The Real Horror At The Heart Of "Haunting Of Hill House" Isn't What The Netflix Show Thinks It Is

In the Netflix series, a family unit's destruction is the ultimate horror. But Shirley Jackson’s novel asked whether the nuclear family — which has alienated so many queer people — is itself horrifying. Warning: Spoilers ahead.

There’s a moment in the finale of The Haunting of Hill House, Mike Flanagan’s modern reimagining of the Shirley Jackson novel for Netflix, that’s been eating at me. I had to rewatch it several times. Nell Crain, recently dead, the youngest of the Crain family and the heart of the show, stands ghostly before her siblings and whispers, “I feel a little queer just now.” But that’s not right. I played it again until I heard it correctly: “I feel a little clearer just now.”

It’s a moment — ironically unclear — that, in its double meanings, might have created space for strange Nell to be stranger still. But instead it exemplifies the worst of the show’s impulses — to invest in the supposedly secure and comfortable. To “feel ... clearer” is presented as a sign of healing, of the lifting of a fog and a return to normalcy. As if anything could be so simple.

Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, written in 1959 and widely considered “one of the best ghost stories of all time,” is about a group of psychically sensitive, emotionally isolated adults who gather to discover whether the infamous Hill House really is haunted. Dr. Montague, a credulous scientist, has invited the others in search of evidence to persuade his skeptical colleagues; charismatic Luke, the son of Hill House’s current owner, comes along for the ride to oversee that the house, and its guests, emerge unharmed. Theodora — “Just Theodora,” she says, and frequently just “Theo” — is fresh from a fight with her roommate and seems equally ready to fight the house itself. A physical person, she’s as inclined to a soft touch as she is a rude gesture. And then there’s Nell. Nell Vance, who has recently lost her mother and, with her, what little direction there was in her life. Nell, who is instantly, viscerally terrified of the house, but is pathetically — and then, as the house fixates on her, “madly” — glad to be “chosen.”

Jackson uses implication and atmosphere to hint at what is present in the shadows, unsaid and unseen but felt, like a cool drop of water slipping between your clothes and your skin. There is little clarity, and even less comfort.

Nell tries but cannot adequately assimilate to the family unit — a familiar story for queer people.

In Flanagan’s show, the dysfunctional, substitute family that the novel’s characters are drawn into is concretized as a biological one: The Crains are childhood sufferers of a malevolent house that separated them from their parents, leaving their mother dead, their father lost to the wilds of his own trauma. As an adult, Nell returns to Hill House and dies there under mysterious circumstances in the very first episode. Hugh Crain, her father, and newly invented older siblings Steven and Shirley, middle sister Theodora, and Nell’s twin brother Luke, are unwillingly reunited by Nell’s death, and they must confront the past they’ve long repressed or else suffer its ghosts and be further torn apart. This is a major departure from the plot of the novel — and in making this change, the show erases its tragic protagonist Nell’s queerness: the conflicted, complicated desire she feels for Theodora.

The execution of this shift runs against the most fundamental spirit of the original novel. Hill House the show believes deeply in the sanctity of the family unit; what is most horrifying is the possibility that the family unit can be destroyed. Hill House the novel asks whether the structure of the family is itself horrifying.

This theme is dependent on Nell’s queerness. As a survivor of supernatural disturbance in her childhood, Nell Vance is an ideal subject for Dr. Montague’s exploration of the famously haunted Hill House. She is quickly drawn in by the house and the spirits of its historical occupants — the doomed Crain family — and is by turns seduced and tormented by its fixation on her. Nell is the epicenter of the novel: Nell is who the house responds to, whom the house tries to shape, who tries but cannot adequately assimilate to the family unit — a familiar story for queer people.

Family can be difficult for many reasons: For survivors of violence, for girls at the bottom of the social and familial food chain, and for many, many queer people, the idea that family is a space of safety and love is less intuitive than we are told it should be. Queer and feminist theorist Sara Ahmed writes that some bodies are “housed” less than others. The nuclear family is built on a hierarchy; like all structures of power, it is easily inclined to abuse. Those who have been rejected from it know that the nuclear family was never, ever meant for us. Narratives like Jackson’s understand this alienation. Narratives like Netflix’s reproduce it.

There is a curious, joyful montage at the beginning of Episode 5, “The Bent-Neck Lady”: a snapshot-series of scenes that highlight Nell and her eventual-husband Arthur’s relationship. It’s nearly wordless, except when the camera pulls close to a TV screen and Grace Kelly kisses Cary Grant’s fingertips, asking, “Ever had a better offer in your whole life?” Their friends and family count down to the new year. Arthur, still wordless, goes down on one knee. Two minutes distill the whole course of heterosexual romance, expecting its audience — awash with the same desire and fantasy that Grace offers Cary — to fill in the blanks.

Elsewhere, Flanagan has said, “I’m a firm believer that what you don’t see is always scarier than what you do.” A montage is all about what you don’t see, but heterosexual romance isn’t supposed to be considered frightening — or maybe that’s just a matter of perspective.

In the book, there are other empty spaces, where other things pass unsaid. Nell meets Theo first out of all the guests — Theodora, who shares an apartment with a “friend,” who wrote a “loving, teasing inscription” in a gift to that friend, who wears slacks of the kind Nell only barely dared to pack, of the kind Nell’s “Mother would be furious” to see her wear. Within moments of meeting, Theo notices Nell’s fear and “[turns] with a quick smile and [touches] her shoulder gently, reassuringly; she is charming, Eleanor [thinks], smiling back[.]” Within “no more than half an hour [Nell comes to] think of Theodora as close and vital.” Theo is certainly coded as queer — but so is Nell, albeit more subtly.

Theo and Luke become her foils, vying for Nell’s attention, and Nell feels some unnamed and complicated attraction to both of them, sometimes familial, sometimes not. After Nell tries to have a serious conversation with Luke, Theo teases Nell jealously: “Will you have him at your little apartment, Nell, and offer him to drink from your cup of stars? ... Perhaps he will come home with you.” Nell stumbles outside and Theo follows, “each achingly aware of the other.” Nell responds with equal jealousy, saying, “I am sure that nothing I do is of any interest to you,” and “As if you cared, anyway,” and “Why should you care whether I make a fool of myself?” There is an implicit desire to be contradicted here — for Theo to say “you are of interest” and “of course I care.” But such things are dangerous. As Jackson writes:

Nothing irrevocable had been spoken, but there was only the barest margin of safety left them; each of them moving delicately along the outskirts of an open question, and, once spoken, such a question — as “Do you love me?” — could never be answered or forgotten.

This is the closest Jackson comes to directly stating — rather than, as Nell and Theo must, skirting — the question of Nell’s queer desire. But it is present throughout the text in the way that Nell feels about Theo and the way Nell feels about home and family. She wants them badly but knows them to be dangerous. Sure enough, as Nell and Theo emerge from the forest in this scene, they walk into a garden set with a picnic, children laughing as their mother and father smile affectionately — and then Theo screams, “Don’t look back — don’t look — run!” Nell, “running, without knowing why she ran,” follows her. Something of that happy family scene, something as unseeable and unspoken as their feelings, is terrifying, and they must “[run], crying and gasping and somehow holding hands” from it.

All of this subtext is lost in the show’s pastiche Crain family. Nell and Theo’s relationship is secondary to her “twin thing” with Luke and her relationships with Steven and their father; Nell’s greatest relationships all seem to be with men, in fact. Her most significant connection with another woman is with the ghost who has haunted her since childhood, the Bent-Neck Lady, who finally went away as soon as Arthur came into her life — heterosexual romance appearing as a miraculous (albeit temporary) cure for her trauma.

In the show’s version of Theo, some of the themes of queer alienation from the novel are manifest, but they are superficially resolved in the end. Theo, the middle sister, is a lesbian. She lives in eldest sister Shirley’s guesthouse and wears gloves all the time to avoid human contact — except when she’s hooking up, which she does in her character introduction in Episode 1. Throughout the show, Theo is often set apart from the rest of her siblings in the frame. This is especially apparent in Episode 6, “Two Storms,” where she walks in and out of frame, leans against walls, and sits rows apart from her assembled family. The visual trick emphasizes her disconnection in the same way that her gloves do.

The show frames queer alienation as an internal quality, reducible to a character flaw.

The show frames queer alienation as an internal quality, reducible to a character flaw, rather than the result of the homophobia that structures our cultural conception of domesticity. Theo has a kind of touch telepathy; as a child, she experiences the house’s haunting viscerally against her skin: “the house is cold” and the beds are “sick.” At her mother’s suggestion, she starts to wear gloves to mute those effects. However, it’s implied that she takes it too far: She chooses to block herself off, builds walls, gets angry, and goes no-contact when family members misstep. While these can be trauma responses, the show portrays the solution as a reinvestment in family and home. In the end, Theo moves out of the temporary guesthouse and into a home of her own, with a girlfriend of her own — not that we get any montage of the Nell-and-Arthur kind to tell us how she and bar hook-up Trish reached that point. The show doesn’t seem to realize how family and home themselves can be the cause of queer alienation.

Shirley Jackson’s novel, by contrast, unpacks a particular structure of the family: a structure of inheritance and obedience, of obligation and orientation, that exists between parents and their children. On large and small scales, family is depicted as a field of power relations. Nell, whose mother micromanaged every aspect of her childhood into her adult life, and who knocked on their connecting wall at all hours demanding care, exemplifies the way this structure can work — and cause harm. So does Dr. Montague, who guides Nell to Hill House with careful instruction; who gathers Theo, Luke, and Nell around him as a “family,” a “family” with “their own places at the table”; who chides and patronizes them, “You are three spoiled children who are prepared to nag me for your bedtime story”; when he’s brought them into a house that’s known to kill. So do the Crains, the original inhabitants of Hill House. Hugh Crain “made his house to suit his mind,” his dead wives, and his traumatized daughters, who are built into the architecture of the house.

Home is, by this reading of Hill House, first and foremost a structure of power — one invested in the myth that all happy families with dutiful children can raise happy, heterosexual adults who will go on to have perfect families of their own. What could be more natural, or more frightening? Queer people are necessarily excluded from this fantasy. Shirley Jackson understood this: She mentions once, and never again, how the eldest Crain sister took a girl from the nearby village as a “companion”; both died unhappily. The younger sister insisted that neither had any legal right to the house. The girl, Dr. Montague says, was “hated to death.” (She hanged herself from the tower, rumor has it. The Red Room stairs where Nell Crain hangs herself are the show’s analogue to that very tower.)

In the book, Nell is portrayed as particularly vulnerable to the charms and terrors of Hill House. She panics when she feels her mother’s presence in the library. A ghostly hand knocks on the walls and writes “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” across the wall. But she also feels special, chosen — after decades of being besieged by a family that was dismissive and demanding by turns, it’s overwhelming to feel like there is a home that wants her. This particular narrative of ostracization and of desperate, hopeless desire is intrinsically queer.

While the show does grapple with queer themes, primarily through Theo, it does so in radically different ways than the book does. The difference in the kind of connections that Theo makes with women and men in the show is revealing. She is angry with Nell, lying to Shirley, and hurries Trish out the door at the first chance she gets. Theo, the only queer character, is also the only person depicted having any kind of sex onscreen — a choice that might feel woke if she weren’t also the only person to experience onscreen sexualized violence, twice or even three times. There’s the telepathic rape in Episode 3. Less obviously, there are the dead hands pinning her down in the finale as a nightmare Trish touches her — the house literally both eating her and eating her out. And then, one could argue, there’s the scene in Episode 5 where Nell grabs at her bare hand, forcing connection, and forcing her to touch the place where Arthur died. It feels like Theo’s more body than person to the show — and that’s the generous reading: Alternately, it could feel like she’s somehow being punished.

The show doesn’t seem to realize how family and home themselves can be the cause of queer alienation.

Compare this to the moment of connection that she shares with Kevin, Shirley’s husband, at the end of Episode 6. It’s a strange and — frankly — unnecessary narrative choice, useful only as an unneeded twist at the end of a great episode. When touching Nell’s corpse pulls Theo into a drowning numbness, she ends up reaching out to Kevin, nearly kissing him, though she insists it wasn’t romantic or sexual. In that moment he appears to her as “a light in the darkness, ... a life preserver in the ocean.” (It couldn’t have been Trish, attending the funeral in the very next episode? It couldn’t have been Shirley? No — it had to be a man.) “I reached for him because I had to feel something,” Theo says. “It worked. I started feeling things again.”

From the top of a staircase, in Netflix’s adaptation, Nell looks down at her family arrayed; Steven greets her, takes her hand, and leads her down to her family, her parents, her smiling husband. It’s a dream, but it’s everything she wants. In the book, however, Nell stares down at a frightened gathering from another staircase, another dream. Her friends, her makeshift family — handsome Luke, paternal Dr. Montague — call to her, but “she [can] not remember the other, who [stands] silent and a little apart.” They beg her to come down from the dangerous staircase, to enter their fold and be happy, safe, and cared for — but danger is lurking there too. Whatever horror there is, Nell feels it:

I can’t get away, she thought, and looked down; she saw one face clearly, and the name came into her mind. “Theodora,” she said.

“Nell, do as they tell you. Please.”

For a moment, Nell sees clearly — or queerly, if you will. Some other desire supersedes the ones that so violently hold together the walls of Hill House.

Theo calls for Nell, set apart as she is from the traumatic paternalism that Hill House relives over and over, and from the artificial family that Dr. Montague has created in its stead. These are structures of power and harm that Netflix’s Hill House cannot seem to see. Its interest is in trauma and healing, not power — as if trauma and healing have nothing to do with power.

The show commits to home and family as salvation. What’s scary is the thought that a family could be ripped apart by outside forces, not the thought that maybe — under the floorboards of the familiar — this potential for violence is what implicitly underlies many homes and families in the first place.

In the finale of the show, the ghost of Nell reunites with the ghost of her mother and her still-living father, who commits to stay with them in Hill House forever; the groundskeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, reunite with the ghosts of their children, more victims of Hill House, as well. The remaining Crain children are together again, healing, far away from the violent whims and vengeful spirits of Hill House. “I am home, I thought, and stopped in wonder,” Steven Crain recites in the final episode, a line borrowed from Nell’s narration in the book — one of many moments when it becomes clear that it is Steven, not Nell, who is supposed to be the protagonist of this version of the story. He and his still-living siblings are reunited around Luke’s bedside as he wakes from a drug overdose in the hospital. Steven’s voiceover continues as he returns to the house he used to share with his estranged wife, to repair their relationship: “I am home. I am home.”

In the novel, these lines represent something very different: Nell’s complicated kinship with Hill House. As the child of a harmful home, she relates intimately to the house’s violent architecture, even as it slowly drives her mad and then, finally, kills her. (“What fools they are,” she thinks when Dr. Montague and the others try to send her away in the climax of the novel. “We trick them so easily.”) By the end, Nell is the one banging on Hill House’s walls; she is the house, absorbed into its structure, which is — as all the families she’s known have been — endlessly demanding and ultimately malignant. For queers, home is often a place of great desire and great fear. Too often, we are made to walk alone.

A home is a wish. It’s a dream — one that Netflix’s Hill House strongly believes in. But what that dream looks like, what it feels like, depends on where you’re standing. ●

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