This past week the Netflix Original show, The Haunting of Hill House debuted on the platform and it brings equal part This is Us and The Shining. The show is an adaptation of the 1959 gothic horror novel by Shirley Jackson. As one of the most adapted novels in horror, The Haunting of Hill House was brought to life in 1963 and again in 1999 by films of the same name, The Haunting — the 1999 one is the one where Owen Wilson takes a lion to the face if you were wondering. Both films are not great, and in no way match up to the novel which was a finalist for the National Book Reward and heralded as one of the best ghost stories of the 20th Century.
The Haunting of Hill House, directed by one of my favorite horror directors, Mike Flanagan (Hush, Absentia) begins as a simple haunting, it’s a story we’re used to. We’re used to seeing families driven from their homes by spirits, demons, or other evil presences and the bulk of the story happens at that moment, from moving to leaving. We get that in this show, but we get so much more. The story takes us through the lives affected by the haunting long after the family leaves.
The book and both existing adaptations focus on a group of adults brought together who all have gifts that connect them to the house. Instead of recreating this, Flanagan chose to reflect these elements of connection to the house in a family. As I stated earlier, this has the trappings of a story that we’re used to. Films like The Shining and The Amityville Horror, are so ingrained the horror mythos that we can connect to them easily. However, these movies and stories focus so much on the house and it’s warping of the family that we forget that they are indeed a family with relationships. But Flanagan doesn’t forget these relationships. In fact, using a storytelling method familiar to fans of This is Us, and connects every thread dangling between the episodes and the people in them.
The 10-episode show follows each member of the Crain Family in a way that isn’t too often seen in the horror genre. The Haunting of Hill House takes a page from family dramas like this is us, deep diving into each character and how their positionality informs their perspective on “that night,” the night they left and lost their mother.
The first episode of the series shows each sibling rationalizing their experiences of “that night” and the days before that led up to their flight from the house. We see their distance from each other, a family that has drifted apart after trauma instead of coming together. It introduces us to each character, where they are in their lives and for one, how their life ends. In this episode there is also a new event, a new moment of trauma that the family must respond to and opens of their wounds, setting the pace for the season.
But we also see “that night” from the furthest perspective, from the eldest son Steve (Michiel Huisman, of Daario Naharis fame). He is the most skeptical of the family who has dealt with the terror by distancing himself from it while also profiting from the family’s story. Although the opening episode isn’t his, in the same way, another episode is, it presents us with an adult who doesn’t believe the world of ghosts.
Every episode from here on outtakes us through the chilling experiences of the rest of the siblings, parents, and piece by piece the story of Hill House comes together. In a family of five children of different ages and concepts of the world, we learn from their perspectives the different fear they felt, the things they saw, and ultimately their realities after the trauma. We see how they have coped, how they broke, and how they have lived. We see their relationships and distance and through each different story, the picture becomes clear. Accented and glued together when the episodes highlight the parents, Hugh (Timothy Hutton and Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Gugino, who stunned horror fans last year in the Netflix Original Gerald’s Game, also directed by Flanagan).
This story works because of the superb dialogue – almost every character has at least one emotional monologue – but it really works because of the actors. A writer, a mortician, an adict, a psychologist, the crazy one, and a parent who was never there, all speak to each other even when they aren’t in the scenes together. The dialogue between characters answers questions raised by one sibling while spotlighting another. Flanagan also does a beautiful job of writing interactions between the siblings that feel real and lived in. I believe they are related when they interact with each other.
To me, the best character stories lie with Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti). In their relationship, their growth, and the acting. As two unknowns, Jackson-Cohen and Pedretti are the stars of the adult cast. And the ones I never wanted to leave. That being said, Gugino delivers a performance that shocks the viewer and pulls you in. Her regal costuming and unhinged deeds are amplified by her stellar performance.
This doesn’t just mean the adult actors for Steve, Shirly (Elizabeth Reaser), Theo (Kate Siegel), Luke, and Nell. As adults the acting is superb and I believe every emotion they show on screen. This may be to the credit of casting mostly unknowns. But this is almost expected from accomplished actors. It’s been my experience with horror that it’s the child actors who have trouble exhibiting all of the emotions needed to tell a good horror story. This is one of the reasons why I waited a full year to watch Stranger Things and one of the reasons why I was so surprised by how good that show is.
In The Haunting of Hill House each child actor blew me away, in fact, I found myself wanting to stay in the past with the younger Crains. Young Steve is played by Paxton Singleton, Shirly by Lulu Wilson, Theo by Mckenna Grace (I, Tonya), Luke by Julian Hilliard, and Nell by Violet McGraw. Each and every one of these children showcases a range of emotions and pull you in. There is also a synergy between the personalities of their younger selves and as adults that goes beyond good writing. You can tell that they each worked to match each other and tell a seamless story.
The best thing this series does is tell the story of the family involved in the haunting. It builds and breaks their relationships with each other as well as their memories. As we learn more about them we see their memories shift and reveal blind spots from the others involved. But as we buy into their experiences and trauma the viewer can feel the fear of the show that much more. This is a type of empathetic storytelling that calls the viewer to feel in order to get the full experience. If you watch this show for only cheap scares, you won’t find that. Instead, you will find levels of horror that develop an experience.
Flannagan uses the backgrounds of the scenes in this episode to build tension, and introduce the audience to the house, but also show that the ghosts are in plain sight and will continue to be as the series continues. I’m now on my second watch and when you pay attention to the background you can see a number of ghosts who have been hidden in plain sight and only come into focus if you’re looking for them or not paying attention to the main characters in the scene. And if you’re a fan of Flanagan like I am, you’ll also notice a piece or two from his other movies, most notably the Lasser Glass from Occulus.
Now, this series does use some cheap jump scares, but the way silence is used, open doors and even small sounds work to build an environment of fear. The first scare of the show has a big impact on the viewer and no impact on the character. A slow-moving face in the background, barely visible until it moves. But it isn’t just in the pacing of the scares, oh no, there is an eerie and a terrible sense of dread when looking at some of the ghosts her created. They lay deep in the uncanny valley and the one that has already appeared in my nightmares. It is true to say that in this series, Flannagan has worked in multiple types of horror. From the subtlety of hauntings to the imagery of corporal ghosts that jolt between alive and dead in appearance, creatures, and distorted faces with blank eyes — something he used excellently in Ouija: Origin of Evil — there is a scare for everyone.
Overall, this series is one that showcases what happens after a traumatic haunting, to the family involved, and how the house continues to haunt and hold onto them. But it is also a family drama built on three-dimensional characters and their relationships. I am hard-pressed to name another horror series that equally terrifies as it builds emotion, especially as American Horror Story has devolved into what it is now. There are moments where my heart raced, where I yelled, and also when I cried. There were moments where I wanted to reach into the screen and hug the characters who had been through so much.
The only critique I can offer for the show is that it has very little moments to catch your breath as an audience member. It builds tension so well that it sometimes forgets to sooth you. This isn’t bad for me, but for most casual viewers possibly looking to explore horror for the first time, this could be a turn-off. The tragedy these characters face is unrelenting and the slow burn effect can be better enjoyed by not binging the series. My only other issue is with the choice to have young Hugh played by Thomas wear some shocking blue contact lenses.
The Haunting of Hill House redefines hauntings by centralizing the family and its relationship to the house, over the shock that the house produces. This is a human story and it’s their interactions with the ghosts that build the story not just scare. Flanagan’s telling of The Haunting of Hill House works because he embraces what made the novel great: characters and their psyches. It relies on terror in the same way Jackson did. Horror causes revulsion and fright but terror, terror is the what we credit as the slow burn. It usually lives in the anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. By utilizing both, he lives in the gothic horror of the novel while using iconic scare tactics of horror today. Flanagan has taken the heart of a book and brought it to life in a new form.
The Haunting of Hill House is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House redefines hauntings by centralizing the family and its relationship to the house, over the shock that the house produces. This is a human story and it’s their interactions with the ghosts that build the story not just scare. Flanagan’s telling of The Haunting of Hill House works because he embraces what made the novel great: characters and their psyches.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.