“When I flash the porch light twice that means it’s time to come home,” matriarch Olivia Crain tells her children. This parental rule imparts a precocious young Nell with a mantra that no matter how far she and her siblings might play or wander, there will always be a time for the Crain family to reconvene. It’s a simple instruction to abide by as kids. As adults who pack up, move away, and carve out new lives in newer homes, less so. Hill House may be a place full of ghosts, hallucinations, and deadly premonitions, but Hill House was also the last place the Crains were together.
I revisited The Haunting of Hill House in anticipation of The Haunting of Bly Manor, the latest installment in the Netflix horror anthology series. But I keep going back to Hill House. There’s something about the Crain family – Nell Crain’s story in particular – that I can’t shake or let go of. It haunts me, so to speak.
The Haunting of Hill House gradually feeds us the stories of the Crain siblings. Steven, the eldest. Shirley, the second oldest. Theo, the middle and independent child. Followed by Luke and Nell, the twins and youngest of the Crain clan. Each bear their own residual scars of a house that claimed the life of their mother (the circumstances of which remain a mystery), the same house that was supposed to be the final fixer-upper undertaken by their parents before the building a proper “forever home.” Each have a specter that haunts them to this day, but Nell’s ghost story is the most visceral of them all – transmitted beautifully through Victoria Pedretti’s bold and heartbreaking performance.
We find Nell at a moment when she needs her family, and this would take a miracle. What’s become of the Crains post-Hill House is its own haunted house story. Their father Hugh is a deadbeat dad who routinely talks to a dead wife; Steve is a renowned horror writer but harsh skeptic; Shirley is a mortician who helps grieving families find closure except her own; Theo is a child psychologist whose clairvoyance helps traumatized orphans adapt to home life; while Luke is a heroin addict falling in and out of recovery. In fact, the last time all of the siblings were in the same room was when they accompanied Luke to his first treatment center. Tragedy has a way of bringing disparate people together.
Nell herself has been wrestling with sleep paralysis ever since a terrifying encounter with a “bent-neck lady” at Hill House, a ghost that still haunts her in the periphery. Fortunately, Nell attains some semblance of a happily ever after. She falls hopelessly in love with Arthur, a sleep tech who provides a literal cushion to her nightmares.
Almost all of the Crains gather for Nell’s wedding. They have so few shared and cherished memories together, but this one provides stability for a sibling who requires the most nurturing by virtue of being the youngest. After all, being the youngest means having more people to take care of you.
Then, when Nell has a recurring bout of sleep paralysis, Arthur suddenly dies of a brain aneurysm. That’s when she sees her at the edge of the bedroom. The Bent-Neck Lady.
Losing a husband, sadly, isn’t the cruelest part of Nell’s story. It’s what happens after, when she’s alone in her grief and her family is nowhere to be found.
The Crains pride themselves for moving on from Hill House when the only feat they’ve accomplished was moving away. They’re easily triggered by memories of the past. And when the past spills over into the present, so do the memories of Hill House, of a mother who became mentally unstable, of a family that once was.
Steven, Shirley, and Theo bury themselves in their careers to avoid any recollection of that fateful summer. They’ve become experts at bottling up the past, at keeping each other at arm’s length that so much as a phone call is an undue burden— an anchor to their forward trajectory. What they don’t realize is that as they’re pursuing their individual lives at such a breakneck speed, they’re effectively leaving each other behind, Nell most of all.
Luke, on the other hand, buries himself in substances. As Nell’s twin brother, he is the one sibling she can count on when the others disappoint. But he’s family; he’s doomed to disappoint her. When Nell chauffeurs Luke to another stint in rehab, Luke persuades his twin sister to buy him heroin. He leverages a promise to hear Nell’s grievances, to be the brother she needs, but only after shooting up in her passenger seat. And then, standing outside her car, she sees that morbid silhouette once more. The creaked neck. Stark. Wordless. There.
The Bent-Neck Lady haunts Nell when she is at her most isolated, her most vulnerable, and it becomes the focal point of her depressive state. In her mind, Arthur couldn’t have died so unexpectedly. It had to be the Bent-Neck Lady. When Theo comes to visit, Nell pleads for her unique touch of empathy if only to make sense of such a random and traumatic event— if only to get a sibling to stay. Nell may be using Theo’s abilities just as Luke used Nell to score dope, but it’s also a moment of a little sister crying for help.
Hill House, for all of its ghouls, long corridors, and creepy statues, brought a measure of comfort to Nell. If she woke up screaming in the night, her big brother would come running, or her father would shoo away the monsters. Nell calls for her family now as an adult and it’s characterized by Steven as a plea for attention. In a great deal of ways, Nell is the most mature out of all of them. She’s honest about when she needs help (she’s the only one seeing a therapist), while everyone else says to hell with each other. “A ghost can be a lot of things…” Steven tells a book fan, “Most times a ghost is a wish.”
Being the youngest means wanting to do the things your siblings say they’re too old to do anymore. All Nell wants is her family back. Her husband is gone and she still sleeps in the same bedroom where he died (another haunted house for Nell), and a terrifying entity that plagued her at 6-years-old has come back to haunt her. Steven, an actual ghost writer, doesn’t provide the reassurance that he once did and instead asks, “Are you off your meds?”
The ghosts that exist outside the boundary of Hill House may not be as malevolent, but they’re just as frightening. Because those ghosts don’t wait for dark nor need to be summoned via Ouija board. Estrangement happens slowly and painfully in broad daylight— in full, unambiguous view. When a sibling walks out, can’t see past themselves, or can’t be bothered to pick up the damn phone.
Hill House is full of ghouls cold and uninviting after being dead for ages. What excuse do the Crain siblings have for giving Nell the cold shoulder when she needed them most?
Who’s there for her instead? The ghosts at Hill House. The memories of a childhood, of a dead mother. The Bent-Neck Lady. When Nell goes to confront Hill House once and for all, she doesn’t see a carcass rotting in the woods. Instead, the house comes to life, the interior glowing like a candle, and the porch light blinking twice.
Pushing past the steel doors, she sees the wish fulfillment of a family, her family, repaired and come true. A mother resurrected, a family reconciling, a twin brother there for her on her wedding day, and a husband still alive.
Hill House lures Nell with the warm embrace of a forever home, its arms outstretched like jaws. And a destiny is brutally fulfilled as the noose fits snugly around her neck. Then comes the fall. Then we feel the snap, the rush of her life flashing before her eyes. In The Haunting of Hill House’s most devastating twist, Nell becomes the entity that haunted her across her entire life. She is the Bent-Neck Lady.
Nell’s death brings the surviving Crains together, but for the wrong reasons. Reconvening at Hill House, each of them finds closure to the mysteries that followed them all their lives. They’ll find a mother who always loved them, a father who tried to protect them, and a little sister who just wanted them all in the same room. Steven, Shirley, Theo, and Luke will be able to move on from Hill House, truly. Finally.
But a part of them will remain incomplete, unanswered. Like a missed call. Or promising “next time” to a little sister who just wanted to have a tea party. They were there for Nell after the fact, and it’s the guilt they’ll carry with them as they roam the halls of whatever houses they might build for themselves in the future.
“Ghosts are guilt, ghosts are secrets, ghosts are regrets and failings.” Nell’s story in The Haunting of Hill House delves into the harrowing truth at the heart of every haunted house story. A ghost can be many things, but it is first and foremost, human. A thing that once was, like an idyllic family portrait. An estranged family, in the end, creates the most terrifying ghost of all that not even an exorcism can fix: a broken home.
Adrian Manuel is a freelance culture writer. He’s written for PopMatters, Odyssean Travel, Thought Catalog, among others. You can find him on Twitter, where he otherwise should be writing. He lives in Hawaii.