It’s hardly surprising, really, that the Victorians were obsessed—even, perhaps, possessed—by ghost stories. The industrial revolution—that period of tumultuous upending of so much more than simply manufacturing processes—accompanied as it was by sometimes seismic advances in social, scientific, and technological standards, allowed its beneficiaries a deeply satisfying sense of new independence and self-reliance. It also left many feeling undernourished and strangely hungry.
Many who had turned away from the Hebraic tradition, which had nourished western culture’s moral imaginations and guided its understanding of reality, now felt alone in a world they feared entirely material. This was deeply unsatisfying. Science might have seemed to triumph over religion, but it grew increasingly obvious that it faltered in providing explanatory power in crucial areas of human existence. Evil still happened. Friends and family still faded, sometimes dismally, with age. They grew ill, cold, died, and passed on to regions unknown. While the future seemed a grand adventure beyond imagination, the infant mortality rate still withered hopes and tomorrow’s joys. Longings, seemingly insatiable, still stirred the human soul—even if many no longer believed they had one.
In such a sometimes-desiccated age, human beings did what human beings do: if they couldn’t satisfy hungers in old ways, they found new ways. Post-mortem photography, ouija boards, tarot cards, mediums, magicians, hypnotists were sought-after means to help people try and make sense of death and the beyond. In the realm of literature, gothic tales of the supernatural allowed people to reconnect to a sense of the ineffable. A sample of the range of the earliest or greatest gothic tales included The Castle of Otranto in 1764, Frankenstein (1818), A Christmas Carol (1843), and Dracula (1897). All are grand reads on their own, but each, in different ways, reminds us that are far more things in heaven and earth then are, well, accounted for in our sciences.
While the names attached to more contemporary eras have changed, our age still shares much in common with the Victorian. Through Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, to Alfred Hitchcock, and up through Stephen King—the gothic still stirs old hungers.
Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic novel about the descent into madness of Eleanor Vance, a young woman taking part in a scholarly project to uncover evidence of the supernatural in a home seeping over with a history of suicides and violent deaths. The Netflix production, created and directed by horror veteran Mike Flanagan, recasts the story to focus on Hugh and Olivia Crain and their five children who move into Hill House to renovate the mansion and flip it in order to build their own home. Everything goes wrong. Increasing paranormal encounters eventually lead to devastating loss and the family flees. The ten-part series recounts both what happens to the family then as well as the family’s continued horrors 26 years later.
It is a fantastic series, perfect for Halloween. It succeeds by telling a horrifying tale through great acting and superior writing and filming without indulging in gratuitous adult content. Even better, like the gothic tales that inspire it, The Haunting of Hill House touches on the supernatural and important themes of human longing. In what follows, I want to explore one of these themes as it relates to the Christian life. For those who haven’t seen the series, I will avoid any major spoilers.
Much in the Hill House series revolves around a space known as the red room. In important ways that I will not touch on, the room is the center of the house. Indeed, at one point it is called the heart of the house. But then, at a crucial moment, a correction is made. The red room is not the house’s heart at all, it is its stomach. The red room doesn’t appear, precisely anyway, in the book, but both the series as well as Jackson’s novel focus on the house’s appetitive drive.
The imagery of heart and stomach, however, goes beyond the house itself. Both versions of Hill House deal with the various ways in which human beings make a mash of the functions of the “heart” and the “stomach.” Just like with the red room, what we thought was a work of the heart—love—turns out to be an affair of the stomach—consumption, digestion, and absorption.
CS Lewis had a lot to say about the gratification of appetite. But, preliminarily, he cautioned against overzealous critique and misplacement of censure. Desire is not the problem. Regarding appetitive desire, not all hunger is the same as the vice of gluttony any more than all sexual desire is lust. Both licit and illicit desire reign large in Lewis’ works. Good desire can be a kind of holy longing that drives us toward God. Sehnsucht, Lewis’ word for that kind of holy longing tinged with nostalgia, summons us toward the divine like a call from the near-forgotten country of our origin.
Opposite to such holy longing, lusts and a desire to consume reign large in Lewis as well. Edmund, recall, is lured into evil by the temptation of sweet treats. Diggory is tempted by his desire for the fruit. John, in The Pilgrim’s Regress is overthrown by wine and carnality. Most diabolically, the devil Wormwood reminds his protégé that human beings are “primarily food” for the Diabolical One. The devil, too, longs to consume.
Lewis understands that some of misplaced longing is inadvertent. We get love wrong because we don’t understand what love really is. To this Lewis suggests that “Eros, [even] turned upside down, blackened, distorted, [and] filthy, still [bears] traces of his divinity.” He has in mind here, specifically, homosexual love. Lewis acknowledges that the manifestation of homosexual desire is an evil, but he contends that even our misdirected loves can, at least, retain some bits of the other-centered, self-donating aspects of true charity. Misplaced love, however much it brings forth evils can, nevertheless, simultaneously walk us out of our self-absorbed isolation and enter into community with another. This does not redeem misplaced loves, but it makes them perhaps better than misplaced hatred. Of course, here we walk a knife’s edge. If we knew what the consummation of illicit loves—whether homosexual, or adulterous, or any of the other modes illicit love sometimes takes—means, really means, for the object of our love—if we really registered what enacting that love would do to our beloved’s ability to know good from evil, to flourish in the manner in which they were made to flourish—we would never willingly consummate that love. To do so willingly would prove our feelings not love, but something, indeed, more like hate. But we often do not, in fact, understand. And so, for love’s sake, we love wrongly and, without even knowing it, we tarnish that which we love.
The idea, above, of entering into “community” is essential. We worship a God who is a living community. But, as Lewis says elsewhere, communities are more like sheepfolds than puddles. In God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost enjoy a unity that is not uniformity. Community is not conformity. As Christians, we are called to be individual sheep in a fold—not drips in a puddle.
Against this, “the direct opposite of love,” Lewis tells us, “therefore, is pride, the movement whereby a creature (that is, an essentially dependent being whose principle of existence lies not in itself but in another) tries to set up on its own, to exist for itself.” This further clarifies the distinctions between love and appetite.
When Wormwood says that human beings are “primarily food” he is gesturing to the devilish aim to absorb the human will into the diabolical will. This, from Wormwood’s perspective results in “the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense.” This appetitive dominance is contrasted by Divine Love. God, Wormwood scornfully notes, “demands of men…a different thing:
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not…mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself –creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him, but still distinct.
In Jackson’s Hill House, one of the earliest lines considers the haunted house exercise of its will over the wills of those it victimizes. The ghosts of hill house share the house’s desire to consume. The filmic version of the story makes clear that as the house gains new victims, their spirits are retained with the house itself. In Jackson’s phrasing she insists that “whatever walked” in Hill House, “walked alone.”
Flanagan’s filmic rendering signals a profound shift. The closing line suggests that whatever walks in Hill House walks not alone, but together. This will have to remain a conversation for another time, but the question is whether the film knows that the alteration is a lie. Jackson understood the house’s appetitive drive to be like Wormwood’s. Flanagan appears to mistake—intentionally or not I do not know—the stomach for the heart.
But you should decide for yourself. Watch The Haunting of Hill House with someone you love. Then argue about it to your heart’s desire.
Marc LiVecche is the editor at large for Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is currently the McDonald Visiting Scholar at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University.