Spoiler alert! This article contains spoilers about the first season of The Haunting of Hill House.
Have you seen the recent hype about the new horror series The Haunting of Hill House? My Facebook feed has been full of press making bold claims about Netflix's October release:
It's the time of year to test your bravery against the usual cast of horrific monsters, ghosts and zombies. There's no better time to find out whether Netflix has finally figured out the formula to make you faint, cry, puke or die of fright. The Haunting of Hill House is full of anticlimax, anticipation and cheap jump scares, but that doesn't mean it won't chill you to the bone. None of the supernatural events of the show have haunted me quite like the mature portrayal of grief in the second episode of this first season.
It's the story of a family that is plagued by ghosts after moving into a very haunted-looking mansion. The five children each have their own experiences with the paranormal while living in the house, until the suicide of their mother. Constant flashbacks to their childhood frequently blend past and present, real and unreal, normal and paranormal.
As adults, the kids have coped with the terror of their childhood in different ways, which form the basis of much of the plot. The eldest daughter, Shirley Crain, is a mortician. When her youngest sister, Nell, commits suicide, she decides to embalm her body on her own.
As someone who blogs about grief every week, and constantly engages in the world of death, I spend a fair amount of time pondering bereavement. One of the most frustrating parts of grief is knowing where to draw boundary lines with family and other mourners when everybody is in a vulnerable and emotional state. There's a scene in The Haunting of Hill House that gives us a glimpse of healthy grief boundaries, and mature self-preservation, in an extreme grief situation. It's rare to see a bald, real and mature moment of grief on screen.
In a flashback to her childhood, we see young Shirley discover an abandoned litter of kittens. When she brings them home, one of the kittens dies. Her parents help her bury the kitten and deliver a eulogy, telling the young girl, "When we die, we turn into stories and every time someone tells one of those stories it's like we're here for them."
As they are about to bury the kitten, Shirley sees the kitten's mouth move. Convinced it is still alive, she is devastated when a beetle crawls out of its mouth. It's a disturbing moment, but we quickly see her view of death redeemed in a subsequent flashback, when a kind funeral director convinces the young girl to view her dead mother in the casket. Shirley is amazed that the mortician was able to "fix" her mom and restore her to a lifelike appearance. This inspires her to become a funeral director.
But then we see her find all the other kittens dead, except one. At first, she's comforted that the last kitten is still alive, but screams when it flashes open its terrifying, white eyes. Her parents get rid of the kitten without telling Shirley, and the girl is crushed when she finds out.
"She's going to have a pretty messed up view of death coming out of this no matter what," says her mother.
I couldn't help but agree. These early exposures to death are so important to our relationship with loss, our own mortality, our view of life and our own coping mechanisms. But I was wrong, because we quickly see Shirley's professionalism as a mortician. Despite her early traumas related to loss, she's managed to cope and communicate healthily.
Flash forward to present day. Shirley is embalming her own sister at the mortuary she owns, despite the objections of her family. She finds her two children outside the door of the embalming room, where they are not supposed to be.
"I know you're curious and sad. I'm sad too, so sad I can't even tell you. What do you want to know? I won't lie to you. Any questions you have are completely normal, okay?"
"What are you doing to her?"
"I just finished embalming her. It helps her look how we remember her."
"Why did she die?"
"I don't know, it's just so sad that she did. She loved you both so much."
"Where is she now?"
"I don't know Allie, nobody knows. I can tell you what I think maybe, sometime tomorrow. But mostly I'm just sad. I know you're curious about her, but this part isn't for people to see. I can tell you everything I'm doing, but some other time. Right now, why don't you two go pick your favorite picture of auntie Nell from one of the albums. I can hang it at the funeral, okay?"
In this moment, we see a blend of Shirley's professionalism as a mortician override her raw grief and the difficulty of facing family during a moment of darkness. She calmly explains to her children the bare facts, while acknowledging the tragedy with emotion. It's not a dramatic portrayal of grief, but a realistic one. Though most of us could not (and would never) embalm a relative's body, these immediate, intense moments of grief do happen, and there is often family around to complicate things.
She knows not to go down the path of rationalizing her sister's death—at least not yet. She reassures the kids that their aunt loved them, but also puts up her own boundaries: Today is not the day to talk about beliefs, the techniques she's using, or even her feelings. When someone has died, there are things that can't wait for our emotional processing times. Burying our dead with respect is an important act of service that we do for those we love, and this can't wait while we grieve.
Shirley teaches her children the lessons about loss that her parents couldn't teach her. Openness about death is important. There is nothing to fear from a dead body. Our final impressions of a corpse impact the way we grieve. Some parts of death are not for everybody to see. Even close loved ones don't get to make demands about how we grieve.
The Haunting of Hill House is a worth a watch, for those who are recently bereaved and can handle some thrills. There's a lot to unpack, but for those who grapple with fear of bodies and family dysfunction it's a cathartic look at how to cope.
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