Warning: This article contains Things Heard and Seen spoilers. I mean, duh.
Based on a 400-page novel, All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, this is not just a straightforward ghost story—it’s also a relationship drama, an art history lesson, and a theological discussion of the afterlife. It’s a dense, complicated, and nuanced narrative, with a lot of characters (many of them dead) and moving parts. And somehow, it manages to cram that complex story into a two-hour movie.
Still, the film is beautiful. Shot on location in the Hudson Valley in New York state, Things Heard & Seen is, in this reporter’s opinion, worth untangling. But if you’re confused by the Things Heard and Seen ending, don’t worry—you’re far from alone.
Luckily, Decider is here to help. Through a careful viewing of the film and a discussion with the writers and directors, I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on what happens in the Things Seen & Heard plot and ending. Read on for the Things Heard and Seen ending, explained.
What is Things Heard and Seen about? What is the Things Heard and Seen plot summary?
The year is 1980, and Catherine Clare (Seyfried) has no desire to leave her life as an artist living in Manhattan. But when her husband George (James Norton) gets a job teaching art history at a small private college in the Hudson Valley, she dutifully uproots her life. She moves with George and their young daughter Franny into a big, creepy house in the middle of nowhere.
It doesn’t take long for Catherine to discover that her new house is haunted. She finds an old bible dating back to the 18th century, tracking the family deaths of the previous homeowners. A lot of those deaths seem to be wives who were deemed “damned” by their husbands. It seems that the spirits of these wives are still hanging around the house, doing things like turning on the night light in Franny’s room, and causing a bad smell of gasoline to come from the garage.
Over the course of the movie, we slowly learn that a lot of people in this small town believe in ghosts and spirits. Even George’s boss at the school loves a real-life artist named George Inness, who was very spiritual and superstitious. One Inness painting, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” will be a recurring theme in the film.
Inness and the townspeople are followers of a real-life 18th-century Swedish theologian named Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed that he could converse with angels, demons, and other spirits. The wives who lived in Catherine’s home were also followers of Swedenborg, and their husbands disapproved. After the wives died “mysteriously” in their homes, it is implied their husbands killed them. The spirits in Catherine’s house are there to help her, not to hurt her.
This theory is confirmed when Catherine learns that the most recent former owner of her home were the parents of the two neighboring boys, who had been helping Catherine with handy work and babysitting. The boys’ dad slipped his whole family a sedative, shot all of their cows, and then gassed the house by closing all of the windows and leaving two trucks running in the garage. (That explains the fumes in the house.) The husband and wife—whose name was Ella—died. Their boys survived. Catherine realizes that the ring she found in the house belonged to Ella.
Meanwhile, through all this, Catherine’s husband George reveals himself to be a pretty terrible person. He cheats on his wife with a student, and we learn he forged a letter of recommendation to get the teaching position at the college. Finally, it is revealed at a dinner party with George’s family that the seascape paintings George told Catherine he painted himself were actually painted by his late cousin, whose identity George essentially stole.
When George’s supervisor Floyd (F. Murray Abraham) finds out about the forged letter, he gently tells George that he will have to report him to the school. So George kills Floyd by drowning him. On his way back home, he runs into a friend of Catherine’s named Justine (Rhea Seehorn). Justine, who already doesn’t like George, sees him soaking wet, and George realizes that she will suspect him when the authorities find Floyd’s body. So George runs Justine off of the road, causing her car to crash, and putting her in a coma.
Things are quickly spiraling out of control for George, and there is still one person who knows George has been lying: His wife, Catherine.
How does Things Heard and Seen end?
At first, it looks like George might get away with murder—Floyd’s death is ruled an accident, and George is offered Floyd’s position as head of the department at the college. Meanwhile, George concocts a plan to kill his wife: He drugs Catherine’s protein drink with a sedative. She tries to escape with her daughter, but the sedative hits her, and she falls unconscious. George brutally murders Catherine with an axe while she is unconscious. George tells the babysitter that his wife is sick and not to be disturbed. He gives himself an alibi by going to work, then reports the murder to the police. Here, we get the scene that opened the movie: George seeing blood dripping from the ceiling, and running with his daughter across the grounds.
The police suspect George is guilty but they don’t have any proof—until Justine wakes up from her coma. How does she wake up? With a little push from the spirits of Ella and Catherine. It seems Catherine has joined the team of vengeful wives murdered by their husband in that creepy house.
George, realizing he is screwed, flees on a sailboat. As he sails through a storm, the sky looks like it’s being consumed by hellfire, while Ella and Catherine whisper about the gates of hell. An upside-down cross appears in the sky, the boat lights on fire, and George basically sails into the gates of hell—imitating the Inness painting, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
In the final shot of the film, the dead wives say in unison, “Because of you, we are joined in spirit. Because of you, our powers grow. From tiny drops, to an endless sea.”
The camera zooms in on a picture of the original owners of the house, and we see that the original wife is wearing the ring, too—meaning it was passed down from the wives of the house. Phew! Did you get all that?
What is the Things Heard and Seen ending explained?
There is undoubtedly a lot to keep track of, but the Things Heard and Seen ending does make sense if you track all of the details. In an interview with Decider, writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini further explained the Things Heard and Seen ending.
I hate to put a nail into people’s theories because I think there is an enigmatic element to the end of it. But I think what is interesting is that you have this painting that’s a transition to the afterlife. George Inness who did this painting was this devotee of Swedenborg. This was his belief system. And he painted the moment where we transition into the afterlife—that’s what he wanted to express. One of the original husbands in the house decided that his wife was damned because she was a heretic in his eyes. She was exploring ideas that he didn’t approve of. So it’s like: Who gets to damn someone? Who is the damed in this story, and how does the universe correct? I think it’s actually a very topical notion as we’re seeing this kind of cultural revolt going on with, “toxic people” who have gotten away with things for so long getting their comeuppance. There’s something very satisfying about this shift of who’s damned actually in this story and who has the power to do that. I think there’s a spiritual power, you know, feminine power in this movie that really delivers the ending.
He added that he does believe the spirits of the wives are delivering George to hell in that final scene on the water. “They’re definitely directing the action in the end, yes. I mean, you can hear them and they’re delivering George to his rightful place.”
Berman agreed, and added, “It’s a kind of metaphor for all the women who have been abused by husbands and fathers and preachers—and teachers and all the business people and producers and all that. Maybe not in their lifetime, but in in the metaphysical sense of eternity having some kind of say, or power.”
So there you have it: The dead wives of the house, including Catherine, brought George to justice by delivering him to hell!
And if you’re still confused, Berman suggested watching the film a second time. “One of the things we made this movie for is watching it twice. I love movies that make me watch them twice to catch things. See how Justine gets out of her coma—there’s a line with the power of the women throughout.”
Originally published at https://decider.com/2021/04/29/things-heard-and-seen-ending-explained-netflix/ on .