I recently watched the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, loosely based on the 1959 book of the same name by Shirley Jackson. One of the things I liked, aside from its compelling psychological dive into the impact of trauma, was the beautiful and creepy titular house. In Hill House, as in many haunted house stories, the house was evil and had a mind of its own. (NOTE: Spoilers ahead.)
Hill House‘s Red Room
An important element of this theme is Hill House‘s mysterious “Red Room,” a seemingly locked and inaccessible chamber. However, each family member is able to enter the room and use it for a different purpose. What’s more, the room looks different to each person. The room takes on a shape and function that will entice each inhabitant to lower their guard and make them want to stay forever. The ghost of Nell, in explaining the Red Room to her siblings, declares, “Mom says that a house is like a body. And that every house has eyes, and bones, and skin, and a face. This room is like the heart of the house. No, not a heart, a stomach.” In other words, the family members are food for the house to digest.
Hill House and other haunted house tales made me think about dream analysis. Granted, as a psychologist, I see people’s dreams as largely personal. Often, one dreamer will interpret an image completely different than would another. However, people living in a society do pick up conscious and unconscious symbolism based on cultural beliefs and experiences. For instance, many of us have had similar nightmares about taking an exam. We could not find the testing room, were late, or had never taken the class on which we were being tested. These dreams usually represent anxieties about feeling unprepared, being scrutinized, or feeling inadequate.
“Dream dictionaries” explain the meaning of dream imagery. They state that when one dreams of a house, this symbolizes the dreamer’s self, and the rooms inside the house relate to various aspects of the self and facets of personality. For instance, the attic refers to the mind or intellect, and the basement represents the subconscious.
Going back to Hill House and its Red Room, a notable feature was its impenetrable red door. In dream analysis (which can also be applied to stories), a door symbolizes new opportunities. A locked door represents missed opportunities or openings that are denied or not available. The color red has a number of meanings in dreams including raw energy, force, passion, aggression, power, impulsiveness, danger, violence, blood, shame, and sexual urges. Putting these symbols together, the Red Room could be seen as a place to indulge one’s powerful yet inaccessible or denied emotions and urges. In the context of the TV show, characters spent time in the Red Room playing games, reading, or dancing. The pleasures of the room made the “real world” pale in comparison and, for some characters, become threatening.
Analyzing Dreams and Stories About Haunted Houses
In looking more broadly at haunted house tales, a common plot line is that “things were fine until we moved into this house.” The house is evil or harbors evil forces such as restless ghosts that aim to harm, kill, corrupt, or possess the inhabitants. Typically, things get progressively worse the longer the residents live there. Taking a psychological view, these stories provide us flawed humans, prone to mistakes and bad behavior, with an “out” for our actions: We are not responsible for the evil we do but are simply helpless vessels for destructive spirits. And, from a dream analysis perspective, houses represent people, so the symbolism fits.
A final thought about haunted houses: To dream of one symbolizes unfinished emotional business related to childhood and family, dead relatives, or repressed memories and feelings. It’s not hard to see how many books, TV shows, and movies about haunted houses espouse this idea. The whole concept of ghosts is that they are spirits that are not resting in peace due to a violent death or unresolved matters before death. Many haunted house stories explain the haunting as being caused by a wrong or violence that occurred in the house or on the site on which the house was built.
Fitting with the dream dictionary explanation of haunted houses, in Hill House, most of the characters had serious emotional or mental health issues. (That is, unless you are a true believer in the supernatural and interpreted some of the main characters’ behaviors as being caused by haunting or possession.) And, traumatic events had occurred in the building throughout its history.
I think we are all drawn to ghost stories and tales of haunted houses because of their symbolism. Whether we harbor an unconscious desire to blame our flaws on evil spirits, have a longing to connect with long-dead relatives or lovers, or believe in the justice of karma (those who have committed past wrongs will be haunted by their victims), these stories continue to intrigue, thrill, and frighten us.