Why ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Strikes a Nerve
Netflix’s revisionist take on the legendary ghost story underlines the fact that home is where the horror is — and that’s what sets it apart
All homes filled with dysfunctional families are alike; each house cursed by ghostly manifestations of past and present sins is haunted in its own way. Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of a decrepit, rotting mansion populated by things that go bump in the night (and in the psyche) is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of possessed-dwelling tales. The Guardian named it “the definitive haunted house story”; The New York Times declared that it had “the greatest opening paragraph in the history of horror”; no less than Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about the allure of paranormal activity with an appreciation for property value, said it featured “the finest character to come out of [the] new American gothic tradition.” He was talking about Eleanor Vance, one of several “assistants” handpicked by a doctor to study specters roaming the house’s hallways and bedchambers. He could have been referring to Hill House as well — less four walls and a roof than a villain that’s “not sane … holding darkness within.” This is not anthropomorphizing a place. This is establishing your true protagonist.
It’s the source material for Robert Wise’s The Haunting, a 1963 movie that’s Greatest-of-All-Time canon fodder for those who take horror films very seriously (out of a sense of charity and good will towards our fellow man, we’ll never speak of the 1999 big-screen adaptation again). It may or may not have helped inspire the name of The House on Haunted Hill, a ballyhoo-filled Vincent Price vehicle that came out the same year as the novel; it almost assuredly cast its shadow over Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel Hell House and its 1973 British film adaptation. Regardless, the DNA of Jackson’s extraordinary ghost story can be found in virtually every modern haunted-house narrative that came after it. And now, because it is the Year of Our Lord 2018 and every recognizable property must inevitably be turned into a multiversed franchise or a multi-episode TV show, we have been given a Netflix series that takes the name of the book and runs with it. This is not your father’s Hill House, however — a sentiment that takes on new meaning once you’ve squirmed your way through all 10 hours of this left-field horror-TV hit.
(Because the streaming service premiered the whole shebang a little over a week ago, we’re going to assume that most readers will have seen the entire thing by now and can discuss accordingly. Given that your binging diet may be different than ours, however, we feel duty-bound to warn you that venturing further is not advisable if you haven’t reached the end of the proverbial road. Spoilers gonna spoil.)
Produced, cowritten and directed by Mike Flanagan, one of brighter lights in the Blumhouse-of-Horror stable — check out Hush (2016) if you haven’t already — this Haunting of Hill House kicks off with a voiceover of Jackson’s much-lauded opening paragraph. It then proceeds to renovate the narrative substantially, retaining names and characteristics but rejiggering everything else. Hugh Crain, the man said to have built this cursed estate, is now merely its new owner. He’s moving his family in while he spruces things up in the hopes of flipping it for a profit. What were once a team of “researchers” are now his kids: Theodora (Kate Siegel) is still a glove-wearing sapphic psychic, but she’s also a Crain; ditto Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the book’s resident fuck-up (“Luke … was a liar. He was also a thief”) who gets to add “heroin addict” to his list of less desirable qualities. Luke’s twin, Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is assigned Eleanor’s role as the house’s obscure object of desire.* Also on hand are the matriarch-going-mad Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino); true-horror novelist son Steven Crain (Michael Huisman); and the mortician daughter Shirley Crain (Elizabeth Reaser). Yes, she’s the ambassador between the worlds of corporeal and spiritual death. No, her first name is not a coincidence.
We also get the Dudleys, the book’s mildly eccentric married caretakers who both seem as if they are seconds away from asking the new residents if they want to have a potato. And we get Hill House, the real estate deal of the damned that subsists on legacies of rage and resentment. This is what it needs from the Crains when they take up residence in 1992, and why it gives the family a “red room”: a malleable, ever-changeable space that rests at the mansion’s dead center. The true purpose lurking within that permanently locked study, the one with shadows visible beneath the door, is not revealed until the show’s final 20 minutes. It only takes a hour, possibly two, of ping-ponging between dual timelines — flashback mode and present-day mode — to get a sense of what’s really going on here. This is not just a horror series. It’s after slightly bigger game.
So yes, viewers should come for the requisite jump scares and various bits of creepy business. Bugs crawling out of mouths, corpses stiffly rising from slabs, spirits that go from pretty young things to withered old crones, unexpectedly gaping mouths and melting faces — all present and accounted for. Spooky figures have a habit of being one place when a moving camera first catches them, then suddenly appear to be much, much closer when the shot turns back to reframe them. Two of the more distinguishable ghosts, a J-horror–chic woman known as “The Bent-Neck Lady” and a lanky floating ghoul with a cane, are genuinely unsettling. Pregnant women may want to skip the final installment; people with bum tickers may want to bypass the series’ back half entirely.
But the inventory of tried-and-true horror tropes are being used to more sinister ends than just the art of the “Boo!” As a genre exercise, The Haunting of Hill House is a better-than-decent stab at a supernatural story, the equivalent of a well-executed if slightly overlong bass solo. As a tale of what happens when the ties that bind are the same ones that gag you, and scar you, and occasionally strangle you to death, it’s absolutely terrifying.
And it’s that aspect, the way that it keeps returning to how shared histories, blood relations and familial traumas have a habit of forever marking folks, that makes the show strike a nerve. No one knows your weak spots and pressure points better than your kin, unless maybe it’s a house that’s using your memories to infect you and possess you. But the Crain clan’s antagonistic relationship with each other is what keeps rotating them around the cursed residence like planets around a sun. It’s the ground zero for their collective derailing. Even the grown-up versions’ pair-ups can’t let go of old inter-clique grudges. Yet Theo’s inability to sustain relationships, Steven’s exploitation of family tragedies in a desperate need for success, Nell’s grief-fueled gradual mental collapse, Shirley’s superiority complex, the monkey on Luke’s back that’s made him persona non grata — Hill House did not cause these things. It merely exacerbated such wounds. The place did drive their mother mad, which ended in her death. Their father’s inability to cope with the loss, as well as his part in their abandonment issues and subsequent alienation from his offspring, however? That’s all dad. (Playing the young Hugh, Henry Thomas lets folks see the character’s protective shell chip away piece by piece. Then Timothy Hutton takes over and turns the patriarch into a pile of shattered glass. It’s a nice double act.)
In fact, it’s that old saw about the past never being done with you — always a given when it comes to your family — that turns the wheels of the show’s two major standout episodes. The fifth installment, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” gives us the backstory of the lank-haired, crooked-headed ghost that’s plagued Nell since she was small and plays into her eventual demise, sick-joke-style; it’s both heartbreaking and suggestive of an endless feedback-loop nightmare. (If this Hill House knows how to do anything well, it’s replicate the rhythms of nightmares — that, and presenting horror from a kid’s warped, three-feet-high-and-rising perspective of the adult world.)
The one that follows it, “Two Storms,” has attracted a lot of attention for its formal stylistics: The hour is made up of several long, single-shot takes, some of which are indeed unbroken and others that keep the illusion going with an ingenious invisible cut. What’s more impressive is how these virtuoso moves actually enhance the storytelling rather than eclipse it. The family have gathered together for a funeral. A storm is taking place outside. As Hugh walks into a backroom, he’s suddenly back in Hill House’s parlor, along with his wife and kids — a literal stroll into the past. A storm rages outside of that house as well, one that ends up bearing a resemblance to a “rain of stones” mentioned in Jackson’s book. That one doesn’t end well either. Two violent phenomenons, seamlessly blending into one another. One parent and his children, all bound together by common ground and catastrophe.
Does The Haunting of Hill House have its issues? Is It another victim of the Netflix 10-Episodes-Six-Hours-of-Actual-Story Bloat Syndrome (TM)? Are the performances, shall we say, not all on the same level, quality-wise? Is it occasionally heavy-handed in its portrayal of the evil that men do, and did it need to have one character actually say, “Ghosts are guilt, ghosts are secrets, ghosts are regrets, and failings … but most times, a ghost is a wish?” and seriously, WTF is up with that ending and reversing that famous opening graf line? You can throw all the rhetorical questions you want at the show. What sticks with you at the end of those 10 hours is not what rings discordant but what seems eerily relatable — the scorched-earth arguments, and silent treatments, and sibling alliances, and foxhole bonding that constitutes being in a family. We all have ghosts, even if they aren’t as vengeful or CGI-rendered as the Crains’ personal (and perhaps literal) demons. At its best, i.e. the majority of its run, Flangan’s subjective take on Jackson’s source material strikes bone by reiterating the idea that every family has its own ghost stories. We all are haunted by something, no matter what house you grew up in.