The Haunting of Hill House surprised us all with its release in October 2018. The Crain siblings each had their unique traits and personalities, but it was Theo that I related to and enjoyed the most, despite me being the “Nell” of my family. How do I relate? Well, she reminds me a lot of the younger, self-destructive me—me before I learned I couldn’t have loved the people I lost any more than I did; before I learned that nothing I could have done differently would have made a difference and that no matter how much I punished myself, it wouldn’t bring them back. The ghosts of our pasts are always lurking in the shadows.
Theo is the middle child, the bridge between her siblings, with the elders—Steve and Shirley—being far more sceptical of the ghosts living among them than her two younger siblings—twins Luke and Nell—who bore the brunt of the hauntings. This may have been an age thing; the twins’ young minds were open to everything whereas Steve and Shirley had learned more about life and blocked out some of the fantastical to make way for the logical. Theo sat firmly in the middle, cursed with a gift of touch sensitivity to the past, which meant she not only felt her own fears and grief but the pain, memories, and sometimes even future of anyone and anything she touched.
In the flashbacks to her childhood in Theo’s own bottle episode, we see her sleeping in her bedroom at Hill House. We only witness the hand of the ghost that climbs into bed with her and clasps her hand tightly, but a sleepy Theo believes it is Nelly. It’s hard to say whether this was the moment she gained her powers of psychometry or whether she already had the gift laying dormant—passed down from her grandmother to her mother, and then onto her (and, in a lesser sense, her sisters). Whatever the case, it seems her power is awakened fully after this encounter. I wonder if she was right about it being Nelly, just the grown-up dead Nelly: the Bent-Neck Lady.
With it said that the five siblings represent (in their birth order) the five stages of grief, this firmly plants Theo in the third stage: bargaining. For Theo, this means a lifelong burden of guilt for not protecting Luke and Nell from the trauma that latched onto them. She chooses to become a child psychologist as if her bargaining tool with the powers that be—that little voice that lives in everyone’s head—is that if she works hard enough to help other children through their traumas, she can make amends for the pain of her siblings.
To be able to achieve this dream, she chooses to take the money from Steve’s Hill House book sales: $15k that will pay for her study. It’s a risk for her to take it, knowing that if Shirley ever finds out it could sever their relationship. And there’s also an emotional price to pay. To help the children she works with she has to take on their pain, feel how they feel, but it’s worth it to her. Why not make something good out of the trauma she went through and use it to help others?
She meets a little girl as emotionally boxed up as her. It’s interesting that Theo is determined to help her more than anyone, to break down her walls and learn what was inside her that was hurting her so badly. Turns out that the girl’s foster-father was molesting her and she was hiding the monster behind a smile. The smiling face on the ceiling, ingrained in the wood, that peered down on her while she was being violated was the stuff of nightmares. Theo saw it when she laid on the sofa in the basement where the crimes took place. The face of Mr. Smiley would haunt Theo’s dreams, too.
Punishing herself was something Theo learned to do from a young age. When Luke’s inquisitive nature got the better of him and Theo caught him playing in the dumbwaiter, she gave in to his nagging and let him continue to play in it. Of course, it didn’t go according to plan and he was shuttled down into the basement, where a particularly nasty skeletal ghost grabbed at him and ripped his pyjamas. Theo’s parents scolded her for allowing this to happen. I know that seemed harsh on Theo—it was—but I also know how it feels when you are so scared for your child’s safety that you shout at them. You want to frighten them into not doing anything like that again. Theo takes it badly, though. She believes what happened to Luke was her fault and she tries to make it better by using her gift. She is pained by Luke’s anguish over the fact that no one believes what he saw in the basement, and that no one believes his friend Abigail is real, but she knows he is telling the truth when she touches his arm. To make amends for his ordeal, she sets out to prove him right.
The basement was not on the blueprints for the house but she senses her way to it and discovers a bootlegging ledger that held some of the former occupant’s secrets. It is this incident and an earlier one—when she sensed that the box her father wanted to chuck out had an old and rare bottle of wine inside—that prompted her mother, Olivia, to talk to Theo about her sensitive nature. They could both feel the cold spots, but for Theo, the whole house was cold and full of memories, some very unpleasant. She always wore thick sweaters to keep the skin from prickling up on her arms.
For Theo, her mother understanding her would have been a tremendous relief. She would no longer have felt like a weirdo; this was—at least for the Crain women—normal. Olivia gave Theo her first pair of gloves to protect her when she felt overwhelmed by all the messages she was continuously receiving. Her mother also told her she would always be there for her to talk about it. But, of course, she wasn’t, and Theo knew she wouldn’t be as she’d already seen her mother’s future when she touched her hand that day.
Fast forward to the last day in the house. Her father told her to take the twins and run, and when he touched her arm she had visions of what he had seen and done: a little girl on the staircase, a woman’s ghostly face, skeletal remains of a former resident who bricked himself in, the door to the Red Room, and her father violently pushing her mother against the wall. Taken with the vision she’d had of her mother’s smashed-up face and dead eyes, it would be easy for Theo to assume her father killed their mother, but she didn’t get to learn the truth until way into adulthood.
Theo dances alone to “Cold Hearted” by Paula Abdul in another flashback. This is Theo’s Red Room space. Here, she is alone, lost in the music, free of burden. Theo is as alone now in a crowded club as she was then. While her touch has allowed her to help others, it has also always worked to isolate her, with the gloves protecting her from the ghosts of the pasts of others that might add to her own burden.
For on the surface Theo appears hard and cold. Her words are as blunt as a bat across the skull and as sharp as a razor. This becomes more apparent when we learn that she brings a conveyor belt of lovers back to the annexe at Shirley’s funeral home to fuck the pain away. Sex must be a truly mind-blowing experience for Theo. In the moments of pure lust, she would only feel her partners pleasure, their insatiable need for her, and she’d know exactly what they wanted from her. Sex is the least emotionally complicated with someone you barely know, at least in the throes of passion. One-night stands are just enough of a taste of being loved to make it addictive, but like all drugs, they have the tendency to make you feel awful the morning after. So she pushes away anyone that wants to become closer, making her appear callous, cruel, and a user. The truth is she’s frightened of taking on the responsibility of someone else’s feelings.
I refer again to Theo being the middle child, a spot that she identifies with not only numerically but existentially. In between Shirley and Luke, she blends their natures with her own. She’s not quite as angry and bitter as Shirley—though she shares the same resentment towards Nell for taking her own life, knowing what effect it would have on those she left behind—and not quite as self-destructive as Luke (but not far off). She certainly hides her feelings at the bottom of a bottle on a regular basis. The moment you really learn who a person is is when they seem to contradict themselves, and Theo is nothing but a contradiction: a clenched fist, protecting a delicate rose.
Her self-destructive tendencies reach fever pitch the night before Nell’s funeral when the family congregates at the funeral home. By this point, Theo has already dared to visit Nell’s body in the mortuary, alone. When she touched her she jumped back in horror, devastated to feel absolutely nothing from her sister’s skin. At this moment she realises that her little baby sister is dead and that is it; there is nothing more. It’s quite a strange phenomenon—that realisation, in a show all about ghosts. There is no life after death, only memories held by others. What haunts you are mistakes and regrets, the things you wish you’d done better. And the hard truth is that there is nothing after our bodies give up the ghost.
A storm is brewing that night and Theo goes on a bender, becoming more intoxicated and wound up. “I’m drinking to bring back my dead sister,” she spits. The tension between the Crains runs high and ends up with a big showdown between Shirley and Theo, with some painful truths revealed on all sides. Shirley mocks Theo’s psychometry as if it weren’t real. Out of revenge, Theo tells her that she took the royalties from Steve’s book, which leads to Shirley’s husband, Kevin, admitting he’d done the same. Theo and Kevin end up together in the pantry, Theo on the hunt for more vodka and to feel something in the darkness. She makes a romantic lunge at Kevin. She has no attraction to him at all; he’s a man for a start, but more than that he is totally out-of-bounds. He could have been anyone, but he’s her sister’s husband. It’s about as bad a sin as she could commit. The cold dead body of Nell left her feeling nothing—blackness, numbness, a vast empty space—and she wanted to feel anything, even grief, guilt, shame, and just someone’s heart beating. And it worked; she felt everything again, tenfold. She had wanted to be punished and she was—punished by the fear of losing her one remaining sister.
She will eventually admit this to Shirley, at the side of the road as they travel to Hill House to save Luke. It is the phantom of Nell that shakes the disgrace out of Theo and honesty pours out. At the house, the Red Room does its very best to eat them all up, making them face their worst nightmares. For Theo, this is an intimate moment with her two-night stand, Trish. When Theo touches Trish’s face and body she can’t feel anything, not even the fear or guilt that she would usually. Trish lays her down and tells her a tale about the man in Hill House who bricked himself up inside the walls to try and escape the fear and guilt, but all he did was brick them up in there with him. The hands of former lovers, the ghosts of Theo’s past, grab and pull at her body and face, almost suffocating her. At this moment Theo is saved.
Sometimes, as Theo found out, you have to become numb to realise just how much you want to feel again. Her story as we know it ends when she forms a stable, healthy relationship with Trish and allows herself to be happy. In breaking down the walls she finds her moment of redemption. She is forgiven. The gloves can come off.