A few years ago, a group of scientists published a study on screaming: the effects it has on those who hear it, and the type of screams that sound most fearful. “Scream science,” they called it. “A new kind of science.” The scientists had subjects listen to various screams and then judge them based on how afraid the screamer sounded. The rougher the scream, they found, the quicker that scream went straight to the listener’s amygdala, the brain’s fear center, and triggered fear responses––a boost in adrenaline and endorphins, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, tense muscles. A primal and ancient reaction. In this way, a scream serves as both a release and a warning: I’m afraid and you should be too.
Which is to say: this past year has felt like one long scream.
2018 lived like a constant ache in so many of our bodies. Clenched teeth, stress dreams, knotted back muscles that felt like rocks. Which is why, moreso than usual, I’ve found myself drawn to stories about landscapes that sink into you—planting a persistent, rattling dread—and characters who turn their skin into a kind of armor in order to survive.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House begins: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Compare that to this quote from Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation: “That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”
How many of us have remained sane?
How many of us haven’t been infected by the world’s madness?
In the 2018 adaptations of The Haunting of Hill House and Annihilation, landscapes are the loci of the characters’ malfunctions. Hill House and Area X, respectively, give these characters a place to focus their energy—and then use that energy, that sense of comfort, to undo them. Even if the characters manage to escape, they leave with pieces of that place embedded within them.
Hill House, a 10 episode “remix” of Jackson’s novel directed by Mike Flanagan, toggles between two different timelines. In the first, set in 1992, the Crain family—five children, two parents—moves into a looming mansion. Its hallways are filled with statues, its spare rooms with boxes, and, somewhere in the basement, a man is bricked into the wall.
Hill House is hostile, and has been for a very long time. Before the family even moves in, it’s already claimed lives. What’s meant to be a brief stay for the Crains gradually turns into a series of traumas. The house’s assault on them is slow and specific, approaching each member from particular angles to unnerve and unsettle and, eventually, to find a permanent home inside their nervous system.
In the second timeline, set 26 years later, the Crain children—now adults—still haven’t reckoned with what the house put them through and its continued threat. Even decades removed, they can’t shake or reason with the house’s attacks: the pounding in the night, the spirits that waited in shadows, the statues that tracked their movements. No one in the Crain family has the language to articulate what they went through. Hill House isolates its victims. Each is alone with their own fear.
While the threat of Hill House is confined to its walls, its foundation, its rooms, in Area X the threat spreads like a disease. Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation infests trauma into a roiling, abandoned landscape. After a comet strikes a lighthouse, the surrounding beach and forest become infected, alien. The pocket starts small: a glistening, oily barrier. It grows, swallowing the trees, the buildings, the animals. Soon, the government moves in. Expeditions are dispatched. None return. And then Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband that Lena (Natalie Portman) has long presumed dead, does.
Kane never told Lena where he was going or that he’d essentially volunteered for a suicide mission. Once she’s learned this, Lena doesn’t understand why he would make that decision without telling her. Now that he’s returned, though, he’s a stranger. He’s not the man she knew. He’s not the man she betrayed.
Presented with the bounds of Area X, its slow encroachment, Lena is told that it’s destroying everything. She shakes her head. “It’s not destroying,” she says. “It’s making something new.” She decides to sign up for the next expedition into the Shimmer, like her husband before her, even though it’s likely she won’t return.
Better to know, she decides. Better to face whatever’s ahead.
When I say this year was bad, I mean both historically and personally. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit telling friends about something I did or thought or considered and then wondering, “Am I crazy? Am I not okay?” It’s impossible to have appropriate reactions to anything when the world has been flipped and prodded and undone, when sometimes simply existing feels unsafe.
All of which is to say: it’s good that I finally started therapy. After being scammed by one therapist, and meeting with another who spent more time telling me about her mom’s Costco addiction than discussing my occasionally dysfunctional thinking, I eventually found someone who listens to and acknowledges my (often ridiculous) anxiety. She has her work cut out for her, clearly.
I keep thinking about something she said during our first appointment: “It makes sense that you’re looking for therapy now. Everything hurts a bit more than usual, doesn’t it?” It’s true, of course it is. But I can’t remember what it’d be like for it not to be true. Sure, I constantly feel bruised. Sure, my defense mechanisms haven’t been working as they should. But have anyone’s?
There’s one day, in particular, that I keep coming back to: the morning of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. I had a shift at the bookstore, along with a handful of other female employees. I’m not being rhetorical when I say that all our eyes were bloodshot. At the moment of his confirmation, we gathered behind the front counter. My coworker turned down the music and invited the customers to join us in a “primal scream.” For 30 seconds, we screamed. For 30 seconds, it felt good to place all our panic in that scream.
But then the 30 seconds were over and nothing had changed.
So much of Hill House is about what it means when the places you should feel safest––at home, with your family––become corrupted.
The moment the Crain family moves into Hill House, they become prey; the house finds their weaknesses and presses on them like a bruise. When the kids try to tell their parents what they’ve seen––the man with the hat and cane who hovers over the floor, the “Bent Neck Lady” in a long nightgown––Hugh and Olivia (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino) explain it away as “leaking dreams.” Kids, after all, have a difficult time separating fiction from reality, and the visions they’re describing can’t possibly be real.
In the years since, the Crain family has become adept at denial. The youngest, Nell (Victoria Pedretti), is the only one who trusts what she experienced, but her siblings won’t listen. Reconciling what they’ve seen would mean accepting that their world isn’t logical or ordered. If you can’t agree on what a house is, what that place means, and the danger it continues to hold, if you can’t even discuss it with those who were there with you, how can you ever begin to heal?
All Nell wants is a home, but her idea of what that means has been eroded over the years. Her therapist calls Hill House “a carcass” and recommends she finally confront it. He doubts the power a place can still hold. So Nell goes back to Hill House and, for a moment, everything is just as she wants it to be. The house is warmly lit. Her mother is there, welcoming her, giving her a nightgown to wear. Her siblings are there, too. They tell her how sorry they are and that they believe her. Even the husband she lost is there, waiting and ready to waltz with her through the statued hallways.
Your home is supposed to feel safe. “Come home” should be an invitation, not a threat. Your mother should not hand you a noose, shouldn’t encourage you to step backward off the top of that spiral staircase where you used to play. Nell finds herself there, toes clutching the ledge. And then she drops.
This next moment is both masterful and heartbreaking: as Nell falls, she drops through time. Her neck cracked, wearing her mother’s nightgown, she sees herself again and again and again. A final, cruel twist emerges: Nell is the Bent Neck Lady.
She becomes the thing that once haunted her.
The gene pools within Area X have all been corrupted: merged and expanded and forked. Flowers grow lush and strange; vines braid up a deer’s antlers; the sky prisms with color. Their bodies aren’t their bodies, not anymore. As soon as Lena’s expedition crosses into Area X, their genes began to refract, just like the other mutations crowding the feral landscape. The scientists are no longer what they were when they first crossed over into the Shimmer—and their bodies aren’t done changing yet.
In Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, he writes, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs.” In an attempt to gain control, “they learn to hide from their selves.”
The trauma of Area X is transforming the scientists’ bodies, claiming them, just as it did to Kane. Each of them experiences this truth separately; the more they feel the change inside them, the more they push away from the others. In a field filled with plants grown in the shape of humans––some holding hands, others grouped like a family might be––Lena approaches Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), the group’s biologist. The night before, Lena looked at a drop of her blood through a microscope and confirmed what Josie suspected: the Shimmer is inside them now, refracting, becoming something new, just as it’s done to every other living thing within Area X.
Area X has already claimed two others in their expedition. Josie doesn’t see a way out, so she chooses not to die in fear. Sprigs grow from her veins, furring her arms. She wanders through the branches, past the human forms. Lena chases her through a thicket of trees, but by the time she emerges, Josie has disappeared. She’s become another human-shaped plant crowding the field. She’s been consumed.
Lena pushes forward, toward the lighthouse, where it all began. She’s getting closer to what her husband became.
Don’t judge me: I went to a psychic before I found a therapist. After a friend’s wedding in Arizona, I took a detour through Sedona, hiked to a place called the Devil’s Bridge, took photos of the red rocks that hung over the path. After, I drove through town and parked outside a psychic. A neon palm flickered in the window. A woman in a tracksuit had me take a seat in a closet-sized office crowded with filing cabinets.
You’ll be shocked to learn, she told me that everything would be okay. According to her, I’m strong-willed and have a strong heart and this coming year would be better than the last. She also told me that my career is going to be fine, that I’ll live to be in my 80s, and that I should always live near water. And you know what? I chose to believe all of these things. I was tired of feeling like a bundle of nerves. What I heard her tell me was: you’re right, your feelings are valid, this moment is impermanent.
There’s a bear in Area X that isn’t just a bear. It’s shadowy and monstrous: bald and noseless, with a human skull embedded just beneath its eye and rows of human teeth baked into its maw. When it opens its mouth to roar, what comes out instead is the death screams of the woman it mauled and killed the night before. The bear has taken her DNA and her dying scream and claimed both for its own. A final desecration. As Josie puts it: “Imagine dying frightened and in pain and having that as the only part of you which survives.”
There’s a scream in Hill House that stands out, too. The sisters, Shirley and Theo (Elizabeth Reaser and Kate Siegel), are driving back to the house; what’s left of the family is returning, hoping to save each other and themselves, even if they can’t put words to their motives. Shirley and Theo are arguing about what they’ve seen and the fear they’ve learned. Their yelling crescendos and then, between them: the ghost of their youngest sister, Nell—recently found swinging from a banister in the abandoned Hill House—appears, her marble-white face opened in a feral scream, a scream that cracks and demands. It’s a moment, but it’s enough. Neither of them can deny what’s happening any longer.
These screams are different. One is stolen. The other is a warning. But both set a clear boundary. There’s a before and an after. At a certain point, you can’t keep denying what’s right in front of you.
Hill House still stands; Area X still spreads. Endings are never really endings. Most of the Crains survive; Lena returns to Kane. The threat is behind them, but all have been left with residual scars. The landscapes have hewed to their bodies and into their marrow. From this destruction, something new has grown. Between a before and an after, the after lasts much longer.
The world is still bad and hard and weird in increasingly new ways. Our bodies are still wired into “panic mode” and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Shirley Jackson called Hill House “a house without kindness” and, often, it feels like the same could be said of, well, everything. But there are some small, good things, and lately I’ve been trying to learn to collect them like pebbles.
The morning after I saw the psychic, I woke an hour before dawn and drove to the Grand Canyon. I parked in a dirt parking lot and walked 20 minutes, past two elk herds, out to a peninsula that jutted into the canyon. It was dark and then it was dim. No one else was there. Maybe they all knew that there wouldn’t be a sunrise. It began to snow. Within minutes, I couldn’t see the other side of the canyon. White sank around me. I tried to stay huddled next to a boulder three times my size, but eventually it got to be too cold. I walked back through the woods, through the elk herds, got in my car and drove home.
If this past year felt like one long scream, then this was the balm: believing a psychic when she said everything would be okay, and then sitting at the edge of a canyon too huge to understand.
Both versions of this story are important. The version where you’re right about what you felt, and the version where you don’t matter at all.