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‘The Haunting Of Hill House’ Brought Back Ghosts Of My Sister’s Death

(The Haunting of Hill House. (Courtesy of Facebook)

I don’t know if my sister drowned in the car or was thrown from the car into the river. I suppose it doesn’t really matter—the outcome was the same. She was seventeen.

As a long-time Shirley Jackson fan, I was eager to binge the new Netflix show based on her book, The Haunting of Hill House. While I don’t love slasher films, give me anything in a creepy old house. The Shining wouldn’t be what it is without the Overlook Hotel. Settling in to watch, I expected to feel the usual emotions you feel viewing something scary—dread, fright, perhaps revulsion. But suddenly I felt an emotion wash over me that took me by surprise: anger. Anger over watching a character being forced to view the embalmed body of a loved one.

Told over a series of ten episodes, the visually stunning show is a reimagining of Jackson’s story, rather than a direct adaptation. Jackson’s group of strangers meeting in Hill House to take part in a paranormal study are now a nuclear family, the Cranes. Olivia and Hugh Crane purchase Hill House with the intention of remodeling it over the summer, then flipping it for a fortune so that they can build their “Forever House” for their family of five children. Hill House has other ideas however.

The Cranes are haunted not only by their experiences that summer, but by the lasting devastation of grief. Director Mike Flanagan tells their tale in present time mixed with flashbacks that reveal how they became the fractured adults that they are. The show has received mainly positive critical reviews, and is currently the most popular user rated Netflix series.

Living a life damaged by grief is something I understand well. When I was eleven, my sister died. I usually just tell people that she died in a car accident, which is sort of true, but really, she drowned. It happened in Colorado, during the spring thaw when the melting snow on the mountain peaks turns peaceful, meandering rivers into dark, raging torrents.

Living in a tiny coal mining town, restaurants and teen-age entertainments were both in small supply, so one April evening, she and a few friends decided to drive a few towns away for pizza. The driver lost control of the car, and in the mountains, when that happens, you either drive into the side of the mountain or you plunge off the other side, over a cliff. He swerved to the cliff-plunging side that had a spring-swollen river at the bottom. I don’t know if my sister drowned in the car or was thrown from the car into the river. I suppose it doesn’t really matter—the outcome was the same. She was seventeen.

In the Netflix series, Shirley (Crane sibling #2) is a mortician, running her own funeral home with her husband as the business manager. In the first episode, we see her counselling a child named Max, who does not want to view his dead grandmother lying in her coffin. Max has been seeing the ghost of his grandmother at night, who shows more signs of decay with each visitation. Shirley tells Max that viewing the open casket of his grandmother will give him the opportunity to say goodbye, to have closure. Shirley tells him that she has “fix[ed] her, that’s what I do.” She will “look just like you remember her — just like she’s supposed to.”

These reassurances do not work on Max, as we see in episode 2. At the funeral, Max is still firm in his resolve to not view the open casket. “I don’t want to,” he insists. But for some reason, he must look. Shirley tells him, “If you don’t, you’ll be upset later. I promise. This is a good thing, and you’re a good boy.”

We don’t learn if Max does view Grandma or not, but most likely he was forced to do so. The show at this point flashes back to Shirley as a child, at a funeral, unwilling to view her mother’s corpse. Young Shirley gives in, and is amazed at how her mother looks lying against the satin. “You fixed her,” she says to the funeral director, highlighting the seminal moment to her becoming a mortician. (Likely the kittens and her need to control played a role as well).

Watching these scenes with Max resurged feelings of frustration and anger that I thought I had long let go of. Why won’t anyone listen to him? Why does he have to see his Grandmother’s dead body? Why is there an assumption that children don’t know what they need?

Like Max, I was very certain that I did not want to see my sister lying in a coffin. I did not want that to be my final image of her. Like Max, none of the adults around me listened to me either, believing that they knew what was best for me. “You need to say goodbye to your sister. You’ll regret it if you don’t.” “She’ll just look like she’s sleeping.” “It’ll be okay.”

Unlike the dramatic, stylish gloom of Shirley’s funeral parlor, the one in which my sister’s casket was displayed had bright white walls, her burgundy carpeting, gold detailing, and multiple blinding flood lights; there was nary a shadowy nook to be found. No spaces for lurking specters. No place to hide from well-intentioned spectators. Bouquets and wreaths of flowers lined either side of the room. The peppery scent of lilies was so thick, you could taste it; to this day, I am triggered by their smell.

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While I wasn’t physically dragged to the coffin, and absent of support from any adult, the continual emotional pressure eventually broke down my defenses. I finally was a “good girl” and went to see how the mortician “fixed” my sister.

She lay on white satin, in a white dress. You might have thought she was sleeping, if you viewed her from a distance. But up close, no amount of pancake base or pink blush could cover the green and purple bruises. She was swollen, caused either by drowning or embalming. The glue used to keep her eyes shut was visible. Her face was in a grimace, and nothing about her looked peaceful.

As I stood beside her, the hope that it was all a horrible practical joke and she might sit up — alive — all dissolved when I clasped her folded hands. Hands that had brushed my hair a thousand times, turned the beloved pages of hundreds of books, and caught lizards just to make me laugh, were now the icy hands of mannequin.

As my delusion shattered, a fellow mourner came up beside me and said, “Oh, look at her! She looks like a sleeping angel.” Unable to face such obvious posturing and lies, I ran outside to wait on the steps until it was time to drive to the cemetery. I didn’t say goodbye, because she was neither there nor gone for me.

The act of burial — placing a dead person in the ground with intention — is indisputably traced back 100,000 years to a group burial in Israel and possibly goes back 250,000 years, to a Homo naledi find in South Africa. Paleoanthropologist Paige Madison describes the desire to bury the dead as a part of the human ability to think in the abstract:

“Humans use symbols to communicate and convey these abstract thoughts and ideas. We imbue non-practical things with meaning. Art and jewelry, for example, communicate concepts about beliefs, values, and social status. Mortuary rituals, too, have been put forward as a key example of symbolic thought, with the idea that deliberate treatment of the dead represents a whole web of ideas. Mourning the dead involves remembering the past and imagining a future in which we too will die.”

As humans began creating more complex living arrangements, so too, did the rituals surrounding burial become more elaborate. It’s difficult to tell if the earliest burials were secular or involved any spiritual meaning, but soon, funeral rites took on a religious element, typically involving a belief in an afterlife. The development of social hierarchy also played a role in the development of how we bury our dead. The higher up the social ladder, the more elaborate and costly the service.

The specific traditions widely vary, across time and cultures. Since the Civil War, embalming and underground interment within a coffin has been the traditional burial practice in the United States. While embalming does delay decomposition, the notion that viewing the body somehow helps with the grieving process is not scientific, as noted by investigative journalist Jessica Mitford in her exposé, The American Way of Death. Rather, it’s a justification put forward by those who have a financial stake in encouraging embalming: the funeral industry.

As an adult, I took a class on grief. Part of the course work was a field trip to a funeral parlor. It was a large blue Victorian house that had been converted to part living space and part business, much like Shirley’s set up on the show. Keeping with the Victorian architecture, the interior decoration was heavy wood, silk-lined walls, and sumptuous fabrics of deep peacock-blue. The air was vanilla scented. It could have been an upscale bed and breakfast.

Our tour guide was tiny, with a sleek business bob and black-framed glasses. She was a recent graduate, joining the family business right out of college. “Third generation mortician!” she chirped. “I know I look really young, but I’ve been around this business my whole life. A lot of morticians are multigenerational. I guess we like to keep it in the family.” She was “passionate about helping people in their worst time.” After touring the viewing room, the coffin showroom, and business offices, we trooped downstairs to see the embalming rooms.

Walking down the narrow stairs, I began feeling the short breath, racing heart and sweatiness of a panic attack, knowing I wouldn’t like what I was about to learn. The pull to know what had been done to my sister was stronger and I kept going, doing calming breathing techniques. Downstairs was completely different world than above. Hospital doors, Dijon mustard-colored walls, dim fluorescent lighting, and cement floors. Odd chemical smells, plus something undefinable replaced the vanilla. It felt cold. And here? There were dark corners.

The embalming room looked much like it did in The Haunting of Hill House, except I remember more hoses and sprayers hanging from the ceiling. When I learned about all the draining, and injecting, and filling, I felt a screamless horror. I viscerally knew that my sister would not have wanted any of that done to her body. A body that she was so meticulous in maintaining. Not only was her death violent, but it felt like she had been further violated, after death.

Seeped in a commercialism that has largely removed meaningful ritual from burial rites, the funeral industry in the United States rakes in many billions of dollars each year. With the cost of cremation being many thousands of dollars less than embalming, funeral homes have a vested interest in steering their clientele in the direction of chemical preservation. Still, the number of people choosing cremation in the U.S. continues to rise.

According to the Cremation Association of North America’s 2017 industry statistics, the number of people cremated vs embalmed was 51.6%. Reasons behind the growth are varied, from cost to decreased religious stigma against it (the Catholic Church opposed cremation until 1963). Concern for the environment is shaping people’s choices as well, with the growing awareness of the toxicity of embalming chemicals leaching into the soil and water.

I’ve chosen cremation for myself because I don’t want anyone I love forced to see my death face; I want them to only recall how I looked alive.

My mother and I have only talked about this issue once, when I was in my early twenties. I don’t recall who brought it up, or how or why we discussed it. What I do remember is that I wanted her to know I was angry over being forced to view the open casket. I wanted — at least — an acknowledgement that my autonomy had been overlooked, that maybe a mistake had been made.

“I told you then that I didn’t want to see her, and now I’ve had to live with that image of her dead stuck in my mind since then. No one would listen to me!”

“I just had to see her one more time.”

“Then why couldn’t you look at her back in a private room? Instead of demanding that everyone see her? That I see her?” My resentment was like a pin popping a balloon; my mother’s entire body deflated. Looking at the ground, she mumbled, “I don’t know. I just couldn’t think really about anything at the time.”

In that moment, she seemed so tiny and fragile—something I could either choose to set carefully down or hurl at the floor, smashing to bits. Witnessing her hurt, I felt ashamed for only focusing on myself, and decided to let the anger go. I thought I had until it flared up while watching The Haunting of Hill House.

While the final episode is the one most negatively reviewed, I believe it gets it right. In order to move past grief — at least enough to heal and learn to live on — the raw honesty that comes from a moral inventory is needed. I’ve never wavered in my certainty that seeing my sister in her coffin was not right for me. I still wish one person had listened, and helped me, rather than being coerced into what other people thought would bring me closure.

However, I did need to let go of my anger, because I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted in my mother’s situation. The possibility that I might find out is my own Bent Neck Lady. I don’t fear my own death, but I am afraid that I will know the nightmare of burying my child, that I will have to make the impossible decision: embalming or cremation?

And does either choice really matter? Death’s outcome is the same.