Moral and Mortal Terrors: The Haunting of Hill House

The Tunnel in a NDE (Near Death Experience)
from Wikimedia Commons

Netflix’s recent (and extremely loose) adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House could have been taken as an epigraph of Christ’s words in Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” As Hill House progresses, it becomes clear that it is less concerned with the fear of physical harm and death than it is with the fear of the consequences of moral turpitude. The show revolves around the Crain family who move into Hill House to flip it before realizing it is haunted, and when they leave the house they are not able to escape its effects; the children cope with drugs, casual sex, and lies, and are followed by visions of the specters they first encountered at the house.

Hill House immediately confronts its characters with the reality of death. Daughter Shirley finds a litter of kittens, and when one dies, she and her parents bury it in the yard. She has never before encountered death, so her parents walk her through what people do at funerals, in particular describing eulogies as pictures of the deceased that capture something of their persons. However, for various reasons, this does not entirely comfort Shirley, who later comes to own and run a funeral home with her husband. Her ambition was inspired by a later encounter with the mortician who seemed to “fix” her dead mother when preparing her corpse for the funeral. The work of the mortician is to take a corpse that is shriveled, toothless, hairless, and which hardly seems human, whose humanity is unmade in death, and to restore it to a recognizably human state. However, the mortician also works to show that death is not wholly alien to human life, helping others face the reality of death in a way they can recognize as being part of the human experience.

However, even as death unsettles Shirley, the greatest trial the family faces is moral in character, not mortal. Her brother Luke eventually becomes a heroin addict and in rehab must achieve the next step to recovery, which is a “fearless moral inventory” of his life. This is the most difficult step and the place where he has faltered in previous recovery attempts. The most frighteningly difficult thing any character can do is to look honestly at himself and to recognize his sins. However, the mortal danger, which his sister Theo articulates, is the shame of being frozen in one’s sin without the possibility of forgiveness. They must examine their consciences to know how they have failed, but they must also have hope for conversion and transformation. The problem is that their parents have not prepared them to recognize sin; the parents educated the children in all human beliefs so that they might know something of them all, but did not require them to believe anything. This has the effect not of broadening the children’s minds but of unmooring them. Instead of being able to recognize sin and knowing how to hope for conversion, they must be frozen in shame.

Death and Sin

These two themes of death and sin are connected in Hill House, which is described as a “corpse,” and which has a sign that is vandalized to read “Hell House.” The vandalism does not only point to Hell as the ultimate horror but also as the end of a morally-corrupt life that is frozen in sin. Indeed, Hill House is fit neither for life nor for hope, like Hell, where hope for salvation is abandoned upon entry and where there is no willing of any good for the other. The true fear is not simply of a death that cannot be understood, the killing of the body, or death as nothingness, but of death as the killing of both body and soul in Hell. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, for example, depicts Hell as a place in which souls are eternally frozen in acting out their sins, to the point that the people themselves become their sins and remain eternally trapped by that sin’s consequences. That is the Hell that Theo fears when she describes the shame of being forever perceived as coextensive with her sin. And as much as the culture in which the Crains reside is afraid of death, preferring to ignore it except when it rudely intrudes, and to hide it behind polite platitudinous eulogies that only focus on happy memories instead of the awesome mystery behind the veil, that same culture is yet more afraid of Hell, ignoring it altogether, preferring to explain away the house’s ghosts instead of acknowledging its abysmal moral inadequacies. As Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi,

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive – our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

The response to death and sin lies in the family. The family is the source of new life and the place where parents form their children in moral excellence. The Crain parents fail at these goals. Despite what the father Hugh says, his failure is not that he failed to protect the family but that he failed to form his children so that they can face death without the fear of moral failure. As mentioned above, the Crain children have no spiritual formation; even more problematically, son Steven undergoes a vasectomy to prevent his family’s genes, which he wrongly believes to be defective and the cause of their problems, from being passed on. He specifically refuses to bring new life into the world even to counteract the fear of death. Steven rejects the mission of family to pass on a moral vision, which he has not received from his parents. The Crains are juxtaposed to the Dudley family, who mostly operate within a specifically Christian moral vision and who homeschool their daughter. Despite hoary stereotypes about inadequate socialization, homeschooling is obviously a means by which parents are intimately responsible for the formation of their children. Likewise, the Crain parents need to be more than merely loving, kind, and attentive. They need to do more than simply give their children information about what other people believe. They need to help their children learn to believe something about the moral meaning of their lives and how that determines their relationship to death.

The hopeless sister

The final episode makes it abundantly clear that the greatest challenge the Crains face is not ghosts but rather their own sins. Each is confronted with a vision of someone to whom they lied, or with whom they sinned, and each faces the shame of never being able to atone for that sin. However, while they get the chance to find forgiveness from each other and the others they have hurt, they also do not learn to see death as something that causes life to be changed, not ended. The grown children encounter their dead sister Nell, who is admittedly free from the specters that haunted her and who has gained some insight into how she is not absent from her twin’s life but instead sprinkled onto it like confetti. Nell is still frozen in some sort of intermediate state where she cannot truly grow. This is another form of what Pope Benedict describes when he says, “But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.” More vividly, the Dudleys’ daughter in her ghostly state is frozen as a little girl, and the Dudleys choose to remain at the house for the rest of their lives, visiting the stunted image of their girl who will never grow. Despite their Christian faith practically defining their character traits, they seem to have no hope in the Resurrection but are willing to settle for this frozen ghost, like the eulogies that capture people just the way are forever, instead of hoping that they are transformed into something more than what they were in life. It is at this point that Hill House’s imagination fails to transcend the attitudes it attempts to critique. It indicts those who would rather not think of death and sweep it under the rug, but when it actually pulls death back into the open, the best it can imagine is sentimentalized memories that will never experience new life.

There is something of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock in this situation; Prufrock imagines speaking prophetically as if here were “Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all,” only to be rebuffed lazily because what he has to say is not what his audience meant. He fears that anything he says in this position will be banal. Similarly, Nell has come back from the dead only to give cheery platitudes about rain and confetti instead of being a prophet of hope in a new and changed life. Even though Hill House ostensibly critiques the culture whose imagination refuses to contemplate death, and which is satisfied with blackness after death, it too cannot truly imagine beyond that blackness, only giving us ghosts wandering through the house. Similarly, Hill House’s own supposedly fearless moral inventory falls short, in that, to cite one example, it fails to offer a particularly fearless sexual morality. Casual, non-marital intercourse is not even blinked at, and so the show capitulates to the broader culture’s sexual mores. Hill House seeks to stand apart from the culture whose fear of death it critiques but ultimately is still of that culture when it comes to morality; and a culture that will not see the moral consequence of its actions is a culture that will not want to honestly contemplate death or Hell, despite Hill House’s exhortations. Instead, the Hell that is Hill House ends up being a place where people walk “together,” which is certainly not the isolation of Hell, unless we are talking about the upper ring of the Inferno where Dante depicts virtuous pagans wandering about, sighing, having been unable to imagine or hope for anything greater.

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