The Haunting Of Hill House: A Psychoanalytic, Deconstructionist And Feminist Approach

The Haunting of Hill House is a new Netflix series that presents the story of a family that has just moved in in a house that had rumours of being haunted. The family is formed of two parents: Hugh and Olivia, and their five children: Shirley, Nelly, Steven, Luke and Theo. What made me approach this TV series however was the fact that it is more than a classic haunting story; it focuses more on the characters development, the tensions and relationships between them and their ideas about life and the world that surrounds us. 

Each character in the series becomes an individual with a completely different personality and set of ideas than the rest. The line of their evolution is followed by creating a parallel between their childhood and their adulthood. The event that marks in fact the “rift” between these two periods of life represents the moment they have left the hill house, when their mother committed suicide (it actually looked like suicide, but for her it was something else). Throughout the series, the house becomes a central element, as all their memories are connected to certain supernatural events that have happened in that place. The heart of the house is represented by “the red room”, a room that is locked until the very last episode of the series, when we discover that this room was actually a different place for everyone in the house. 

I consider that the series creates a very interested parallel between supernatural and the human psyche: it follows for a few episodes the idea that the ghosts and their appearance are nothing more than some representations projected by the human brain that can help us as humans better go through a situation. Starting from this idea, I will develop in this essay this parallel between the human psyche and supernatural, using the psychoanalysis theory and the trauma studies. I have also found intriguing this opposition between the status of women, versus the status of men, so I will also aboard a Feminist approach. Last but not least, I will also talk about deconstruction, following mainly the binary oppositions between life and death, sanity and insanity and science and supernatural. 

Firstly, I have found it very interesting how, through the events of the text I could see a few Freudian elements like the division of the human psyche in id, ego and superego and the development of some defence mechanism, like repression or sublimation. As I have said above, all the characters in the series have a different personality that I will try to analyse using this criterion. According to Freud, the id is the one acting by the Pleasure Principle, as it does not “think” if that pleasure is achievable or not, while the superego is dominated by the Reality Principle, which analyses if that pleasure is achievable following the social standards. Between id and superego, there is the ego, whose job is to balance them. Considering this, we can divide the main characters in two camps: the ones ruled mostly by ego (Nelly and Luke) and the ones ruled mainly by superego (Steven and Shirley). Nelly and Luke are twins, their entire existence being marked by anxiety and inadaptability to society and their id seeming to conquer them in the final. Nelly has always been alone and misunderstood and anytime she was trying to talk to someone, that person seemed not to understand her. She has some sleep issues and she has had some visions, since she was a child, with a “bend-neck lady” who appeared in front of her and offered her a state of shock and paralysis. In the end, her desire to be somehow accepted in her family and understood by the others represents the peak of her id’s domination. At this point, she goes back to the hill house, where she has visons of her mother and her siblings as children. Everyone embraces her and she is “pushed” by her mother to hang herself. In the same way, after moving out of the hill house, Luke starts poisoning himself with heroin. This can be seen again as one of his id’s desires, as no matter how much he tries to go to rehab and get rid of his addiction, he goes always back to his bad habit until he almost dies of an overdose. 

Both Luke and Nellie have visions that caused their breakdowns: as I have said above, Nellie often sees a “bend-neck lady”, while Luke sees a man with a staff and with a hat like the hat he used to wear as a child. I think that these visions represent in fact the trauma that follows them their whole life. According to Freud, the human beings are followed throughout their life by an event, or a “trauma” that guides their entire existence and their actions. In the end, when Nellie hangs herself, she becomes the “bend-neck lady” and we can see the parallel between the young Nellie and the “bend-neck lady” Nellie. Therefore, we can say that in her subconscious, this fate has always guided her steps and choices. 

On the other side, Steven and Shirley appear to be ruled mainly by their super-ego as their choices are mainly made to fit in the social standards. For example, in order to deal with his childhood memories, Steven decided to write the events in a book that made him famous. On the other side, Shirley has built her own family, she has created a business and she has always tried to keep her life busy, so she would not have to think about something else. What is also noticeable is the difference in seeing the events that happened in the hill house: Nellie and Luke believe in the supernatural, while Shirley and Steven are always searching for a logical answer, guided by reason. This proves again the conflict between id and superego. 

Between Luke and Nellie and Steven and Shirley, there is Theo (Theodora) who can be seen as an “ego” symbol, as she is the only one who has found a balance between them two and who considers that what happened have both a supernatural and logical cause. Through Theo, the series offers us a perfect example of how the phenomenon of repression works. Repression is a defence mechanism, consisting of pushing the bad memories in the unconscious, so they would not trouble our existence. Theo works as a child therapist, and in one episode, we discover the story of a little girl who was molested by her foster father. This event was repressed, so she would not be affected by it, but it “returned” under the shape of some nightmares: in her dreams, she could see a smiling man (that was actually a face she could see above her bed) that was haunting her. 

In other order of ideas, I consider that the series can be analysed through the lens of a Feminist perspective, as it creates a big opposition between the role of the father and the role of the mother as a woman in the family. The mother’s job is to take care of her family and to make sure that her children are fine. She becomes obsessed at a certain point of her children’s existence as she is starting to have visions of her children’s life in the future. She becomes so attached with her children that she arrives at a point where she wanted to kill them, just so she could spare them of the life that was awaiting them. By killing them, she knew she could live with them forever as they were at the moment: young and innocent. We can say that she was pushed in this position, as she was always seen as the element that sustained the peace in the family. When she started behaving differently, her husband considered her crazy and suggested her to spend some time alone, apart from the family. After her death, all the peace from the family disappeared and the relations between the family members started to crumble apart. 

On the same page, we can also talk about deconstruction in terms of the binary oppositions the series creates. Starting from the idea above, we can deduct the opposition between the male and the female, or the image of the father and the image of the mother. The father always appears to be the strong one, this being the reason why the mother has to die. However, after the equilibrium is disturbed, all the children’s anger is directed towards the father. In one episode, Steven is the one telling that it was the wrong parent that died. Talking in terms of deconstruction, we can also find in here the opposition between reason and feeling. The feeling (or the mother) has no chance in front of the reason (or the father). I think this is the reason that caused the inner conflict that made Olivia commit suicide (she actually died while having a vision in which she fell off the stairs). 

In conclusion, I consider that this TV series is a very complex one that deserves to be seen and analysed. The difference between it and any other haunting stories can be find in these elements: the complex inner conflict that rule the characters, the opposition between known and unknown, or between reality and supernatural. I think that the supernatural can also be seen as a symbol of the unconscious, as everyone is afraid of it and tries to avoid it as much as possible. In fact, the only persons that are not afraid of it are categorized as “crazy” and they die. 

10 Jun 2021
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