‘The Haunting of Hill House’ & the colonial obsession with salvaging a world of suffering for the sake of sanity
This commitment to sanity at the expense of all else is both ableist and a pillar of how whiteness upholds oppression in general.
Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers of season 1 of Haunting of Hill House and discussion of suicide
I don’t remember how my parents died in the nightmare, but I woke up screaming bloody murder. I had to have been about 4-years-old. I don’t think I had considered being indefinitely away from my parents before, and living in that prospective future seemed unimaginable when almost every aspect of my day was still structured by my mother and father. Suddenly, our 40 and 52 year age gaps seemed a deadly curse uttered by a spiteful God.
After bursting into my room, probably expecting to find an armed assailant—or worse—my parents could only laugh when I told them the reason behind my midnight cries, but it took minutes for them to calm me down. My mother assured me that they were safe, at least for a time. “You know, everyone has to pass away at some point,” she said, “pass away” being her euphemism for death. “That’s just a fact of this material world. It’s full of suffering,” she said. “But it is not all there is.”
I have been brought back to this moment several times this year; in January, when my mother was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer and the reality of that early nightmare inched closer than ever; throughout the year as I wrote my memoir, which has primarily been a devastating attempt to understand and cope with all the loss we experience as Black people in America; and last week while watching the new Netflix Halloweentime phenomenon, The Haunting of Hill House. Each offered important reminders that the material world “is full of suffering,” but, importantly, Hill House never presented the idea that followed for my mother, “But it is not all there is.”
Instead, the show presents the critical opportunity to consider how even when whiteness manages to acknowledge this oppressive world for what it is, it enforces a commitment to sanity in order to refuse the possibility of other worlds. This commitment to sanity at the expense of all else is both ableist and a pillar of how whiteness upholds oppression in general.
Loosely based on a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson and created by Oculus director Mike Flanagan, Hill House is ultimately a story about loss and grief dressed in the sometimes convincing facade of artsy horror. The series centers around the Crain family; Hugh and his wife, Olivia, who bought the eponymous haunted house to flip it over the summer, and their five children, Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke and Nell. Episode one opens to the family escaping Hill House after coming in contact with increasingly disturbing malevolent presences, leaving Olivia behind to later die by suicide.
Like HBO’s equally suffering-obsessed Westworld, Hill House tells its story by flipping sometimes haphazardly through time; from the past, in which the Crain family lives in the house, to the present, where the children are all grown up and dealing (poorly) with the aftermath of their trauma. Steven refuses to believe the monsters of his childhood were real, but writes a bestselling novel about the house, which Shirley accuses of being an exploitation the family in order to reap financial benefits.
Shirley works as a mortician in an attempt at some sort of control over (and, less acknowledged, profit from) the process of death. Theo, who can sense things through touch, wears gloves so she doesn’t have to, her icy retreat from the rest of the world betrayed only by her profession as a child psychologist. Luke struggles with drug addiction, and his twin Nell suffers from sleep paralysis episodes during which she is faced with visits from the (truly frightening, at least the first time we meet her) Bent-Neck Lady, who turns out to be a future version of her dead self.
It is future Dead Nell/Bent-Neck Lady who reveals the true nature of the house. It’s “a body,” she says after saving them from it one last time while they are in a room she calls the “stomach,” intent on devouring its inhabitants by forcing them to come face to face with their deepest fears. “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns,” Steven writes in a flash forward toward the end of the finale. But so is “love,” he says in a New Agey conclusion some minutes later. It is only the relinquishment of logic and patterns based on a fear that animates one to reject the suffering of the world that the show links to insanity, to Hill House.
If the house in the show represents insanity, then it is an insanity coded for colonialist purposes. “The link between the consumption of human flesh with a savage otherness has not only been present since the conception of imperialist colonial projects, but is indeed the very fuel for them,” says historian Jess Krug, noting the history behind the term “cannibal” and how it was wielded by Euroimperialism in the Caribbean. In this colonialist language, it makes no difference if the fear of a world full of suffering is valid, it makes no difference if insanity is a legitimate response to that world, insanity is always savage and monstrous and wrong.
It is a valid fear that drove Olivia to kill herself, fear of all the trauma she would face in life. And after she died, she acted in concert with the house to show her children that they could do the same, to finally become “awake.” If they embrace their fear, if they embrace this type of insanity, Olivia argues, her children can escape a world that exploits it. Hugh and Dead Nell, who both understand the house for what it is, are presented as the heroic forces resistance against Olivia’s (il)logic. “You have to live,” Nell says to Luke after she saves him, offering little reason other than that he must. Though he accepts Olivia’s testimony that after embracing the house, after dying by suicide, she had “no more headaches, no pain,” Hugh refuses this as an option for their children. They’ll suffer, Olivia notes, and Hugh accepts that too, “even if they’re broken or addicted or joyless or they suffer or, yes, even if they die… that’s the deal we make (as parents).”
But what if it is not our job to keep people in a world full of suffering when they don’t want to be? What if we emphasized that we have no obligations to this world, that there are other worlds worth living in and fighting for? In the show, these questions are presented as Olivia driving her children to kill themselves, but in the end they made their own decisions. What if how our decisions are presented is shaded by the idea that we have to stay committed to maintaining sense in this world at the expense of everything else? Whom does that idea serve?
Suffering has been a central question in religions and philosophy for some time, and in what has been deemed a new golden age of television, in an America run by Donald Trump, with a significant shift in media attention toward a white American opioid crisis and an increasing death rate, it makes sense that more high concept television shows are taking it up from a particular perspective—that of white liberalism.
In Westworld, Dr. Ford, who created the show’s titular amusement park that is now experiencing a phenomenon of robots finding their way to consciousness, explains suffering as his co-creator’s “key insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be. It was when Arnold died, when I suffered, that I began to understand.”
Like my mother, both these shows are able to appreciate that human existence in this world is inextricable from suffering, offering this realization in sometimes new and profound ways. But even when it gets close to the difficult truths our Indigenous elders and ancestors know—“I thought for so long that time was like a line… but I was wrong… Our moments fall around us like rain,” Dead Nell says, challenging the colonialist concept of linear time, “There’s no without, I am not gone,” she says, challenging the colonialist absolutism of death—whiteness will always limit these understandings in order to preserve itself.
Suffering is buffered by racialization, and so it becomes more a theoretical problem than an everyday experience of living under oppression in shows like Hill House and Westworld. Choosing a world of suffering just so that his children don’t lose their minds enough to take their lives isn’t just the deal Hugh makes as a parent, it’s a deal every white person makes to keep the world spinning on the lie of their supremacy in the blood of Black and Indigenous people across the globe.
In more than one way, Hill House is just like Shirley’s accusation of Steven’s book, an exploitation of the audience’s grief in order to reap the benefit of restabilizing whiteness. Whiteness relies on and profits from a world of suffering, created by racialized, gendered, class and ableist violence, and uses each to uphold its power structure. Hill House’s portrayal of suicidal ideation is a perfect example. The desire to leave this world and choose Hill House (insanity) instead is always filled with monsters and should be avoided simply because “you have to live (in this world).” But for whiteness, what animates that desire is never eliminated, even if that desire is shunned. Because it is the only place his neighbors can visit their dead daughter, Hugh ultimately refuses to burn down the house, despite all of his problems with it. In a white world, even if insanity should be stigmatized, it is still needed.
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In “Mad Is a Place; or, the Slave Ship Tows the Ship of Fools”, La Marr Jurelle Bruce writes “mad methodology resists rote positivism and deﬁes the cult of objectivity; it listens for ghosts, madpeople, outcasts, and disembodied voices that trespass, like stowaways, in modernity; it perceives the expressive potential in the so-called rants and raves of madpeople; it is poised to ﬁnd message within messiness and philosophy within ‘pathology’; and it respects the peculiar vantage points of those who are askew.”
What would it mean to use mad methodology to listen for the Olivias in our lives? Not to always listen to them, but for them, to know that there is some truth in what they say and do, even if that truth isn’t everyone’s? What would it mean to listen for the Black folks who are faced with suffering anti-Blackness and choose an alternative instead? How might that lead us to new alternatives that do not have to look like haunted houses?
I was raised in the Hare Krsna religion, a branch of Hinduism, my mother being one of the first Black people initiated into her sect in America. That this world is full of suffering is as central a tenet as any of its four principals—no meat eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, no gambling—with Srila Prabhupada, the founder of my mother’s sect, once stating that “unless one is pessimistic of this material world, he is animal.” My mother found her way to the religion after searching for other worlds, “the spiritual world,” where she could finally be free. I’m not sure if she has found it yet, and believe she is still searching. The Hare Krsna religion is certainly not untouched by the hands of colonialism, and sometimes my mother doesn’t know who to listen for either.
But she knew not to listen to those who said this world was all there is. To those who said suffering is just the deal we make. She knew that there were other ways to die than death, and sometimes being Black in America feels like that. More importantly, she knew there were other ways to live than this life. We are taught to avoid those ways at all costs, even if it means we stay suffering. You’d have to be crazy to choose them, and crazy is inherently savage, inherently monstrous. But as a descendent of slaves, I know it’s only natural to close my eyes and see ghosts too.