Catherine Parker, Carla Gugino
Screenshot: Netflix

“Are you awake now?”

Several episodes ago, I said that Hill House had done its worst to one of the Crains. And that was true then. But “Screaming Meemies,” which takes place long ago in the twisted timeline of The Haunting Of Hill House, does something so much worse.

It’s a sneaky piece of false logic that Hill House, in the form of Poppy Hill, uses to persuade Olivia Crain. Can there be anything would than losing a child? the house asks her, and she says that there can’t be. But the house, using Poppy’s face and voice, and Nellie’s, and Luke’s, convinces her of something more. It convinces her that the only way to save her children, the only way to keep Nell from being consigned to the cold and to keep Luke from turning his blood to poison, is to poison them herself.

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Olivia is destroyed by constant migraines and troubled by visions. (She, too, walks right past the clocksmith on the stairs, though it’s not clear if she sees him. She doesn’t even see her husband when he calls her name.) She’s “scattered.” She’s “not herself.” And Hill House wants to make sure she never is again, and that she has lots of loving company. Forever.

So it sends Poppy Crain (Catherine Parker), whose vanity Olivia has sat at (and smashed), whose photo even her small son can see “looks wild.” Who leans over Olivia’s sleeping husband with undisguised curiosity, who sashays through the halls of Hill House in a sleek satin dress, her silhouette and her slang straight out of the Roaring ‘20s. Who reassures Olivia that, yes, she’s dreaming. “I’m a dream and so are you and so are we.”

Poppy’s speech is mannered and arch, but no more than some of the starlets you can see playing brash young flappers in films from the era, all those young women yearning for freedom and frolic, and sounding like Roxie Hart. She’s loaded down with playful phrases, but they don’t disguise her intent. Poppy isn’t playing. Or if she is, it’s for keeps.

Poppy sometimes pops up as her older self (Polly Craig), body soft and dress moldering, in a double act reminiscent of Mrs. Massey in the bathroom in Room 237. None of this tips off Olivia that something isn’t quite right with this strange woman wandering her house, and with her strangely seductive line of logic. Carla Gugino performs all of Olivia’s moods with deceptively easy depth, even when those moods flick on and off as fast as that porch light she uses to signal the kids. When she sees a grown woman lying on a metal slab, and a man on the floor with a needle in his arm, we know before she can tell Hugh that she knows who they are.

As the two women stand over Olivia’s sleeping twins, Poppy murmurs, “I bet you’d do anything for them, ain’t that so?” Of course she would. And if they were stuck in a bad dream?, Poppy continues. She’d wake them, wouldn’t she? Of course.

What if they were stuck in the worst dreams? “I mean bad ones. I mean posil-dutely screaming meemies.” (Okay, maybe the flapper flapdoodle gets a little vexing after a while.) “I mean a dream so mean, so scary. A dream about sick and sad and disease and rot and loss and darkness.” She’d wake them, Olivia insists. Of course she’d wake them. She wouldn’t let them suffer and be scared.

It’s logical, it is. The whole of “Screaming Meemies” has an irresistible nightmarish logic, and a whispering nightmarish certainty, for which writer Meredith Averill should be commended. But Liv is giving a logical answer to a loaded question, because the dream Poppy is describing is a dream called life. Her children will suffer, someday. They will sicken—and often they’ll heal. They will lose people and loves—and often, they’ll find new ones. They will age and experience loss, because that’s the cost of living. As Mrs. Dudley says, the world has teeth. But Hill House’s teeth are sharper, and its belly is hungrier. As Hugh told Steven, to Hill House, the Crain family is an unfinished meal.

In case Poppy’s persuasive dream logic isn’t enough, Hill House sends a specter in the shape of Nell and another as Luke to ply Olivia with repetitions of worries already haunting her. Reprising the fears Olivia saw reflected in the mirror of Poppy’s vanity, Nell coos to Olivia that she’s afraid her mother will “send us out there into the dark. And the dark gets us, a piece at a time over years and years and years.” The little facsimiles of Luke and Nell infect Olivia with the fear that they’ll be eaten up by the world, by the night, by the dark.

But there’s no way out of this dream we call life without braving those teeth, no matter what Poppy promises. And as hungry as the world is, Hill House is hungrier still… and less patient.

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And like Poppy—because Poppy and Hill House are, as Shirley Jackson might say, the same organism—Hill House is seductive. When Olivia needs peace, the house provides her with a reading room no one else has ever seen. Slowly, through the past nine episodes, we’ve been accumulating bits of understanding about The Red Room, or at least about all the rooms it isn’t. Whatever is really behind that door, it shifts shape. It becomes Olivia’s reading room when she needs it, just as it becomes Steven’s game room and Nell’s toy room and Theo’s dance room. Is it Luke’s tree house? And what is it for Shirley?

And when it’s time for Olivia to lead her smallest children—and their guest—to a fatal tea party, The Red Room accommodatingly opens, revealing just one table with just enough chairs for the four of them. Olivia will finally join Nell for the tea party she’s been pining for. But the tea is laced with the poison they bought for the rats in the wall (there are no rats in the walls) and it is intended to freeze them in time, to make them sweet and innocent and happy ever after (there is no happy ever after).

Julian Hilliard, Carla Gugino, Violet McGraw, Olive Elise Abercrombie
Screenshot: Netflix

Poor Abigail (Olive Elise Abercrombie), who “lives in the woods,” who’s home-schooled and shielded from the world and especially forbidden ever to set foot in Hill House. Poor Abigail, the daughter of Clara and Horace Dudley, whose familiar blue dress is as reminiscent of Shirley’s blouse-sleeved mortuary smock as of her mother’s chambray work dress. Poor Abigail, who wants not to make trouble, who is the first to politely sip Olivia’s deadly tea.

And poor Olivia, who staggers through the halls of Hill House like Jack Torrance lurching through the halls of The Overlook, grunting with pain, desperate to reach her children before their other parent can “take them away.” Olivia wants to preserve her perfect, innocent children as they are now, before age and sorrow and pain and illness can sink their teeth into them. It’s a natural impulse twisted to the worst possible end. She’s sick with fear, and guided by ghosts whispering ways to do better, to outsmart the world, to save them. And she’s been seduced by Hill House into thinking it’s possible.

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It’s a hellish thing for a parent to swear to. It’s the scariest thing Hill House has offered up yet. And it’s inexorable. Because Hill House is hungry, and it finds ways to get fed.

Stray observations

  • Olivia is reading Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.
  • “Mitt me, kid!” Somebody in the Hill House writers’ room loves 20th-century slang dictionaries as much as I do, if they dug out this not-so-neo neologism for “congratulate me.”
  • Given Hill House’s predilection for toying with time, I wonder if all of Luke’s encounters with Abigail were with the live little girl or if some were with the ghost she would become.
  • When Olivia describes the hail of stones after her father’s death, she’s sharing a story that belonged to Eleanor Vance in Jackson’s novel, and from which Stephen King (who wrote paragraphs about Eleanor’s rain of rocks in Danse Macabre) may have drawn inspiration for Carrie White’s childhood incident.

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