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A Defense of Hill House's Happy (?) Ending

Like the rest of the world (or at least the rest of Neflix users) I was watching Hill House all those months ago and, also like everyone else, I have lots of thoughts about that ending.

A few weeks ago I was hanging in my shared office, waiting around for students not particularly interested in coming to office hours, and a few of the other GTAs struck up a conversation about the final episode, "Silence Lay Steadily." To my surprise they all unanimously hated it, going so far as to recommend that newcomers just skip the last two episodes and call it a day. This visceral response—echoed on numerous online message boards—caught me entirely off guard. Was the ending what I expected? Not at all, but I certainly wouldn’t call that finale the new Dexter.

Seriously. Please take a moment to recall that last-minute disaster, look me in the eye, and tell me in all honesty that Hill House is in ANY way comparable. C’mon.

Still, there’s something to be said for the way the show undermines our expectations. Not just when it comes to how a horror story should supposedly end (with complete death/destruction of the cast or a pyrrhic victory for our final girl), but also in how it poses uncomfortable questions: Can we find hope and joy in something that’s meant to scare us? Can we take a turn from horrifying to uplifting and still feel like we’re watching the same show? Can we reframe horror not as physical (the man with the knife jumping out to scare you) but far more psychological (an acknowledgment of mental illness, childhood trauma, the horror imbued in everyday life). People seem to dislike Hill House because it took tropes that we thought were straightforward—there are ghosts and they’re scary—and then complicated them not just throughout the show, but irrevocably by the end. Isn’t that what we want from our media though? That supposed originality? And yet… there’s a reason why we turn back towards the conventional, formulaic cop shows and rom-coms with obvious conclusions. Ambiguity frustrates us. I think part of Hill House’s backlash stems from how (presumably) quick our understanding of the story was turned on its head. In reality I think the buildup was always there, but it's easy to miss. That is, in fact, what the show is banking on.

For example, we don’t learn that Abigail is alive until the final episode, re-characterizing her as a harmless little girl-----a victim-----instead of an evil spirit. There’s no mention of the house holding something “precious” until the final scenes of the finale. Though the ghosts remain skin-crawlingly creepy, it’s only in the last moments that we’re able to think back and realize that the vast majority of them were innocuous: a man repairing a clock, kittens that were actually sick, an old woman trying to warn us, a tall man who just wants his hat back. Outside the Crain family, Poppy Hill is the only ghost who is truly dangerous and though this re-contextualization works wonderfully as a twist, it can understandably feel a bit jarring. Our fear relies on our assumption that all ghosts are inherently dangerous, even if all they’re doing is wandering about a house. Acknowledging that we may be wrong about that from the start means also acknowledging that this horror story isn't functioning in the way that horror is "supposed to"-----and who does that sort of mental gymnastics while sitting down to a Netflix binge? If we can’t bank on a long, thin hand pushing open our door being creepy, then what the hell is?

Unlike the Red Room and the scattering of dialogue breadcrumbs that clue us into that twist—“Where did you find this?” “Where’s her reading room again?”—there are no hints at Hill House’s ending except through our own interpretation. We’re primed to think that the house is pure evil through cultural osmosis. Expectation. So we do, and then a lot of us feel cheated when our traditional interpretation is undermined.

In reality though, we see that the house is actually lonely and there’s a strong implication that the supposed “evil” here only exists because of that.... with, admittedly, the added downside that the Crains are a spiritually sensitive family. Everyone in this family experiences the supernatural more intensely than the average person and this house, desperate for companionship, isn’t going to let the supernaturally gifted escape. Olivia tells Theo that strange abilities tend to run in their blood. No, she’s not at all shocked that Theo can pick up on the pasts and emotions of the things she touches, or that Shirley has semi-prophetic dreams, or that her two youngest have a “twin thing” going on. Olivia herself shares with Mrs. Dudley the ambiguous story of her father's death and how when she finally grieved a shower of rocks fell from the sky. Like with so much in Hill House we are given a possible, logical explanation for this event, but given their history it’s equally possible-----perhaps even more likely-----that yes, Olivia really did cause a downpour of rocks when she cried. Compare all this to the Dudleys who are immediately left alone by Hill House as soon as they stop setting foot on the property after dark. Is the house happy to pick up some easy companions, draw Mrs. Dudley in with nightmares and the cry of her lost child? Absolutely. But once they start limiting their exposure the house isn’t inclined to go after them. Not with the fervor we see it pursuing the Crains. Steven is right that there’s something genetic haunting their family, it’s just that this gene is actually paranormal and not your garden variety mental illness that he assumes it is. As if there is such a thing, and nor am I denying that there's already a connection between the two (horror is, after all, notorious for using mental illness both overtly and as metaphors), but the point is labeling it like that at least paints it as more “normal” than coming to terms with the fact that all your sisters are vaguely psychic.

And that right there is the fascinating gender division that holds the family together. With the exception of Luke as a twin, it’s the women who possess supernatural traits and the men who are brought into the supernatural through their connection to them. Hugh has his love for Olivia. More damningly, by the time they leave his love has resulted in a responsibility towards protecting what’s within the house as well as protecting others from it, ensuring that even as he physically leaves the grounds he, like the rest of the family, never actually escapes. We’re told in the final episode that Hugh has both arms around Hill House and thus none left over for his children, highlighting the tragedy of unintentionally hurting them as he tries so desperately to protect them. Meanwhile, Steven turns his obsession into a book series, becoming intertwined with the supernatural by devoting his whole life to denying it. Despite his seeming lack of a paranormal gift, Hugh believes that the house wants Steven most of all, for the simple reason that out of everyone involved he remains the most fixated on it. He gives it the most attention. Yes, we see how the house has influenced the others’ paths in life—Luke turns to drugs, Shirley becomes a funeral director, Theo gives kids the kind of help she didn’t get as a child—but it’s Steven who is most overtly characterized by what the house did to him. It has become his entire career, driven a rift through his relationship, and even dictates whether or not he’ll have children. He has no identity outside of those experiences, so—eldest privileges aside—it’s fitting that Hugh leaves the house in Steven’s care.

The tragedy (and the scariest aspect of the whole series) is exactly how not evil the house actually is. It, and the residents bound to it, are horrifically normal. In that they're all broken somehow, supernatural gifts aside. They’re lonely and they love too deeply, they try and they mess up, they cause horrendous collateral damage in their own grief. The house is like a person that way. It has emotions and those emotions fittingly manifest by taking Olivia first, further driving the house’s need to collect the rest of her family. Because isn’t that what a mother is meant to do? Keep her children at home and safe from the world? We see how a lack of moderation leads to the very tragedies mothers are trying to avoid. Mrs. Dudley kept her daughter locked up tight in her own house, so secret that no one even knew she existed. Just a figment of Luke’s imagination, right? The need for freedom leads her right to a slumber party and rat poison in a late cup of tea. Same with poor Olivia. Same with Hill House. In convincing her that she doesn’t want to risk her children out in the big bad world, framing killing them as a better option than letting them go, Olivia causes the very horrors (drugs, death, grief, alcoholism) that she was trying to help them avoid. Like Nelly’s death re-characterized as her own haunting, the tragedies become cyclical. Olivia's love hurt them in the very ways she can't stand. The house's desire to keep them there is ultimately what drives the Crains away.

Because underneath the horror setup is the much simpler story of a family that wants to settle down; to stay together and find happiness. The first conversation we get is between Nell and her father, asking how long they have to stay here and whether they’ll then be moving onto another new house. They’re a family with no roots and it’s that expectation, that before long they’ll sell Hill House and move onto another property, that sets it all in motion. Things might have turned out differently for the Crains if they’d never spent so much time within Hill House sketching out plans for their perfect “forever home.” Gazing towards the future becomes a strange sort of cheating, wherein Hill House is perpetually reminded of its own greatest fear: that they'll eventually leave. Trying to convince the Crains that they can, and perhaps should, be happy right here becomes the house's obsession... it's just that for a house infested with ghosts, "convincing" involves less conversation and more straight up murder via suicide. Had the Crains decided to stay though and expressed as much where ghosts and beams alike could hear, they might not have ever been targeted. There wouldn’t have been a need. Death was only adopted as an extreme measure when the family made noise about leaving. Hill House's own way of keeping them safe. Stay here and nothing bad will happen ever again. Again with the cyclicality, denying Hill House as their forever home is exactly what made it that in the end. The Crains are bound to it completely, even in death.

Thus, Hill House presents a unique look at loneliness. It’s scary—don’t doubt it—but not, by the end, because of those ghosts and ghouls. Rather, Hill House should scare us because it asks, “What would you be willing to do in order to keep your loved ones safe and by your side?” and the answer is: almost anything. Remember, Hugh saves the day not by convincing Olivia and the others that what they’re doing is morally wrong from the perspective of the living, but by offering himself up as a trade. Leave the kids because you already have Nelly, now you’ll have me… and the rest will come on their own. Eventually. The Dudleys demonstrated that once the house has a hold of one member of the family, the rest will inevitably fall in line. After all, what’s scarier than the prospect of eternity without your loved ones? Tying your soul to one house is the better option than, say, never seeing your two children again. As we're told, the house is filled with precious things. That's its lure.

Hill House is existential fright made real. Some people, when you ask them what they’re most afraid of, will say spiders, or heights, or public speaking. Others list the possibility of a void where we cease to exist after death, the fact that they might never leave a lasting impact on the world, never see loved ones again, or are trying to accept that we’re just tiny specs in a vast, indifferent universe. Hill House does a 180 at the end, turning from one type of fear to the other. Ghosts are creepy on their own, sure, but they’ve got nothing on the prospect that you’ll one day experience such crushing fear that you’ll become the very thing you once hated in an effort to alleviate it. That you yourself might become a monster out of grief. The knowledge that loving mothers can be murderers? Loving fathers your villain? That families can hurt one another in the worst ways while-----and this is the kicker-----just trying to help? Man, that's way scarier than any ghost. Spirits have got nothing on the ways we self-sabotage ourselves.

Of course, Hill House presents us with the flip side too. We deal with the void by accepting it, manage a fear of an indifferent universe by reframing that situation as one of freedom. We're inevitably going to fuck up? Our lives seem small and we’re all going to die? Perhaps we'll be tied to an afterlife we never wanted? Fine! Embrace it! Keep trying. Do what you can for as long as you can—the only existence that truly matters. The most radical thing you can be in the face of horrifying odds is kind and the Crains, in the end, manage that beautifully. It's Hugh's last advice to Steven. "Be kind to each other." They accept their situation and, within that acceptance, start finding something like joy.

Horror stories can have happy endings. At least for a time. Because isn’t that life? Hitting on the good before, inevitably, hitting on more bad. We just happened to leave the Crains during some of the good. That's okay though because we have the larger picture in mind. Some stories try to convince us that there’s an “ever after” involved, but I don’t think many of us bought that, even as kids. Other stories insist that there’s no hope whatsoever, but I hope you don’t believe that either. Nothing is ever that black and white. Really, it’s an in between something that Hill House embraces.

Don’t let the happy family portrait fool you. It’s still a horror story. Don’t let the horror fool you either. It's still a happy ending. It's bittersweet then and a lot like life.

That’s what makes it scary.

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