The Real in Weird Realism: Notes on ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

I’ve been well and truly sucked into this new Netflix horror series, The Haunting of Hill House. There will be spoilers in this post so maybe come back to it later if you haven’t seen the show. I very much recommend it.

The series really got going for me after episode three and it has felt relentless ever since, unsettling me with an intensity I don’t think I’ve experienced since the first binge of the first season of Hannibal. That show really got inside my head on the first sitting — its excess of gore and nihilism compounding reality rather than rupturing it. This show does this too.

It’s got me thinking a lot about some of the alternative paths I could have taken with my recent “The Eerie After Derrida” posts, particularly the claims made in Fisher’s old Weird Realism posts about the (relative) realism of Lovecraft.

What I want to explore here today is the weird rather than the eerie: the weird as it is tied to objects and, particularly, how we might consider this a part of a Weird Realism, from the perspective of Lacan rather than Harman.

I went into The Haunting of Hill House knowing nothing about it. I knew the name as that of a novel by Shirley Jackson but that’s a book I haven’t yet read. (I’ll be changing that fact once I’ve finished this.) I don’t know how closely the series follows the book but I’m going to take a guess and say it takes a lot of liberties.

The series follows the Crain family as they are haunted by the ghosts of their lives: of their childhoods and their various personal traumas, but particularly the collective trauma of their mother’s suicide and the strange goings-on they all experienced in the creepy old home of their youth. As a result, each of them, as adults, has their own issues — sociopathy, depression, substance abuse, narcissism — and each episode proceeds by exploring these pathologies, how they’re connected what they saw, didn’t see or think they saw as kids, and how this continues to define them as people well into adulthood.

After tweeting about the series I completely agree with this comment from Lyrra Sark:

To hear a synopsis of the series is to think of the recent horror trope of having creepy manifestations of mental illness — The Babadook comes to mind as a pretty run-of-the-mill jump-scare movie given an underlying plot about depression which I’ve always felt was hugely overrated. This series does it right. It toes the line of psychological realism and the paranormal perfectly and makes for a series about mental illness that packs real terror and despair without it feeling gratuitous and sensational.

The best episode for me, in light of this, was episode three — “Touch” — which follows Theodora, the cold (literally and interpersonally) middle child who, as an adult, drinks a lot and is generally hedonistic, partying and having casual sex, using a cold intimacy to lose herself in others. It turns out that, rather than being a sociopath — as I assumed she was in the first two episodes — she is, in fact, an empath, capable of knowing a person intimately through touching them or an object associated with them. (Because of this, she always wears gloves.)

But this exploration of her character isn’t wholly supernatural. It’s at times explored as a sort of honed intuition and it is likewise a gift she puts to use in her day job as a child psychologist. For the adult Dr. Theodora Crain, this affective transference is far more Kleinian than the young Theo’s X-Menesque superpower. The line between the two is blurred simply by the transition between child and adult mind.

The main subplot of this episode concerns one of Theo’s patients — a girl she struggles to connect with (even through touch) who complains of being tormented by a frightening figment called Mr. Smiley — a monster who comes for her at night, always smiling but never happy.

Theo tries all she can to connect with the girl but it seems that she has been through something so traumatic that the emotional walls she has built up are too thick for even Theo’s empathic powers to penetrate. Perhaps because of this drive to reach her, the image of Mr. Smiley ends up getting into Theo’s head — she starts to see him too — but she also knows that these experiences are surely rooted in reality. She deduces, and later confirms with a house visit, that Mr. Smiley is a coping mechanism constructed by the child to deal with the fact that she is being molested by her foster father.

This may seem like a fairly obvious deduction to make to us modern viewers — the ways that children bandaid over trauma are central to many early pioneers of psychoanalysis — but this likewise seems like a good way to re-enter the “weird realism” discussed in a previous post.

The play technique that Theo demonstrates with her patient, and the negative transference that occurs as a result of it, feels like a textbook case study lited from the work of Melanie Klein, whose theory of object relations remains hugely important for modern analysis involving children.

Klein, in her practice as a psychoanalyst, would write at length on her sessions with children in which she would encourage the expression of a child’s unconscious through their play. She would note the importance of phantasy to a child’s unconscious, describing the reality-testing role-playing that we now generally associate with all children’s development. Klein writes:

From the moment the infant starts interacting with the outer world, he is engaged in testing his phantasies in a reality setting. I want to suggest that the origin of thought lies in this process of testing phantasy against reality; that is, that thought is not only contrasted with phantasy, but based on it and derived from it.

It was Klein who suggested that a toy can become an object of transference which allows for what is pathological in a person’s emotional relationship to others to be acted out and, for Klein, in her practice, this “object” could be a literal object or the analyst themselves.

In The Haunting of Hill House, we see this played out very literally. Theo is allowing her young patient to safely re-enact a night terror through the use of a doll’s house, describing Mr. Smiley and making it known that he “lives” in the basement. (The basement is, as Theo learns through a horrifying instance of objective transference with a dank sofa, the place where the father molests his children.)

Theo makes the connection that the girl’s internal explanation of her own trauma must likewise be connected to the external environment of her house. Mr. Smiley is the Kleinian phantasy that allows her to make sense of that which is wholly beyond her experiential comprehension. As Klein herself writes, a “child’s experience of the external world, which very soon includes his ambivalent relation to his father and to other members of his family, is constantly influenced by — and in turn influences — the internal world he is building up, and that external and internal situations are always interdependent, since introjection and projection operate side by side from the beginning of life.”

In her introduction to a collection of Klein’s essays on psychoanalysis, Juliet Mitchell explains the concept of phantasy more clearly. She writes:

In Klein’s concept, phantasy emanates from within and imagines what is without, it offers an unconscious commentary on instinctual life and links feelings to objects and creates a new amalgam: the world of imagination. Through its ability to phantasize, the baby tests out, primitively “thinks” about, its experiences of inside and outside. External reality can gradually affect and modify the crude hypotheses phantasy sets up.

Here I am reminded, yet again, of two consistent references on the blog: Fisher’s declaration in The Weird and the Eerie that “the inside is a folding of the outside” and also the most magnificent passage in Francois Bonnet’s The Infra-World, in which he writes:

… we would be wrong to interpret children’s night-time terrors as the result of excessive imagination. Contrary to popular belief, children do not have excessive imaginations. Upon hearing an unknown noise, spying a fleeting shadow, the adult will imagine a whole series of potential scenarios that might explain the phenomenon, bringing it back into the known world and regarding its existence probable. On the contrary, a child rapidly runs up against the limits of his imagination, then finds himself before the most radical, the most terrifying unknown. He finds himself at the gates of the infra-world, and there perceives the real danger of being snapped up by nothingness, of seeing the few certainties acquired during his early years shattered to pieces and sinking into the pitch-black waters of a groundless world. Against the structures of order and discipline, whether those of school or of the family unit, against the many strategies designed to initiate the child into the grown-up world (objects and coloured forms designed to ‘awaken’ him to rigours of civic education or to the history of civilisation), the terror of this blackness insinuates into the ear of the toddler a terrible promise: ‘You will never know the world; the known world is already gone, it is collapsing around you. Its fictional limits are at breaking point, and the ensuing flood will carry you far, far away.’

From here, we might draw a clear line from Klein’s writings on object relations to Jacques Lacan’s theory of The Thing — or, as he calls it, Das Ding — that object which Lacan associated with the Real: that noumenal zone of radical exteriority and strangeness beyond signification.

This is something embodied not only in the children under Theo’s care but in Theo’s own empathic relationship to the objects which she touches. A strength of the show is that, despite revealing all kinds of ghosts and apparitions to us on screen, the transferences that Theo experiences when she connects, abjectly, with das Ding remain occulted to us. All we know is they drive her to drink and, for us, they remain beyond signification.

In touching anything — a person, a surface, an object — it is as if Theo can infer the truth of that Thing’s nature, its sovereign “morality” (which Lacan writes of), its lingering energies. She has a sensitivity to the Real. As Lacan writes:

The real, as I have told you, is that which is always in the same place. You will see this in the history of science and thought. This detour is indispensable if we are to reach the great revolutionary crisis of morality, namely, the systematic questioning of principles there where they need to be questioned, that is, at the level of the imperative. That is the culminating point for both Kant and Sade with relation to the Thing; it is there that morality becomes, on the one hand, a pure and simple application of the pure and simple maxim and, on the other, a pure and simple object.

Despite her coldness, Theo seems like the member of the family who is most grounded in the abject Real — as pure and simple, cold and violent indifference. She doesn’t drink to mediate her experiences but rather to quiet them, occasionally indulging in her sensitivity for its pleasurable intensities to counteract the painful ones.

The other members of the Crain family all have their object fixations — Luke has heroin; Shirley has corpses (she’s a mortician); Steve has his books (he’s an author of ghost stories, his most famous one based on his sibling’s childhoods, much to their contempt); Nellie, notably has nothing, and when she is overrun by the irreality of her traumas, she commits suicide.

Whilst the rest all have their objects, they do not experience them as Theo does. The others have what might call, as Lacan (via Freud) does, their Sachvorstellungen — thing-presentations. By contrast, what Theo interacts with is das Ding, the thing-in-itself. She reaches impossibly into the “beyond-of-the-signified”, the objective unconscious devoid of subject, beyond the linguistic administration of the thinkable, administrated Sachvorstellungen.

As such, entangled with Lacan’s theory of das Ding is an ethics of subjectivity. The Other, taken to be that person who is our “neighbor”, likewise has das Ding at their heart. We can never know the true heart of the Other. We can only infer it from their representations of their Self. Theo, of course, has no such problem, having complete empathic access to the das Ding of the Other.

In light of this, I’m reminded of a tweet I saw in the midst of my Netflix binge which read: “Almost all horror movies are all about real estate, at their core.” I’ve heard this joke somewhere before but it is, of course, almost a truism, but it gets nowhere near the real heart of the obsessions with the home.

What is the house except the landscape — the spatial manifestation — of the das Ding of the Other? In The Haunting of Hill House, Hill House is the estate of the Real.

When Nellie commits suicide in the house, Steve confronts his father about the secrets that he has kept from the family about their tragedies. He confesses that it is his belief that the children’s mother — and now Nellie — did not commit suicide: “The house killed them.” Steve finds the notion deeply offensive but we can feel it all the same. We’re obsessed with houses are manifestations of the das Ding of the subject, and as the shell left behind when a family is gone. Nellie’s therapist, we might note, irresponsibly challenges her to return to the house and confront her fears. The house is just a “carcass” now, he says — a corpse; a shell without a soul.

It is the fatal error that Nellie takes this carcass to be harmless. She should know, more than anyone, the dead don’t rest. Noumenal forces continue to run through all “objects”, dead or alive.

The estate of the Real strikes back. Forget the “desert of the Real”: the Real has so often been suburban.


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