know About Hill House: It’s evil, sure, but it’s also a strangely hopeful place. Hugh, Olivia, and Nell get to spend their days together. The Dudleys, too, get to be with their daughters. The house will be starved out, but at least the victims will remain together. The show ends on a more positive note than the book. In his own book, Steven tweaks the line “whatever walked there, walked alone” to “whoever walked there, walked together.”
Lingering Mysteries: Are all the Crains going to return to Hill House on their deathbeds to join the party? Also, one mystery is solved: No wonder Steven was upset about Olivia. He knew that she killed Abigail.