Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Director: Mike Flanagan
Based on the book: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Episodes: 10, ~42-71 minutes each
I am so happy I found The Haunting of Hill House. I sincerely wish all horror was made this way and it really proves not only how versatile horror is but also why I love the TV form more than movies. I read the book this show was based on a while ago so I had forgotten a lot of what happened but from reviews I’ve read I understand that the show differentiates significantly from the book. In the show, the story follows 5 siblings of the Crain family in their adulthood as they cope with the aftermath of their childhood at Hill House. Their childhood was filled with strange occurrences and mysterious sightings of evil ghosts. On their last day at the Victorian Hill House, they left with the father in a hurry, only knowing their mother had died. As the story continues, it is revealed through flashback what exactly happened or didn’t happen all those years ago.
The first reason this show is so awesome is the way that jump scares are placed. They are placed in moments after achingly slow buildup and slow camera pans across dark rooms, ratcheting up the suspense and tension from one episode to the next. Funnily enough, the camera basically shows you what the scare is going to be but the real scare comes when you look back again and find the person or the ghost is not what you thought it was at first glance. This, of course, makes the scare even more psychologically scary as the show does not rely on the violent or absurdly grotesque to tease out scares. In fact the real scares are whether or not these ghosts are the manifestations of the siblings’ inner demons. In fact, it is a relatively slow moving show taking the time to slowly lay down the important pieces of character and story over putting scares down. It is still perfectly paced and the cinematography is so masterfully slow and deliciously tense.
As Steven Crain states, “a ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see.” Steven, the oldest Crain sibling, is an author who writes, he believes, fictional tales of Hill House. He is sick of the fictional voices that his youngest siblings see. They should have gotten mental help for their delusions and figments of imagination a long time ago. Shirley, the second oldest and my least favorite, is a mortician and a control freak having witnessed 4 of her kittens die mysteriously at Hill House. She refuses to say these ghosts exist. Theo, the middle, struggles with emotional intimacy and then, the last two siblings were the ones who saw the most of Hill House’s ghosts. In adulthood, Luke becomes a drug addict and Nell is still haunted nights by the mysterious Bent-Neck Lady. The story shifts timelines going as back as six years ago all the way back to their childhood, each episode focusing on a sibling until it refocuses back to present events and what they will do moving forward. I was honestly surprised I got really emotional during Luke’s episode. He is quite gullible and trusting and genuinely wants to help his younger sister and the people he cares about but through his own naivety and drug addition, he is unable to. This show loves its characters and does not stray too far from its central characters’ development which is still so rare to see in horror but ultimately what I enjoyed most about this show. The siblings are all tied by their unique perspective on death and grief and even represent a deeper metaphor for depression, schizoprenia, migraines, and other mental conditions.
I love how much the show focuses on the house. The Victorian house is an entity on its own and I love each detail on its antiques, its expansive halls and rooms with mysterious treasures. With each episode, more of the house’s history and it’s original inhabitants are revealed. It really built up the suspense and mystery of the house, each sibling having a different relationship with it. It was fully integrated into the story. The story itself did delve a little bit into horror cliches, you know, with children drawing pictures of unsettling things to the age-old “mother is going crazy and hysterical” which only perpetuates the stereotype of female hysteria. The dialogue also leaves something to be desired although I didn’t really notice until the last few episodes. The ending also leaves something to be desired. I was happy we got answers but the ending was so cloying that I felt it didn’t match with the previous episodes. I wanted an uncertain ending but I suppose it does stay true to its characters and the family dynamic. Because the family has been threatened to be torn apart by this house, the ending is fitting that they start to face the demons they’ve been hiding from and come together as a family.
It was really interesting to see the family’s fractured interactions with one another and their different relationships with or lack of with the others from what they experienced as a child. It definitely added an interesting way of telling each sibling’s perspective and the way each perspective is different because of what they experienced. For example, sheltered by their father and told to close his eyes on the fateful night their mother died, Steven did not see anything supernatural and refuses to believe that Hill House had any ghosts. Their mother died because their father was neglectful and didn’t get her the mental help she needed, causing resentment towards his father. Nell bore the brunt of seeing all these strange ghosts but no one believes her and she starts to believe she’s going crazy, still haunted by her dreams and sights. No one believes Luke either, thinking he is just a heroin addict, and although he wants to become clean, the only way to escape the ghosts he sees is to take drugs. And ultimately, that is what the show was about, the broken hopes and dreams of these siblings, how their tortured past continues to haunt them, but ultimately their inability to face their demons continues to stalk them into their adulthood. Their ghosts are the people they love, the people they have failed, their family, and even themselves. As they each cope and dodge their problems, it becomes apparent the ghosts have not left them. At the heart, it is not about people haunting the house or a scary entity wreaking havoc on lives. It is about the lies we tell ourselves, the denial, and the intimacy of a family that has had a horrible past connecting them for better or worse.
The Haunting of Hill House is so much more than typical horror fanfare and proves that horror can be done just as well for TV as a movie. I loved the exploration of character and mental health throughout and don’t think I have seen anything quite like it.