The following contains spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House.
“Not a heart – a stomach.”
One of the hardest things for any horror movie to pull off is a satisfying ending. Horror works best when things are left to the imagination and endings don’t usually have the benefit of leaving things to the imagination.
The Haunting of Hill House’s ending faces an even bigger challenge than most horror movies. At nearly 10 hours, there is a lot of emotion and interest vested in the show “pulling off” a satisfactory ending. Not only that but the show’s Rashomon format puts a lot of pressure on making sure the ending satisfies emotionally, logically, and still remains pretty scary.
So how does The Haunting of Hill House do in its final episode, “Silence Lay Steadily?” Pretty well as it turns out! The Haunting of Hill House fills in a lot of missing pieces in its final episodes and builds to a solidly emotional climax. First, let’s break down exactly what happens here.
Finally all of the Crain family is back at the house that haunted them their whole lives. The episode opens with at first seems like a groan-worthy rhetorical device. Steve is writing the story of what happened to him and his siblings when they returned to Hill House and sharing his progress with his suddenly very pregnant wife. At first this is disappointing. Why would The Haunting of Hill House tip its hand like this and let us know that Steve survives the ordeal right off the bat? Not only that but why would it rob of us the emotional catharsis of Steve reuniting with his estranged wife and somehow conceiving a child despite Steve’s vasectomy.
As it turns out, however, The Haunting of Hill House is pulling off a nifty little trick. Steve is still in Hill House and experiencing some house-induced hallucinations. Steve, Shirley, Theo, and Luke all end up in the now-open red room because that’s how the house has always wanted things to be. Each of the Crain kids experiences a different hallucination specifically curated for them by the house. At first it’s not entirely clear why the house is doing this but as each hallucination unfolds, certain themes come through.
Shirley is forced to relive the time that she cheated on her husband while at a mortician’s conference (gross). Theo spends a night with Trish and is forced to confront her worst fear: getting close to someone else. Trish successfully gets Theo to touch her without gloves and before she knows it dead hands are all around her. Luke goes back to the night that he left the rehab facility in search of Joey. This time Joey actually did use Steve’s money on a hotel for the night and not just drugs. Still, she did get some drugs and Luke wakes up with a needle full of rat poison in his arm.
In each of the character’s hallucinations, the ghost of Nell appears and is able to shock her siblings back to reality with her touch. So what exactly is happening here? Why is the Red Room in Hill House putting them through these paces? Ghost Nell reappears within the room and offers a solid explanation.
“Mom says that a house is like a body. And that every house has eyes and bones and skin and a face. This room is like the heart of the house. No, not a heart – a stomach.”
The Haunting of Hill House refreshingly never offers an explanation for what Hill House even is. It never discusses the origin of Hill House or what made it so evil. It does, however, offer a clear explanation for the nature of this evil. The house is essentially a lonely person looking to consume all who would enter it. Years ago the Crain family escaped its clutches and the house has never fully let them go. That’s why the Crain siblings sometimes experiences shadows of the ghosts of Hill Houses in their day-to-day lives.
Now that the house has the Crains back in its “stomach” a.k.a. The Red Room it’s feeding them images and scenes of their mostly miserable lives to convince them to stick around and be completely subsumed. It turns out that this isn’t the first time the House has let all of the Crains into the Red Room. Not by a long shot.
Nell once again with her powers of supernatural exposition informs her brothers and sisters that they’ve all been in the Red Room before. It took a different form for each of them. The Red Room was: Steve’s game room, Shirley’s family room, Theo’s dance studio, Luke’s tree house, Nell’s toy room, and Olivia’s reading room.
“It put on different faces so we would stay comfortable as it digested,” Nell tells the Crains. Now that the Crains are finally back in the Red Room, it is putting on new faces once again so that the siblings can be better consumed into the framework of the house. Thanks to the magic intervention powers of Ghost Nell, however, they are now aware of the scheme. There’s still the matter of getting out of the room though.
That task belongs to the Crains’ father, Hugh. For years now Hugh has known more about the house and the way it works than his children. That’s because he was around on a very fateful night to better learn the rules. The finale shows us what really happens following Olivia’s death. After Hugh drops the kids off at the motel, he returns to rescue his wife only to find that she has jumped off the balcony to her death. Hugh holds the body of his dead wife, wailing, as The Dudleys approach.
The Dudleys find out the awful news that their daughter, Abigail, was poisoned by Olivia and died. It’s a pretty sad scene for everyone until Abigail suddenly turns up. The Dudleys realize pretty quickly what’s happening here. Since Abigail died in the house, her ghost now haunts it. This is confirmed for Hugh when he sees Olivia getting up and walking away from her own dead body.
Hill House operates under similar supernatural rules to the house in American Horror Story: Murder House. Those who die in the house are destined to stay there as ghosts. Hugh is at first horrified to realize this and wants to burn the house down. Mr. Dudley convinces him otherwise.
“This house is full of precious, precious things and they don’t all belong to you,” Mr. Dudley says. Hugh Crain can’t burn the house down because the ghosts that belong to it still matter to people. The Dudleys want the house to stand so that they can come visit Abigail. Over the years Hugh will come to appreciate the decision as well as he visits Olivia.
This, however, will be Hugh’s final visit to Olivia. He’s about to become part of the house as well. Olivia has some hold over the house it seems – or at least she has a similar say to the other ghosts that inhabit it. The Red Door not opening to let Steve, Shirley, Luke, and Theo out is in part Ghost Olivia’s decision.
Olivia has “lived” in the house for years and not once has she gotten to see her children. Now they are all “home” and she doesn’t want them to leave. Hugh tries to convince Olivia to open the door and let them out. Olivia wish they never left.
“I saw our daughter dance at her wedding,” Hugh says. “We created a new star.”
“Stars die. The night sky is filled with dead stars. We’re safe now. This is our forever house. Nothing bad will ever touch us here,” Olivia responds.
“Nothing good will either.”
Olivia not-wrongly points out that the world out there is dangerous. Everyone can be safe here. It’s a pretty convincing argument given what’s happened to the Crains upon leaving the house. Though arguably a lot of the Crains’ problems can be traced right back to the house.
Hugh can think of only one way to get Olivia to open the door.
“If you open that door right now. I will make a promise to you that I will keep forever.”
It works. The door opens. Steve, Shirley, Theo, and Luke escape. Hugh remains behind with his wife and youngest daughter to spend an eternity together in the cold embrace of Hill House.
Steve is now the caretaker of Hill House and decides to reconnect with his wife. Shirley confesses her infidelity to her husband. Theo decides to commit to Trish and move in together. Luke reaches his two years sober.
Phew! So…uh, that’s it I think. There is a lot going on in the ending of Hill House. On first viewing, I’m not sure it worked. It almost seemed to be too happy of an ending. Upon second viewing, however, the real sadness of Nell’s predicament comes through. Her speech to her siblings about living within the rain and confetti now is very bittersweet.
The nonlinear nature of the series and the finale makes things a bit difficult to explain thoroughly. Please reach out in the comments with anything in the finale that was unclear or needs explained.