Spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House ahead. The eponymous mansion in The Haunting of Hill House is very good at distorting reality. Whatever force is presiding over the property convinces its occupants that the outside world is terrifying and that death is the only way out. And in this way, the horrors that lurk in Hill House can be viewed as a metaphor for mental illness. Warning: This article contains information about suicide, which some may find triggering.
In Episode 7, for instance, audiences learn that there are several different versions of the house blueprints, which Olivia (Carla Gugino) calls "schizophrenic" and plans to combine into a master plan. But when she presents them to her husband, Hugh, they're an absolute mess — which is when he realizes there's something more going on with her. "[S]he turns this thing into him, and he's looking at it, and it makes no sense," Henry Thomas, who plays young Hugh, tells Bustle. "And that's when his world kind of starts to seriously fall apart."
Olivia also suffers from migraines, which Hugh calls her "color storms." These appear to be physical symptoms brought on by her mental state, which worsen as their stay in Hill House drags on. Eventually, she begins seeing ghosts who try to convince her to kill her family in order to protect them from suffering.
"That's the tricky bit about negotiating life with a family, right?" Thomas says of Hugh's reluctance to take action. "Because we all have our problems, and we have our hang-ups, and we have our idiosyncrasies and everything. And what do you do when you really love somebody, and you see that person slipping away and something else taking over that you can't explain?"
What's more, it's implicated but never fully confirmed that Olivia lived with mental illness before entering the house. For the majority of the show, Steven is convinced that his mother had schizophrenia, and Olivia herself hinted that her issues were pre-existing. "Thank goodness I have Hugh," Mrs. Crain tells Mrs. Dudley in Episode 9. "I've always needed someone to keep me grounded — get me out of my head."
Perhaps she meant that literally, but because of the stigma that still regrettably surrounds mental health, Hugh wasn't able to get her proper help. "It's an unsettling feeling if you have this person that's your anchor, and they're not the same person that they were a week ago or a day ago," Thomas says. "So there was Hugh's inner turmoil, and he wasn't willing to embrace it. He was always willing to try to find a pragmatic, practical reason for why and how it was happening, and it couldn't be that she's losing her mind. It's got to be something with the house... When things go wrong it's a lot easier to try to explain it away than to address it."
The Crains' daughter Nell (Victoria Pedretti) also had mental health struggles throughout her life. She began experiencing night terrors and anxiety when she was just 6 years old, after a ghostlike presence she called the Bent-Neck Lady started appearing to her. At surface level, this could be written off as just another one of the apparitions hiding within the mansion, but it follows Nell long after she's left the house. And later, viewers learn that the Bent-Neck Lady was actually Nell the whole time. She was, quite literally, being haunted by herself — an apt metaphor for what it's like to live with trauma and mental illness. "Nell is dealing with the same kinds of things we all deal with in terms of the trauma that she's held onto and experienced," Pedretti says of her character. "And whatever mental health issues come out of that, they're somewhat ordinary, I think, in the world we live in."
Unlike her mother, Nell is able to get professional help as an adult, and her circumstances seem to improve with both therapy and the support of her husband, Arthur. But after Arthur dies, Nell begins seeing a new therapist, who ill-advisedly suggests she go back to Hill House and confront her past. Being alone in the place that holds her most traumatic memories proves to be too much for Nell, and she's driven — either by the mansion or her own pain or some combination of both — to hang herself.
"I think she's still really trying to find that peace of mind again," Pedretti explains of Nell. "Even in her last moments, I think she's really still holding onto life! I think she's just trying to find clarity."
Theo realizes the depth of her younger sister's helplessness when she touches Nell's body and feels nothing — something that, as someone able to read people through touch, comes as a disturbing shock. "I was just this dark, empty black hole," she tells Shirley in Episode 8. "And I'm just floating in this ocean of nothing, and I wonder if this is it, if this is what death is, just out there in the darkness, just darkness and numbness and alone, and I wondered if that's what she felt and that's what mom feels, and it's just numb and nothing and alone." While Theo is referring to death here, it also sounds very similar to symptoms of depression.
The eldest Crain, Steven, is also deeply afraid, but not of the house — he's convinced that his family is mentally unstable. In fact, he's so terrified of passing on their "sickness" that he gets a vasectomy. "I don't understand why this family has such a hard time acknowledging mental illness!" he yells in Episode 6. "Mom, Nell, Dad's talking to himself all night."
Whereas Hugh refused to acknowledge his wife's mental illness, Steven fully embraced it, he just couldn't accept it as a natural, normal aspect of life — both problems still very much a part of mental health stigma.
"[W]e all struggle with our sanity," Thomas says. "We all ascribe certain things to either spirituality or reality or somewhere in between. And we don't know, you know? We can have faith in things, we can believe in things, but the knowing is the elusive part of life, right? And the fear of the unknown, I think, is probably the greatest fear in human beings."
Audiences may never know whether what happened in Hill House was real, or merely a series of manifestations brought on by Olivia and Nell's own dwindling sanity. But that's exactly the point, because mental health is in itself a long, uncertain battle with no "right" answer. In The Haunting of Hill House, it's just filled with a lot more ghosts.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.