The Haunting of Hill House ending explained - everything you need to know after watching

Haunting of Hill House ending

With the Haunting of Hill House season 2 confirmed, there’s still questions to be answered about the Haunting of Hill House ending. Although it might have had a happy ending (sort of), some of the threads weren’t tied up quite as neatly as you think, leaving some fans (yeah, ok, I’m one of them) with questions about various things, like who the guy in the bowler hat is, what exactly is up with the Red Room, and why - dear god, why - is Hill House so damn evil? So we're going to talk about - and try and answer - those questions. Just don't read on if you’re not 100% finished with the Netflix Original, as The Haunting of Hill House ending is packed full of spoilers and so is this feature.

1. What is the Red Room?

In the last episode, Nell’s ghost reveals that the Red Room is the “stomach” of Hill House. Over the course of the Crains’ stay in the dark mansion, the Red Room remained stubbornly closed despite Hugh Crain taking a hammer and chisel to the door frame. No wonder it stayed shut - the room is something different each time it opens depending on who wants to get in, disguising itself as a different room to - get this - “digest” whoever is inside. 

Digesting the family takes the form of getting inside their head and slowly brainwashing them, like what happened to Olivia Crain. That leaves them susceptible to the influence of the ghosts roaming the hallways. So for Shirley the Red Room is a family room, for Theo it’s a dance studio, for Steven it’s a game room, a treehouse for Luke, a reading room for Olivia, and a toy room for Nell where she found her cup of stars. Notice how Hugh very rarely saw ghosts? He’s the only character who didn’t have his own version of the Red Room, suggesting that he couldn’t see ghosts thanks to the House’s inability to get inside his head precisely because he didn’t have a room of his own to be “digested in”. In hindsight the Red Room’s ever-changing nature explains Mrs Dudley’s confusion when Nell and Steven mention the toy and game room to her, as despite having worked in Hill House for years she had never encountered those rooms. Luckily for her...

2. Who are the ghosts?

Hill House is rammed full of the undead. First off, the one we see the most is Poppy Hill, husband to William Hill, a flapper who was clinically insane and brainwashed Olivia Crain by terrifying her that her children would be eaten up by the outside world (the solution to which is, obviously, killing them and therefore keeping them safe in Hill House forever. Obviously). Next we’ve got Poppy and William’s wheelchair-bound son, who appears in front of Olivia Crain and bangs the walls as he can’t speak, making him the one who terrified Shirley and Theo at the beginning of the series. 

Obviously there’s the Bent Neck Lady who haunts Nell, who turns out to be Nell herself. After Nell dies in Hill House she finds herself being flung backwards through time in an effort to warn her family about Hill House, a trip which ends with her appearing in front of her younger self and scaring the bejesus out of her. Olivia’s ghost appears every so often, like to Luke at Nell’s funeral and in Shirley’s office to Theo and Hugh, with her cracked head and dishevelled nightgown. Those are the major ghosts but there’s also Abigail’s ghost (who was actually alive for the majority of the series until Olivia poisoned her), Luke’s ghost, the ghost of the man at the bar, the man fixing the clock with his magnificent moustache, Hazel Hill’s bedridden ghost (who Mrs Dudley used to work for) and many, many more that we see behind Steve at the end of the finale. Hill House sure has an appetite...

3. Who is the tall ghost with the bowler hat?

That fellow is Poppy Hill’s medically-insane husband William Hill, otherwise known as the creepily tall man (during life his height was always an obsession of his according to Poppy). As a child his parents sent him to “boarding school”, which was actually a mental asylum where he met, fell in love with, and married Poppy. Talk about a dysfunctional relationship. After being driven even more insane by the House, he bricked himself up in a wall in the ‘40s and Hugh discovered his skeleton while trying to rid the house of black mould - and sure enough, William brought his cane into the wall with him. He’s the one who goes floating from room to room looking for his bowler hat after Luke found it in the house as a child. After Luke steals his bowler hat, William haunts Luke for the rest of his life. You can see William in one of the photos Mrs Dudley finds in Nell’s Toy Room standing next to his daughter, complete with bowler hat, moustache, and cane. Shudder. 

4. Are the ghosts all of the dead?

No. Although they mostly are undead, outside of Hill House ghosts can be the embodiment of someone’s guilt, regrets, or trauma. So the man in the bar who keeps appearing to Shirley reminds her of when she slept with him at her mortuary conference (ew) yet he isn’t dead, instead being a representation of her guilt. Luke isn’t dead either - though he sure comes close for a while - yet Nell and Olivia both see him foaming from the mouth as a premonition of his near-death encounter at Hill House. These kinds of ghosts are warnings, representing fear, or guilt, or a painful memory, and it’s ambiguous whether they’re the result of Hill House’s influence on the Crains or whether they’re hallucinations springing from someone’s fragile mental state. Hugh, for example, sees Olivia’s ghost beside him at all times, but that turns out just to be one of his coping mechanisms as when he meets the real ghost of Olivia in Hill House, she tells him that version of her was all in his head. 

5. Is The Haunting of Hill House ending really that happy?

If you’re anything like me, you might feel disconcerted at that twee happy ending. Steve’s wife is pregnant, Luke is two years clean, Shirley has reconciled with her husband, and Theo - even that beautiful mess Theo - is in a stable relationship with Trish. Too good to be true? Maybe. Showrunner Mike Flanagan said in an interview that “we talked for a very, very long time about putting the Red Room window, that weird vertical window, in the background of this shot. And I ultimately decided not to. It was too cruel”. Implying that the Crains haven’t escaped Hill House - perhaps literally - that window would have been the perfectly ambiguous way to end the series, but Flanagan decided against it. Boo.

6. What will happen to Hill House now?

If Steve decides to do things like Hugh, I reckon he’ll just leave it to disintegrate into the dirt. Now that Hugh, Nell, and Olivia are haunting Hill House they might be able to keep the other ghosts in check. Remember when Olivia masterfully told Poppy Hill to piss off in the last episode when she was taunting Hugh? That moment, along with the ghost of the elderly bed-ridden Hazel Hill telling Olivia that Poppy lies, implies that although the ghosts are - well, ghosts, they get to know each other in the same way us living folk become accustomed to people. Being confined to Hill House probably forces you to socialise. Which is a nightmare in and of itself, to be honest.

7. What made Hill House evil to begin with, and who built it? 

Judging from its architecture it looks like it was built in the Gothic Revival style, which would put its construction at about 1830 - 1860, and according to the stories from Count To Seven on Reddit (who is officially linked to the show as writer) it was built by Hazel Hill’s father, Jacob Hill. He committed suicide by throwing himself off of the roof during the Great Depression, and that sounds like it created the evil that infested Hill House. Other stories from Count to Seven recount the bitter feud between Poppy Hill and Hazel Hill, and their war for control got so intense that the inhabitants of the nearby village think they murdered each other’s children. Then after Poppy’s husband, William Hill (i.e. the ghost in the bowler hat that follows Luke) dies, the two women had nowhere else to go, grew old, and died in that house together. That festering hate built and built between the two over the years, and it sounds like that’s what made Hill House evil. It’s kind of sad, really. But still terrifying. 

We would have got to see all of this play out, but in a cruel twist of fate those episodes got cut. In an interview Mike Flanagan says that “we had a whole history of Hill House that we were going to shoot. We were going to open several episodes of the show with this kind of history, split out over the whole season, which would show you the construction of Hill House, the history of the Hill family, who everybody was”, but then because of filming schedules it was eventually scrapped. There’s not much you can gather about Hill House’s past from the episodes, so to get an answer to this one you’ll have to rely on the stories from Count to Seven

8. Who put the buttons on Nell’s corpse’s eyes?

I have no idea. I’m sure that none of the family would have perverted her remains in that way, though. The dirty ghost of Olivia Crain appears to Theo and Hugh in Shirley’s study after destroying the model of the family’s dream house, so she might have put the buttons there. As all of the family saw the buttons, it’s not a hallucination, so Olivia’s ghost meddling in the funeral to freak out her living relatives seems to be the best bet. 

9. Why didn’t Hill House burn when Luke tried to set it on fire?

I think the answer to this is simply because it didn’t want to. If Hill House can change the Red Room at the blink of an eye, create dead ends (like when Hugh was pursuing Olivia through the house during the storm), conjure up visions, create black mould, make people disappear, warp time, and, you know, create ghosts, so I reckon when it comes to physical states it probably has the power to decide whether it wants to be set on fire or not. 

10. Why do the ghosts only come out at night?

Night-time has always been a hive of activity for anything spooky, and Hill House is no different. Ghosts might only appear at night because the Crain’s mental state is more fragile in the dark, and because it’s easier to hide things in the shadows when there’s not sunlight streaming through the windows. Perhaps Hill House is less powerful during the day as it’s harder to scare people when they can clearly see everything around them. Or maybe the House just needs time to gather its strength for more disturbing events, and it uses the day to recharge. 

11. Can ghosts travel through time?

When the ghost of poor Nell appears to her siblings in the Red Room in the final episode, she starts off talking nonsense before Shirley finally says: “I feel like I’ve been here before” and Nell’s nonsense turns into a coherent answer, as her nonsense is actually us only hearing one side of a conversation (just like in the Blink episode of Doctor Who). Nell says that “everything’s been out of order… I thought for so long that time was like a line… between the beginning and the end. But I was wrong. It’s not like that at all. Our moments fall around us like rain”. Ghosts, by the sounds of it, are able to jump through time - hence Nell appearing to her younger self - but in Nell’s case she’s not always able to control it. Whether all ghosts have Nell’s time-travelling ability remains to be seen. 

12. Will we get The Haunting of Hill House season 2?

Well, no. Not in the way you think, at least - after that Haunting of Hill House ending, Mike Flanagan is taking the season in another direction. The next season is out in 2020, called The Haunting of Bly Manor, and will explore The Turn of the Screw, an exceptional 1898 novella by Henry James. His tale follows a governess who gets sent to look after two children and begins to see the ghosts of the previous governess who took care of them, Miss Jessel, and Jessel’s lover Peter Quint. Things get real weird real quick (it is a horror story, after all), and the ending is notoriously ambiguous.

Ghost are lurking in the background of almost every episode. Take a look at our article that lists all the hidden Haunting of Hill House ghosts to see them all.