Firstly, this article comes from a place of genuine thought and concern. A place that is not to argue, but to bring awareness to a topic that I would like to generate a discussion about. The following lines perhaps appear scatter-brained, and if so, that is because I do not have a simple conclusion for the things I question, and I do not think there is a conclusion or a solution. I merely want to work through my own thoughts, and hear yours. Here we go. (This may contain spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House, Broadchurch, The Kissing Booth, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before).
After a long day of postgraduate modules, my friends and I watched The Haunting of Hill House as the so-called “spooky season” is here, and as two out of the three of us had never seen it and were genuinely curious about it. Without giving away too many spoilers, the show focuses on the perspectives of the seven people who lived in Hill House and the odd and supernatural occurrences that happened there, as well as one night that ended in absolute tragedy. However, it is not the ghosts that scared me, made me upset, or made me flinch, but the tragic deaths of the mother, Olivia, and youngest child, Nellie. While the show is rather cleverly pieced together, like pieces of a puzzle, with haunting phantoms, tragic stories, minute details, multiple perspectives, and intelligent writing, what was glaring at me the whole time was not the so-called “Bent-Neck-Lady,” but grief.
Fans claim that each of the Crain children who were in Hill House and experienced the tragedies of that fateful night represent a stage in the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance), and while it is, again, clever, that is not what struck me. What struck me was anger, anger towards the writers for following a trope that is embedded within fairytales, Disney films, literature, commercials, etc.—the death of the mother. This anger, I know, is because I lost my own mother only a few years ago and watching mothers die on-screen and in books is, well, hard.
Why is it Always the Mother?
Why is it that the mother is the one who dies within fairytales and other books, and even movies and shows? Some may tell you that it is because the mother is a source of love and structure, the hearth of the home, and taking away that important figure in the family is a tragedy. From that tragedy, readers and audience-members alike can see the struggle of the family and the importance of “sticking together.” Others may say that, especially in fairytales, it is about power structures—the younger woman must replace the older woman (where you see “stepmother” in Grimm’s fairytales, the simpler “mother” was replaced) and gain power. Some might even say that it is to represent the reality of losing one’s mother and to appeal to a sort of universal experience. There’s the possibility that it is to show the sacrifice of motherhood in some cases, or to represent the realities of a particular point in history. There also might be a million other answers, but I do not have one answer.
What happens when writers continue this trope of killing off the mother? Not only is there a loss of a mother in fairytales, books, and shows like The Haunting of Hill House, but also Netflix original movies such as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (based off the book) and The Kissing Booth. Both shows, while they are teen dramas, briefly touch on the topic of the loss of a mother. While this loss is heartbreaking for both female leads in the films, why is it that books and shows still recreate this great loss within their work? Why is it important that this loss plays a role in the lives of the characters in books and on screen? Perhaps I sound rather rude and too critical, but it is something that continues to creep into entertainment of all sorts. I am not here to answer these questions, only to ask more questions (something I am learning is the norm in the postgraduate life), and the question I have is what is at stake when we market, mass-produce, and recreate death and grief for an audience? In my postgraduate classes, the question of “what is at stake for/when” is posed, and it simply means what are the consequences or the outcomes of these particular claims or topics. So, when I consider the question of what is at stake when loss and grief are portrayed in films and TV shows, I ask why it is so important that this is discussed and what happens when viewers see these portrayals.
Grief in Entertainment–Why?
As I continued to binge-watch The Haunting of Hill House, I saw that though the show focuses on horror, it does focus on the horror of grief. While it is filled with the ghosts that haunt us in our nightmares, it also shows audience members what is really haunting—grief. Grief is as un-explainable, un-tangible, and truly scary as any phantom lurking in the halls. C.S. Lewis in his work A Grief Observed says, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing,” and perhaps that is the most honest thing I have ever read about grief. Again, grief is so unique to each person, each circumstance, each death—much like the children’s experiences within The Haunting of Hill House—that I cannot say that Lewis’ words are absolute truth for everyone.
What does an audience get from watching a show or movie that involves grief? I wondered the same exact question as I watched the British procedural Broadchurch over the summer, and as I watched the family within that town be torn apart by grief, and also rebuild from that grief. As I watched Broadchurch, I cried because I knew that feeling of wanting to go to the grocery store and not have everyone stare at me because my loved one died. While the show does involve a murder mystery, it focuses on the impact of death on a family, friends, and the larger community. These two shows, The Haunting of Hill House and Broadchurch, actually have quite a bit in common. Yes, one deals with ghosts and hauntings and the other deals with detectives and David Tenant being well, David Tenant; however, what these shows have in common are mysteries, the very mysteries of life, death, and grief, but why are these three things so popular, so interesting to watch, so captivating? Why are there so many TV shows, movies, books, songs, etc. that are about grief? What is the purpose of recreating scenes and instances of mourning and loss for an audience’s viewing pleasure? Why is it important that we do, and is it important? Perhaps it is a way for some to cope with their own experiences with the hope of helping others cope with theirs. Maybe it is because these are all experiences everyone goes through and can relate to, but even then it brings into question that very idea of universal experiences. Again, I can only speculate, and there are probably a million more speculations.
What I Think (Again, More Questions than Answers)
I think what is at stake when these experiences of loss and grief are formulated into any form of media for the masses is that at the end of most of these books, movies, and shows, is that there is hope for the living and the grieving. At the end of The Haunting of Hill House, Nellie (or the ghost of Nellie) talks about how deceased loved ones are never gone, but they are around the living like pieces of confetti and fresh snow. To her grieving siblings she says that they will never truly be without her. Nellie shares this sentiment that is supposed to help her siblings in their grieving process, and to offer them hope. But how does one make hope–hope after the loss of a loved one, and hope amidst the horrors of grief–so realistic?Is it realistic? Is there a push to make these “experiences” even slightly realistic, and if so, what does that mean and how does one do that when everyone grieves differently? Again, questions, not answers.
These questions are not meant to say that either show is good or bad, that either is right or wrong in what they do when bringing up such heavy topics such as the death of a loved one, how to approach that loss, and what happens next. Personally, I enjoyed both shows and thought that the ways in which each handled these topics was interesting and that it is worth discussing. Bringing up these topics, to me, is necessary (despite any initial anger or discomfort) because it does allow one to think about what grief can look like, and also what society thinks it should look like. Therapists, friends, family members, religious and spiritual leaders will tell those grieving that there is no guidebook to grief, and no right or wrong way to grieve. Having shows that express those same sentiments could create a new norm for mourning the loss of a loved one. However, both of these shows (though placed in their respective categories of “Horror” and “Mystery”) are dramas, meaning that though they try to present some of the realities of life, it is all pretend and it is all dramatized. With that being said, it brings up more questions of if these shows are at all relatable if they are not based on what one thinks is real.
So, if you have made it this far and have read all of the questions I do not have concrete answers to, what do you think is at stake when grief is marketed and mass-produced?