Sigmund Freud's theories of Eros and Thanatos: Hill House

by Samantha Sasenarine

In this paper, I will be discussing Sigmund Freud's theories of two fundamental drives, Eros and Thanatos. Both concepts are pivotal to psychoanalytic literature and adaptations because they can be used to explain the phenomenons of one's life. Elements of Freud’s theory are seen in Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). The protagonist, Eleanor Vance, battles with Eros and Thanatos until her tragic suicide. Jackson's literary work is significant because of its components of distressing terror and the unknowingness of death. The radical adaptation of the Netflix horror series, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), explores Freud’s theories, Eros and Thanatos, by showing how terror creates palpable fear. In my paper, I will be discussing the way Freudian ideas determine the choices of characters in both the novel and adaptation.

Freud applies the theories Eros and Thanatos to psychoanalysis, where they are thought to be necessary to sustain life for an individual. Eros, being the "life-instinct," is to maintain an individual in society. People are driven by a means to live, which is called the "ego-instinct.” The libido is an external force where the desires of procreating and survival of the human race becomes vital. Freud explains that essentially the "service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind" (Freud, 81). The ego instinct and libido interconnect because they entail needs of survival and continuing life, so they are significant to the Eros.

Freud discusses that Eros cannot simply exist without its counterpart "Thanatos" or the "death-drive" instinct. Thanatos comes into conflict with Eros because it appears "in the background behind Eros," meaning that the destructive tendencies of human beings are always there. Freud explains, "... the death instinct twists the erotic aim in its own sense and yet at the same time fully satisfies the erotic urge…" (81). He argues that people feel pleasure by the pressures of death and being self-destructive. He also says, "...a portion of the instinct is diverted towards the external world and comes to light as an instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness" (78). Civilization channels the death-instinct externally, which may show an aggressive/destructive nature to desire death subconsciously, but Eros tampers with this dark desire, so the individual is conflicted with the need to be destructive and living.

Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House, sets her protagonist, Eleanor Vance, on a peculiar adventure to Hill House. Hill House seems to draw Eleanor's attention greatly, and Jackson gives us glimpses of her thoughts as the novel progresses. Freud's theories of Eros and Thanatos are heavily seen in the novel and play a role in Eleanor's subconscious/actions. First, Eleanor is given an invitation to go to Hill House, and Jackson narrates a journey that emulates a possible future death. Subconsciously, Eleanor goes on long tangents of dreamlike thoughts that deter from the eeriness of death, but Jackson hints at it subtly. When she says, "Eleanor, daredevil drivers, and she slowed her car because she was driving too fast and might reach Hill House too soon" (Jackson, 16). Eleanor’s reckless driving presents a desire to experience a sort of destruction/pain. The "death-instinct" comes in conflict with Eros; however, she realizes to slow down somehow dreading the arrival at Hill House. Eleanor continues to subconsciously question her journey when she arrives at the house saying, "Get away from here, get away" (Jackson, 31). Part of her knows that being at Hill House may resort to a possible tragedy, but she is overpowered by the need to confront the terror of the house.

Eleanor ascends the iron staircase in the library of Hill House where she follows the voice of her mother smelling an "odor of decay" (Jackson, 216). In this scene, she begins laughing and slamming on every door awakening everyone in the house. Eleanor seems vengeful and wants to redirect attention to her. She says, "None of them will open their doors, she thought; they will sit inside, with the blankets pressed around them… wake up, she thought, pounding on the doctor's door; I dare you to open your door and come out to see me dancing in the hall of Hill House" (Jackson, 217). When she reaches the top of the iron staircase other characters are frightened because of its fragileness. Perhaps, she purposely frightens them so they could understand her internal pain. The death-instinct appears when her impulsive behavior led to a near-death experience. Eros fights against her death-instinct when the others call out to her from below; her mind wanders from fantasy to reality. She battles with Eros and Thanatos excessively because Theodora shouts for her to slowly come back down and Eleanor replies, "Why?" (Jackson, 221). The desire to jump off the staircase seems appealing, but frightening. In the end, the other characters never recognized the red flags or Eleanor’s “cry” for help, but rather infuriated with her actions. Luke makes comments about shoving her off the staircase himself because he was so angry with her.

The ending of Jackson's novel transcends into silence because of the tragic death of Eleanor. Finally, she departs from Hill House, but as she's driving away, she refuses to truly leave. Jackson writes, "But I won't go. She thought, and laughed aloud to herself...they can't make me leave… go away. Eleanor, we don't want you any more, not in our Hill House… I won't go, and Hill House belongs to me" (Jackson, 232). Eleanor descends into madness and submits to Hill House. The feeling of being neglected and misunderstood by others around her resorts to the final "death-drive." She asks herself, "I wonder who notices first?" (Jackson, 232). Prior to her death, she is told by other characters, such as Doctor Montague, that she will go away because of her reckless actions at Hill House (Jackson, 231). Eleanor's instinct to drive to her death shows longing to end perpetual pain and return to a "home." She succumbs to Hill House because it is the only place that has said "come home Eleanor" (as the house sends her this message on the wall). However, she seems to fight the inner destruction while she drives into the tree saying, " Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don't they stop me?" (Jackson, 232). Eros pushes through Thanatos because Eleanor questions her actions hoping someone will stop her from killing herself. Part of Eleanor wants to overcome this feeling of death and agony, but Thanatos wins in the end and she becomes "one" with Hill House.

The Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, is a contemporary and radical adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel. The radical adaptation "reshapes the literary work into extreme and revolutionary ways" creating the literature into "a more fully independent work" (Cahir, 26). Netflix's adaptation is set with siblings, who grew up in Hill House as it was notoriously labeled the most haunted house in America. The series switches from the past and present where the siblings are confronting the "ghosts" of their past and terror of their childhood home while living as adults. The radical translation of Jackson's work addresses major themes of a broken family/relationships, death, the supernatural, and most importantly, psychological traumas. But, it is a contemporary adaptation that gives people the ability to relate and experience the complex family dynamic that can be perceived as raw and real. Similar themes are presented in Jackson's novel, but the adaptation has more characters battling their past as individuals and a family.

Eros and Thanatos differ in the series since each character experiences these two elements because of their past. After they leave Hill House with their father, Hugh Crain, the siblings never learn of what truly happened to their mother. Her death left them traumatized, although Hugh tries to conceal the truth so his kids could live on. The Eros is in constant play in their individual lives where marriage and success becomes present. Steve becomes a successful writer; Shirley runs a funeral home service with her husband; and Theodora received her PhD in Psychology/became a child Psychologist). Each character confronts Thanatos differently as well, such as Luke, who is in and out of rehab struggling with drug addiction; Steve lying to his wife Leigh about wanting children/gaslighting her, so she supports his writing career. Finally, Theodora battles with loving others intimately because of her “supernatural gift” of "seeing" like her mother. For the family, it seems best to dismiss their traumas to progress, but they are in a constant cycle with it. For example, Steve writes a successful book about Hill House reasoning this with needing to support the family he wants to create with Leigh (although he had gotten a vasectomy and kept this a secret from her). He profits from the book about their childhood traumas, and Shirley claims it as "blood money." In the end, his siblings resent him for publicizing their trauma, but Shirley makes this more evident than any other character. Eleanor, who plays a major role in uniting her family, reaches out directly asking for help. This differs from Jackson's novel because the siblings have lived through similar traumas together. Eros is seen because Eleanor looks to her older siblings for support before her death, but Shirley and Steve reject her calls. In the end, Thanatos wins, similar to Jackson's novel. But, the adaptation shows the grief that becomes unsettling in each character after her death; whereas, everyone departs back to their own lives after Eleanor Vance's suicide.

The end of the series presents all the siblings, Steve, Theodora, Shirley, and Luke trapped inside the Red-Room by the ghost of Poppy Hill. They begin hallucinating their biggest fears, traumas, and guilt that “haunted" them throughout their lives. Here, Thanatos takes over because the house wants to take hold of the Crains by forcing them to confront their most miserable selves. The siblings' Eros fights against Thanatos to bring them back to the reality of the house's evil. Eleanor's ghost appears in each hallucination helping them get out of the "trance.” They are confronted with the truth of the Red-Room as Eleanor’s ghost explains the room being the "stomach" of the house. The house "feeds" them their worst fears to keep them there. They work together to get Luke out of the Red-Room safely and finally apologize earnestly to Eleanor for not being there when she needed them. They confess their internalized guilt and grief about losing her. However, she forgives her siblings, saying she "loved them completely" and that she understands that they were all confronting their own demons. The Eros wins and each of them work on healing and tackling their fears together. Compared to Shirley Jackson's protagonist, Eleanor Vance, she succumbs to the house's hold, leading to her death. She doesn't grapple with Eros as substantially as the Crain family (she eventually accepts “death” because no one understands her pain). Also, she is the only character that the house seems to “control” in the novel; whereas, the Crains all experience feelings of tremendous trauma, death, and loss because of Hill House. They conquer Thanatos (as we see they celebrate Luke for being two years clean at the end of the series).

The adaptation of Hill House presents commentary of Eros and Thanatos, shaping the theories around a contemporary American family. Hugh's wife, Olivia, is instantly affected by the house and driven to her suicide; however, prior to her death, she tries to communicate that the peculiarity of the house. The housekeeper, Mr. Dudley, even tells younger Hugh that it would be best to take his wife out of the house for a few days. Hugh dismisses these red flags and doesn't truly "see" the detrimental changes in his wife. In the end, it becomes too late to "save" her because he was always trying to "fix" the house. Steve reconciles both his mother and Eleanor’s death with mental illness. He thinks his whole family is affected by the "disease" of mental illness, but he is oblivious to what the house has endured on them. Despite the dysfunction, the family tries to bring light into their dark situations (Eros). As adults, the siblings are dismissive of their past, but soon accept that the Hill House played a significant part in the destruction of their family. Although the house’s "supernaturalness" was out of their control, they fight to live and hold onto their sanity. People may connect with the series deeply, where they may feel the destructiveness of the death-drive, but learn to work against its fear to survive and live (such as breaking the stigma of therapy).

Work Cited:

Flanagan, Mike, creator. The Haunting of Hill House. Paramount Television, 2018.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.'

Jackson, Shirley, 1916-1965. The Haunting of Hill House. New York, N.Y. :Penguin, 1984.