Television

The Haunting of Hill House: Episode 1 Breakdown

"Steven Sees a Ghost"

“That’s not Mom.”

First and foremost, I want to warn you, this isn’t an episode breakdown in the sense that I’m going to recap everything that happens, because if you’re reading this, you’ve seen what happens. This is more… a summation of my thoughts on the episode, as will all future installments be.

I’ve watched The Haunting of Hill House four times over, not counting the viewings of individual episodes multiple times for these articles, and it keeps getting better every time. While the premise of this show is suspense and plot twists, even once they are revealed there is more to learn. For instance, even though I have seen the opening credits at least ten times (thank you, Netflix skip option; I wanna get to the goods), I did not notice until today that Hill House is depicted as a maze. Now, what a simple thing to miss, you might say, and how inconsequential, but I’d disagree. The Haunting of Hill House is first and foremost a psychological adventure. Mazes have been used to symbolize various things in poetry and prose: a prison, a puzzle, a challenge, and, most importantly, the mind itself. I think this image of Hill House as a sprawling maze was meant to capture all of these metaphors, and that will prove itself to be true in future episodes.

The Haunting of Hill House

In sticking with our psychological theme, let’s move on to the various aspects of a family dealing with mental illness that we see in this episode, and then we’ll get to the spooky stuff. First, and most obviously, we have a family of children, some who seem to have their own little quirks. Nellie and Luke have that empathetic twin thing going on; when Steve asks Luke why he is awake, Luke’s reply, very matter-of-factly: “Because Nellie’s awake.” He also, apparently, has an imaginary friend. Nellie is awake because she has horrific nightmares of a “Bent-Neck Lady” who visits her seemingly every night. Shirley talks in her sleep, something her parents seem pretty accustomed to, and Theo and Steve are depicted as pretty normal kids. Nothing too crazy here; in a family of seven you’re bound to get some kooky habits. Flash forward, as the show does, to the kids’ adulthood, and you start to see a few more issues have sprung up. Steve still appears to be the most well-adjusted of the bunch, though he is alienated from his family. Shirley still talks in her sleep, sounding a bit more urgent these days. Theo seems to have developed some anti-germ habits, donning long black gloves, but this isn’t very extreme either; some people just think germs are icky. Luke has taken a turn for the worse; he’s become a drug addict, perhaps recovering, but on shaky ground. But it is Nell who we should be most concerned about.

Throughout The Haunting of Hill House, we see various siblings get a call from Nell, and they all ignore it. At one point, it’s self-evident that the entire family thinks she is unstable, and yet they continue to brush off her calls. We see each sibling who initially ignored her attempt to reach out at a more convenient time, but she won’t answer; they missed their opportunity. Nell does leave a message with Shirley, saying she’s calling because she’s worried about Luke and that it’s hard to explain because things are all “twisted.” The only person to answer her call, and take her seriously, is her father. She tells him the Bent-Neck Lady is back, and he immediately tells her to go to her brother and stay there until he arrives. Mr. Crain seems to understand the mental anguish his daughter is in, while the siblings see fit to ignore it or even make light of it. In the end, we discover that Nellie is dead, that she had gone back to the house instead of going to her dismissive family, and met her demise. We find this out with her brother Steve, who sees Nellie in his apartment and begins to berate her for bothering everyone just because she needs attention. Once he receives this phone call and hears his father say his sister is dead, Nellie says his name softly, and he turns back to face her ghost. She’s right behind him; her face slowly becomes gray, and her eyes cloud over. Her visage is twisted into the very personification of anguish and her mouth is agape, as if she was screaming as hard as she could for someone, anyone to hear her.

The symbolism here is pretty obvious. Nellie knew she was spiraling and that she needed help, but when she reached out, she didn’t find that life-line, and by the time someone cared, it was too late. Now, I say this was obvious, but hidden among all the horror, the amazing acting, the fantastic makeup and effects, it could be easily lost. Why look at the psychology when the Boogey Man is staring you in the face? Yet, even Steve knew what was going on, or at the very least had an idea. He says that their mother was mentally ill, and that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. He did say this line to Shirley, so we’re assuming he’s saying it AT her, but the point is, he knew mental illness ran in the family. There’s another exchange between Theo and Shirley where Theo asks, “What’s wrong with her?” and Shirley replies, “I don’t know.” At this point, it’s painfully evident that Nell has had some history of mental instability that the family knows about, but has just decided to ignore. I think that’s the message behind this episode and Nell’s story; something doesn’t just get better because you shut your eyes to it. As we go along, each character will get their own breakdown, as that’s how The Haunting of Hill House is told, and I’m going to focus on the psychological first because the horror is just so delectably distracting.

The Haunting of Hill House

And so we come to it; the creepiest moments from “Steve Sees a Ghost.” I think we can all agree, the appearance of the Bent-Neck Lady was pretty classically creepy. The way her face comes out of the shadows behind Nell reminded me of The Grudge, which I love. Of course, we see the Bent-Neck Lady again, hovering over Nellie, who is too scared to scream, her dark hair draped down, also reminiscent of The Grudge. Personally, my absolute favorite part of this episode, the one that really got me and gave me those chills, was when Shirley was talking to the little boy in her funeral home about having the wake for his grandma. It’s such an innocent scene, they don’t set it up to be creepy, and the kid is so matter-of-fact about everything he says, then they hit you with this line: “And her eyes must hurt, because she doesn’t blink.” I got instant goosebumps. The frankness with which that dialogue was delivered made it SO much spookier and more real. I love horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares or buckets of gore (though I will watch and enjoy both), but that uses the simplicity of human interaction to thoroughly freak you out. There were a few more subtle things in this episode as well, like the plethora of hidden ghosts and ghouls throughout. Yes, they are there. No, I’m serious, go back and watch again. This may be one of my favorite aspects of The Haunting of Hill House: the amount of Easter egg oogie boogies that are hidden throughout. It’s become a game between my husband and I to see who can spot them first. There was also the little interaction between Steve and Olivia that I’m not sure a lot of people noticed. Olivia asks where Luke is, and Steve asks if she’s checked the tree-house, to which she replies: “Very funny, young man.” Inherently, this isn’t spooky, but it will be. Oh, it will be. And it’s just a genius little touch to put in the very first episode. If nothing else, people may have noticed that it’s an odd interaction. What’s so funny about the tree-house? I know not everyone is creeped out by the same things, but these last few got to me personally as well. When Mr. Crain says, “That’s not mom,” I felt it deeply. Obviously, this line has taken on a few meanings now that I’ve seen the entire season, but even then you could tell it was just one of those classic lines that belongs in any good horror story. Speaking of classic horror, let’s touch on Nell’s ghost for a second. This entire scene between her and Steve was so impeccably done that I rewatched it a few times just during my first viewing. The horror of the situation is depicted so clearly on her face; they really couldn’t have captured that despair and pain any better. The design and effects crew should be extremely proud of themselves. Lastly, when all the siblings woke up and Shirley said, “Nellie’s in the Red Room,” it was 3:03 am (or 12:03 for those in California). This might not be significant to most, but between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. is known as the Witching Hour, when the ghosts and goblins come out to play and evil has the most power over you. The fact that this was the time chosen can’t be a coincidence, and I sincerely appreciate the attention to detail.

Episode one of The Haunting of Hill House is absolutely loaded with clues and information that we can look back on, but I’m not going to connect all the dots quite yet. If I spent this entire article drawing lines between this episode alone and the rest of the series, we’d be here all day, and I’ve still got more re-watching to do. It’s difficult to pick apart something this big, and I’m sure I’ll miss some things that others have picked up on, but I think this was a good start. If there are any other aspects of this episode you’d like me to go over or give my thoughts on, or something you’d like me to expand on, please let me know in the comments! I’ll talk about this show all day; it deserves my time.

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