Note: Though this post was generated from a re-viewing of episodes one and two of The Haunting of Hill House, the analysis entails a broader knowledge of the show’s trajectory. So, if you still haven’t seen this excellent show and don’t want spoilers, it might be beneficial to avoid reading this piece until you’ve watched the show!
At my university, we heard we were moving to remote instruction at pretty much the exact time that my Reading the Monster classes had finished Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho. By that point in the semester, we’d already read I Am Legend and Psycho, in addition to watching season one of Penny Dreadful and viewing a few films, so I decided I had some leeway on the syllabus. Our next “work” was the grim but oddly moving dystopian novel Never Let Me Go, which we were going to use to talk about monstrous societies and monstrous locations. But, since for some people it may be difficult to concentrate on a novel during a pandemic, I decided to alter the syllabus slightly. As such, my Reading the Monster students can choose between reading Never Let Me Go or watching the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House; both texts, on some level, deal with monstrous locations – although they do so in vastly different ways. As for myself, well, I’m re-watching The Haunting of Hill House (THOHH) and re-reading Never Let Me Go (NLM) so I’m in sync with both groups of students. Since THOHH is one of my favorite television shows and NLM is one of my favorite novels, I don’t feel like I have extra work; rather, the reading and viewing is a pleasure.
And the work is an additional pleasure because the first time I watched Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, I didn’t write about it. To be honest, aside from a Fiction’s Fearless Female post I wrote at the beginning of the lockdown, I’ve continued to shy away from writing all together during this debacle. It’s funny – I kept telling myself that pulling together a cohesive blog post (not to mention, say, a dissertation proposal) sounded too demanding of my energy. It took awhile to remember that I’m often at my happiest when blogging, that churning out a bunch of posts about the scary stuff I love to read and watch is infinitely rewarding – and, especially doable in times of quarantine and crisis. So I have a blog post about the movie Freaks on the tip of my tongue (or fingers…), which I watched about a week ago, but I thought I’d take some time, first and foremost, to talk about THOHH. The way I see this post formulating, I won’t write about every aspect of episodes one and two; there’s a lot to say about the show, and a detailed analysis could turn into quite an endeavor. But (surprise, surprise) I’m reading about madness now, and I couldn’t help but think of how madness is depicted in the Netflix version of the story through one of the main characters, Nell.
In THOHH (the Netflix version), Nell is an endearing character, but her sister Theodora says Nell’s had “one foot in crazy and the other on a banana peel” her entire life – which might, arguably, seem a bit insensitive and politically incorrect for a practicing psychiatrist, which Theodora is. Then again, that’s the particularly interesting thing about Nell. In Netflix’s THOHH, Nell does get a diagnosis (which is not the case in Jackson’s novel or in the 1963 version of The Haunting). But the only diagnosis we hear about is sleep paralysis, a condition that causes Nell to wake up at strange times and to see things – specifically, in this show, to see “the bent-neck lady,” but without the ability to move or turn away. And “sleep paralysis” sounds very objective, very clinical. It hardly explains the bizarre behaviors that Nell’s siblings attribute to her throughout episodes one and two; it seems, to her siblings, Nell’s always in crisis mode, always demanding attention. However, the phrase “sleep paralysis” doesn’t seem to “diagnose” the scope of Nell’s behavior in any specific way. It is an interesting writing choice, to say the least: the character in the show who’s most known for her “madness” (at least, after the first episode or two), in a present-day setting where mental health diagnoses are rather the norm than the exception, is never (if I recall correctly, at least) “diagnosed” with a specific disorder in the show. She’s just sort of considered “crazy Nell,” by her siblings. Ascribing a mental illness to someone, for better or worse, allows us (especially if they’re literary characters) to place them in a concrete category. There is, then, no concrete category in which we can place Nell.
It is significant, I think, that we can’t give Nell’s madness “a label,” – or, at least, that the show’s writers chose not to. If we can’t diagnose someone, if we can’t label their disorder as an (almost tangible) entity that derives from a cluster of empirically observable symptoms, then is the person really “mad” at all? Indeed, in literary studies, we use the term “madness” instead of “mental illness;” madness is a more generalizable term that probably nods, appropriately, to the reality that insanity is always a little amorphous and uncertain, more a product of the beholder’s eye than a concrete entity. To say a character is “mentally ill,” may be to diagnose the character with a specific, seemingly essential sickness, and often to do so simply because the character acts a bit eccentric and erratic; madness, on the other hand, is forever ambiguous and difficult to define; it functions as the perfectly enigmatic signifier for a state of being that is inherently hard to signify.
Which is all to say that perhaps by denying us a diagnosis that we would typically equate with quote-unquote madness – you know, a schizophrenia, or a severe depression, or a bipolar disorder – the show itself might be a bit skeptical of “madness,” – or at least, a bit skeptical about some of our assumptions regarding the phenomenon. Indeed, much like the 1963 film The Haunting, and like Jackson’s 1959 novel, the Netflix version of THOHH seeks to banish us to the utmost exterior of reality proper. In the first episode, writer Steven Crane listens to a woman describe a vision she had of her dead husband – a vision she describes in rather horrific detail, albeit it in broad day light, in the comfort of a cozy suburb – only to spend the night at her house and to deduce that her “vision” was the byproduct of a leaking roof and the horn-honking caused by a misplaced stop sign. But despite Steven’s own certainty that the woman didn’t see a ghost, we, the viewers, aren’t so sure. In the same episode, a little boy won’t look at his grandmother in an open casket because he has visions of her sitting on his bed every night; adults take his assertion with a grain of salt, but as viewers, we’re inclined to picture the sight he describes and, well, perhaps to believe him. Indeed, the show pays great homage to the film and the book before it by thrusting us in a situation of uncertainty, a state where reality and illusion overlap, a house of mirrors in which we’re never sure that what claims to “be” actually “is.” I would argue that any show that indulges in this trope as much as THOHH does is a show that’s probably skeptical of madness – or, at least, skeptical that “madness” is a realm completely separate and completely exterior from reason, a show that’s skeptical of a binary that pairs madness and reason together, and necessarily places madness on the lower echelon of that binary. Madness, after all, may not be able to co-exist peacefully with mutable and subjective reality.
And it’s this skepticism about madness, and human claims to understanding reality, that makes a discussion of Nell, the show’s ostensible mad hatter, so important. First, we’d do well to acknowledge that part of what revs this television show’s engine is the series of complex, troubling dynamics that befall a struggling, often feuding family before, during, and after at least two (and perhaps more than two) traumatic experiences. Which is to say that if Nell is the “mad” one in the family, she is so by the designation of her siblings only; every member of the family carries a lot of emotional “baggage” and inner-family disputes and dysfunction drive the plot in a way that, of course, they couldn’t have in older versions of the story (Jackson’s book and the 1963 film, after all, situate the viewer among a gathering of strangers, not a strife-ridden family). Which brings me to an argument that I didn’t expect to make, but that might be appropriate in this piece: In his book The Social History of Madness, Roy Porter argues that during certain historical periods, some people believed that the mad actually possessed nuggets of wisdom, a degree of insight beyond that possessed by the “non-mad” or the sane. We’ve all heard the phrase, “the wise fool,” after all. What’s interesting, in that light, is that for all her alleged insanity, by some standards, Nell might be the wisest and the sanest person in her somewhat disgruntled family. She is, in any case (which we see as the show goes on) the kindest and the least resentful. She has a certain capability to love without bitterness, a capability that the rest of her family members, by and large, don’t have. Indeed, while their perceptions and perspectives may arguably be clouded by their assumptions and resentments (placing them further from the so-called truth) Nell’s sort of gentleness and purity may place her, in a sense, closer to it (and thus, perhaps, not just “saner,” but wiser, too). I would not make this argument about Nell/Eleanor in Jackson’s novel or the 1963 film, The Haunting, but I think it’s plausible in the Netflix rendition of the story.
And even if we’re not willing to go that far, even if we don’t see Nell as the apex of kindness, acceptance, and wisdom amid the roaring bastion of stubbornness and accusation that is her (ultimately human, ultimately lovable) family, we still need to acknowledge that, I think, the show wants us to pay attention to her. And it wants us to pay attention to her so that it can seemingly invalidate her at the beginning of the season, only to ultimately “rescue” her and contextualize her madness, to make her seem less “mad” and to cause us to sit, uncomfortably, with our own assumptions, about Nell and about madness in general.
To return to Porter, Roy Porter argues, in The Social History of Madness, that the discourse of the so-called mad make sense when placed in a historical context. And Porter gives us a lot of historical context. Porter examines Richard III, poets like William Cowper, and lesser known writers of life-narratives, like John Perceval. He wades through documentation to produce as clear a picture as possible of different “mad” individuals’ lives, and through the historical context he provides, their life-writing – diaries, narratives, and what-have you – become logical. Indeed, as Porter claims, one starts to see the writings of the “mad” in his text as texts that engage in a “dialectic” with the time period in which they’re situated.
To be honest, I’ve read two works by Porter, and this one is the less exciting of the two I’ve read; it’s lengthy and a bit heavy and contains a lot of historical details that, on my less astute days, might seem neither here nor there. But I’m reading the entire work for my dissertation, because I don’t know of anyone else who endeavors to do what Porter does, and implicit in Porter’s argument that mad writings “make sense” when contextualized are a few sub-arguments: first, that it’s worthwhile to make sense of the “mad,” that understanding the speech of the seemingly deranged “other” is valuable and worthwhile, and, second, that we’re not doing it enough. Whether or not madness is “subversive,” in literature, and whether or not the mad “can speak” are two debates that have been raging for awhile now in the field of literary madness. And they’re debates that risk becoming esoteric, pedantic, and mired in unhelpful theory without the inclusion of real people. Porter uses real historical figures to show us that when we write off the words of the mad because we claim they’re non-sensical, when we don’t let the other speak, we’re really only making excuses; we’re not seeking to understand, when understanding might be viewed as surprisingly easy (for, after all, a lot of his explanations are fairly straightforward).
But okay, how does this relate more specifically to Nell in the Netflix version of The Haunting of Hill House? When I think of Porter’s aim, I think of one specific part of episode #1. But it does not work to view that episode on its own. Having seen the entire show once now, when I re-watched episode 1, what stood out to me as particularly exemplary was Nell’s last phone call, before she enters Hill House. She’s decided – for reasons that the show hasn’t told us yet but, I would argue, for valid reasons – to drive to Hill House and enter it again, after years of being away (we learn in episode two that her father insisted on maintaining ownership of the house and keeping it locked up, so it’s empty and dismal). She tries calling all her siblings, because she’s experiencing legitimate problems (although we don’t know that after watching only the first episode) but they all write her phone calls off as a plea for attention, as part of a penchant to act up and create chaos. Her brother Steve, for example (when on the phone with other siblings) says “everything is an emergency to Nell.”
Ultimately, Nell calls her father. We don’t know Nell yet, and we don’t know much about the other characters in the story or the plot in which Nell is entangled. So, when she calls her father in the middle of the night and says, over the telephone, something along the lines of, “it’s all so…mixed up and confusing,” it’s tempting (and expected) to contextualize her sentence in light of what her siblings say about her, and to assume that she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about. She tells her dad she’s in her bed at home. Her brother Luke, who she keeps claiming to be worried about, is allegedly safe in rehab. What could be so “mixed up and confusing?” Rather than assume that Nell is referring to a specific series of events that would be too complicated for anyone to explain over the phone, we’re tempted to (and we may well), after a first viewing of the show, dismiss her speech as the garbled nonsense of the mad. Her ostensible suicide only underscores that point; after episode one, certainly we know that there’s a lot we don’t know, but it’s quite easy to judge Nell, to put her in the place that we (and the deceptive text) have ordained for her: the mad woman who can’t clearly express herself, who ultimately commits a brutal act of frenzied suicide. She is not unlike Hamlet’s Ophelia, in that sense, although we’ll come to learn that her story is quite different.
Of course, as I re-watched episode one, having watched the entire series once now, I realized how untrue all of this is. Nell is calling her siblings, at first, because she’s worried about her brother, Luke, a drug addict who can’t seem to get clean. And while we’re told in episode one that Luke’s fine (which implies that “crazy Nell’s” frenetic phone calls are baseless) as the series unfolds we learn that Nell’s phone calls were right, that Nell knew long before anyone else that Luke was in trouble. As for her assertion that “it’s all so mixed up and confusing,” while we might have been tempted to disregard the meaning of that statement completely – or, perhaps even more erroneously, to assume she was trying to describe a stereotypically “mixed up” or “mad” state of mind – we learn, after watching the whole series, that the complex layers of plot that she’s mixed up in, the events that surround her, are far too mixed up and confusing to convey over a late night telephone call. Nell isn’t mumbling nonsense, and she’s not telling us that her mind is mixed up and she’s confused; she’s telling us that the world around her has collapsed, and that such a collapse includes multiple complex events that are too confusing to relay in a short breath.
At the end of episode one, Steve, the older brother who was perhaps the quickest to invalidate Nell, comes home only to see Nell standing in the corner of his apartment. He hasn’t heard word of her suicide yet, and so he doesn’t know she’s dead. He speaks to her harshly, asking her what’s so important. He says something like, “You have us all listening now Nellie, what do you want?” But Nell (who is really Nell’s ghost) stands still, silently. Her lips quiver, and she repeatedly opens her lips just a little, then closes them again, as if she’s grasping for words, as if she’s trying to speak but completely incapable of doing so. Only then does Steve receive the phone call –from his father – announcing Nell’s death. He turns around and she’s closer to him, with her lips still quivering. But this time she opens her mouth widely, and we can only see black inside. She lets out a silent scream, and episode one ends.
Nell’s mouth is important in this concluding scene because it underscores what the show wants to demonstrate through her character: so often, we don’t let the mad, the allegedly neurotic or psychotic, speak. Nell’s quivering lips and her attempt to open her mouth remind me of bad dreams I’ve had, dreams in which I’ve tried to articulate myself but have been unable to form words properly with my mouth, as if it were filled with molasses, or something similarly heavy and sticky. I can’t say I know the importance of my own dreams (and I don’t at all contend that they have the same meaning I’m discussing here, in part because I’m not a literary character), but for Nell’s ghost, her struggle to open her mouth seems to perfectly exemplify her problem in life: the fact that Nell sees and knows things that others often don’t see or don’t know, but nobody listens to her when she speaks.
In other words, killing Nell in episode one of the series has an interesting effect; we make a lot of assumptions and value judgements about her character before we learn the back story surrounding her – before we learn about her psychic abilities, or about the fact that her suicide was not much more than an accident, and one probably provoked by Hill House itself, which is a sort of manipulative quasi-monster throughout the series. The experience of watching those assumptions (assumptions about Nell, and, perhaps, assumptions about madness) collapse, and then re-structuring our understanding of the character and her so-called malady as we move through the series, is, of course, a much different experience than it is to hear me blather on about all this – for which reason, I hope you’ve watched the show yourself before reading this. But I think it’s important to have that experience as viewers; to watch Nell, to assume things about her, to come to love her (for indeed, she’s an easy character to sympathize with) and ultimately to validate her – and to watch the narrative validate a woman who we might have been quick to cast aside as mad. The rest of the show’s plot, in other words, gives us the “context” that Porter mentions in his text, and helps us decode the meaning in those few simple words she utters to her father, words about how “mixed up” and “confusing” it all is. In doing so, and in giving Nell a story, an initially deceptive but ultimately central role in a complex plot, THOHH validates Nell, and, if we’re lucky, may make us question our own quickness to invalidate Nell herself, and the so-called mad person in general.