“The Haunting of Hill House” Part 2: Trauma and Its Aftermath

Traumatizing experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust. Because they are so far outside what we would expect, these events provoke reactions that feel strange and "crazy". Even though these reactions can be unusual and disturbing, they are typical and expected. By and large, they are normal responses to abnormal events.

Trauma symptoms originally evolved to help us recognize and avoid other dangerous situations quickly (before it was too late). Sometimes these symptoms resolve themselves within a few days or weeks of a disturbing experience. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but when many symptoms persist for weeks or months, or when they are extreme, treatment with a professional can be beneficial. On the other hand, if symptoms persist for several months without treatment, then avoidance can become the method used to cope with the trauma (and this strategy interferes with seeking professional help). Postponing needed intervention for a year or more, and allowing avoidance defenses to develop, could make this work much more difficult in the future.

We create meaning out of the context in which events occur, so there is always a strong subjective element in people's responses to traumatic events. An example of this would be in the case of disasters, where a broad cross-section of the population is exposed to the same traumatic experience, but  react with different coping mechanisms (both adaptive and maladaptive).

Some of the potential long term results of unresolved trauma include:

  • fear, anxiety, worrying or ruminating (intrusive thoughts of the trauma)

  • grief, disorientation, denial

  • hyper-alertness or hypervigilance

  • irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage

  • emotional swings – like crying and then laughing

  • Nightmares and flashbacks – feeling like the trauma is happening now

  • feelings of helplessness and a sense of being out of control

  • increased need to control everyday experiences

  • minimizing the experience

  • attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma

  • tendency to isolate

  • feelings of detachment

  • emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings

  • difficulty trusting and feelings of betrayal

  • difficulty concentrating or remembering

  • feelings of self-blame or survivor guilt

  • shame

  • lessened interest in everyday activities or depression

  • unpleasant past memories resurfacing

  • loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future

  • becoming obsessive

  • increased use of alcohol and drugs

  • questioning faith or religion

“The Haunting of Hill House” is a wonderful depiction of the effects of personal and familial trauma with each of the children showing multiples of the symptoms discussed above. When families share a trauma, each individual reacts to it in a different way, but the family also reacts as a unit, often playing out dynamics and patterns that serve to keep the family stuck in an unbeneficial cycle. If Hill House is personified as a monster that feeds on its inhabitants, the family unit itself is also personified as a kind of organism that thrives on suffering in the form of co-dependency. As the show progresses, you see each member of the Crain family pushed deeper into private psychological terrors that manifest as terrifying ghosts. Themes of generational trauma, inherited mental illness, and the guilt and fear that accompany them, run throughout the stories of the Crain siblings and their parents.

Hill House follows two timelines: the Crain siblings’ horrific childhood, and a more intimate look at how that trauma and its aftermath have dominated their lives. The Crains have tried to hide and push down their grief (Theo through meaningless sex, Luke through drugs, Shirley through controlling her environment, Steve through denial) and each has maintained a facade in their relationships with each other, despite their shared trauma experiences. Trauma holds such a primal place for the Crains (just like all of us) and their perception of themselves that the siblings even argue about their right to claim and discuss their childhood (as if they can control it by taking ownership of it).

Most of the problems faced by the Crain family members (infidelity, shame, dishonesty, addiction, emotional withholding, obsessive behavior) are all fairly “normal” family issues (in the sense that pretty much every family can tick off one of them in their family tree). When trauma occurs, it exacerbates the family issues to different degrees. Each of those problems are painstakingly traced back to their childhood summer living in Hill House.

Because of the mysterious death of their mother, the Crain children have not been able to get closure. They haven't been able to properly contextualize their mother’s death.

Shirley takes a direct approach to dealing with the trauma . Along with the death of her mother, and the experiences involving the rapid death of an entire litter of kittens (interestingly, motherless kittens who eventually succumb to disease… just like the Crains being motherless and succumbing to mental illness). Shirley ends up sublimating (a coping mechanism meaning an expression of anxiety in socially acceptable way) her childhood fear of death into a career of ‘fixing’ dead bodies by becoming a mortician. She distances herself from the emotions of death by focusing on the exterior of the bodies.

Steven’s belief system protects him from reality and it serves to insulate him from his family and the past. By establishing his own narrative about what happened, Steven has been able to compartmentalize the trauma he has experienced, which is a very elaborate coping mechanism.

Theo absorbs the experiences of those around her with a high degree of empathy and this allows her to take on a large amount of emotional pain from others. She does her best to shield herself through the use of the gloves, her alcohol usage, blunt demeanor, emotional numbing, and the purely physical relationships that she has in her life.

Luke’s use of drugs is his way of numbing his memory of trauma. It seems likely that Luke also has a potential of arrested development (emotional) as a result of his trauma as well. As his parents gives him the bowler hat, they makes it a point to tell him that the hat signifies him becoming a ‘big boy’, but then the hat is taken away from him by the ghost of William Hill, symbolically leaving him in a regressed state.

Nellie, along with Luke, seemed to receive the brunt of the emotional scarring as a result of their summer at Hill House. Nellie has moved through life with a sense of emptiness and feeling invisible to others, especially her family. This is best portrayed in the scene when Nell becomes invisible to her family and despite their attempts to find her, she goes undetected. This best encapsulates the Crain family dynamic in relation to Nell as her feelings are continually deprioritized in relation to her siblings.

In the show, family is protection (both Nell and Luke use counting up to seven, the number of members of their family unit, as a kind of coping mechanism and a way to keep the ghosts at bay) but it is also a painful repetition of fears and anxieties that have no end. The family was unable to get the help needed to allow them to use the power of family relationships for healing. Thankfully, there is a sense of coming together in the end of the show, but unfortunately, it was decades delayed.

While trauma and its impact is a theme of “The Haunting of Hill House,” it is extremely important that those with trauma in their history seek treatment from a professional.

For help with processing a trauma in the Lancaster, PA area, please contact me at (717) 288-5064 / gregghammond@restoringbalancelancaster.com and schedule an appointment today.