A Ghost is a Wish

Content warning: this article contains discussion of child abuse and suicide.

The Haunting of Hill House (2018) takes great pains to define the concept of a ghost. The show is full to the brim of jump scares, horrible imagery laying just out of sight and the central house itself may as well be its own living organism. Despite that it is not interested in being playful or indulging in cheap “what is real and what isn’t???” gotcha stuff or particularly in paranormal investigation, lore or other reductive methods of sucking the life out of, well, a ghost. From the get go, the narrator, horror author and eldest sibling of the focal family Steven Crain tells us right to our face that ghosts aren’t real, they are trauma, they are dreams, they are memories and, more than anything, they are a wish.

Steven’s family are the centre of a nationally famous ghost story, a grand mystery culminating in the night of their mother’s death and their escape from their home at Hill House. Steven has made a career off of paranormal investigation, monetising the dubious fame granted by his familial trauma. He does not believe in ghosts. More accurately, Steven believes ghosts to be the creations of suffering minds, a desperate grasping for explanations and closure for matters that cannot be satisfactorily resolved by the mind. The opening line of the show (and of the book on which it is based) states: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality“. Thus, no matter what we see, we know immediately that Hill House is, as youngest sibling Eleanor ‘Nell’ Crain’s psychiatrist so forcefully states, ‘just a house’ and that its ghosts are the products of the minds of the people within.

Nell’s doctor and Steven himself both take this assurance to mean that neither ghosts nor the house can harm their victims and, as a result, define for themselves a comfortable reality where what lies in the mind can never escape its confines; they believe that normality can never be impacted by even the most tormented individual. After all, Hill House is in the past, nobody knows what happened, and its apparitions chasing the family great distances and years down the line is nothing more than pack psychosis. This is the final betrayal the family commits upon their youngest sister. Nell’s ghosts are in her mind and do not matter, and thus she is trapped in there alone with them, by a door held closed by her relatives and professionals alike. The only people who believe in her trauma’s reality are the ghosts conjured up by it. Ultimately she is lured back into their grasp as, in desperation, she returns to the scene of her nightmares and, in a state of desperate joy and despair, hangs herself in the library, her best attempt at unmaking the spirits made by her mind.

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The Haunting of Hill House (2018) distinguishes itself in a great many ways from its source material (which I will return to, as it is wonderful) but perhaps the purest summary lies in how the characters of the book find the outside world melting away after arriving at Hill House; the characters of the show find that no matter how much bigger the world gets than their origins within Hill House, they can never escape what they saw there. In fact very little is alike between the two, beyond the existence of Nell and the broad strokes of her fate. The Nell of the show spends her life running from her trauma, while the Nell of the book propels headlong into confrontation with it.

The show is concerned more with the people Nell leaves behind, their impact on her and her impact on them. Nell’s death is the catalyst that brings the family back together to face their demons. The narrative itself never lets a single one of them leave their childhood home. No matter what part of their lives we are watching we will inevitably end up back there watching them explore their old home, not just because of the inevitable return but because of the show’s structure. Episodes weave in and out of the present and the past in a way that makes them feel almost concurrent, and for the house’s victims, it seems that no amount of time can actually remove them from it. Much as any victim of trauma cannot simply leave the horrifying puzzle of what happened to them behind – every ghost story, every day at work, every relapse, every nightmare and every connection with other people in some way returns us to Hill House.

So if a house is just a house and our ghosts are internal, where do the Crain family’s spectres come from? The Crain family itself, of course! No two Crains see the same ghost until the last episode, but each one’s ghosts echo out into the reality of each other. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in Theo’s ability to literally take on the hauntings of other characters. In one of the few interactions with the world outside the family, we learn Theo has dedicated her life to helping young children with their own traumas. Via her psychic touch she takes on the “Mr. Smiley” ghost of one of her patients to such a degree that it invades her own dreams. As a result of this, she identifies Mr. Smiley as a warped face in the wood markings on the ceiling that can be seen in the child’s house’s basement by laying back on a couch. Her discovery of this origin comes in a scene where she lays in that same place panting and sobbing and panicking as she feels the emotions permeating the scene. Theo had no knowledge of the child abuse going on in this house, no evidence even, but from a simple few interactions with the child she is able to completely intuit that this child’s ghost is a more appealing vision than seeing the real face of her assaulter. A ghost is a wish, in this case that harm cannot come from the family itself.

Why would Theo be able to so quickly intuit this, though? Nothing of this nature is openly discussed in any other part of the show and while it’d be easy to just leave it at “she’s Rogue from X-Men”, it wouldn’t be very appealing. In Hill House, Theo is shown as the empathetic one, the one good at uncovering the house’s secrets, the one who listens to her younger siblings and tries to help them deal with the ghosts. In her adult life, she is constantly processing her failure to help her younger brother and sister through her work with traumatised children, and it is her younger brother and sister in whom the haunting is centralised. Luke and Nell are the true victims of the house, and it is they who have the most upfront encounters with personified ghosts. Luke is haunted by a floating (footstep-less) adult man who creeps into his room at night, and similar to Mr. Smiley’s substitute face, this ghost always has his back turned, his identity concealed. Luke is reclusive and constantly accusing his family of never believing him, he prefers to socialise with a girl who none of them believe exists. If the metaphors of child abuse aren’t enough, one of his hauntings literally entails Theo accidentally sending him down into the dark, where he is tormented by a figure crawling up onto him, leaving Theo stuck with the knowledge she can’t recover him while she hears his suffering. When Theo talks to Luke later to try to uncover what happened to him down there, they use Luke’s bedroom as a stand-in location for this apparently non-existent basement; Luke sits at his bed, Theo identifies the ghost he saw as coming from the area of the door and the ladder out is about where Nell’s bed is.

Luke’s exception to his “nobody believes me” statements is his twin sister Nell. They confide in each other as adults that only they can understand Hill House, and it is Nell who is always trying to keep the family looking after Luke. If this anonymous male figure was in their bedroom at night terrorising Luke, then who but Nell would be the one to believe him? Nell, too, is haunted by a specific figure – a woman with a snapped neck that simply stares at her, a ghost that she realises in her death throes was herself. One of the show’s most upsetting and impactful scenes has Nell hanging, neck broken, from a rope, forced to go backwards through her life and watch herself react to her own hanging body and realise it was her all along. She has been haunted all her life by knowledge of her life’s conclusion, or rather her wish. Nell’s ghost is a more appealing face for her trauma, and whatever that is, it has put her in a position where death is preferable to knowing it. A key visual for understanding this is Theo laying on her back panting and staring up at the her patient’s ghost on the ceiling, a scene echoed almost exactly by child Nell laying on a sofa in Hill House staring up at her own suicide that is itself looking down from above repeating softly and desperately “no no no no no no no no no” in such a way that it is hard to tell which Nell is speaking.

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These are the only direct assaults from ghosts in the show, and while the show’s  primary mysteries are what the Crain mother did, and what lays behind the red door, it seems to me that the show conceals a third one which is answered as soon as it is uncovered. The ghosts must be someone, and that someone can only be the Crain’s father. The last episode seems to absolve him entirely – he really didn’t kill his wife, the house is just a fucked up ghost house, his absence in his children’s lives was actually him “holding the door closed” and he gets to embrace his dead wife and daughter in a heavenly glow. Nell seems to disagree though. When Steven howls at his father that the wrong parent died, her coffin slams to the floor, the only means of interaction she has managed to have with them post-death. In the moment, it seems Nell has managed to make herself seen at last over the family’s squabbles over ghosts, as the scene itself is mingled with Nell in the past going missing but turning out to have been right in sight the whole time: “I was right here but you couldn’t see me”. Ultimately, they are all drawn back to Hill House for an overtly supernatural conclusion shortly after.

What is learned by all in the course of this is that they had all opened the red door except for their father. The room beyond it was an impossible space within the house that became all of their private spaces, whatever space they needed to keep from facing “absolute reality”. Luke’s in particular demonstrates this by being a tree-house, a location outside the house entirely and yet still within it. The room is described as being the house’s heart and then corrected to stomach, a place that lulls its victims in and keeps them there to be digested. All of the banging on doors and turning of doorknobs that spread fear throughout the family were attempts by other members of the family at getting into the private spaces of each-other. The family’s ghosts are the family itself. It is crucial, then, that the equivalent room in the Haunting of Hill House book is a nursery, built as though a prison into the “heart” of the house. A representation of the house’s creator’s obsession with controlling the lives of his daughters, and the puritanical Victorian Christian outlook he went to enormous pains (writing in his own blood even) to instill in both them, and the house itself. The house is an edifice of patriarchal control, it is a monument to a father’s ego, and its comforts are the ploys of its creator to keep its inhabitants confined to a narrow, isolated world.

The Crain of the show didn’t build Hill House, though. Instead, he has transplanted his family here in the hope of revamping it to sell it on at a profit. Within this metaphor our heroic modern father figure updates the isolation, objectification and power structure of the traditional all-powerful patriarch for a modern customer. His wife obsesses over homes and the power they have, his children want one of their own but they find themselves in an investment instead. An investment through which a man intends to build his entire future, Hill House and thus the family is to stand as his legacy, his freedom and his source of power. He, more than any other character, insists on the grim power the house wielded against his family, he insists the walls weren’t put up by him and the ghosts were there long before him, and none are as angry at him for this as the eldest son, the one who saw no ghosts, the one who was old enough to properly remember the place, the one who tells us ghosts are trauma and wishes and the one who believes his father convinced all the others to believe in ghosts instead of family problems.

Dad can’t see why his house is rotting from the inside, no matter how much he renovates it, no matter how many corpses he uncovers and cleans out, no matter how many times he tells his children their ghosts don’t exist, the place continues to fall to mold and rot. At the height of his desperation, he uncovers the old corpse of the house’s creator, bricked willingly into a wall, seemingly the source of all the house’s troubles. He isn’t entirely wrong about that, given he himself is the namesake of the house’s creator in the book, and that, in the show, this man is said to have bricked himself up rather than reckon with his “crazy” family. When the breaking point comes in the form of his wife attempting to commit suicide along with Nell, Luke and Luke’s previously assumed to be imaginary friend, he simply chooses to believe in ghosts rather than confront reality. The foaming-mouthed corpse of the child barely registers to him, as he is so good at denying his children’s reality that neither he nor the audience is by this point yet sure if she really does exist. He only later acknowledges her to make a bargain of silence with her parents, a grim pact between men to continue ownership of their children’s lives. In his world, his wife just got possessed one day by an evil house. The rot spreading from behind the red door cannot be stopped because it is incomprehensible and evil, whatever is in there is undermining the literal foundations of family life, and he ends up slamming on and swearing at it in perhaps the most important metaphorical moment in the whole show.

What of his wife then? The central mystery of the show is how she died and what happened that had her husband take their kids, dump them on an aunt and run away after refusing to answer any of the police’s questions. Well, she killed herself and she tried to poison 3 children. It isn’t a huge mystery in itself, but for the family, it is all-consuming. It takes on this much power because only 3 of them know: Nell, Luke and their father, who never told anyone what happened. The remaining siblings have no idea what happened, Nell and Luke were too young to remember or process it, and their siblings have no end of frustration trying to understand how Nell ended up a neurotic wreck, and Luke a drug addict, still going on about their childhood ghosts. The view we are given from the perspective of their mother shows us that the house spoke to her, told her to never let her children venture into the outside world because the world would chew them up and destroy them. The house encourages her to “wake up” and “wake” her children up too to save them from the nightmare of life. One of these dreams results in her waking up with a screwdriver to her husband’s sleeping neck. Even in her delirious desperation to help her children be safe through murder, she attempts to go after her husband first. Could it be she knows all about Luke and Nell’s pain (as she too says she is “sensitive” like Theo) and has buried the knowledge so deep that only her unconscious mind was able to attempt to step in?

The house itself being a representation of traditional family as a cage and a site of trauma, it is no surprise that her visitations from it entail encouragement to cover up for the crimes of the father by simply erasing the victims. Family is unimpeachable, but her and her children’s pain can still be removed; the rest of her children need never know what happened here. The pain can be simply erased, the crimes never happened if the world never knows. It is significant that her rat poison tea party involves only one other child, the one from outside the family, the one who Luke spent his time talking with, the one who presumably also knows what Luke has been through. It is yet more significant that the poison itself wasn’t brought here by their mother, it was procured by their father in his escalating attempts at eradicating the rot in his home, in this case rats no outsiders are even able to hear. None of this absolves the mother, but it certainly does problematise the father’s story about her being possessed by an evil house as a total surprise to himself, and the whole collapse of these lives being neatly wrapped up within a narrative he concocts.

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A ghost is a wish. The ghostly apparition of the Crain mother calling them all home to die says directly to her husband that he created her, that her voice is his. The father has no trouble navigating the predatory halls of Hill House upon his return with Steven, he even teaches Steven how to pass through without coming into contact with the ghosts. Steven comes face to face with Luke’s anonymous adult man ghost, the only person outside of Luke to do so, and he does so only upon entering the house alongside his father. Steven’s version has a face, but Steven never sees it, as his father tells him not to see it. The ghost man literally bends down to stare him in the face, and in order to be able to process the ghosts he is now suddenly aware of and seeing, he just maintains a stare in another direction. It isn’t the first time his father has told him not to see the ghosts of his siblings: in the show’s opening he lifts Steven from his room and flees the house with him, repeatedly telling him not to open his eyes (after hiding in a bedroom shushing him, making him seem as if he has been through this routine before) so that he won’t see his mother. The father is never impacted by a ghost beyond his created image of his wife, and the immediate violent reaction to his touching the red door submerging him in the rot he had hidden away within.

The Crain father plays the role of the bewildered abusive man perfectly. Nothing was his fault, everything just happens to him, he was protecting everyone by holding shut the door to the room that is said to literally be digesting them. Before her total collapse, his wife sees a vision of him stealing Luke from her grasp, carrying him off as though he were a corpse, her final moments are spent in a desperate fight over ownership of them. The mother wishes to keep the children as innocents far from the grasp of the father, his house or the world that built it. The father wants to maintain his image of a proper family as best he can, as after all, that’s what he is trying to sell. He is outright hateful of the woman who he leaves his children with when he simply drops it all and runs as his crimes come home to roost, presumably fearing that she knows too much.

What of his final moments as a happy heavenly family embracing his tearful wife and daughter then? Well, first of all they occur behind the red door, the room that has coaxed all of these people to their doom this whole time, and this all happens from the perspective of Steven, the one asked to hold the family secret, the knowledge of what his mother did, the one taught not to see the real secrets. For Steven, the image of his dead mother, father and sister happily living on in bliss is perhaps the biggest wish he could concoct, one of the only ghosts he ever sees, the thing that brings him around on the concept of family at all. That this all happens moments after he encounters Luke’s ghost and is immediately taught not to see it says it all, I think. The Crain father of the novel creates a book full of lurid depictions of heaven and hell, and it seems no mistake that it is this fantasy Steven and his father are drawn into. Nor does it seem unrelated that Steven had moments earlier repeated the refrain (from the book) that “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway”, and then repeats it during the ending but with ‘fear’ replaced with ‘love’, notably an addition arising from the show and thus Steven and his father. A final moment of patriarchal rewriting by the triumphant father figure, or a misguided attempt at papering a happy ending over a tale about how little space men’s reality leaves women?

In reality I have no idea what the intent of the final episode was. On my initial watch it seemed that the show had abandoned much of the ideas it had built up, and built a very convenient conclusion that threw Nell straight out the window. In complaining and reflecting, though, I came to notice how much of the show seemed built around the concept of this grander lie underneath. It is hard to make sense of a lot of it without seeing the father in this light. The show peppers background corpses throughout scenes in Hill House without attention ever being drawn to them, despite it being impossible that the characters don’t see them, unless they are actively unseeing. This feels as though we are being told something, these aren’t always easy to notice but they are impossible not to see once you have. They are a well documented “secret” on YouTube and the like, which at least demonstrates a wider recognition of an encouragement to dig, even if the methodology is misguided. The show’s real ghosts are hidden in plain sight, and require the same kind of empathy Theo possesses to truly see. That is what I’d like to think, because the alternative is that the ending really does tell us that a mother just went crazy one day and it is the eldest men’s duty to keep the family secrets to “protect” the family even if it kills them and as we know “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality“.


As tidy of an ending as this was, I don’t feel I can leave off here without saying what I would like to say in the likely scenario that this wasn’t the intended read. However, as much of that criticism revolves around a discussion of the book, I’m going to continue this into a second article. I’ll leave you with the hook that very little in my life has grabbed me and refused to let go the way this show did, and chasing up the book was that on a whole other level. I’ve only known of it for less than a week and it may well have become my favourite book, little I’ve read has felt so close to my heart and the exhausted haze in which I watched all 10 episodes of the show and the hours after I spent devouring the book were something I felt I couldn’t not talk about. Suffice it to say I’m excited about getting into this and I hope this will draw you into that, but if you need more let me just add this final statement recorded from me mere days ago:

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EDITOR’S NOTE: this was written over a month ago, but Ashley felt it was important to preserve the sense of excitement.