Warning: The following contains spoilers for the entirety of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, all 10 episodes. Proceed with caution.
It’s safe to assume these days that a supernatural TV drama isn’t going to end with us, the viewers, getting every answer or solving all the mysteries we faced over the season. So it was with Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which after 10 episodes of family secrets and unexpected zombie torsos, left us wondering what exactly we’d seen.
That’s not to say that Hill House‘s ending wasn’t satisfying, but it may feel that way at first. It’s certainly a game-changer and doesn’t explain half the specters haunting the Crains (and us!) all season, but it merits a second viewing to solidify the journey we just went on and what it all means.
By this time, nine episodes into Hill House, we’ve dealt with some major shocks and twists, such as that Nell is the “bent-neck lady” she’s been seeing for years or that Luke’s imaginary friend Abigail was real and killed by Olivia when the house consumed her mind.
That primed us to expect equally painful discoveries in the finale, beginning with a shocking reveal about the Red Room: We’ve been inside it before. We revisit a scene from episode 1 in which young Nellie and Shirley try a skeleton key on the door but to no avail. It’s cut together with another scene; Theo in her dance studio, experiencing disturbance when someone tries the door. At first the simultaneous occurrences barely compute – is this a flashback? A comparison? Will something emerge to tie the events together?
But no, this is what happened, what always happened. Theo unknowingly accessed the Red Room, which always appeared to her as her dance studio, and when she locked the door it turned back into that ominous red door that no one else could get through. It was Nellie’s toy room, Olivia’s reading room, Steve’s game room, and Luke’s tree house.
In those times, when they weren’t afraid of or fighting the house, the Crains opened themselves up to it. They revealed their inner, individual lives to the Red Room, which gave them what they wanted as it fed off their vulnerability, learned their behavior and fears.
Back in the present, Hill House is after the Crain siblings, but its old horrors have a recent acquisition they didn’t bargain for: Nell. Despite its thirst to acquire her, the House can’t contend with the youngest sister’s kindness and consideration. It couldn’t corrupt her the way it corrupted her mother, lonely Liv whose ghost just pushed her daughter to death.
As the house pulls each sibling under, it confronts them, not with their greatest fear, but with their biggest source of guilt. “Fear and guilt are sisters,” Theo’s lover tells her in a nightmare. Fear is what made the Crains, as children, susceptible to Hill House; guilt is what brought them back. Nell pulls them out, because all of them feel guilt about not believing or helping her more – and they’re all running from the guilt about her death.
Once they’re all conscious (it was touch-and-go with Luke there), Nell appears to them clearly and explains the nature of the Red Room. She also touches upon something the show plays with a little throughout its 10 episodes: Time. It isn’t linear, but random and ongoing. “Our moments fall around us like rain,” she says.
That’s the only explanation we get for Nell visiting her younger self throughout her tragically short life, or for the writing on Hill House’s walls or Olivia having nightmares about her dead adult child. With what little time they all have left together, the siblings apologize to Nell, who assuages their guilt and tells them she loves them. She disappears, this time we know, for good.
Locked out of the room, Hugh faces the ghost of Olivia, no longer herself after years of Hill House eating away at her mind and soul. Seeing her husband sparks enough of her old self for her to remember their love for each other and the children. He manages to reason with her, to negotiate the kids’ release in exchange for his own life. When the siblings leave, the house doesn’t stop them, on their mother’s command. It’s done with them now.
Before letting Steve go, Hugh revisits his memories of the last night at Hill House, after the children left and Olivia died in the foyer. The Dudleys begged him not to destroy the house, which contained the only remaining incarnation of their daughter Abigail. They promised to keep people away so that the house starves and takes no further victims, and urged Hugh to keep its secrets – which he goes on to do, even from his own children who were part of it all.
Knowing what we do changes everything about Hill House. It adjusts how we look at the previous nine episodes – not invalidating their disturbing stories, but giving us a new lens with which to view them. All 10 episodes are as intriguing in a rewatch as they were the first time when we didn’t know what we now do.
Steve walks away armed with knowledge, free of guilt, immune to fear, and none of the “precious things” that haunt the house can touch him – nor do they come for him and his siblings ever again. The remaining siblings return to their lives almost conspicuously well-adjusted after losing Nell and their father to Hill House, but now opting to live with truth and confidence instead of secrecy and shame.
Steve’s closing monologue likens fear to love; both are “the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns” to which we yield or against which we fight. It’s almost the exact same narration that episode 1 begins with, but now we too are free of Hill House and the family’s secrets. Fear was how Hill House claimed them and love set them free. Maybe it’s trite, but after all that suffering, it’s nice to see the Crains find some peace (even though they still need years of therapy).
If you revisit Hill House, you’ll find it doesn’t scare the way it used to. Knowing what we do about the Red Room – and accepting how little we know about the rest of it – is oddly freeing. There is little to fear more than that carcass in the woods Nell’s therapist mentioned.
Unless it gets a second season.