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A Spectre is Haunting Hill House - The Spectre of Real Estate


At a 2002 press conference, President George W. Bush said, “I do believe in the American Dream...owning a home is a part of that dream.” He was laying the groundwork for what would become the American Dream Downpayment Assistance Act, which attempted to make lower income families able to pay smaller down payments for houses and enter into the homeowner class. Many would also argue that he was laying the groundwork for the housing collapse of 2008, where millions of American families faced foreclosure and eviction as a result of subprime mortgages. Despite the recession, the dominant ideology in the US is still one where home ownership is thought to be a worthy, or even necessary, goal. Horror, a genre that often speaks back to dominant ideology, offers a different image of home ownership, primarily in the subgenre of the haunted house story. The subgenre can trace its roots in America at least as far back as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and in modern times, in films like Poltergeist and Beetlejuice, the subgenre more explicitly express the anxiety of home-ownership. Netflix’s new series, The Haunting of Hill House, follows in this long tradition, with particular emphasis on the lingering trauma of a family that lost almost everything in their drive for the dream of home ownership.

The show flips between scenes of the Crain family in 1992, when they are renovating Hill House, and 2018, after the suicide of the matriarch, Olivia, and the dissolution of the family unit, with strained relationships among many of them. The lasting trauma that the Crain family experiences is connected to their paranormal experiences at Hill House, and the numerous ghosts throughout the series and the timing of release (October) all point to the paranormal being the central draw of the show. However, while those horror elements are incredibly well done, they serve more as a tool to heighten the family drama as the Crain family tries to overcome their trauma. And though the flashbacks are set in 1992, there is much to make this series feel like a reference to the 2008 housing crisis and the millions of families who also had to navigate their trauma after the American Dream slipped through their fingers.

The Crains settle into Hill House for the summer because they are house flippers, people who do quick rehabilitations of homes and then immediately sell the house, hopefully for a profit, before moving onto the next house. House flipping reached a fever pace in the early aughts, spilling beyond the real estate world and into the world of reality television, with A&E producing Flip This House, which focused on various real estate flipping companies over the span of five seasons. Hill House, a sprawling mansion that has been vacant for decades, is a sort of white whale of real estate flipping. The sale of the house will allow the Crains to build their “forever home” and no longer be itinerant. Quickly, however, problems arise. Of course, these problems are attributed to the paranormal but many of the problems--black mold, leaky pipes, busted windows--are problems that send chills down the spines of homeowners in the non-paranormal world, too.

House flipping is strongly associated with the early aughts because of a confluence of factors: housing prices were steadily rising and barriers to getting a mortgage, like bad credit and low income, were lowered. At one point during the housing bubble, 8.6% of home sales were associated with house flipping. However, in 2008, the housing bubble burst. Numerous families faced foreclosure and were forcibly evicted from their homes by the banks that held the mortgages.

For the Crains, it is Olivia’s descent into mental illness, attempt at poisoning her two youngest children, and suicide that finally prompts the family to escape Hill House. Olivia’s madness is shown to be an effect of the paranormal activities in Hill House, but we also see how the financial expenses are taking their toll. The father, Hugh, is even-keeled through most of the series, despite witnessing his wife attempting to murder two of his five children and then killing herself, then seeing his youngest take her own life. While he is somber, he is never enraged, save one moment when he bangs his fist on the wall. This one glimpse of Hugh’s rage is not directly connected to the paranormal, but to the discovery of water leaking through the walls, and the fear that “This could ruin us.” The risk involved in house flipping is where we see Hugh at his most emotionally expressive. Still, Hugh, unlike Ahab, is able to walk away from his white whale, but the consequences follow him regardless.

When we see the Crains in 2018, Hugh is estranged from the rest of the family, who place the blame on him for the foolhardy adventure in real estate and the suicide of their mother. The rest of the family isn’t faring much better. They are all estranged from home in some way. Steven is living in an apartment as his marriage dissolves, Shirley lives at home but there are many moments of confusion between the residence and the business portions of her funeral home, Theo is living in Shirley’s guest house, Luke is living in a rehab center, and Nell is staying in a hotel. This mirrors the spike in homelessness or home insecurity during the housing crisis.

They are also in psychological disarray. The middle child, Theo, is emotionally distant from family and lovers, one of the twins, Luke, has had a long string of failed attempts at sobriety from opioid addiction, and the youngest, Nell, who has never stopped being haunted by her experience at Hill House, returns to the home to commit suicide. The suicides of Olivia and Nell are another way that the series echoes the effects of the housing crash. Suicides doubled from 2005 to 2010 and the CDC found many of the suicides connected to foreclosures and evictions. The loss of home haunted millions of Americans, as it did the Crains.

The haunting the Crains experience is like many haunted house stories, with previous occupants coming back in spectral form, but many of those stories focus on the occupants as the source of the haunting. For example, Stir of Echoes, where the paranormal experiences are part of an unsolved murder which the protagonist is being asked to solve by the deceased. However, in Haunting of Hill House, the previous occupants’ stories aren’t delved into deeply and they aren’t the primary movers of the paranormal. They, like the Crains, are victims of the house, which is assigned a sort of sentience and personified as a hungry entity that desires to feed on the Crains, having succeeded with Olivia and Nell.

Olivia makes this personification explicit when she says, in a house, “The walls are like bones, the pipes are veins. It needs to breathe, it needs light...and it all works together to keep us safe and healthy inside.” This is the more pleasant version of personification, before the more nefarious reality is revealed in the final episodes, where Nell references their mother’s personification and says, of the red room the five children find themselves trapped in, “This room is like the heart of the house. No, not a heart, a stomach...It put on different faces so that we’d be still and quiet while it digested. I’m like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.” Even the thumbnail for the show points to this personification, showing a horizontally split image, with the top half the house and the bottom half a woman’s mouth and chin, with pareidolia making the windows into the eyes of this house/human hybrid.

The turn from personifying the house as a life that “needs light” to something that needs to consume follows the arc of how the housing crash turned the house from the conduit to the American Dream to the mechanism for the dream’s end. From something that nourished the life of its occupants, to something that chewed up American families to feed the banks and one-percenters who needed to digest us.

Ten years out from the housing crash, there are signs that we find ourselves again in a real estate bubble, with housing prices rising dramatically once again. We even have a return of house flipping reality shows. While A&E’s Flip This House ended in 2009, HGTV’s Flip or Flop and Bravo’s Flipping Out are two of the numerous offerings. So far, none of them combine the popularity of ghost hunter reality shows with house flipping, but The Haunting of Hill House is there to scratch that itch. Its arrival is timely, not just in the month of frights, October, but in 2018, a year of political and societal frights. Perhaps we need the reminder, and perhaps a horror story is exactly the genre we need to communicate that warning to us.

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