Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is a 10-hour exploration of the ways we carry our trauma. There’s an authenticity to the way Hill House tells its story of emotional wounds and mental illness, but in the final episode, Hill House creator Mike Flanagan made decisions that left many viewers less than satisfied.
Yes, Hill House skillfully illustrates the enduring trauma of loss—and manages to terrify viewers with ghosts and jump scares—but something feels off about the ending of The Haunting of Hill House. The final episode shifts the entire season tonally, and some things in Hill House simply don't make sense.
There’s certainly an argument for giving the audience and the Crains a happy ending. If you binge-watched the series, an optimistic ending was likely a welcome reprieve from the overwhelming sadness that permeated much of the show. Still, it's unfortunate such an interesting series that captured the raw intensity of depression, anxiety, and addiction didn't end on a note as powerful as the ones struck throughout the first nine episodes.
When The Haunting of Hill House comes to an end, everyone—living and dead—is happy. The Crain family is able to cast off their worries and go about their lives. Steven and Shirley's marriages are back on track, Theo is finally able to open up to someone, and Luke is sober. In the afterlife, the ghosts are all together in Hill House, free from the initial toxicity of the home.
Nothing about this is inherently bad; characters deserve happy endings. But the sentimental ending is at odds with the rest of the series. After escaping the Red Room, the surviving members of the Crain family cast off their pain forever and live a life of positive anniversaries, big families, and hit books.
If the prior nine episodes taught the audience anything, it's that pain is something we never lose. You always carry it, and all we can do is work through our trauma so its effects are less devastating. The finale of Hill House posits that pain is something that can be dealt with and "done," like any other laborious chore.
What's happening with the ghosts at the end of Hill House? What are their rules? Do some ghosts "choose" to haunt the house while others (like the Crains and the Dudleys) just exist together in peace? Why do Olivia and Hugh get to look like their young selves while Poppy looks like a burned-out flapper mannequin? Can Steven visit whenever he wants, or is the house off-limits to corporeal beings?
The inconsistencies in how the series' spectral characters operate are more than frustrating. They're maddening.
The biggest issue with the finale arrives in the final moments as the audience sees flashes of what each living member of the Crain family is doing post-Hill House. One of the final shots shows Luke celebrating two years of sobriety with his entire (living) family, but one detail is particularly weird: he's got a red cake. The color red is usually a signifier that someone's in the Red Room, but the room's rectangular window isn't in the background... so what's happening?
Why the mixed signals? Turns out show creator Mike Flanagan decided to make the ending more positive on the day he filmed the scene. He told The Hollywood Reporter, "We toyed with the idea for a little while that over that monologue, over the image of the family together, we would put the Red Room window in the background. For a while, that was the plan. Maybe they never really got out of that room. The night before it came time to shoot it, I sat up in bed, and I felt guilty about it. I felt like it was cruel."
Flanagan's statement is narratively problematic because it muddies up a concise series and keeps the ending from being as uplifting as he intended, or as menacing as it should have been. The whole thing feels lazy, and in a sense, if Flanagan wanted to tell a full story he should have committed to the gut punch of an ending he originally planned. According to Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays Luke, he asked Flanagan if his character is still in the Red Room, to which the series creator responded, "I don't know." Frustrating.
In Hill House's most heartbreaking episode, "The Bent Neck Lady," we learned that the ghost haunting Nell since she was a child is actually adult Nell after she dies by hanging. At the end of the episode, she returns to Hill House, hangs herself from the top of the spiral staircase, and falls through the past.
The conclusion of her life is the darkest moment of the show, but it's undercut in the final episode. After saving her siblings from the Red Room, she chooses to live with her parents as a ghost—but why? Why go back in time to warn herself about the depressing fate awaiting her if everything is going to turn out fine in the end anyway? One could even argue that by choosing to go back in the past to "warn" herself, she only fed young Nell's anxiety, which ultimately leads to her untimely death.
The more you pull at the threads of Nellie's narrative, the more it falls apart.