In Netflix’s dark new horror-thriller, The Haunting of Hill House, a family moves into an old mansion that haunts them for years to come. Though the ghouls and ghosts that plague the Crain family make the show a fantastic addition to the horror genre, the series showcases themes that represent genuine threats that haunt families every day. There is no doubt the show will delight viewers looking for thrills and chills. However, it also heavily leans into the family drama category at times. As you watch the show, you may even be drawn into the true-to-life stories and struggles a character is grappling with before being jarred by an unsightly specter.
It’s clear that this ghost story is an allegory for more profound truths about family, mental health, and addiction. The show gained some notoriety because of the ghouls that its creators hid in the background of so many shots. Like these hidden phantoms, the show hides profound themes in the background of this thriller. As Steven Crain, the oldest brother, says, “A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see.”
The show also deals with addiction as a prominent theme, especially as it applies to Luke Crain, the family’s youngest brother. Addiction is often called a family disease because of the way it affects the family system. It doesn’t just leave an impact on the people closest to a person with a substance use disorder. Addiction also sometimes has roots in family issues, childhood traumas, and unresolved social issues.
Sometimes addiction stresses families to a breaking point, but addiction can also be just one consequence of a dysfunctional family. Psychologists have identified six common roles in dysfunctional families that often include or surround people who struggle with addiction. There are several variations of these six roles, but most models are relatively similar.
Whether or not the creators of The Haunting of Hill House wrote the characters with these roles in mind, the show serves as an excellent example of each of the characteristics of a dysfunctional family.
Before you continue, there will be spoilers for major plot points going forward. If you haven’t seen it and you’d like to, bookmark this page, go watch it, and then come back!
The Members of a Dysfunctional Family
As families grow and develop, it’s common for members of the family to fill certain roles to form a family system. Individuals start to build their own ways of acting around each other and are reactive to each other. At their best, families can work together to support one another in a way that positively serves everyone. At their worst, families can ignore each other, tear each other down, or enable behavioral or psychological issues.
Victims are typically the person in the family with a substance use disorder. People who struggle with addiction often see outside factors as the cause of their issues. Victims are typically at the center of a family’s attention. They can be seen as hostile, aggressive, manipulative, charming, and self-pitying. But inside they often feel shame, guilt, fear, pain, and hurt. Other family members can help them toward recovery or enable their continued substance use.
Family heroes are also called caretakers, but in a dysfunctional family, it’s often a high-achieving child that assumes this responsibility. They’re usually sticklers for the rules, seek approval, and pride themselves on being responsible. They often feel the need to make sure the family behaves well, and if that’s not possible, they want to maintain a good appearance. Sometimes they ignore the deeper problems in favor of maintaining a facade of perfection. When other members fail to keep up this appearance, the hero may feel resentment. However, heroes often feel guilty, insecure, and hurt beneath the surface.
The lost or forgotten child is often the shy, quiet member of the family. They prefer to remain out of the way. They may seek to avoid conflict or pain to the point of isolating themselves from other members of the family or other people altogether. They may also ignore problems in the family or wash their hands of issues, seeing them as someone else’s responsibility. On the outside, they’re quiet, reserved, independent, and attracted to superficial things. On the inside, they may feel rejected, afraid to connect, or anxious.
The scapegoat, or problem child, is a family member who is seen as defiant, a troublemaker, hostile, or a rule breaker. When it comes to families with addiction, scapegoats often act out to divert attention from the victim onto themselves. They will distract attention from the real problem or the victim’s need for recovery. Other family members may even blame the scapegoat for the family’s problems, ignoring deeper issues. At times, the scapegoat may seem resentful or even cruel, but it often comes from a place of shame, guilt, and rejection.
The mascot, or the family clown, is often seen as immature, fragile, cute, or hyperactive. They may deal with problems with humor, use jokes to break the tension or misdirect attention away from the deeper problem. Mascots can also be seen as sensitive or fragile, causing other family members to coddle them or shield them from harsh realities. Beneath the surface, they may not know how to deal with problems in an appropriate way, leading to feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, and even anger.
The chief enabler, also called the caretaker, often tries to keep the family in balance, despite deep issues. The enabler often allows the other family roles to continue by holding broken pieces of the family together to avoid confronting problems. They may make excuses for bad behavior, cover up mistakes, and superficially fix issues. When it comes to addiction, the chief enabler shields the person with a substance use disorder and the family from experiencing repercussions that arise as consequences of addiction. They may also avoid talking about addiction altogether. Beneath the surface, they may feel inadequate, afraid, or helpless.
How the Crains Fit In
It’s important to note that not every character fits neatly into just one category in the dysfunctional family roles. Much like a real family, roles can be nebulous, and characters can fit into multiple positions at different times throughout the show. However, most characters gravitate toward one role. If you think a character would better fit into a different dysfunctional family role, let me know in the comments.
Victim – Luke
“My family. They don’t believe me, and I don’t blame them.” – Luke
Luke’s struggle with addiction is seen at different points throughout the show. We see him at his worst, manipulating his sister into helping him get heroin, and we see him at his best, 90 days sober, and helping his friends and family. Luke sees his mother poison his friend when she’s under the influence of the house’s haunting, and he later explains that traumas from his childhood followed him into adulthood in the form of a bowler hat-wearing, floating phantom. As a child, no one believed him when he told them about the supernatural things he saw, and it’s hinted that he uses this to blame others for his problems.
Family Hero – Shirley
“I’m going to fix her. That’s what I do.” -Shirley
Shirley is probably one of the characters that most clearly fit into one particular category. As the oldest daughter, she often looks after her siblings, even if it’s begrudgingly. She harshly rejects Steven’s book because she believes it will hurt the family, she takes Theodora into her home and lets her stay in the guest house, and she won’t let Luke into Nell’s wedding because he’s high. She often acts to protect the family even to the detriment of one of its members.
Shirley’s family hero persona is most obvious in the fact that she insists on being the one to embalm Nell after her death. Even when a family member dies, she sees it as her responsibility to “fix her.” The act of preparing a body for a funeral can also be a metaphor for Shirley’s need to cover up problems with a perfect facade. At the end of the series, when she is forced to confront her own secret shortcomings, a ghost from her past tells her, “Shirley never looks.” That is, Shirley never looks at the problems beneath the surface and instead seeks to cover problems with makeup or secrets.
Lost Child – Theodora
“You said it was Luke that found the old bootlegging basement. That was me.” – Theo, to Steven
As the middle sibling, Theodora, or Theo, represents the lost child. The two oldest children maintain a sense of skepticism when it comes to the supernatural things that happen in Hill House, while the two younger children unreservedly believe they saw ghosts. Theo is caught in between. She has her own strange experiences but withdraws from painful memories by isolating herself. In the house, she discovers the ability to learn things and feel emotions by touching people and objects. While she grows up to use this ability with strangers as a child therapist, she wears gloves in her personal life to avoid feeling meaningful or painful emotions.
She favors isolation and only maintains shallow relationships with others. When Nell wants her to use her ability to help her figure out why her husband died, Theo resists. She hates to be touched, even when her father tries to lead her out of the house or when her family members try to help her up off the ground, which points to her loneliness and isolation.
Scapegoat – Steven
“You know, you’re supposed to protect me. But you say the meanest things to me when I try to tell you.” -Nell, to Steven
None of the Crain family spends their life in an active rebellion, but one member seems to be on the receiving end of a lot of the family’s scorn. Steven may fit into other categories at times, even as the family hero, but the way he treats the rest of the family when he’s feeling guilt or shame makes him work as the scapegoat. After he writes a best-selling book about the family’s experience at Hill House, many of his siblings resent him for telling their stories. When family members confront him, he often lashes out with something cruel.
He also doesn’t believe the family has had experiences with the supernatural; instead, he assumes they have a shared genetic mental disorder. Nell ultimately accuses him of “saying the meanest things,” when she tries to tell him about the family’s issues. Instead of confronting the problem and listening to others, he becomes hostile and defiant.
His relationship with Luke also points to his role as the scapegoat. He often assumes the worst of Luke, downplays his recovery efforts, and doesn’t believe him when he says he’s made progress. We later find out that Steven delighted in feeling useful as a child. He always wants to help his father, and he builds a vanity for his mom when she’s feeling down. However, he witnesses her deteriorating mental state, his dad doesn’t want his help when the project becomes too dangerous, and after his mother’s suicide and the supernatural events, he didn’t see anything. He feels useless, rejected, and guilty.
Mascot – Nell
“I was right here. I was screaming and shouting, and none of you could see me.” – Nell
Nell can fit into several categories and ultimately plays a pivotal role in the show’s plot. She can be seen as the lost child, literally and figuratively. Plus, she’s not the wise-cracking class clown trope we are used to seeing in stories. However, she’s the youngest daughter and fits the cute and fragile characteristics. In one scene in which Luke is checking into rehab, the other siblings are nervous. As they ask questions and wonder about the treatment’s effectiveness, Nell continues to humorously point out that, “They have horses,” breaking the tension. Ultimately, Nell has trouble getting through to her siblings about the events in the house or about the family’s problem. When she tries to tell her family about the things she’s seen, she’s written off as a fragile child or the cute, quirky youngest sibling.
Chief Enabler – Hugh
“Does he talk to you about what happened that night? Because all I’ve got are those tabloid quotes. He refuses to tell us anything else.” – Steven, about Hugh
Like many parents, Hugh fills the role of the chief enabler. He sees himself as someone who can fix anything. As Hill House’s mold problem spreads deeper and deeper, Hugh continues to try everything to fix it. When his family experiences tragedy, he works to do the same. He never talks to his children about the events that occurred on the night that his wife died by suicide. So much so that his children resent his secrecy. Even when pressed, he believes he has to shoulder the burden of the tragedy alone and shields his family from confronting their most pressing problems.
What About Olivia?
You may have noticed there are six dysfunctional family roles and, as Luke pointed out so many times, there are seven Crain family members. Olivia, Hugh’s wife, architect, and mother to the five children can fit into some of the family roles, especially the chief enabler role. However, she also profoundly portrays another problem that’s common in the families of people who are suffering from addiction: codependency. (Major spoilers ahead!)
Codependency is the emotional or psychological reliance on a loved one, and it’s incredibly common among people who take care of someone with a disease. Chief enablers are often co-dependent parents who would prefer to keep their addicted children close to them rather than send them away to addiction treatment. Olivia adopts a similar mindset as Hill House starts to affect her.
She becomes terrified of what may happen to her children when they go out into the world. As the house poisons her mind, she concludes it would be better if she and her children would die in the house than to go through the pain and suffering out in the real world.
While this is an intense metaphor, it does point out the problem with co-dependent loved ones standing in the way of their friend or family member getting treatment. While treatment can be painful, failing to address the issue is far worse.
The Show’s Portrayal of Addiction
The Haunting of Hill House deals heavily with addiction, relapse, and how it affects an individual and their family. Luke is the main character who’s affected by a substance use disorder but Trish, a supporting character, also offers a lot of insight. While it’s not the main focus of the show, it takes a fairly honest look at addiction and recovery.
The series portrays addiction as a disease and shows the characters that are going through addiction as real people with highs and lows, not just people with moral failings. However, it also shows the stigma that people with a substance use disorder have to face, like when Steven writes Luke off as a “junkie.”
The show is also somewhat unique in the way it deals with chronic relapse. Both Luke and his friend Trish have been through multiple treatment programs and relapsed many times. People who go through multiple relapses often feel hopeless. Even when they’re in recovery, they may think that another relapse is just around the corner. In one scene, Steven asks Trish what’s different about her current attempt at recovery because trying the same thing and expecting different results is insanity.
She tells him, “That’s what recovery is. The same thing over and over again, in spite of the results, in spite of a backslide, or in spite of a full-fledged f—— relapse. That doesn’t mean you stop just because it gets a little repetitive. One day at a time.” -Trish
While relapse is a real threat and happens to as many as 60 percent of people who achieve sobriety, it’s not inevitable. There are even specific treatment approaches for people who have experienced a chronic relapse. If a relapse does happen, it doesn’t mean that treatment failed; it just means that treatment and your relapse prevention strategies need to be revisited.
Treating the Family Disease
The show may be an excellent example of storytelling in the horror genre, but it also teaches viewers valuable lessons about addiction and how families can work together or fall apart. If the show struck a chord with you because there is someone in your life who’s struggling with a substance use disorder, there’s help available. Speak to an addiction specialist at the Palm Beach Institute by calling (855) 617-1839 to learn more about addiction treatment and what family members can do to help.