Note: This is a full analysis and as such contains spoilers. Watching the entire series before reading is recommended.
As a character states within Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, every house must have a heart. In the case of Hill House itself, that heart is The Room with the Red Door. But the series itself has a heart, as well.
What waits within The Room with the Red Door? And what is the heart of the show?
As it turns out, the answer is one and the same.
The Haunting of Hill House is the story of a family who moves into a very old and mysterious house in order to restore it to its former glory, hoping to sell it for a huge profit in order to secure a happy future. But their lives are forever altered by what occurs in that house.
Most haunted house stories are concerned only with the events themselves. But this series uses its longer format to stretch that timeline in order to depict what happens afterward. Just as the characters’ lives are split in two by the harrowing events that took place within the dim hallways of Hill House, so the show itself is split between dual timelines – their time spent within the house as children, and the present day as adults. It is only then that the true long-term effects of Hill House are really revealed. It is only then that the true definition of haunted is displayed on screen.
Because in this show, it’s not only the house that’s haunted.
After a slow-burn of surreal and inexplicable events, everything comes to a climactic and harrowing head in the family’s final night within the house, where the children flee with their father.
But no one escapes unscathed. They are all affected. Steve, the eldest, spends his life chasing the ghosts he never saw. Shirley, terrified of death and funerals as a child, grows up to manage a funeral home. Luke, unable to cope – perhaps because he saw the worst of it – becomes an addict. Theodora, possessing a pre-existing supernatural sense of touch, builds up walls around herself and loses herself to a life of promiscuity, desperate to feel something yet unwilling to let anyone close enough to touch her. And then of course there’s Nell, who always seemed like she was at the heart of it, the girl on which the house seemed to have the strongest grasp.
The effects reverberate through the relationship of each sibling to one another. As adults, the family argues about what any family does: money, past wounds, harsh words, grudges, guilt, and blame. One gets the sense that this family would’ve ended up in a similar set of circumstances, even without the heightened reality of the events that transpired in Hill House. Which is the first of several chicken-or-egg scenarios presented by the show: Which came first, the dysfunctions or the ghosts? Did the house create these issues or did it simply exacerbate them?
Just as the family relates to one another in specific ways, it is also interesting to note that Hill House itself has a distinct relationship with each character. It welcomes Nell. It speaks to Luke. It pains Shirley. It reveals its secrets to Theo. It ignores Steven. It is angry with Hugh the father. And perhaps most importantly, it is personified in Liv the mother.
And the ghosts are there right from the beginning. It’s just that the family is yet incapable of seeing them. If one keeps their eyes open, there are many ghosts simply standing in the background of otherwise normal and mundane shots. There are faces in the corners of rooms, staring through windows, in shadowed doorways out of focus. While there are plenty of overt scares to be found in the show, the choice to include these hidden ghosts – which could be seen as representations of flaws, guilt, regrets, and pain – drives home the truly haunting nature of this story. Our ghosts, just like our faults, are ever-present. They are always there. They never leave us.
Two things quickly become clear. First, that it is not just the house that is haunted; it is these people. And second, that this show is really about relationships; the relationships between a family of broken people.
So what is behind the Red Door? What is the heart of this show?
In reality, the audience sees inside the Room with the Red Door many times during the course of the show – because it is everywhere, and can by anything. It is a workout room for Theo, a treehouse and safe place for Luke, a reading room for Liv, and so on. It is what each person needs it to be. That’s how it draws them in.
And once they are comfortably settled within, it shows them the truth. But just enough to be dangerous.
Because the real horror of Hill House is that is shows you a corrupted version of your greatest desire, a twisted depiction of your fondest wish. It lures you in with what you’ve always wanted.
For Luke, it shows a scenario where he isn’t scene as a complete failure, loved and accepted by his family. For Steven, it shows a real conciliation with his estranged wife. For Nell – in one of the most effective, haunting, and tragically beautiful scenes in the show – it shows her the perfect day she’s always wanted. Everyone is there. Everyone says the things they should’ve said all along. But all of these scenarios sour and turn to ash. Because they aren’t real. It uses just a bit of truth, and turns it on them.
For Nell, she realizes – in the second chicken-or-egg scenario – that the ghost who haunts her, The Bent-Neck Lady, is herself. The very ghost that haunts her drives her to take her own life and become that same ghost. And perhaps most devastating – and the event that sparked that last fateful night in Hill House – it shows Liv her dead or suffering children. It is the truth, a real glimpse at a real future. But it isn’t the whole truth; it is only a part. She is so haunted by this that she takes their lives into her own hands, choosing to kill them mercifully in order to prevent a more terrible fate.
Would these events have transpired even without the house’s influence? Would these characters have still suffered their dysfunctions and broken relationships? It is this circular logic of the show that allows it to become a study of the way we relate to one another and ourselves.
And just as Hill House uses the broken truth to twist and haunt its residents, it is the real, whole, and complete truth that allows those characters to reconcile with one another. In a strange way, the house helps them heal. They are forced to confront not only one another, but themselves and their own shortcomings. They learn to forgive. They learn to move on. They learn to accept one another for who they are as broken people, with all their flaws.
Because as the show itself states in the finale, Love is what shows us the lengths we will go to in order to protect one another. Whether it’s a brother or a sister for his or her siblings, a husband or a wife for his or her spouse, or a parent for their children.
We are all just broken people, trying our best to love each other. But we must be honest with one another, and especially with ourselves. We must see each other wholly and completely, and allow the truth to lead to love.