Open Casket Bookends Past and Present in Hill House

Episode 2 of The Haunting of Hill House, entitled Open Casket, is a Shirley-centric episode. As its title suggests, both the flashbacks and present timeline revolve around an open casket funeral. More specifically, Open Casket explores how the oldest sister, Shirley, deals with trauma or ‘fixes’ things around her.

The Past

The past flashbacks open with Shirley asking her mom about how she designs homes. It seems like a benign moment, but there’s something important in the interaction. The conversation is about how a mother and daughter complete or ‘fix’ things. Shirley can’t see her mother’s vision, but later in Open Casket, Shirley finds her vision.

After the talk with her mother, Shirley wanders the property, taking photos with a Kodak instant camera. Though it’s a Shirley’s episode, we do get a brief reminder about Luke’s ‘imaginary’ friend. While Luke plays alone in the yard, he looks up and catches a glimpse of a murky, childlike outline in the distance.

Flanagan delivers a fun scare in this scene, turning a completely harmless object into something ghastly.

Shirley soon finds a box of abandoned kittens in an old shed. Flanagan delivers a fun care in this scene, turning a completely harmless object into something ghastly. As Shirley snaps a flash photo, a ghostly white image appears behind the kittens’ box. It turns out to be an old wasp’s nest, but it’s an inventive jolt. Of course, Shirley decides to care for the kittens, keeping them in her bedroom. But it’s Hill House, so you know it won’t end well. Sure enough, one of kittens dies and when Shirley thinks it’s still trying to breathe, a bug crawls out of its tiny mouth.

If that wasn’t enough to traumatize Shirley, Hill House has more in store for her. In the middle of the night, Theo comes into her bedroom to complain about banging on their adjoining wall. As Shirley explains that she was sleeping, the banging spontaneously erupts again. Father Hugh arrives to assure the girls that it’s probably hot water pipes before his face stretches into a ghostly vision – a mix of memory and nightmare for the adult Shirley.

This is the first hint the series gives us about Olivia and what may have contributed to her inevitable fate.

In spite of Shirley’s best efforts, the remaining kittens appear to be diseased and eventually die. When Shirley thinks she’s found one kitten alive, it’s eyes bulge out like ghastly white marbles before dying. Poor mom, Olivia, is left to try and explain the in’s and out’s of ‘life and death’ before she experiences a searing migraine headache. This is the first hint the series gives us about Olivia and what may have contributed to her inevitable fate. When Hugh talks about flashes of colour during her migraines, Olivia says she didn’t see any colours this time. According to Olivia, her first migraine in Hill House was grey as though all colour had been sucked from it.

Open Casket has two more flashback scenes. One of these flashbacks is closer to the present timeline. It’s a scene with Shirley and the other eldest Crain, Steven, paying to get baby brother Luke into rehab. The moment is noteworthy for more than just basic story purposes. Steven can’t help pay the $6000 monthly fee, sticking Shirley with the bill. This is just another tease at the tension between the older Crain siblings. It’s also another example of Shirley trying to ‘fix’ things.

The second flashback is set in a funeral home shortly after the Crain family’s late-night escape from Hill House. Shirley is in tears, refusing to go to the open casket. As the camera pans away, we see Olivia’s picture framed in the parlour – it’s her funeral. Eventually a kind funeral attendant holds Shirley’s hand and takes her to the casket. Upon seeing her dead mother, Shirley remarks that ‘you fixed her’. At that moment, Shirley has found her vision for completing or fixing things.

The Present

In the present, Shirley gets the late night call from Steven to let her know baby sister Nell is dead. Distraught and confused, Shirley blames Steven, reminding him that she told him that Nell was in trouble. In a surprising move Shirley insists on hosting her sister’s funeral against the protests of her husband, Keven, and sister Theo. While embalming her own sister, Shirley has her own ghostly vision, suggesting she may not have escaped Hill House unscathed either.

Shirley’s present timeline mirrors Open Casket’s flashbacks. Like a funeral attendant once helped her, Open Casket shows Shirley helping a young boy cope with the loss of his grandmother. She takes his hand and walks him to face his own ‘open casket.’ But if there’s a takeaway message here, it’s that no amount of “fixing” can hide the scars hiding underneath.

Other Interesting Tidbits

Over the course of Open Casket, Flanagan drops a few hints that the Harris Funeral Home may not be in good financial shape. In one scene, Kevin pleads with Shirley to stop giving away so many ‘freebies’ to clients. Later, Shirley learns that Kevin has a bank account she didn’t know about when she discovers a cheque book.

Middle-sibling Theo also gets a bit more screen time. She seems to have a closer relationship with older sister Shirley than her other siblings. As an adult, Theo always wears gloves. Is she a germaphobe? Given the theme of the show, that’s an unlikely option. However, in her sparse flashback appearances so far, young Theo isn’t wearing gloves.

Flanagan Delivers Another Strong Episode

Open Casket is another outstanding entry in The Haunting of Hill House. Series creator Mike Flanagan is impressively balancing familiar horror conventions with emotional and tight storytelling about a family in distress. There are a few truly touching emotional beats in Open Casket. And as a horror director, Flanagan continues to demonstrate a keen ability to breathe new life into familiar scares.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

2 thoughts on “Open Casket Bookends Past and Present in Hill House

  1. We’re watching up here in Newmarket so I was thrilled to see this post! Even though this is WAYYY too scary, I hide behind the couch cushion and ‘watch’ with my crazy boys.

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