Critical thinking is not for everyone? (Enneagrams)

Recently at work we had to take Enneagram tests, followed by a three week course on the subject, in three weekly two hour meetings, given to us by an expert.

My view of those personality tests:

  1. If you force people to answer leading questions that pigeonhole them into a bunch of set categories, you will get results that look similar to the categories involved.
  2. The rest of it does not follow logically, or psychologically, or scientifically, and is not based on a foundation that’s in any way rational.

To clarify, there are nine personality types, and apparently I am a reformer, type one. But each type has (to avoid their jargon) an unhappy path and a happy path. In other words each type can be in a healthy or unhealthy state, and in that state, they take on the characteristics of another personality type. However, we were given explanations neither for how these arbitrary major types are selected, nor how their preset paths to the healthy and unhealthy states work. That is, the arbitrarily selected personality types take on preset characteristics of other arbitrary personality types, and this has no foundation in… well anything really.

Can you guess why these explanations were not given? (Bait and switch, baby!) Of course, it’s because the enneagrams are based on pseudoscience. Why does each type have preset paths to another type? This is where the pseudoscience comes in. You can find a decent explanation here. It’s also clear that other skeptics have a similar view to me. See this skeptics stack exchange question. It happens to be about the same test that we took at work. There’s no answer posted, but the view of skeptics is clear from the comments.

Here is an excerpt from the first link above, illustrating the rationale behind the way the personality types relate and the selection of the preset types that they take on under healthy and unhealthy states:

An enneagram is, literally, a drawing with nine lines. Figuratively, however, the enneagram is a New Age mandala, a mystical gateway to personality typing. The drawing is based upon a belief in the mystical properties of the numbers7 and 3.* It consists of a circle with nine equidistant points on the circumference. The points are connected by two figures: one connects the number 1 to 4 to 2 to 8 to 5 to 7 and back to 1; the other connects 3, 6 and 9. The 142857 sequence is based on the fact that dividing 7 into 1 yields an infinite repetition of the sequence 142857. In fact, dividing 7 into any whole number not a multiple of 7 will yield the infinite repetition of the sequence 142857. Also, 142857 x 7 = 999999. And of course 1 divided by 3 yields an infinite sequence of threes. The triangle joining points 3, 6 and 9 links all the numbers on the circle divisible by 3. To ascribe metaphysical or mystical significance to the properties of numbers is mere superstition and a throwback to an earlier time in human history when ignorance was considered a point of view (apologies to “Dilbert” and Scott Adams).

As you can see, the pseudoscience behind the enneagrams is numerology. Just because there is some mathematical relationship between a bunch of numbers when you divide them by each other does not mean that personality types assigned to those numbers have characteristics of those numbers. Numeral systems are in any case simply a representation of numbers that people came up with. In other words, an abstraction, a map to represent real concrete things. Any “mysterious relationship” between numbers is simply a quirk of the numeral system itself. Would a numeral system other than base 10 yield the same “mysterious” relationships between numbers? I don’t think so… But to apply other things, in this case types of personality… to those numbers, and read something into that… well that’s just silly.

If you go ahead and read the Skeptic’s Dictionary link above, it should be clear that it’s all nonsense. Enneagrams may have some merit, because once you force people to answer questions that put them into a broad category, the category will apply to them… somewhat. But the rest of it is pure bullshit. The reports read like a bunch of Barnum statements which could apply to anybody. Primed to credulously accept them because the broad categories seem applicable, people who take the test then buy into it without really noticing.

And yet, nobody else in the office has my view. I wouldn’t rate myself as much above average a critical thinker. But everybody else in the office seem to have approached the subject very credulously indeed. (Unless of course some kept their skeptocism to themselves.) I don’t believe Enneagrams are harmful because the vague, general descriptions in the reports based on them do contain things that apply to everybody, so by following them when dealing with others, we may accidentally consider their thoughts and feelings. So it could do some good… by accident. The person running the coaching I was part of was quite obsessed with it and did seem to help people, but I have seen such zeal before, in others obsessed with other personality tests, as well as religion, 12 step programs, astrology, and psychics. The placebo effect is real.

To be fair, I did keep an open mind. But open does not mean that I accept claims without checking them out. And the claims made by Enneagrams do not check out. Of course nobody who buys into Enneagrams will read this and accept my conclusion. I am, after all, being critical, and a true believer will likely deduce that I am just doing what a type one does in writing this, thus everything written here can be dismissed as exactly what a reformer would write. More broadly, they could probably write off every skeptic as being a reformer too.


How I stopped believing in religion–Part Two (the rest)

By popular demand…. where popular means as requested by my one loyal reader, friend, and commenter from Sweden, here follows the second part. This one will be short.

By the time of my Confirmation as a Roman Catholic at fourteen years old, I was having serious doubts. I mean, I already didn’t believe in almost everything they taught in Sunday school, but as a teenager, I started thinking about other religions. I didn’t know any of them in detail, but I realized that was quite unnecessary.

I realized that I was taught my religion was the One True Religion, but so were other people. Everybody I knew sincerely believed in Christianity, but other people sincerely believed in other religions. The only difference between us and and them was the location of birth and religion of our parents.

How could our god, who was so loving and good, sentence others to eternal punishment just for being born into the wrong religion? It makes no sense. There seems to be two ways people respond to this dilemma:

  1. Assume all religions contain some kind of universal truth, ignore the differences, and cherry pick what they have in common.
  2. Realize the truth – that the only thing in common is belief. Whether that’s an evolutionary need to believe or something else doesn’t matter.

Obviously I went with number two. I didn’t quite put it all together, not then, not at fourteen years old, but I did get closer at around sixteen when confronted by an atheist, and then it took me less than thirty seconds to realize that I was comfortable with rejecting everything about my religion. And all the other religions. (Actually I didn’t call myself an atheist until years later, and also didn’t come to grips with rejecting the idea of an afterlife. But that doesn’t matter here. This post is only about me saying goodbye to belief in religion.) If Christians can reject other religions without knowing their doctrines and belief systems, and for example Muslims can do the same, then so can I. I can reject them all. It isn’t about the subject of the belief, it is about belief itself. It doesn’t matter what god or belief system you grow up with, they are all very much the same. And they all indoctrinate you the same way. It would be illogical to assume any of them contain any truth.

My first post could be rewritten about any other religion by someone who grew up with a different religious background, because when you look at any religion closely, they all believe stuff that’s batshit crazy. I still don’t understand why believers believe, because I have realized that it was natural for me to reject religion in general. With all my doubts right through childhood, for me atheism was inevitable – a natural part of growing up. I don’t grasp why it isn’t that way for everybody.

How I stopped believing in religion–Part One (the foundation of my disbelief)

This morning as I dove Aishah to school after dropping Josh off and before driving to work, I sat behind an annoying man who drove everywhere at 40kmph – the recommended speed for speed bumps, and slowed down further for speed bumps. I sat frustrated, unable to overtake the moron thanks to oncoming traffic… sat there mesmerized by the twirling Rosary dangling from the idiot’s rear view mirror. And I wondered to myself… Why do believers believe? And I don’t only mean idiots like Mr. Slowpoke from this morning – I mean people in general.

I know how belief works, and indoctrination, but when I think about it, it’s no excuse really. I’ve always said that I stopped believing in god at sixteen years old, but the truth is, despite my Roman Catholic upbringing and Sunday School followed by Mass every week, I was never much of a Christian except on the surface. So before I can relate how I stopped all belief in god, I must lay down the foundation, explain my thoughts and beliefs up until then. So here goes, here is who I was as a child and teenager, or at least, here are a few tricky concepts that I already disbelieved in as a child:

The Holy Trinity

To be honest, I struggled to get my head around praying to Jesus on day one of Sunday school at six years old. If god created the world, why did he need to send down his son? Why is his son also him? Why do they need a third person, the holy spirit? Why not just one?

None of this stuff makes any sense and smacks of made up stories just passed along without thinking.


I had to do my first confession at eight years old. However, this was one thing I immediately rejected. Why should I go confess my sins to some creepy old guy and then say a few prayers to have them be forgiven? Just so I can eat the magic unleavened bread? (See next point.) But why is all that necessary? If Jesus died for my sins, why do all this stuff?

I was the only kid in class to bunk First Confession by pretending to be sick, so I didn’t get mine with Fr Tom, but had to go to mean old Fr Roche the following week all by myself. To boot, I had to make up some sins.


The magic unleavened bread transforms into the body of Christ. Literally. And we eat it. Need I say more?

Needless to say, eight year old me didn’t believe that either. I saw no reason to ask questions about it or discuss it with anybody. Hello, magic isn’t real.

Original sin

So my understanding as a child was… emphasized Eve did not eat an apple, but they were punished for something else. What? And does this mean the talking snake and creation from a rib didn’t happen either? I knew children’s stories that made more sense.

So we are all guilty of Cain killing Abel, because Original Sin. And being baptized forgives us for that; otherwise if we die as babies we go to Limbo. This doesn’t seem fair. How come some sins are inherited but not others? If my great grandfather stole a packet of cigarettes and I don’t get baptized, will I go to Hell?

Jesus died for our sins

Thanks, buddy! Also, so what? How does that work? Can I borrow some chocolates from my brother, and instead of repaying him, take on some of his sins?

To be fair, that last line is just me being a smartass now. I didn’t think that far as a child. Whenever anybody spoke about Jesus dying for us I just zoned out and thought about something else because… obvious nonsense is obvious.

So there you have it. I didn’t believe in all those things, but did believe in god, and did believe in Heaven. That was me as a child and teenager. Next time I’ll write about rejecting the rest of the bullshit as well as all other religions. Or maybe I won’t, depending on my mood. This subject is no longer as interesting as it was when I started writing. No, really… I’m sitting here and remembering Sunday school and Mass and starting to nod off.

So now I’m a loner who doesn’t like to be alone

All my life, I’ve been a loner. As a child, I lived in my own imaginary world. Hard to explain what it was – the closest is probably the world from the movie Ready Player One, where the protagonist spends most of his time in a virtual game world, except I didn’t flesh out what the real world looked like in my mind, and my characters were all named Hmmmph or something to that effect because my world was visual in my head and nobody needed names. I only came out of my shell at around 12 years old, and then struggled with relationships with real people. My imaginary ones were so much more friendly. After that, I spent much of my time in every human relationship trying to find ways to get away and be alone.

Ironically today I am alone and I don’t like it at all. Josh is sleeping over at a friend, while Megan and Aishah are at one of Megan’s friends. So here I sit with nothing to do.

Earlier I sat on the balcony, looking down at the half tree that Mervin, my mad downstairs neighbour, has cut down – even though the trees belong to the body corporate in this complex. He was busy with some kind of loud machine in his flat all day. His flat that smells of piss… so I hear. Just for a moment I found myself about to call out, “Mom”, because she was quite fascinated with mad Mervin’s antics. Just for a moment I almost forgot that she died last December.

It’s weird… I’m over her death… mostly. But it still feels like a shock, like she isn’t meant to be gone. I’m fine most of the time and then out of the blue, it all comes back. I suppose it’s worse when I’m alone.

It’s great having Megan back here. There were only two people in the world who ever really got to know me, my mother and Megan. But still… we have grown apart over the years. I think when we had a relationship it was the drug habit that brought us close together. Without that, it’s difficult to relate to her. I don’t think we’ve had one deep conversation. I don’t know if we can. It’s like we are not on the same level at all.

It’s not so bad though… My focus is on Josh and his sister. Except for today, as I sit here and wonder what the fuck to do. I played Diablo most of the day. Having had both my hardcore characters die at around Paragon level 800, I started playing a seasonal character for the first time in January. Today I finished tier 5 of the seasonal journey, but I can only play for so long and I zone out.

I’m writing this while uninstalling Visual Studio 2015, because I have Visual Studio 2019 to install. But I don’t know if I really feel like doing that tonight… I might just go sleep rather.

There was more I intended writing but now I don’t feel like that either. It really is shitty sitting here alone.

If you find meaning in the voices in your head, you have two problems…

Urgh. Sometimes it pisses me off that I wrote that old post about how meth voices in your head start with pareidolia. It was intended to be an informational post, with a hint of dark humour, but basically just some anecdotes from my unfortunate years of living with meth addiction and hearing voices.

Back when I was a tweaker and heard voices, I assumed that most people who heard voices figured out that the voices were only in their heads, just like me. After all, I figured that out while high, paranoid, and delusional. (And I do mean delusional… Delusion is unavoidable when the voices seem so real. ) I assumed most, not all, because in those first few years when I was still a sociable tweaker, I did meet other tweakers who clearly heard voices and did not know it.

But reality came knocking in the form of a post where the comments never end, written by people smart enough to reach my blog after searching for meth voices, but who remain convinced the voices are real. To make matters worse, it’s not only meth-heads who find the post, but also others who hear voices and seek answers but do not want to accept the answer that the voices are internal to their minds.

I can not emphasize this enough… There is no meaning to be found in the voices in your head. No religious meaning, so you are not being contacted by gods or demons or aliens; no conspiratorial meaning, so no government or shady organization is trying to control you – and mind control is not a thing. Any meaning you perceive, anything at all, is delusion. There’s no shame in that, but if you hear voices and find meaning in them, you are delusional. Realizing it is key. It is better to be delusional and know it than the alternative, because that gives you the power to seek help. I am not qualified to advise you on what kind of help you need… I can only say that if the voices are induced by hard drugs as mine were, you need to stop using those drugs. Beyond that, the sensible thing to do is seek help from a mental health professional. I’m one of the lucky ones who didn’t need help because the voices stopped after I stopped using meth, and also every timr I stopped even for a week or so. I remain interested in the subject because I did live with them for several years, which leaves me empathetic to others who experience similar symptoms.

If you hear voices and are convinced that you have tested them scientifically and concluded they are real, or believe others in your household also hear them, or that you recorded them and can hear the voices when you play back the recordings, all of those things are part of your delusions. You simply can not trust your own thoughts about the voices. You don’t know the difference between the voices in your head and the conversations you’ve had with others. Every conversation that confirms them to be real happened only in your head too. If you play back recordings of the voices, you are just listening to white noise and hearing voices that aren’t really there… again. That’s how audio pareidolia works.

I’m writing this because of recent comments I received by someone who is absolutely convinced that the voices are real, to whom I responded only to have him or her claim to have tested the voices scientifically. I see no point in continuing that conversation. This is not something to debate. There is never meaning to the voices and when you claim that there is, you don’t convince anybody, you just come across as a crazy person. Unfortunately the last sentence is probably not entirely true… you may well convince other people who also hear voices. You may find an online echo chamber of people who also hear voices and share similar conspiratorial or paranoid views to yours, since there are some common threads among those who think the voices are real. That is not a good thing.

Seriously, I am out of ways of expressing this… The voices in your head are never real and there are no exceptions. There is no evidence for you to present to anybody to convince them that the voices are real (because they’re only in your head), and you are not special, not some inexplicable exception for whom the voices are real and do have meaning. Seek help before it’s too late. You are not alone. There are many people worldwide who live with voices in their heads. Help is available if you look for it, but arguing with some guy on the internet to try convincing him your voices are real is not the right way to go.

Update: It’s worth mentioning that pareidolia is when your brain interprets random patterns as something distinct. (This can be audio or visual.) With audio pareidolia this often means hearing distinct sounds, such as voices, in white noise. It just so happens that’s exactly how meth-induced voices start, but over time your brain gets “trained” to do this all the time. Vague voice-like sounds, such as the “cross-talk” described by the commenter in the linked comments on my old post, make way to fully fledged voices saying distinct things. (Add to this being high and paranoid, or mentally ill and paranoid, and you get delusion as a natural side effect.) This is why I can presume that hearing voices when you play back recordings of them is just an example of pareidolia again.

Interestingly, there is an entire bunk field called electronic voice phenomena (EVP) where believers actually listen to white noise and interpret the “voices” they hear as spiritual voices. They even use devices based on the idea of Frank’s Box to trigger the pareodolia. Such devices deliberately use either radio scanning or other means such as randomizing sampled voices in software to provide the audio source. Thus their entire field is based around assuming that voices they deliberately create in noise are somehow voices of “spirits”, which I find hilarious. So besides the people who live with either drug-induced voices in the heads or voices caused by some sort of mental illness, there are also people who are otherwise healthy but go out of their way to listen to generated white noise to find meaning that isn’t really there. There’s an overlap, of course, but people tend to be secretive about their drug use so it would be difficult to determine how prevalent drug use and/or mental illness is in EVP practitioners.

A related term is apophenia, which is the perception of connections between unrelated things. This often manifests as conspiracies. Maybe now you can see why I am interested in all these things…


Josh is eleven years old today

Happy birthday, Josh! Eleven years… wow, that’s a long time. I can still remember when Megan gave birth to him like it was yesterday. This is the first time in many years that she’s here to celebrate his birthday, so all round it’s a great day.

Yesterday Megan went to the dentist, so I’d left my bank card with her… which meant I couldn’t get Josh’s present. But it was also the last day of the school holidays, so he went with her to the shop… His main present is a headset for the Xbox One. So she sent me the photos showing his approval of the gift…

WhatsApp Image 2019-04-01 at 10.46.02

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It also works if you don’t work it.

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. I’ve been busy… deadlines at work, bugs to fix, some of them my fault, and the taking over of a mess of a half implemented project by a fellow senior programmer who was fired, have kept me busy. When I’m not at work, I’m resting my drained brain. In addition, my ex and her daughter are back, and have been for a month or so now. Josh’s sister, Aishah, is in grade 0 in a school just down the road, and I now have to take both of them to school and pick them up after, so suddenly I am a parent to not only an almost eleven year old, but a five year old too. So time to write is not something I have a lot of.

Regardless, today I found myself reading a recovery blog by someone who once linked to this one, and found that she referred to that awful bit of recovery jargon I despise, “It works if you work it so work it, you’re worth it.”

Fuck that shit. You don’t have to work a 12 step program. If it works for you, that’s great, but it’s not for everybody. As a rule, I assume anything that involves repeating annoying platitudes is bullshit. And I don’t recall a single instance of this assumption ever being shown to be wrong.

Funny how it worked for me. I’ve kind of come full circle. Thrown out of a life of chaos into rehab in late 2009, I assumed that everything they told us must be true. I assumed at first that recovery “wisdom”, which dismisses the general populace’s view of addiction as ignorant, to be useful. I believed that they were right to brush off what most people believe and that the approach to recovery taken by 12 step programs was the way to go. I brushed off my own skepticism and doubts about 12 step programs even though they seemed like obvious bullshit to me. And I paid for that. I paid dearly. Because I trusted too much and had faith in a program that could never sustain my sobriety, I limped along to 9 months clean, and then sprinted back into active addiction and stayed there for another three years.

In the end, what saved me was the rejection of 12 step programs and the idea of a higher power, sponsor, and so on, and embracing my own responsibility for the poor choices I’d made, as well as finding my own way, a way inspired by my love and devotion for others above my own selfish need for self-gratification. I now believe more or less the same about addiction as I did in the first place. I literally learned nothing in any 12 step program.

In short, I focus on my life. I have not once, in this five and a half years clean, “worked” on my recovery. I’m too busy living my life… Working on my work and writing the best software that I can, focusing on my son and keeping him happy, and lately, spending much time with his little sister who insists that I swim with her. Life is good. Living it and focusing on those whom I love is better than any high I ever got from meth, and my life as an addict is nothing but a distant and fading memory.

My fascination with people who have beliefs that defy reality

I just spent two days sick after getting food poisoning from a chicken, bacon, and cheese burger at Wimpy in Eastgate.  It was not a pleasant experience, especially the first day because apart from the obvious symptoms, my whole body went lame. It was the sickest I’ve ever been (and to be honest I seldom get sick) and I had no idea that food poisoning could be so unpleasant. But it also triggered an odd memory for me, which is why I’m writing this today…

For many years, I’ve been fascinated that there are people who hold beliefs that contradict reality. And I don’t mean Trump supporters or others whose beliefs are clouded by hateful biases and prejudices. I mean people whose beliefs are based on things that are not, were not, and never will be real in this universe. This applies to people who believe in doomsday conspiracies like the Nibiru cataclysm, those who insist the Earth is flat, and those who believe in conspiracy theories. So now I have remembered how my fascination began.

In 1990 to 1991, thanks to being a white male South African who could not decide what to study and an unfortunate law of conscription, I spent a year in the old apartheid army. It’s kind of ironic that this was still the apartheid government, because the only thing that our troops ever had to do was be deployed to protect various people from the AWB, which was a right-wing racist nutjob Afrikaner group that made various threats. I write “our troops” and not myself, because I was a chef in the army. If I wasn’t on duty when the “reaction force” was called for, I faked being on duty or hid away somewhere where they couldn’t find me. Just because I had to be there against my will wasting my time for a year didn’t mean they could make me go out and actually shoot anybody, or lay in some bushes for a whole night waiting for some spineless white dude to make true on his empty threat. (I can handle a rifle though, and I’m not a bad shot. But I haven’t done so for 29 years now and have no interest in ever owning a gun.)

Anyway, I discovered something interesting as an army chef… There was an urban legend about army food containing something that caused temporary male infertility, that was supposedly added to the army food. I’d first heard about it from a teacher in high school. The most common story involved washing powder being added to the food. (Yeah, it’s dumb. I don’t know how that would work either.) There was even a name for the stuff, according to the urban legend. Unfortunately my memory does not include whatever that name was. Something like “blue balls”? I’ll write the rest of this under the assumption that your balls were supposed to turn blue, preventing unwanted pregnancies while you went AWOL and partied with the local Afrikaner girls, who had a thing for idiots in uniform, every night at the local jol.

Needless to say, the urban legend was not based on reality. Food deliveries arrived in the army camp by truck, from wholesalers used by restaurants too, and the food was packed directly into large freezers in the two mess halls of the camp. (But not the third empty mess hall where I hid from reaction force. This was Intelligence school in Potchefstroom, by the way. Strange, it was called “Danie Theron Krygskool” or DTKS but Google is giving me a completely different place when I search on that name.) Then we, the chefs, would remove the frozen meat and vegetables as necessary according to the menus we worked from. The food was good, by the way, with each meal including a meat, a vegetable, and a starch of some sort, plus lunch always came with a dessert and a cool drink while supper included a warm drink such as coffee or hot chocolate. Dessert was a large tray with some kind of instant pudding and canned peaches, or banana and biscuits, or something like that, and more importantly, there was one such tray between 8 chefs, so we got a great deal more dessert than the rest of the troops. Also I could sneak into the mess hall in the middle of the night to make myself toasted bacon and cheese sandwiches (with a whole pack of bacon).

The point is, there was no step along the way where anything to cause temporary male infertility could be added to the food. But do you think that anybody who believed in the conspiracy believed that? Noooooo. No, of course not. It didn’t matter that to those who asked me, I explained how it was impossible for it to be true. It didn’t matter if I showed them the sealed meat directly from the distributors in our freezers, and explained how the cooking worked. In fact, nothing I said mattered. They believed what they believed and that was that. In their eyes I was either a hapless pawn in the process of turning their balls blue and forcing their puny pee shooters to fire blanks, or I was an evil liar, part of the conspiracy, actively ensuring the toxins tainted their tiny testicles.

That was when I learned that those who choose to believe in a conspiracy will continue to believe regardless of any facts presented to them, so it’s been a while… 29 years have not shown me any different. I have never convinced anyone who believes in a conspiracy that they are wrong. It isn’t even worth trying. Don’t debate them – just mock them.

Aside… Imagine a world where men regulated the consequences of the actions of other men and actually tried to prevent unwanted pregnancies… just fucking imagine. This conspiracy about the old SA army is especially dumb. The officers knew that most (I can’t say all because I wasn’t one of them) of the troops went AWOL to local nightclubs every night and had unprotected sex, and instead of doing anything practical about it such as supplying condoms, they created rules to outlaw such activity, and then turned a blind eye to anyone breaking those rules. (I don’t remember anyone being punished for sneaking out of the camp at night. In fact I don’t recall anybody ever being caught. We, the same troops who snuck out at night, also took turns at guard duty.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed these anecdotes brought on by my diarrhoea and may you never have the misfortune of eating bad chicken…

Disappointing ending to the Haunting of Hill House

I just finished watching season one and am sharing my feelings about it. There are spoilers here, and I assume if you read on, you watched the show already. So if you don’t want to read spoilers, stop. Seriously, the very next paragraph starts with a spoiler, so if you don’t want spoilers, it’s high time to fuck off. I didn’t like the last episode, for various reasons…

It ended happily for everybody concerned

Liv, the mad matriarch didn’t get her way and have the whole family “wake up” to die and spend eternity as ghosts in the “forever house”, but did get her husband to sacrifice himself to save the surviving kids. But all three sides here, the living, the dead, and the house itself, ended up happy. The living escaped, the dead are ghosts but they’re happy where they are, and the house itself… is safe because Steve agrees to take over his father’s deal and not try to destroy the house.

No real scares in the last episode

Yes, the truth about the Red Room being whatever each character wants it to be, the tree house, the dance studio, the library, the games room… that was creepy. The playing around with time was cool, and tied up nicely with the way the story was told. The converging of multiple timelines coincided with the story itself presenting time as being interconnected. But the dreams given to the characters weren’t particularly traumatizing, except for Luke’s, which did not make sense. (See next point.)

The breaking of rules between dreams and reality

Luke did not relapse. He didn’t stop and buy heroin before entering the house. He only had a needle in his arm in a dream. So how was it there when he awoke? The rules for the ghosts affecting reality were made quite clear throughout… they can trick the living into killing themselves. Lure the mother into madness. But what the characters experience in their dreams or visions are hallucinations. Having his dream drug usage bleed into reality is a major plot hole. “A little spill”, Hugh’s words to Nell when she was a child, refers to them seeing things, but not the effect we see here because what they see is not really there. (I mention this because it is a theme and I assume would be used as the explanation for the heroin from Luke’s dream affecting reality.) This would be fine if the rules were undefined, but nothing quite like this happens at any time other than the last episode.

Nell, the bent neck lady or the happy hippie ghost?

After Nell’s death, we get to see that time is not a single one-way thread in this narrative, and she becomes the “bent neck lady”. It turns out she was always the bent neck lady, and trapped in that form in death, she must suffer forever as she suffered during sleep paralysis, sent back in time as the ghost that accidentally terrorizes her younger self. It’s implied that she is trapped like that, a terrifying figure with a broken neck, to be misunderstood by all who see her, for the rest of time. And that is how she should have remained. Except she didn’t. She also gets to be cheerful, and save all her siblings in the nick of time when they dream the hallucinatory dreams that the house gives them.

Who is the antagonist?

The Red Room is the heart of the house, so it would seem that the house itself is the antagonist.

But the characters are sent off to slumber and dream the dreams that the house supplies, by Poppy. So is Poppy an agent of the house? Well, Liv gets to dismiss her from terrorizing her husband, so that she can do so herself. So again, who is the antagonist? Is it the house, Poppy, or Liv? Is Poppy an agent for the house, or is Liv? The events do not make sense, and the ghosts’ behaviour is inconsistent. Sometimes they have free will, and sometimes they are carrying out the “wishes” of the house. Sometimes they’re just there for decoration. (This sort of poor writing is commonplace in lower class horror. You get plot elements just for the effect at the time, such as jump scares involving ghosts that remain trapped inside a place showing up in the greater world, and when the various narrative threads are woven together at the end, things don’t add up. I didn’t expect such obvious plot holes in this series.)

Furthermore, the toasting man who haunts Shirley is not a ghost at all, but a memory of her infidelity and guilt, used by the house to taunt her. That’s a problem though, because it again raises the problem of who the antagonist is. A house is just a house, and this lack of a clearly defined idea of an antagonist, even a supernatural force but one properly defined, comes apart in the last episode.

Here’s the thing… If the house can haunt Shirley without needing an actual ghost, none of the ghosts need to be fully fledged characters. The threat to the living is then death. They can be seen as zombie like husks of their former selves after death, without fleshing them out or even defining if the ghosts are really former living people at all. Maybe they are, or maybe they are mere projections of the souls captured and swallowed by the house. Keep it ambiguous and it remains scary.

The tone is all wrong in the last episode

Everybody is happy, the living and the dead. Dying and being trapped as a ghost in the house is not a threat if you’ll be happy there. This is a paradox in horror, especially in ghost stories. The mere existence of an afterlife is required for ghosts to exist, but that also means that death is not the end, which casts doubt on what there is to fear.

Normally you’d miss this, because you are only presented with the threat of death, and the ghosts are never fully formed but remain mysterious. Cross that blurry line and show us tangible ghosts, and take away their suffering but make them happy, and horror is no longer horrifying.

In conclusion

For me it all went wrong in that last episode. I enjoyed the series until then, and thought it was well crafted supernatural horror up to that point. I didn’t see the Red Room twist coming, which was a pleasant surprise. I did see the Abigail twist coming, and thought that was mildly predictable, but still something I know most viewers would not have guessed. I also liked what they did with time, especially after showing Nell’s death from her point of view. They should have left her trapped in the form of the bent neck lady after death. That would have been perfect.

But that happy ending! It was too much. Plus their breaking of their own rules, the inconsistent treatment of ghosts, and the failure to decide whether the house or the ghosts were the antagonist. In my opinion, they went way too far in the wrong direction. The ghosts should have been manifestations created by the house, with the house itself an evil, intelligent entity. Thus the threat is existential, the characters face death and nothingness, their souls swallowed and devoured, their effigies then presented to living occupants as soulless husks, animated cadaverous carcasses of the former occupants taken by the house.

Instead we got happy ghosts, some of them delusional, but happy and content. That’s not how you end a horror. If the monster gives you eternal life and happiness, it isn’t much of a monster at all. Right through, my son watched it while reaching in terror for my hand, his tether to reality, but he didn’t need that for the last episode, and commented to me about how happy everyone was.

Update: I missed the ambiguity of the final scene. Luke’s two years clean cake is blood red, a hint that maybe they’re in the Red Room and in fact never left. But this just creates a bigger, more messy plot hole. The deal struck with Steve, the knowledge that the caretakers begged his father not to destroy the house (and that he now takes that role) because the ghost of their dead daughter was there, and the woman’s return there to die and be young again with her husband shows us the plot where they escape really happened. The house let him leave. So what we have is two narratives that contradict one another. This is not clever; it’s merely poor writing and shoddy directing. It also alows them to guage the viewer response to the series, and decide after the fact which story to follow for season two.