The trauma that drives a stake through in the lives of a family in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House takes place in summer 1992, but you wouldn’t always know it by the clothes. Even with plenty of scenes following the adult characters in 2018, the art direction, costumes, and set dressing of Hill House itself impart an unmoored, out-of-time feeling. Like many a good Gothic drama before it, Hill House is a living thing. In stories from The Fall of the House of Usher to Wuthering Heights, great houses are used as a reflection (or magnification) of the hearts of their inhabitants. And the heart of Hill House, both the place and the show, is Carla Gugino’s Olivia.
Olivia’s character fits in another Gothic tradition – a certain type of extremely, almost anachronistically feminine women with high susceptibility to spooky meddling. I’m honestly not sure what to call this trope and I’ve had trouble finding scholarship on it. I noticed a trend in Gothic stories and those that take inspiration from the genre of female characters who are not the main actors or agents but are instrumental to the conflict. They usually die or are marked indelibly by the supernatural. It seems fundamentally different from fridging, though the fates of these women do tend to motivate other characters. They are often mothers, making this character type unique in that there’s not necessarily a hard line between the feminine power of a maiden and the feminine power of the maternal. What these characters share is an intentionally exaggerated femininity that marks them as more fragile, ethereal, or even less tied to this earth than others. And the nightgowns.