Reimagined by horror master Mike Flanagan, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House has taken major departures from the Shirley Jackson novel on which it’s based. Familiar characters are no longer strangers pulled together for a supernatural experiment, but instead a family battling against mental illness, trauma, addiction, and ghosts! And at the center of this family saga is one disturbing question: Who is the Bent Neck Lady?
With all episodes now available on Netflix, it’s time for us to dig in.
Major spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House below. Seriously, we advise not reading this until you’ve watched all ten episodes.
The show begins with the wailing of a child. 6-year-old Nellie, the Crain’s youngest daughter, has woken once more to the Bent Neck Lady staring down at her. Long dark hair tumbles down over a light-colored, full-skirted dress. Her face, horribly contorted by a soul-wrenching scream. Her neck crooked to the side at an unnatural angle. This eerie apparition has appeared at the foot of Nellie’s bed since her first night in Hill House. But no one else has seen her.
Nellie’s parents write off the Bent Neck Lady as bad dreams. Most of her siblings think Nellie’s crazy. But the ominous spirit will torment Nellie for years after her family leaves the house in their rear-view mirror. Making these unwelcomed visits even more haunting, a sleep paralysis disorder leaves Nellie awake but helpless in the face of this mysterious ghoul. Her only respite was the love and care of her dear husband. But one tragic night, a paralyzed Nellie woke to witness him fall dead to the floor before the floating feet of the Bent Neck Lady. Plagued by this persistent poltergeist, Nellie returned to the house for a fatal confrontation.
The fifth episode of The Haunting of Hill House follows Nellie’s journey, revealing her struggles with her mental illness and sleep condition, and her battle to move past the Bent Neck Lady’s reach. Then it reveals the terrible truth of her final night when she called her oldest siblings and estranged father before walking back into Hill House.
In a previous episode, we were shown a glimpse of Nellie, alone and dancing through the house’s empty halls. But in this ep, the story is from her perspective. We see what she sees in the main hall: her siblings as children, her father as a smiling young man, her mother alive. They all greet her and are glad to see her. Guided by her beaming mother, she changes into one of Liv’s old nightgowns, neatly folded and forgotten in a drawer. Gussied up, Nellie walks down the main stairway to find everyone grown-up, gathered and glorious, just as they were on her wedding day. But better. Because this time her twin Luke is there and sober and glowing with joy for her. Then he steps aside, and there is her husband, handsome and eager to dance with her. But things turn dark as they head to the spiral staircase.
Can you hear the music? pic.twitter.com/k86rMBUQOR— The Haunting of Hill House (@haunting) October 1, 2018
No longer frightened but beatific, Nellie speaks with her long-dead mother, who presents the locket that she had coveted in her youth. Nellie smiles as her mother places that beloved locket around her neck. But there’s something ominous in the air. Perhaps you remember how Liv had urged her husband Hugh to take down the precarious ropes on the balcony, as someone could hang themselves there. This beguiling mom whispers to Nellie to “wake up,” and when she does, Nellie realizes she is on the edge of the balcony. Around her neck is not a locket, but a noose. She’s terrified but it’s too late. She falls. Not once, but repeatedly, traveling back through her timeline with violent bursts. Arthur’s death. The night she bought Luke heroin ahead of taking him to rehab. That first night in the house. But now from a new and terrible perspective. The dress, her horrified expression, her broken neck. Nellie was the Bent Neck Lady all along.
But her horror is not over. In episode 6, the surviving members of the Crain family convene in Shirley’s funeral parlor to view Nellie’s body ahead of the service. In a series of long takes, we’re spun through past and present, watching the family fracture and fight. In the present, they wage war over who is to blame for overlooking Nellie’s apparent pain, which most believe led to suicide. (Luke trusts his “twin thing,” and insists Nellie was murdered by the house.) In the past, the Crains confront a storm so monstrous that it dropped a heavy chandelier and shatters windows throughout the house. And amid all this, little Nellie goes missing. They search all over for her. When they finally find Nellie, she’s in the central hall, crying desperately that she was there the whole time, but no one could see her. Cut back to the funeral parlor, where her family walks away from her open-casket, furious at each other and blind that there she is as the Bent Neck Lady, and as unseen as ever.
Aside from her violent trip through her past, there are other suggestions of a slipperiness to time in The Haunting of Hill House. The show’s structure swings back and forth from past to present freely throughout. There are ghosts who defy time itself by traipsing through the halls of Hill House, flashing back and forth between their forms in youth and old age. Then there was the incident of the writing on the wall. In the past, Nellie’s mother scolded her for writing her name on the wall underneath the shedding wallpaper. But when the grown Nellie returned decades later, she sees her ghost mom writing “Welcome Home Nellie” in that same spot, planting it years after the incident. So what does it all mean?
In the final episode, Nellie explains it all with a bittersweet resignation. In the Red Room, she appears to her living siblings. At first, she rambles as if unaware of them. But then time catches up with her. And her snatches of conversation offer a haunting revelation.
“I feel a bit clearer now. Everything’s been out of order. Time, I mean. I thought for so long that time was like a line. That our moments were laid out like dominos, and that they fell one into another. And on it went, just tripping days into the next into the next into the next in a long line between the beginning and the end. But I was wrong. It’s not like that at all. Our moments fall around us like rain. Or snow. Or confetti.”
Time is not a straight line. And death is not its end. Like the poem that Shirley reads at Nellie’s funeral, Nellie is not gone, she is away. Within Flanaghan’s The Haunting of Hill House, ghosts are not only a metaphor for mental illness or addiction, but also for grief. You might think you’ve moved past the trauma of losing a loved one. And boom. There it is again, bloody, ferocious, and ready to knock you to your knees. You are haunted once more. But the ghosts of Hill House are not all bad, neither in a literal nor metaphorical sense. Nellie’s ghost represents love, which winds through time and stays with her family even when they can’t see her.
On the edge of death, Luke says he can’t go on without Nellie. She tells him, “I learned the secret. There’s no without. I am not gone. I am scattered into so many pieces, sprinkled on your life like new snow.” As they confess their trespasses against her, she brushes off each. “Forgiveness is warm, like a tear on a cheek. Think of that and of me, when you stand in the rain. I loved you completely. And you loved me the same. That’s all. The rest is confetti.”
Nellie became the Bent Neck Lady. But that was just her death. Not her end.
Header Image Source: Netflix