How Horror Helps Us Confront and Understand Grief and Loss
Alexandra Dos Santos on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House
Horror, more than any other genre, is not afraid to face death. So many tales of terror begin in death’s wake: in the quiet aftermath of a funeral or on the dark grounds of a cemetery. And while other genres might shy away from the gory details, horror takes the plunge into the existential dread, the trauma. Grief cannot—should not—be sugar coated. So we come to scary movies and books to relate. To feel less alone in perhaps the loneliest experience life has to offer.
Ten months after my mom died, I read The Haunting of Hill House for the first time as part of a grad school assignment. I never expected I’d connect so deeply to this piece of fiction, but from the very first paragraph to the last—the same line repeated, ringing true to the grieving daughter in me: “…whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The story centers around Eleanor, who lost her mother after years of care taking. As soon as she’s introduced, we learn that Eleanor’s life revolved around her mother’s illness. At thirty-six, she has no friends, no confidence, no purpose, so when she’s invited to stay at Hill House as part of an experiment on the supernatural, she has nothing to lose. There she meets a researcher, Dr. Montague, his bright assistant, Theodora, and the heir to Hill House, Luke. None of them seem to bring the same amount of emotional baggage to the house as Eleanor does. Or at least, none of them are suffering from their shit quite as hard as she is.Grief cannot—should not—be sugar coated.
Despite Eleanor’s supernatural tribulations throughout the novel, it was when I reached the end, on the very last page, that I finally saw the full scope of her grief. Dr. Montague forces her to quit the experiment, concerned for her sanity after she climbs the precarious tower of Hill House in a trance, nearly falling to her death. Left with no choice, Eleanor decides she would rather die on the grounds of Hill House than leave it. It’s that feeling of hopelessness—the idea that nothing can exist beyond your despair—that got through to me because it rang true to my own mourning. Picturing a full life without my mom was fuzzy at best, a total void at worst. Ironically, Hill House provides the opposite: comfort and certainty for someone familiar with torment. “I won’t go,” Eleanor thinks to herself as she drives away, “Hill House belongs to me.” I imagine Eleanor squinting past the rickety gates of Hill House as she approaches, seeing nothing but blackness. There on the haunted property are winding paths and crooked beams, impossible angles and whispering hallways. Life, even if not everyone is living, thrives there. It takes Eleanor in. Why, then, should she leave it?
Eleanor and I share a similar backstory. I was also a caretaker for my ill mom, who battled neuroendocrine cancer for eighteen years. Throughout that time her remission was on and off, but things got worse the past two years. Since she’d had cancer for so long, the specter of her death always loomed over us. I think her being ill was part of why she and I were so close; the uncertainty of when the disease would take control made us cherish all the time we had together. She died at a hospice on Long Island, just a few days after my 25th birthday. My family still lit candles on my cake and sang to me, even gave me a card signed Love, Mom since she couldn’t get me one herself. I’d spent the day with her dying body, the one that gave me life 25 years ago to the day. Now it was withered, atrophied, skinny from chemo and radiation. Trapping my mom inside it. That image will always haunt me. The ache of empathy, love, and helplessness make up my grief: a far cry from Eleanor’s, which centers around guilt and resentment. The root of the pain, though, is shared. It connects every person who’s lost someone, forever creeping beneath our feet. I don’t know how to explain what that bond is, nor how I know it’s there; it is so magnificent, it defies description.
In the early days following my mom’s death, my desires swung like a pendulum: on one side, I was frantic in my consumption of life. Compelled to swim naked, tend gardens, paint in color. I wanted to feel everything and anything, knowing that one day I would no longer be able to feel any sensation at all. On the other side of the pendulum was the call of the grave: medically induced slumbers going on for days at a time, empty stomach, unwashed hair, dark rooms. I remember smiling in recognition when I read Jackson’s early description of Eleanor being unable to “face strong sunlight without blinking,” (3). It brought me back to the inky summer sunsets at the end of visiting hours, when I’d emerge from the cavernous hospital and drive home beneath a beauty that felt like a slap in the face. I didn’t want to die; I wanted to press pause, drop out of life. My therapist told me I was experiencing Eros and Thanatos, the life and death drives. It’s common, horror literature reminds us, for the bereaved to traverse the worlds of both the living and the dead. That’s why we grievers are haunted the most.
Shirley Jackson sets up the “victim” by introducing Eleanor in this vulnerable state. A common trope in horror is that the character being haunted, possessed, or hunted is going through a personal agony—one that either helps them rise above the evil or destroys them altogether. Eleanor’s familiar with death, having lived at its threshold for years in tending to her mother. She’s the least afraid when the supernatural strikes, taking charge when the message “Help Eleanor come home Eleanor,” appears in blood on the wall. Eleanor is able to take charge of the chaos that incapacitates the others, who aren’t used to the infiltration of the unknown. She orders the men to clean up the mess, wash the contaminated clothes, and bring the hysterical Theo into her bedroom.
“’I told you, it makes me sick but it doesn’t frighten me,” Eleanor says to the group, regarding the bloody message. Up until this point, Eleanor has been meek, anxious about others’ perceptions of her. Why the sudden transformation, then? When her dead mother calls her name in the night, she answers. When Hill House’s energy pulls her up the precarious tower steps, she yields. Afterward, when Eleanor’s told to leave, she reflects on her haunting with a surprising gratitude: “It’s the only time anything’s ever happened to me. I liked it.” It’s an odd phenomena, one I know well—the tendency to lean into the new darkness, knowing that the light of day will never be the same.
Grief can be both a comfort and a torture. It’s a place you can travel and a spirit you can embody. Sometimes, grief can feel like a possession. Trauma can consume a person, trapping them within the most horrifying memory. For me, the memories that trap me are the moments I shared with Mom at the hospital. Her face contorted in pain as the nurses turned her on to her side, the sight of her emaciated body, the ongoing struggle to convince her to eat so she could stay alive just a little bit longer.
But sometimes the worst is what you don’t see. Towards the end of her life, I found out that a doctor had come into my mom’s room early one morning before visiting hours. He told her in blunt language that she was going to die very soon, and then he left. My mom—weak, alone, and surely traumatized from being confined to a bed for nearly a month straight—had a total breakdown. The nurses needed to sedate her because she was inconsolable. Of course she was inconsolable. What else should she be?
I try not to think about what my mom went through that day, but I can’t help it. In ghost stories, it’s often what the movie doesn’t show, what’s kept out of the frame, or the detail the book leaves out that is the most terrifying. The creepiest scene for me in Hill House is when Eleanor lies awake, paralyzed by the sound of a crying child; she believes she’s holding a sleeping Theo’s hand in the darkness, but when the lights come back on she sees that Theo is awake and upright, her hand out of reach. Eleanor screams, “God God—whose hand was I holding?” I think I’d rather get slapped awake by a demon than hold hands with…whatever that was. On a deeper level, our imagination can create a personal haunting: one that our particular trauma latches onto, that follows us wherever we go. The Haunting of Hill House proves what author Catherine Steadman claims: “Places aren’t haunted…people are.”
At the same time, some places bring out our ghosts more than others. Hill House opens the door for Eleanor’s dead mother—or at least, her version of her mother—to step into the material world. The worthlessness Eleanor felt when caring for her before her death is triggered once again. Jackson describes this life Eleanor longed to escape, but never could: “She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.”The ghosts of our loved ones are not confined to a haunted house or traumatic memory.
The death of Eleanor’s mother doesn’t release her from these burdens; it’s only the beginning. Their unresolved issues fester and grow, becoming a force outside of her. Like ghosts, grief can act on its own accord, spinning out of our control. “…it’s inside my head and it’s getting out, getting out, getting out—” Eleanor thinks as the house begins to shake, crumble, and sway. Now, free from the limits of space and time, the haunting mother has unlimited access to her daughter, calling to her in the hallways of Hill House as she used to when she was sick, infecting Eleanor’s mind with paranoia and violent urges to hurt Theo, the character who shows her the most kindness.
But it’s not the longing for her mother that torments Eleanor, like it does with me. It’s the guilt that eats away at her, which Eleanor reveals to the group: “‘It was my fault my mother died,’ Eleanor said. ‘She knocked on the wall and called me and called me and I never woke up. I ought to have brought her the medicine; I always did before. But this time she called me and I never woke up.’”
There is it. The familiar if only. The survivor’s response to an untimely death is almost inevitable. There’s always something we could have done better. We could have visited more, given more affection, told them I love you a few more times. I remember my mom trying to confide in me before her last trip to the hospital. She talked about witnessing the white light in a dream, feeling at peace and seeing my dead grandfather. When she said that, I tensed up, went silent, zoned out. At the time I did the best I could; I was at the end of my emotional rope and needed to protect myself. But I do still feel guilty about that moment. I get a sharp pain in my chest every time I think about it. It’s not a guilt rooted in should’s, like I should’ve been a better daughter, a better listener. It’s coming from empathy, thinking about how she must have felt like she was talking to a brick wall, so alone and unheard. I imagine the terror of walking to that white light in absolute solitude. Whatever walked there, in the bright impending death, walked alone.
Since I began my healing journey, I’ve heard the term “complicated grief” tossed around a lot. (The term seems redundant; death is one of the most mysterious and mystical experiences available to human beings—obviously it’s complicated.) Perhaps the more useful term is Prolonged Grief Disorder, which is distinguished from regular grief because it persists in the long-term, preventing the return to “normal” life and rupturing one’s sense of identity. There is no roadmap for grief, no medically prescribed time set aside to recover. (Some jobs will offer the generous day or two off. Ha!) And still, grievers—complicated or not—are given a hard time if they don’t “move on,” quick enough. We see that in Hill House, when Theo says to Eleanor, speaking of her mother’s death, “You should have forgotten all that by now.” But she can’t. The more she resists the pain, the harder it comes crashing down, bursting forth in a mess of paranormal activity.
There’s something to be said about the implications of Eleanor’s own death. It’s the final scene when she’s slowly driving away, banished from Hill House for her own safety following the tower incident. She’s fed up with being told what to do, resentful that the one place that felt like home is being taking from her. Then, she gets an idea. She floors the gas pedal and aims for a tree. This, she believes, will guarantee her stay forever. “I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me…” she thinks as she crashes her car into the tree. This is me. It might sound bleak, but that ending meant so much to me; it helped me acknowledge the parts of myself that died along with my mom. The daughter-self, the child-self that only my mom knew. Those versions are gone now because they needed her to exist. I mourn them too.
Real life is not a horror story. Films and books can say a lot about death, but they can’t say it all. Most often, they leave out the beauty of grief, the way it shows us that love transcends time and space. The ghosts of our loved ones are not confined to a haunted house or traumatic memory; they’re summoned in our minds when we need them, whispering advice in the silence.
My mom loved pointing out rabbits in the springtime, and now they magically congregate in our backyard. The moon she loved to gaze at watches me through the window when I teach my night class. She was a teacher too, and I like to think she gives a lesson or two through me when the moonlight shines. She’s with me in ways she couldn’t be before—most of all, within me. Now I try to embrace Eros, the life. For the both of us.