Who should be believed? Who decides who is believable? Who decides how stories can be told in the first place? And what does the experience of not being believed do to people?
Among many other issues, Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, wrestles with this question. While the story is a “haunted house” tale, based on the classic novel from Shirley Jackson, Flanagan’s series inverts many of the expectations of the genre. While we spend some time in Hill House, very little of the time we spend there actually involves the hauntings. Instead, much of the series focuses on the experiences of the Crain children trying to cope with their surroundings, and follows them into adulthood as they grapple with the effects of their traumatic upbringing. While all of the children grow into damaged adults, the effects are felt acutely by Luke, who will spend most of his adult life struggling with drug addiction, and Nelle, who faces sleep paralysis, depression, and eventually takes her own life.
Not incidentally, these are also the two Crain siblings who are haunted most directly in their childhood. In the third episode, “Touch,” young Luke is playing around with the dumbwaiter and is trapped in the cellar, when a ghostly figure crawls out and attacks him, ripping his shirt. At first, the parents don’t believe the house even has a cellar, since it’s not on the house’s blueprints. Even after his sister Theodora is able to find the cellar’s hidden entrance, the parents continue to believe he is imagining the attack. Apparently, having unique knowledge of a hidden cellar in the house is not enough corroborating evidence. Luke’s childhood experience is poignantly interwoven with the story of the adult Theodora, now a therapist, who takes a child’s story of a monster rising from the floor seriously enough to uncover the abuse this child is suffering at the hands of her stepfather.
Young Luke continues to be upset that his parents do not believe his story. The fourth episode, “The Twin Thing,” opens with young Luke telling his “imaginary” friend, “He even ripped my shirt, and they still didn’t believe me. They never believe me.” When Luke produces a drawing of his assailant, his father responds with a dismissive smile. “It’s normal,” he says, “for kids to have imaginary friends, nightmares.” When Luke protests, Hugh says to him, “Go ahead, I’m listening.” But Hugh does not respond when his son tries to tell him that the house is “bad,” instead allowing his wife to interrupt the conversation. A “bad” house is not one of the realities that Hugh is willing to accept.
We see the same response to Nelle’s claim of a haunted visitor. After Nelle sees the “bent neck lady,” her father is quick to tell her that this is just a nightmare, and her mother suggests that perhaps it was Theodora playing a joke. Nelle’s visions persist for multiple nights. Her parents try to comfort her, with her mother going as far as to sleep in a different room with Nelle, but believing her is not a consideration. Nelle continues to be haunted by visions of the bent neck lady into adulthood, and she continues to struggle with her family not believing her experiences. As an adult, this mantle of the disbelieving patriarch is passed to her oldest brother, Steven. Steven has become a celebrity from his tell-all book about his experience growing up in a haunted house, but has never believed himself. Nelle confronts him at a public reading. “You tell our stories,” Nelle says, “my stories, the same stories you told me were just dreams, delusions.” As Nelle starts to cry, she says, “You were supposed to protect me. But you said the meanest things to me when I tried to tell you.”
There’s a long history in horror of people who are connected to the realm of the spiritual, usually understanding an imminent threat, and the people who don’t believe them. Most commonly, the people with an openness to the non-rational world of spirits are the socially marginalized – women, children, ethnic minorities. I was re-watching Kubrick’s The Shiningrecently, and was struck by an early scene in the kitchen, where these three categories are all represented by the three characters who are all wary of the Overlook Hotel’s power and intuitively understand its threat. And the people who don’t believe them are always the white men, the patriarchal voices of reason who tell them their fears are all in their mind. The only horror film I can think of where the while male is more in tune with the realm of the supernatural is Don’t Look Now, and even there he doesn’t listen to his own instincts until it’s too late. Sinister is another possible example, but in this case the family’s patriarch works to hide his encounters with supernatural forces from his family so he can continue the research into his true-crime book. (Can you think of any other examples?)
On one hand, this reflects the age-old dichotomy, where women and other marginalized groups are in tune with the spiritual and the emotional, while the European males are connected to the rational and the intellectual. But frequently, horror inverts this dichotomy; the rationality of the male is insufficient to handle the threat they are facing, and the protagonists’ only hope of salvation is through the insights offered by the non-dominant voices. The family patriarchs have created the rules of the game. But the horrific forces they are confronting are not beholden to these boundaries, and are determined to play a different game.
While this has been a plot point in horror for many years, it’s taken on an increasing amount of relevance in recent struggles over what, precisely, it means to listen to women and men who have been the victims of sexual violence. The dominant voice of patriarchal reason has told us, for years, that these experiences should be swept under the rug except in the most extreme cases. It’s not only that power means the ability to adjudicate an individual case. Power means the ability to determine what is or is not worthy of being heard in the first place.
The Supreme Court has the power to decide cases; they also have the power to refuse to hear an argument. And the party when a party is in control of the House of Representatives or the Senate, they not only round up the votes for bills, they determine which bills are brought to the floor for debate and voting at all. We saw this dynamic play out in the Kavanaugh hearings as well. The judiciary felt enough public pressure that they scheduled a hearing, but then circumscribed it so tightly as to preclude any actual evidence from emerging. (Everything about the hearing was set to achieve this outcome, from the arbitrary single-day time limit, to the 5-minute questioning format, to the refusal to call additional witnesses, to the scheduling of a vote for Kavanaugh before the hearing had even taken place.) The same is true of the FBI background check that followed this hearing. The White House determined in advanced who would and who would not be listened to by the FBI, in effect crafting the narrative they wanted to create. Kavanaugh’s history of alcohol abuse as a young adult, as described by a number of witnesses who were not allowed to speak to the FBI, was considered outside of the narrative. As such, the possible (likely) untruths that Kavanaugh told about his drinking as a young adult during his hearing were also determined to be out of bounds. The result is an investigation that supported the pre-determined narrative. When you know the results you want to find, it’s easy to set up the rules of the game so that you can achieve those results.
In The Haunting of Hill House, this job of referee is served first by family patriarch Hugh Crain. While his wife is certain there are ghostly presences in the house, Hugh will only consider that she is overly stressed, and needs some time away from the house. Similarly, the children who are experiencing terrifying supernatural visitors (primarily Luke and Nell) are dismissed as not knowing the boundaries between dreams and reality, as letting their anxieties run amuck. In short, they are accused of being unreliable witnesses. By establishing the rules in advance for what experiences are believable and what experiences are not, and determining to seriously consider only those experiences that were determined to be within these acceptable bounds, the Crain family was unable to hear the actual stories of trauma that were being experienced by their members. As a society, we’re wrestling with the same question; the rules we have established over what stories are acceptable are no longer working. (And actually never did, though our society pretended otherwise.) Horror has long understood the perils faced by the patriarch who refuses to listen; 21stcentury America is just now getting the same message.