Elizabeth Reaser
Screenshot: Netflix

“I’m gonna fix her”

It looks like we’ll be treated to chapters focusing on the Crain children individually, weaving from past to present in an effort to show the traumas they each experienced in Hill House, and how those experiences shaped their characters and futures. “Open Casket” is a close-up on Shirley, the oldest Crain daughter. Shirley deals with her trauma both by facing it square-on—becoming an undertaker in response to her childhood confrontations with strange and awful deaths—and by repressing all of the worst feelings those confrontations brought up.

When a late client’s grandchild tells her that Grammy is still showing up in his bedroom, her face and body in an ever-greater state of decay, Shirley promises the boy that her expertise can “fix” his grandmother forever, and that seeing her “fixed” will erase every scary, bad memory he has in his head. “It’s a great chance to take all those pictures in your head… and cover it all up with a better picture.”

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It was inevitable, which is another way of saying “predictable but fitting,” that having opened with a montage of Shirley “fixing” Grammy for Max, the episode would wrap up with a scene of Shirley “fixing” Nell—for her family, for Nell, and especially for herself. It’s a brutal task to set herself, but her family begging her not to doesn’t dissuade Shirley—not from doing the bloody, sorrowful work, and not from using it as a cudgel to punish her siblings.

But too much in “Open Casket” is inevitable, which is also a way of saying “just plain predictable.” Predictably, while exploring a dim outbuilding of Hill House, Shirley finds something cute (a litter of kittens!)—and something terrifying (a wasp’s nest with a face!). Predictably, her little sister turns subtext into text: “There’s five of them like there’s five of us.” Predictably, the littlest kitten dies off, just as the littlest Crain has died in present day. Predictably, all the kittens perish despite Shirley’s best efforts. Predictably, their deaths take a gruesome turn that scars her for life. Predictably, she sees through her mother’s lie about the last sick little kitten, and predictably that conversation turns into a confrontation that, when her mother dies soon after, will leave Shirley preoccupied both with death and with “fixing” it.

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“This kind of thing happens,” Olivia tells her consolingly. “Kittens aren’t supposed to be without their mommies, and no matter how much you love them, you’re not their mommy.” Hard words for a child about to be without her mommy, a child who will try (and fail) to be makeshift mother to her siblings. Carla Gugino’s final shriek is ghastly, scarier than any apparition in the series so far. (Also eerily effective, though it’s revealed to be Shirley’s dream, is the way Henry Thomas’s reassuring “It’s all right” morphs into an unearthly moan.)

Victoria Pedretti, Elizabeth Reaser
Screenshot: Netflix

What isn’t predictable, but does feel gloriously inevitable, is the grace with with Elizabeth Reaser performs. Though Shirley does plenty of yelling and crying and Large Emoting, in many scenes she works alone and silently, conveying the depth of grief and heights of love with the smallest movements of her face. It’s exquisitely deft and enormously moving. Whatever The Haunting Of Hill House turns out to be, much of its success can be placed squarely on its cast’s shoulders.

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The child actors pull their weight, too. In a scene where Shirl (as her siblings call her) and Theo cower from the boom of an unknown force banging on the walls of Hill House—an earsplitting din that goes unheard by the rest of the family—their terror feels real and deep. But for those among us who remember the original, whether book or film, acting can’t rescue this version from the way even this is stripped of its dreadful context. In Mike Flanagan’s Hill House, these thumps aren’t the horror of a tormenting real-life memory following the haunted person from beyond the grave. They’re just one more scary-movie cliché, the thing that goes bump in the night.

But maybe, just maybe, this episode hints at some new themes, new haunting words, new meaning that it can build over the next eight episodes. When Olivia waits for her daughters to repeat back to her the words that mean “come home,” it has all the weight—and yes, the inevitability—of a motto. The words differ from conversation to conversation, but everyone in the Crain family knows: When the lights flash twice, it’s time to come home.

Stray observations

  • Digital clocks do a lot of heavy lifting in modern horror, a camera alighting on their lighted numbers making it impossible to miss what time someone is jolted out of sleep over and over. That’s been true for years, but The Haunting Of Hill House is making me see it consciously—and think about how trite it is.
  • “I don’t want to see her in the open castle.” “The open casket.”
  • Young Theo is reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. (I can’t make out more detail on the cover and I can’t find that exact cover in an image search, but I imagine it’s The Lottery And Other Stories, since The Lottery is under 4000 words—or, in my most recent edition of her stories, about seven pages.) That’s the most explicit Shirley Jackson content we’ll get in “Open Casket.”
  • When Shirley married Kevin, she joined the Harris family. James Harris is a recurring name (and arguably a recurring character) through many of Jackson’s works, most prominently appearing in The Daemon Lover, but popping up in so many other stories that the original title for The Lottery And Other Stories was The Lottery: The Adventures of James Harris. Is his name thematically meaningful, or is it just another example of a name plucked from Jackson’s work and applied wherever it fits?

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