Why Olivia's Vulnerability Is One Of The Most Terrifying Parts Of 'Hill House'

by Rebecca Patton
Lauren Perlstein/Bustle

It seems cosmic that I meet Carla Gugino on Halloween, considering she's fresh off of her recent performance as the Crain family matriarch Olivia on Netflix's heartbreakingly terrifying series The Haunting of Hill House. When the actor breezes into Bustle's offices wearing a tan overcoat and fabulous floral dress, teetering expertly on platform stilettos, one could almost confuse such a glamorous figure for the always regal-looking Olivia Crain. But — perhaps thankfully — the comparison falls apart once you notice that, unlike her character, Gugino is frequently smiling.

Gugino quickly makes herself at home, kicking off her heels and slipping her bare feet beneath her on the chair. She's marveling at the fact that even though Hill House debuted only two weeks ago, people are already dressing like the Crain family for Halloween.

"I had a sense it would be good; I didn't know if it would be big," Gugino says, clearly proud of the critical (not to mention viral) response to the show. And for good reason. The show's success can be attributed in large part to her portrayal of Olivia, whose dual nature is such a compelling part of Hill House's narrative. Mrs. Crain is both a loving mom and that thing that goes bump in the night; her only goal is to protect her children, and yet somehow (spoiler alerts ahead!) she ends up trying to kill them. It’s an ambitious concept that’s grounded by the show’s compelling family drama, and it wouldn't work if Gugino couldn't sell audiences on both sides of Olivia. In other words, Gugino's role as Olivia Crain on Hill House has solidified her status as a terrifyingly real horror matriarch.

This isn't the actor's first time dabbling in in horror; she also starred in Hill House director Mike Flanagan's 2017 psychological horror film Gerald's Game. But Gugino says she's less interested in jump scares than the stories they're telling. "It's really cool to see people really responding to it," she says of Hill House. "But also the fact that they're not just responding to being terrified — which they are — but they're responding to the larger story that we were trying to tell, which is a story of a family and trauma in a family."

Hill House has been described as This Is Us with ghosts, which seems apt considering the decade-spanning horror series is really about the death of a parent and how individual members of the family cope with that loss. It could be argued that Olivia Crain is the show's true fulcrum, as both the giver of life and the proverbial undertaker. She’s a contradiction: both a doting mom of five and a child murderer; she's at times completely aware of what’s happening and totally off her rocker (remember the blueprints?). She hates the house but can’t escape from it; at the end of her life, she’s unable to separate dreams from reality.

Olivia is essentially the modern-day incarnation of the madwoman in the attic trope, à la Mr. Rochester's wife in Jane Eyre. But while relying on horror tropes can often lead to unimaginative art, Gugino worked to make Olivia both an iconic genre symbol and a living, breathing human being. "I was really influenced by the visual of Meryl Streep in [The] French Lieutenant's Woman," she explains. "And that's kind of where the hair came from — that sort of wild, mysterious, female energy. Where there's some sense of danger but you also kind of fall into this woman."

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Although Olivia eventually becomes an emblem of terror — the figure in white limping after her family — she still has an ethereal quality, which Hill House's cinematographer wanted to capture for its broader emotional resonance. "[W]hen somebody — especially a parent — dies really young, there's this kind of heightened sense of memory," Gugino explains. "And they almost do become this kind of iconic, angelic, larger-than-life character... [Hill House cinematographer] Michael Fimognari also filmed it that way, where there was a lot of glowing light around [Olivia] in the earlier days and not so much when you start to see the crumbling, and when you start to see the house taking her in."

I can say for myself, there is no worse demon than my own brain. It can also be my best companion.

As viewers know, the house does ultimately take her in, but the scrambled chronology of Hill House leaves viewers wondering about her fate for the majority of the series. It's clear that the house and Olivia's fates are intertwined — the longer the Crains stay there, the more the house degrades, which is a clear through line for her mental state. But Gugino adds that another tip-off is Olivia’s clothes. Olivia's wardrobe throughout the series is exquisite, but Gugino says that the red velvet robe she wears toward the end is supposed to be blue in real life, "but when we see it, once the house has taken her, it turns red," she explains. (Red, like the color of that pesky locked room upstairs, and — fortuitously — like the belt Gugino's has chosen to wear on the day she comes into the Bustle studio.)

As Mrs. Crain slips further and further from reality, she becomes more convinced that the outside world is dangerous — that the only safe place for her children is in Hill House. She becomes trapped inside her head, and the narrative Hill House is feeding her becomes the irrevocable, gospel truth. It's a chilling fate for her character, but it wasn't too difficult for Gugino to relate to how one's brain can play tricks on you.

"I can say for myself, there is no worse demon than my own brain," Gugino says. "It can also be my best companion. But if I'm alone for too long, or dealing with something really challenging and not having someone to bounce it off of, you can feel like you're going crazy! I mean, I think everyone can relate to that, so this just takes it to the nth degree."

Olivia's sole motivation is to keep her children safe, and the house takes that very common parental anxiety and convolutes it. And while Gugino expertly walks the tightrope between those two contradictory truths on the show, the actor says that she initially had a hard time understanding how Olivia, in trying to protect her children, would end up trying to kill them.

"I thought conceptually it was a really interesting idea, but practically it was a very hard one to play or to believe for an audience," she says. "And the key in for me was when [Mike Flanagan] wrote the scene where my two youngest twins say, 'If we were in this nightmare, would you wake us up?' Because all of a sudden then, I understood that. 'I would absolutely wake you up.'"

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And Olivia's desire to protect her children comes from a pure place. "[W]e're in a moment in time where people are very worried about their kids going to school," Gugino says. "People are very worried about all of the same things Olivia is worried about, and the mother cub wants to protect [her] kids at all costs. It's just that, in this case, because it is in the skin of a horror piece, we take it to an extreme degree."

I ask Gugino why she thinks her character was so easily manipulated by the house while the show's other mother, Mrs. Dudley, remained largely unaffected. Although she points out that the stern housekeeper was likely more impacted than we think, Gugino theorizes that Olivia was simply more susceptible. "Mrs. Dudley's black and white sense of faith of what is right, what is wrong, what is God, what is not God, probably protected her from the house," she speculates. "And I think the fact that Olivia was very open… opened her up to great things, and also opened her up to scary things."

Despite all this, Gugino still believes that Olivia was a good mother. "That's the tragedy of it all," she says. "And that's the thing that Hugh keeps advocating for, too. Like, 'Your mom wasn't crazy. She was a great mom, and this thing happened.'"

Mental illness is a clear theme in The Haunting of Hill House — Nell suffers from both sleep paralysis and depression, Hugh speaks to Olivia decades after her death, and Luke struggles with addiction. What’s more, Steven believes his mother had schizophrenia, and without understanding the seductive nature of Hill House, that theory is entirely reasonable. The specters Olivia sees convince her to carry out irrational behaviors, and no one can hear these voices but her.

With that in mind, did Olivia suffer from mental illness prior to living in Hill House, or was the mansion entirely to blame for her deteriorating state? "I don't think she was mad," Gugino says matter-of-factly. Her character is sensitive, yes, but that doesn't mean she was schizophrenic. "I think that it's about the moment of her life when it caught her," she says, referring to the house. "And it got her at a very, very vulnerable moment."

It's clear that Olivia's behavior toward the end of the series isn't really her, and the final episode allows Steven to see his mother accurately: Not as a madwoman or someone fully grounded, but as a vulnerable mom who got turned around one too many times. The rest, as Nell says, is just confetti.

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein

Hair by Sebstian Scolarici/ TraceyMattingly.com

Makeup by Gianpaolo Ceciliato using NARS/ TraceyMattingly.com