Supernatural And Mental Illness In “The Leftovers” And “The Haunting Of Hill House”
The themes of the supernatural and mental illness have gained much popularity in many of the novels and series that we watch today. The Leftovers and The Haunting of Hill House talk a lot about mental illness, but say very little. There is a strong correlation between mental illness and the supernatural in both of the series/novels just mentioned. I will incorporate some research regarding the relationship between mental disease and the supernatural in order to better understand how the said themes engage with each other in both The Leftovers and The Haunting of Hill House. I will further argue that the audience of both shows may never know whether what happened in Hill house was real, or a series of manifestations prompted by Olivia and Nell’s own diminishing sanity; or whether Kevin Garvey was actually going crazy or just a “prophet.” However, that is exactly the point, because mental health, in itself, is a long pending conflict with no “correct” answer.
At this time, I will incorporate some research on the history of mental illness in order to set the stage for the association between mental disorders and the supernatural. Ingrid G. Farreras states that “throughout history there have been three general theories of the etiology of mental illness: supernatural, somatogenic and psychogenic.” The supernatural category attributes mental illness to the possession by evil or demonic entities. The somatogenic theory is the disruption of physical functioning as a result of genetic inheritance, whereas the psychogenic pertains to stressful or traumatic past experiences. These etiological theories of mental illness determine the type of care or treatment the patient will receive. In the case of, I would argue that Kevin Garvey is subjected to the somatogenic theory of mental illness. He has inherited a “mental disorder” from his father, Kevin Sr. His father hears voices and assumes the role of self-professed prophet. There is, however, a blurring of lines when it comes to assessing the sanity of a person, and that’s where it gets complicated. Farreras reports that “the evolution of mental illness has not been linear or progressive bur rather cyclical.
Whether a behavior is considered normal or abnormal depends on the context surrounding the behavior and thus changes as a function of a particular time and culture.” So is Kevin Sr. crazy, and therefore making Kevin Jr. complicit in his insanity through the passing down of genes? Or is Kevin Sr. insane or a misunderstood prophet? Equally, The Haunting of Hill House can be viewed as a metaphor for mental illness, but proportionately containing just the right amount of ambiguity to question its sense of actuality. In Episode 7, we are granted the information relating to several different blueprints of the house. Olivia refers to these blueprint as being “schizophrenic” and takes upon herself to combine them into a master plan, which turns out to be a total mess. These subtle references mental disease are frequently appearing throughout the series as well as the novel. The blueprints are an extended metaphor for Olivia’s schizophrenia. Steven, for example, was always convinced that his mother suffered from said disease and it is even hinted by Olivia herself in a conversation with Mrs. Dudley in Episode 9: “Thank Goodness I have Hugh. I’ve always needed someone to get me out of my head.” This can be read in a number of ways. One, she literally means that he helps her and is a great husband, or that Hugh is a relief to her underlying condition. Furthermore, in regards to the questioning of the Garvey mens’ sanity, Episode 6 makes an interesting point worth analyzing. When Nora attended her work conference, a speaker was lecturing about a “phenomenon” called the “prophet dilemma” or clinically known as Post-Departure Delusion Disorder: “For most of humankind’s existence, certain individuals have come forth as self-professed interpreters of the world’s mysteries. But what happens when those conversations with God go wrong? Following a catastrophic event or circumstance, let alone that defies scientific explanation, the incidents of prophetic delusion rise dramatically. And this isn’t just megalomaniacs who make the news for the week.
This is happening to our friends, our neighbors, our families. This belief that a higher power is speaking to us-whether through dreams or voices is powerful coping mechanism. And if left unchecked, a dangerous one” (Season 1, Episode 6). This “clinical or medical diagnosis” carried out by the Department of Sudden Departure aligns with symptoms displayed by Kevin Sr. and Jr. One suffers from hallucinations, while the other hears voices. The psychogenic theory is applicable here in Kevin Jr.’s case. He has gone through the traumatic event of “losing” his wife to the GR. His hallucinations could serve as a coping mechanism. As for Kevin Sr., is he delusional in hearing those voices? Are either of the Kevins “receiving signs from a higher power?” As of now, I insist that both of them are mentally unstable. It is known that Kevin Sr. started hearing voices before the departure had taken place and the thought of Sheriff Garvey as a “prophet” seems like a bit of a stretch considering that the only thing fantastical about Tom Perrota’s novel is that a small percentage of the world’s population disappeared. In like manner, Nell Crain’s sanity is interestingly ambiguous. Nell had mental struggles though her life and the source of it all began when she was six years old when seeing the ghost known as the “Bent-Neck Lady.” At a superficial level, this apparition can be written off as a just being the supernatural within the mansion. However, this ghost haunts Nellie well within years after not residing at Hill House. This would imply that the house isn’t really haunted and that it was all just a figment of Nell’s “troubled” imagination.
The revelation of Nell as the Bent-Neck Lady is an excellent metaphor for what it’s like to live with a mental illness. She is literally being haunted by “herself.” For instance, I shall play the devil’s advocate and counterargue that Kevin Sr. isn’t insane and has received some sort of signal from a higher power. A well founded argument would be that there are a high number of character that feel as if they have a connection with a higher calling. Matt Jamison believes that God sends him signs via pigeons. The symbolism that pigeons represent are to nurture and to provide guidance. From a biblical perspective, which fits Matt well as a reverend, pigeons are among the offerings which, “through divine appointment, Abraha, presented to the Lord” (Genesis 15:9). The pigeons are a symbol sent by the divine to guide Matt and “instruct” him as to what he needs to do to save his church and himself. Holy Wayne believes himself to possess the power to “hug” someone’s pain away. He seems to be a scam up until Episode 6 “Guest” of Season 1. According to Sean Collins of Rolling Stone, “Holy Wayne is the real deal. He’s the guy who, it seems, genuinely is capable of supernaturally removing emotional pain.” The gasp of relief that Nora expresses in the episode is extremely convincing. GR leader, Patti Levin, doesn’t say much, but as a leader of a cult, there is plausibility in stating that she receives “instructions” from a higher power.
Moreover on Nells’ sanity, there is the scene in which Theo diagnoses the dead body of Nell upon touching her. Theo is a clinical psychologist. She has the knowledge and authority to ascribe diagnoses unto a patient. She describes to Shirley her observations upon coming into contact with deceased Nell: “I was just this dark, empty black hole. And I’m just floating in this ocean of nothing, and wonder if this is it, if this is what death is, just out there in the darkness, just darkness and numbness, and alone. And I wondered if that’s what she felt and that’s what mom feels, and its just numb and nothing and alone” (Season 1, Episode 8). Many of the “symptoms” that Theo mentions are associated with depression. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines one of the many criterions to make a diagnosis of depression: “1) Feelings of worthlessness or excessive inappropriate guilt.” If you feel worthless, you feel as if you are nothing. The simile to a “black hole” is meant to emphasize the degree in which Nell was suffering from depression. Theo paints the picture of a vast ocean of “nothing” in where she (Nell) is stranded with nobody to help her. I argue that it is not a coincidence that Theo is a psychologist and is describing symptoms of depression. This was done deliberately to add more authority to the mental illness narrative embedded within the supernatural one. In essence, both shows blur the line when it comes to the supernatural and mental disorder.
There is no correct answer when it comes to the topic of whether the shows are based on absolutely the supernatural or mental illness. There is, however, an entwinement of the two. They are almost inextricable. And like the characters of both shows, they are entangled. Nell and Kevin have the possibility of being mentally ill due to the somatogenetic theory, or the passing down of genes from their parents. It could also result from the psychogenesis theory in that past traumatic events is what has caused them to exacerbate their condition or, even develop it. And then we could bring in the supernatural theory which would develop from origins beyond the invisible observable universe. When combined, you get a mix of family history (mental disorder) and past traumatic experiences (loss of loved ones) to form a supernatural element that is hard to ground, and is therefore dismissed. To assess the sanity of a person can be difficult and even in correct. It wasn’t too long ago that homosexuality was considered a “mental disorder,” according to the (DSM-II). That’s what makes pinpointing mental health troubling. As Ingrid Ferrara states, “Whether a behavior is considered normal or abnormal depends on the context surrounding the behavior and thus changes as a function of a particular time and culture.” So is mental disorder socially constructed? Farreras makes an interesting point. There are a couple of disorders that come and go and are popular in accordance with their “time.”
In our 20th century, Borch-Jacobsen “identifies a whole boatload of psychological disorders that disappear and appear as specific and medical and psychiatric theories and treatments gain or lose popularity.” Now, the Haunting of Hill House is set in 1959, basically entering into the 60s. Nancy Joseph reports that Borch-Jacobsen devoted a chapter to depression, “a condtion he says that was relatively rare until a recent upsurge.” He notes that “a rise in depression corresponds with the introduction of antidepressant medications in the 1960s, with the number of depression diagnoses skyrocketing as more targeted medications appeared in the late 1980s.” Nell and Kevin alike take a variety of drugs to keep them “functioning” in their daily lives. If mental disorders are socially constructed, and if ghosts or the supernatural are entwined with mental disorders, then aren’t ghosts socially constructed or a “wish,” as Steven puts it?
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