Browse Category: Television

Haunted Houses and Their Symbolism

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.

Dream Analysis

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.

Can People Change? A Look at “Home” by Marilynne Robinson (and a Quick Look at Ted Kaczynski)

This past summer, I read a book that touched me deeply: Home by Marilynne Robinson. I was surprised how emotional I felt reading it and especially finishing it. I completed the book on a flight home from a summer vacation, and I literally cried for a half an hour. It’s a little hard to explain why this story hit me so hard, since I can’t say I strongly related to any of the main characters. For those who haven’t read the book (and I highly recommend it!), it’s the story of a family in a small Iowa town in the 1950s that is shaken by several events. First, the patriarch of the family, a retired minister, is failing in his health. Because of this and a broken relationship, his youngest daughter, Glory, returns home to help care for him. Soon after, the “prodigal son” of the family, Jack, a son who, despite his checkered past and estrangement from the family, is the most beloved by the father, also returns home and stays with his sister and father. The tale of his life gradually unfolds as his sister (the narrator of the story) observes his attempts to come to terms with himself, his past, and his shaky relationships with his family and close family friends (including another minister, his father’s best friend). Jack also attempts to see if his past would preclude him from returning home to live a new life and whether his home has evolved into a place that would be safe for him and his loved ones. While Jack does receive grace and sometimes forgiveness from others, he remains a profoundly lonely and estranged man stuck between a past that he is unsure he can overcome and a present that may not allow Jack to live the sort of life he feels is right. Themes of family duty, religion, spirituality, race relations, and morality permeate the stories, with forgiveness and people’s ability to change and transform being central.

Home is a retelling of some of the same story told in Robinson’s Gilead (another amazing novel) from a different perspective. One of the reasons both novels, and especially Home, are so poignant to me is Robinson’s mastery of writing. I’ve read few authors who have such a quiet and subtle power. I think that the themes Robinson tackles are the other reason these stories struck a chord: At midlife, the idea of change is more fraught than it was in my younger days. There are seemingly fewer doors open because of the choices I have made; habits I have formed; and the limits of time, money, and energy. Yet, as a therapist, the possibility that people can change is central to my work and my ability to hold hope for my clients and for myself as I live through my own ups and downs. While the doubts and regrets of my life are not the same as those of the prodigal son, Jack, in Home and by most standards are not as troubling, they still cross (and at times haunt) my mind. I found Jack’s question in Home “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” rather heartbreaking. It brought to mind all the times I’ve struggled with things about myself that I wish were different and times I’ve tried to help and counsel others who were up against some very difficult circumstances, including their own entrenched patterns that make it hard for them to move forward. Without spoiling the end of Home for those of you who might read it, I’ll just say that for me, it was unclear at the end of the book to what degree individuals and their world were able to change, and some of the characters certainly suffered for the uncertainties of their own transformation, the transformation of others, and that of society.

Surprisingly, some of the same feelings stirred in me by Home and Gilead (which I just read in December) came up when I was recently watching Manhunt: Unabomber, an eight-episode series on the FBI’s search for the Unabomber. Manhunt is entertaining and fairly well done, but it’s no masterpiece of writing or (with the exception of Paul Bettany, who played Kaczynski) acting. Still, I felt a stab of emotion when the series took the point of view of Ted Kaczynski in his tortured struggle to live both in and apart from a world he saw as destroying people’s basic freedom and humanity. Tragically, Kaczynski chose to act on these struggles by killing innocent people. However, in the TV show when Kaczynski plaintively speculated about whether he could stop killing if he wanted to but ultimately could not, it triggered some of the same emotion I felt pondering the souls of the characters in Gilead and Home. Granted, it was hard to feel much empathy for Kaczynski given the terror and destruction he caused, but the writers of the series slyly made it easy for the viewer to identify at least to some degree with Kaczynski’s alienation and used this theme to critique our confusing and dehumanizing world.

So, where does all this pondering and emotion leave me today? It leaves me with a great deal of admiration for Marilynne Robinson’s talent and gratitude that I have the chance to be touched by these and other stories. It also leaves me continuing to ponder the ideas of morality and change. Really, these are themes that will take a lifetime to explore. Some days, I feel OK with where I’m at in my pondering. Other days, not so much. In the end, it’s the journey and the questions that make us human.