“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 / and schedule an appointment today.

“The Haunting of Hill House” Part 1: The Stages of Grief

While I watched “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix recently, I found myself being more drawn to the symbolism more than the scary moments, recognizing that the ghosts, while scary, are just representations of the “ghosts” we carry with us through our lives and don’t ever want to face, but we know they are there… they follow us and haunt us... almost always brought on by trauma… I’ve convinced my wife to watch the show (I wanted to see it again!) and felt inspired to share some connections I’ve made to my role as a therapist and how they relate to all of us.

Obligatory Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t watched the show, go watch it now! I’ll wait!

Part One: The Crain Kids and the Stages of Grief

There may be a moment in the show when you come to the realization that each of the Crain siblings represent the stages of grief, and in this case, the grieving of their mother’s apparent suicide and the loss of an ability to lead a ‘normal’ life after the experiences at the house. Even more interesting is that they represent the stages from oldest (Steve) to youngest (Nell). If you are wondering what the stages of grief actually are, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross originally wrote about them in 1969 and her stages remain the ‘go to’ when trying to place grief in a framework. She named the stages as follows and she believed that they occured in this order, although current belief is that they cycle and the order is unique to each person:

  1. Denial: Somehow you must be mistaken, and cling to a false reality that is more acceptable to you.

  2. Anger: When the grieving person recognizes that denial can’t continue, they become frustrated and direct it toward others in their world. Often, there is a component of blame and victim mentality. "Why me? It's not fair!" or  "How can this happen to me?" are fairly common questions.

  3. Bargaining: The grieving person will attempt to essentially negotiate with the traumatic event. They might attempt to bargain with a higher power or attempt to adapt their life in order to put off facing the trauma.

  4. Depression: The grieving person may face their own mortality or come to believe that they have no reason to go on because of the loss in their life.

  5. Acceptance: The grieving person comes to acknowledge the trauma event as reality and there is some type of relief or catharsis.

Steven Crain as “Denial”: Steve goes through his life denying what he saw and experienced as a child at Hill House. He discredits any memories of ghosts in the house when brought up by his siblings, and he believes that they are all mentally ill, just like their mother which led to her suicide. Somehow, what he knows to be true has to have another explanation than the reality.

Steve’s denial is best represented when Steve’s father told Steve to close his eyes as they are escaping the house. Steve metaphorically, kept his eyes shut all the way through his life. Throughout the show, Steve is in the position to have to face the truth (Nell’s death, the clock repairer ghost appearing to him) until a point late in the show when his denial is broken and can’t be sustained any longer.

Shirley Crain as “Anger”: Shirley is a walking ball of anger. Angry with her father for leaving the home without her mother, at Steve for exposing the family to ridicule by writing the story of Hill House, and angry at Nell for repeating what happened to their mother. Shirley has spent a good deal of her life resenting the fact that she had to be the ‘mom’ of the family, because her mother left them and Steve wouldn’t accept responsibility (victim). Her life is out of control and she unsuccessfully tries to control it...the fear of being out of control comes out in anger.

Theodora Crain as “Bargaining”: Theo wears her gloves to keep herself from feeling (she has  adapted her life in order to avoid facing her trauma) if the gloves are a way to control her empathic skills (or telepathic, in this case). The gloves shield her from deep interpersonal relationships which she also does by limiting her relationships to one night stands. She lives her life in an attempt to avoid connection (the significance of being the middle child (loner, excluded) is at play here too), but later in the series, when she touches Nell’s dead body and feels nothing, she comes to a realization that connection (to something, to anything) is all that she wants. Her confessional speech to Shirley about feeling empty and wanting to connect with her life again after they run off the road is raw and powerful (giving me more chills than the ghosts!).

Luke Crain as “Depression”: When Luke discovers that his twin sister, Nell, is dead, he believes that he can’t go on living without her. Luke and Nell arguably experienced the worst of the horror in Hill House (compounded by their innate twin connection) and Luke uses heroin as a way of numbing his suffering (this numbing is very prevalent in people that feel flooded with emotional pain). He also has the obsessive tendency to count to seven (the number of family members) to build a protective wall around him to keep the trauma away. Even when he attempts to pull out of the depression through gaining sobriety for 90 days, the “floating man” follows him wherever he goes, reminding him of the pain he wants to avoid.

Nellie Crain as “Acceptance”: Nell is haunted by the “bent-neck lady” throughout her life, leading to high levels of depression and anxiety. Later, she comes to the realization that what she has been witnessing (the physical aftermath of a suicide by hanging) has been her all along in the future. After Nell ‘gives herself’ to the house in an attempt to reunite with her dead mother, she is able to reach a point of forgiveness of her siblings for what they have done in their lives to discount, minimize, blame, or exclude her. There is relief in her forgiveness...she’s no longer suffering with anger or depression. She tells her siblings at the end of the show, “Forgiveness is warm. Like a tear on a cheek,” noting that she loved them completely and she knows they loved her, despite their actions that have hurt her in the past.

While grief is a current that runs through “The Haunting of Hill House,” it is a significant factor in each of our lives from time to time. It can be something that exacerbates a mental illness or brings underlying mental illness into our awareness. If you are grieving the loss of something or someone in your life, please seek professional help to guide you through the grieving process.

For help with your grieving process in the Lancaster, PA area, please contact me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.