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Haunting of Hill House: Grief and Hereditary Mental Illness

Promo Image for Haunting of Hill House show featuring 5 young adults in front of a house.
Haunting of Hill House Promo

Haunting of Hill House is a supernatural horror series that explores the impact of grief and mental illness under the guise of a haunted house story. Gabe dives into the characters: how the Crain children represent a stage of grief, their experience with the magical realism of the haunted house, and events in their childhood shaped their lives. Kat discusses the impact of trauma and grief on young minds and how you can help a child dealing with such things.

Sources in this Episode:

Film Reviews:


Media from this week's episode:

Haunting of Hill House (2018)

Flashing between past and present, a fractured family confronts haunting memories of their old home and the terrifying events that drove them from it.


The Impact of Grief: Character Studies of the Crain Children in the Haunting of Hill House

by gabe castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


Haunting of Hill House is a supernatural horror series that explores the impact of grief and mental illness under the guise of a haunted house story. Loosely based on the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, which villainized an entire house. With one of the best opening lines in horror literature history, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” The show is an effective horror story that will have you straining your eyes to catch the figures hidden in the dark and have you jumping out of your skin at the monsters revealed there. But what makes Haunting of Hill House stand out for me as one of the best pieces of horror, are the character studies found there. 

For the Crain family, which the series follows, absolute reality is so profoundly harmful that a supernatural alternate reality is weaved to protect them. It is a show is magical realism, offering us both natural and supernatural answers to the incidents that occurred in this house and to this family.

The narrative unfolds in two timelines: the first explores the traumatic events while they lived in Hill House, while the second depicts the present-day lives of the siblings, who are still grappling with the psychological aftermath of those events, whether supernatural or real. Each episode seems dedicated to one of the 5 Crain children and through their recollection of their time at Hill House and their current dilemmas, viewers can slowly piece together not only what had happened, but what is happening to the Crain family.

Long ago, the Crain family lived for a while in Hill House. Hugh and Olivia Crain are home renovators who have taken on the seemingly insurmountable challenge of flipping Hill House. The house has a history, something dark and twisted, long forgotten but the residue remains. The home’s inherited housekeepers, the Dudleys, are eerie and untrusting of the home, constantly spouting cautionary reminders that they never stay in the house after dark. The Crain have five children, Steven, Shirley, Theodora (Theo), and twins, Luke and Eleanor (Nell). Upon first glance, this is a loving, warm family that fully embraces each other’s quirks and uniqueness. Hugh and Olivia are loving parents who raise their children to seek truth and honesty, and to explore their dreams. Hugh and Olivia are shown to be in love and to have a healthy dynamic. Slowly, we learn of Olivia’s dark spells, her migraines, and her paranoia. She and Hugh are aware of her instability, her history of sensitivity. As Olivia slowly starts to lose the thread and eventually falls victim to her own mental instability, she brings about terrible harm. Even in this darkness, Hugh holds on to a fragment of their relationship, and by never speaking of her harm he immortalizes their relationship and her as something beautiful and perfect. 

Steve is most satisfied fulfilling his role of older brother, watching over the others as a stand-in third parent. He is too old now to connect to fanciful or supernatural things, and his place in the in-between of youth and maturity leaves him in the darkness - not believing the supernatural explanations of his younger siblings but not privy to the adult excuses of his parents. This existence as a tether between worlds leads him to later become a writer, his books focused on “real life” supernatural experiences that he immortalizes and fanaticizes in his work without ever truly believing them. 

Shirley is a quiet and reserved girl. She has her ways, calculated and attentive, that her family recognizes as her way of caring and empathizing. As a tween in Hill House, she experiences the supernatural from the edge, not quite cast out the way Steve was, but not as intertwined with the surreality as the younger kids. With her, we see the strongest hold of magical realism. She experiences things that at first are terrifying, an unknown; her closeness to youth inspires an instinct of fear. But those fears are quickly dismissed when she is shown the truth and disillusioned. An example of this is her seeing a terrifying face in a shed, only it’s quickly revealed to be a wasp’s nest that has taken the shape of a discarded mask. While at Hill House, Shirley finds a litter of discarded kittens. She’s quick to take them in and does her best to nurture them, an instinct natural to her as she is the only Crain child in the future to have kids. Only, they don’t make it and it’s a terribly sad thing to endure for a child, for this to be the way you learn about death and its cruel permanence. She has a moment of hope and holds to the magic of youth when it seems one of the kittens is breathing. However, the kitten is not holding on, it is long gone and now inhabited by bugs. In the present day, Shirley is as cold and calculated as she was in youth, her interactions with death at that age having had such a profound effect on her that she now runs a funeral home. Her work and the resolution of it is how she cares, how she can assert control and not ever be tricked into hoping again.

Theo is a standoffish child at Hill House. She is observant and kind but scrutinizing. She has quickly determined her own oddities and otherness in not only the family but in the world. Like Shirl, she cares but in a distant way. She is uncomfortable with physical affection but cares deeply for her siblings. She puts on a front of uncaring coolness but is easily swayed by her younger siblings. As the middle child, she also suffers constant scolding and scapegoating. Her discomfort with physical touch stems from her intense empathy, she feels things and is very intuitive. She is quick to make connections and has a maturity that allows her to not only understand the motivations of adults but to empathize with them. In the present, she is just as distanced and unmoved. She accepts herself for who she is and also understands no one else will, or believes that anyway.

Luke is the sweetest boy. He is soft and kind, a shadow of his technically younger sister, Nell. He is easily frightened and clearly babied by the other Crain children. He loves to explore and is quick to make friends. He befriends a young girl, Abigail that for most of the show viewers are convinced is a ghost. None of the other Crain kids see her and he describes her as wearing outdated clothing and being quite pale. We later learn she is the Dudley’s child, peculiar and distant. She is not allowed to be at Hill House which is why she often runs away. Luke, being so young, is an easy target for the supernatural. His small brain rationalizes the horrors of the real world into ghosts and ghouls. When he gets older, his imagination evolves that harm into something worse causing him to seek comfort in heroin. 

Nell, is a sweetheart and dreamer. She behaves as any younger sister, following around her older siblings begging them to play with her. She is adored by her twin brother. She is so incredibly caring and protective of Luke and this evolves in the future into enabling. She is most haunted by the events at Hill House, having been so young but not having the same strong imagination as Luke, she endured those traumas harder. She is later plagued by nightmares and sleep paralysis. And possibly more terrifying, has inherited her mother’s mental illness - though the illness and the events at Hill House are never discussed, leaving Nell terribly unequipped to manage it leading to her eventual suicide.

The impact of grief 

Haunting of Hill House explores grief, mental illness, and family. Each of the Crain children can be tied to one of the stages of grief. In an article on Screenrant titled, 

The Haunting Of Hill House Five Stages Of Grief Theory Explained, writer Brynne Ramella explains this theory fully. Their reaction to the trauma of their youth solidifies them into this personification of grief. 

  • Steven is the first step, denial. Reflected in his job, writing about the supernatural as non-fiction when he believes in none of it. He has rationalized instead that a ghost is a wish, a way for our wounded and grieving minds to hold on to those we’ve lost. We’d rather endure the horror of their deaths tenfold than to never see them again. This understanding comes from his view of his father who never acknowledged the harm Olivia caused. 

  • Shirley represents anger. She is resentful, scornful even, and demands that everyone act in kind. She judges everyone else’s approach to healing or existing because she feels everyone should be as angry as she is. 

  • Theo most represents bargaining, as her life is often a balance of giving up and taking in. She sacrifices true intimacy for stability. She even resolves to live in Shirley’s guest house to stay close to Shirley and give her the illusion of being a protector when in reality, Theo is well off enough to provide for herself. She sacrifices that freedom and independence for her sister’s sake. 

  • Luke is depression, once bright and full of hope, he is wracked by darkness and grief. He has found no true way to manage that grief and instead wanders in the darkness alone. 

  • And lastly, Nell is acceptance. Throughout her life, she has been haunted by the ghost of her mother’s mental illness which she has inherited. Her ghost takes the form of the “Bent Neck Lady” and is one of the most tragic reveals in horror TV history, imo. Nell has spent her entire life afraid of the possibility of losing the same battle her mother did and in the end, she does lose. But where their mother’s suicide breaks the Crain kids down into pieces, Nell’s death forces them to confront that pain and accept it. Nell is the first Crain child to return to Hill House and confront the truth of what happened there. It is in her moments of understanding and accepting the resulting waves that bring the rest of the kids back. She helps release them from their guilt and pain by accepting them for what they’ve become. 

Haunting of Hill House is an effective horror story with ghosts hidden in the shadows, bugs crawling from bodies, and other terrors. It’s also a story about grief and the impact of family secrets. It is one of my favorite horror shows or horror media in general, because of how fluidly it blends surreality, the supernatural, and real trauma. I cared deeply for each of the characters and appreciated how, though all flawed, no one was truly a villain. Bad things happen to people, regular people, and then they react to those things. They become new things in the aftermath of profound pain and loss but those new things are no less worthy of sympathy and care. More importantly, these new things they’ve become are in no way the final form, there is always room to grow and heal, to become another new thing. As bleak and heartbreaking as The Haunting of Hill House is, it is also full of hope, showing us that despite what Shirley Jackson wanted us to think, we do not walk alone. 


Unpacking Trauma in Children as Shown in the Haunting of Hill House

by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

There is something so raw about the Haunting of Hill House. It’s a very emotional piece, and what impacts the most, even more than the ghosts, is the deep familial trauma each and every character has experienced. If you remove all the ghosts, you have an even sadder and more haunting story, on how childhood trauma can impact children as they reach adulthood. The story, at it’s core is about how a major traumatic event impacted this family, specifically the murder of Abigail and the suicide of the mother. The show does a great way showing how trauma is not a universal experience, and that each person takes something different away from it, and is impacted differently by it. We see this in each child’s coping mechanisms, their career choices, their vices, their communication styles. They each grapple with what happened to their family, and each of them individually in vastly different ways. The impact of this event is haunting them quite literally, and they are drenched in the consequences of their mother’s actions for the rest of their lives.  

According to Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress on the substance abuse and mental health services administration, one of the 8 key traumatic events is “Traumatic events may include:

  • Neglect and psychological, physical, or sexual abuse

  • Natural disasters, terrorism, and community and school violence

  • Witnessing or experiencing intimate partner violence

  • Commercial sexual exploitation

  • Serious accidents, life-threatening illness, or sudden or violent loss of a loved one

  • Refugee and war experiences

  • Military family-related stressors, such as parental deployment, loss, or injury”.

Additionally on the CDC website outlining ACE’s, and the study of Adverse Childhood experiences, they list: Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). For example:

  • experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect

  • witnessing violence in the home or community

  • having a family member attempt or die by suicide

When unpacking this the adverse childhood experiences the Crain family was impacted by, their plot lines make a lot more sense. The only thing missing for me was the way that trauma can manifest into physical illnesses. We discussed ACE’s and trauma’s impact on the brain in more detail in our Turning Red episode, but trauma has many impacts that extend far past just mental. It can impact our long term health, increase our chances for physical illnesses, increase our chances of additional trauma brought on by this one event that stacks and transforms into additional challenges. For the family in this show, they experienced multiple traumas, first in the mental health concerns surrounding their mother, and then with the sudden and violent loss of her. Additionally, they witnessed intimate partner violence in the perception that their father hurt their mother, and then additionally lost their father and were sent to live with a mostly unfamiliar relative. Lastly, for Nell and Luke - they witnessed the death of Abigail, and also survived their mother’s attempt of murdering them. This is a lot of trauma. Because of the events that follow, it is reasonable to assume that many of them did not get the support they needed to fully understand what happened to them. They were not given context, because the experience that many of them refused to talk about because of the way it made them feel. They did not have a consistent and stable adult outside of their aunt who was responsible for all of five of them, so it makes a lot of sense that in adulthood many of them struggled in their own unique ways. Additionally the ages that they were at the time of the event plays a role, as well as their direct exposure. The most damagingly impacted being the youngest siblings. 

A factor to consider in the ACE’s impact on their growth from childhood to adulthood are especially complicated because one traumatic event generally facilitates additional ones. Losing your parents at a very young age for example, generally forces children into situations that are additionally unsafe. Whether it’s being pushed into the foster system, struggling in school, being more vulnerable to violence, being less likely to have your needs met developmentally (food, housing, medical, and clothing insecurity), among other things- all these factors impact physical and emotional health. The CDC lists the main problems associated with Adverse Childhood Experiences, especially when unhealed.  ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health, wellbeing in childhood and life opportunities, such as education and job potential, well into adulthood. These experiences can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems (including teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, and fetal death), involvement in sex trafficking, and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide. ACEs and associated social determinants of health, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress). Toxic stress from ACEs can negatively affect children’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response systems. These changes can affect children’s attention, decision-making, and learning. Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.

In another article How Childhood Trauma Affects Us as Adults – Healing the Heart | MENTAL HEALTH CENTER they outline what factors influence a child’s reaction to a traumatic event: 

Several factors may determine how a child reacts. These include:

  1. Age: A child’s age at the time of the traumatic event can significantly influence their reaction. Younger children may not fully understand the event, which often leads to confusion and fear. On the other hand, older children might be more likely to experience feelings of guilt or responsibility.

  2. Type: The nature of the traumatic event (e.g., traumatic event, accident, abuse, neglect) can also impact a child’s reaction. Certain types of trauma, especially those involving a personal violation or prolonged exposure, may lead to more severe or long-lasting effects.

  3. Severity and Duration: The severity of the traumatic event and how long it lasts can influence a child’s response. A single, brief traumatic event might have different effects compared to a recurring or prolonged one.

  4. Proximity: Children who directly experience or witness a traumatic event are likely to have a more significant reaction than those who are more removed from the event.

  5. Personality: Just like adults, every child has a unique personality, which can impact how they respond. Some children might be naturally more resilient or have better-coping mechanisms due to their personality traits.

  6. Support System: The presence of a strong, supportive network, including family, friends, and community, can significantly influence how a child copes with trauma. Supportive adults can help children understand and process their feelings, which can contribute to a more positive outcome.

  7. Previous Trauma or Stress: Children who have previously experienced high levels of stress may be more vulnerable to the effects of a new traumatic event.

  8. Coping Skills: A child’s ability to cope with stress and adversity plays a significant role in their reaction. Those with strong problem-solving skills and adaptive coping strategies are generally better able to manage their responses to traumatic events.

It’s important to note that these are general factors, and every child’s response to trauma is unique. If a child is showing signs of trauma, professional help, such as a child psychologist or psychiatrist, should be sought after.

So to unpack the Crain family with this context, it is likely that the older siblings and their coping styles, as well as their lack of context surrounding what Luke and Nell actually experienced led to the twins being further isolated. Generally when a parent is not physically or emotionally present in the way a child needs, the older siblings will be parentified, given the responsibility of caring for the youngest siblings at the expense of their emotional safety. The younger siblings' needs will be prioritized, and the older siblings' needs minimized. A highly empathetic child like Shirley took on this role, and combined with  her a desire to care for and fix things(example the kittens, and the scene of her at the funeral), made her take on the role as the stable sibling who has her shit together. This also explains why she is so concerned about her marriage and maintaining it, because she feels additional pressure to act as the stable family structure. 

Steve, although the oldest, tried very hard to rationalize and logic away his emotions, and as a result closed himself off emotionally to the rest of his siblings, this also drove resentment between him and Shirley who had to carry the emotional labor Steve refused to take. Theo was also parentified, but in classic middle child form was never given authority or credit for their impacts, but actively tried to smooth things over between the oldest and the youngest. Theo’s empathy and touch based connection, as well as their queer identity also isolated them among their siblings. In many ways Theo tried to parentify herself to protect Shirley, Nell and Luke. Her career choice was a way of trying to be what she needed in her childhood. Feeling largely unseen in all aspects of her upbringing, she had the unique role of seeing the pain her clients were experiencing when no one else did. Nell and Luke, arguably the closest to the event, were the most heavily impacted. This impacted Nell in their depression, PTSD like symptoms and intense emotional presence. It impacted Luke in his sensitivity, struggles in career and stability, as well as in his substance abuse. 

This is outlined further in the How Childhood Trauma Affects Us as Adults – Healing the Heart article which outlines what adults may experience after experiencing childhood trauma: 




Adults who have experienced childhood trauma usually have heightened levels of anxiety. They may worry excessively and have trouble managing their anxiety.


It can lead to persistent feelings of sadness, lack of interest in activities, and difficulty experiencing pleasure.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Adults who experienced traumatic events as children may have recurring nightmares, and flashbacks, or may feel a like they’re in a constant state of danger.

Difficulty Forming Relationships

Adults with a history of it may struggle to establish and maintain healthy relationships due to having trust issues and fear of being hurt.

Substance Abuse

Individuals may use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with unresolved issues.


Some may experience periods of dissociation, feeling disconnected from themselves or the world around them.

Emotional Regulation Issues

Adults may have difficulty regulating emotions, leading to emotional outbursts, difficulty calming down after being upset, or trouble identifying their emotions.

Physical Health Problems

There’s a higher risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, ear problems, and autoimmune diseases among adults who had bad experiences in their childhood.

Low Self-Esteem

It can leave adults with feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy.

Sleep Disorders

Insomnia, nightmares, or other sleep disorders may be more common in adults who experienced bad stuff.

  1. Trust Issues: Childhood trauma, particularly if it was caused by a caregiver, can lead to trust issues. A person may find it difficult to believe that others have any good intentions, fearing they might be hurt or betrayed as they were in their childhood.

  2. Attachment Issues: Traumatic experiences in childhood can lead to insecure attachment styles in adulthood. This may manifest as a fear of abandonment, resulting in clinginess in relationships (anxious attachment), or as a fear of intimacy, leading to emotional detachment and self-isolation (avoidant attachment).

  3. Difficulty with Emotional Regulation: Childhood trauma can make it hard for an individual to manage their emotions effectively. This can lead to volatile relationships, with frequent emotional outbursts, or conversely, to emotional numbness and inability to express feelings.

  4. Low Self-Esteem: If a person has been traumatized in their early years, they might struggle with feelings of low self-worth. This can cause them to settle for unhealthy relationships, as they may feel they don’t deserve better.

  5. Communication Issues: Trauma in childhood can also impact a person’s ability to communicate their needs, desires, and feelings and to answer simple questions effectively. This can lead to misunderstanding and conflict in adult relationships.

  6. Fear of Rejection or Abandonment: Childhood trauma can instill a deep-seated fear of being rejected or abandoned. This fear might make it challenging for them to fully engage in a relationship, worrying that the other person will leave them.

  7. Physical Intimacy Problems: If the childhood trauma involved physical or sexual abuse, it could cause difficulties with physical intimacy in adult relationships.

Remember, while these impacts can be severe, they are not determinative. Many people with a history of childhood trauma can and do establish healthy relationships in adulthood, often with the help of therapy or other forms of support. Individuals with these experiences must seek professional help if they’re struggling with their relationships due to past trauma.



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