When The Haunting of Hill House formally introduces us to Theo Craine, she’s leaning against the bar in a crowded club, dripping with sexual confidence in a tight shirt and gloves, eyes burning through storm clouds of dark make-up like ‘90s Angelina. Pretty quickly, she seduces a tattooed woman with a coy look, takes her home, goes down on her, chases it with a slosh of beer, then kicks her out. Theo Craine’s a tough woman. She’s hot, invulnerable, and kind of mean. She’s not one of the face-covering screamers of the horror past — Theo won’t look cute while having a nervous breakdown, and she’s not going to sexily die — even if the “badass with emotional walls” feels like a familiar character to horror fans.
Horror —particularly supernatural horror — is a women’s genre. The stories not only feature women as central characters; the ghosts that haunt them are often women, too (to name a few: Samara from The Ring, Batsheba from The Conjuring, The Woman from The Woman in Black). A 2017 study conducted by Google and the Geena Davis Institute found that out of all the cinematic genres, horror is the only one in which women are seen on screen more (53 percent) than men. Horror movies also feature a higher proportion of women vs. men speaking than any other genre, at 47 percent of screen time.
It makes sense that 50 percent of horror audiences are women, because it’s a world where we exist. Yes, it’s also a world that’s constantly traumatizing and murdering us, which refuses to imagine women as more than the sum of the events that are happening right now, whose plots frequently hinge on a man who doesn’t believe a woman when she says she’s seen a ghost when we, the viewers, have all seen the ghost too, so we definitely know the ghost is there. Sometimes it matters, but often it doesn’t. As well-worn as these plots are, and even though they hinge on the fantastical, they confirm women’s experiences.
In The Haunting of Hill House, Theo Craine looks familiar to us because we’ve met her before. We’ve met a lot of these characters before: patronizing, nonbeliever brother Steven; compassionate and crazy but still beautiful mother Olivia; and black sheep brother with a drug addiction Luke. Even the ghosts at Hill House look familiar. The Bent-Neck Lady, a recurring specter haunting Nell (a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, like many horror protagonists of yore) could be a stand-in for any flowing robed wraith on a spiral staircase. But that familiarity is a trick, lulling us into the initial comfort of believing we’ve got a roadmap. As the show progresses, it becomes clear that even if we’ve met these characters before, we’ve never really known them.
Theo’s a tough woman: she’s sexually aggressive, drinks from the bottle, and definitely knows how to apply eyeliner. But as the episodes roll on, we begin to see what we so rarely see in the genre — the pain all that horror caused, and the cost of being capital-S Sensitive when you live in a place full of ghosts trying to consume you. Traditionally, horror movies tend to end either when the ghost is vanquished or when the central character gives into the haunting. But what happens after the last scene of Rosemary’s Baby, or The Shining, or Insidious, or The Grudge? What happens after she finally stops screaming?
The Haunting of Hill House takes place after that last scene. It demands that we finally see what the trauma of being haunted looks like. We learn how Theo how and why came to be so tough. We watch Luke, still stalked by a formally dressed slender man, attempt to maintain sobriety. And, in the biggest heartbreak, we come to learn the Bent Neck Lady isn’t just your run-of-the-mill haint. She was Nell, a three-dimensional character grieving a dead husband, struggling with dreams inflicted by her past, and doing her best to love her dysfunctional family.
“We make movies about terror but we never go back and find out what happened to the people.”
What happens after enduring unspeakable terror is the same as what happens when you endure an unspeakable anything — you go on. You might not go on functionally, but you do the work of trying to stay alive.
Still, the characters in ghost stories often try and make their ghosts something else — grief, or the stress of a crumbling marriage. This rationalization is a lazy comfort, a desperate attempt at controlling an unruly situation, and it tends to be their undoing. Nell explores every non-supernatural possibility for her lifelong trauma before finally admitting that what’s really haunting her is … ghosts. A person knows when they’re grieving or when their husband has grown distant. If they listen to themselves, they also know whether or not there’s a Bent-Neck Lady standing at the end of the bed. And if they’re going to heal from any kind of trauma, first they have to admit it’s there. In The Haunting of Hill House, the characters learn that the only way to heal from horror is believe it happened.
There’s a really satisfying scene in “Witness Marks,” which comes toward the end of the season after we’ve gotten to understand some of what drives the characters. Hugh Craine (a refreshingly complex, open-minded horror movie dad) attempts to tell disbelieving Steven the circumstances that led to his mother’s death: the hauntings at Hill House, naturally. Steven tries not to hear it, insisting on hallucinations and mental illness. His father is able, through gentle logic and well-woven flashbacks, to walk his son back through a memory to make him realize he’d experienced ghosts throughout his whole childhood, despite all his rationalization. Of all the things ghosts might be, the thing they always are is the horror some people insist isn’t real, even when others can see the truth.
In 2018, women’s pain has been very, very visible. It dominates social media platforms; it’s broadcast live on all major networks. The pain of these characters, and of the characters in other contemporary horror releases, feels like a necessary reflection. In a recent interview for the new Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis talked about revisiting Michael Myers a lifetime later, and the importance of reprising Laurie Strode instead of rebooting her as a younger character. “We make movies about terror but we never go back and find out what happened to the people,” she said. “[Trauma] is a beast. And this woman faces the beast.”
Earlier this year, Hereditary spurred elaborate nightmares with the story of grieving Annie, daughter of a high priestess in a hell cult attempting to process the death of her mother, only to lose her young daughter in a grisly car accident. Annie was a study in corrosive anxiety — not just through her grief, but as her attempts to process it via summoning her daughter’s ghost was rejected by her nonbeliever husband (at least until the spooky shit started happening). And although the 2017’s re-make of Stephen King’s It’s didn’t always treat young protagonist Beverly like a full character (she’s relegated to the disappointing role of damsel in distress in the third act of the film), the horror of her real-life struggles — an abusive, predatory father who holds her responsible for the slut-shaming she endures from her classmates — are as frightening as Pennywise the Clown, who also can’t come up with any more terrifying form to take than her father.
Gerald’s Game (2017) is another Netflix-produced film from Hill House showrunner Mike Flanagan starring Carla Gugino as a woman who reluctantly plays along with her husband’s rape fantasy only to be terrorized by his ghost after he dies of a heart attack while she’s handcuffed to a bed. Horror-streaming platform Shudder (which seems to be stocking up on female driven content) recently produced Revenge, about rape victim Hannah, supernaturally reborn as a Mad Max-style vengeance killer after her abusers leave her for dead. Shudder will also produce a series based on Emily Schultz’s novel The Blondes, which takes place in a world where all blonde women are stricken with a disease that turns them into vicious killers.
The intention of #MeToo was to make women’s pain visible, ideally forcing the people who were causing it to finally understand their impact. What’s held true in horror applies to real life. The appearance of a woman’s anguish alone is not enough to make her abuser stop; it’s not even enough to make the people around her believe her. But maybe, as in horror, they’ll be allowed to vanquish their ghosts long after the haunting.