More family drama in this house than ghosts and chills
The worst fear in The Haunting of Hill House is not walking alone, but with your relatives
Shirley Jackson was a writer who understood that good scares come to those who wait, but she also knew how to get to the point.
Her classic 1959 novella “The Haunting of Hill House” begins with the greatest opening paragraph in the history of horror, describing the doomed mansion from the title, curiously, as insane, before ending with this ominous phrase: “whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The new Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House” — a loose adaptation that ambitiously marries the terrors of a ghost story with an intricate, multigenerational family drama — opens with a reading of this passage, which suggests fealty to source material. But if you listen closely, you might notice that the perspective has radically shifted, away from the book’s omniscient narrator and toward the man speaking.
That man is Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman), who wrote a bestselling book based on his family’s experience in a haunted house. He called it “The Haunting of Hill House.”
In just its first few seconds, this series pays homage to Shirley Jackson while erasing her at the same time, an apt analogy for this entire enterprise that should delight and frustrate horror fans in equal measure. Jackson makes a return of sorts in the next episode, in the form of a girl in the background reading Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” A world in which Jackson wrote “The Lottery” but not “The Haunting of Hill House” makes no sense, but when it comes to tales of the supernatural, a rigid adherence to logic is distinctly overrated.
Every adaptation of a great horror story implicitly attempts to answer the same question: What part of this source material is the scariest?
Robert Wise’s masterly 1963 movie “The Haunting” rested on the idea that no ghost is as terrifying as the anticipation of its arrival. The horror is in the suggestion, the teasing of the monster that never shows its face. Stephen King, who once tried his hand at adapting Jackson’s book
for a TV series called “Rose Red,” called it “one of the world’s few radio horror movies.”
As much as he revered the book and the movie, King was skeptical of their extreme discretion — he called it playing for the tie rather than the win — and as horror became blunter and special effects and makeup more sophisticated, it became harder to keep monsters in the closet.
Jan De Bont’s 1999 remake, also titled “The Haunting,” indulged in computergenerated effects, which partly accounts for its critically reviled reputation. But the movie makes a credible argument for the scariest element of Jackson’s story: Hill House itself. De Bont painstakingly lingers on its creepy statues, iron gates and precarious spiral staircase, and the ornate and wonderfully eccentric design upstages the actors in almost every scene.
Mike Flanagan, who created the Netflix show and directed every episode, went in a completely different direction. While his series is by no means full of gore, he shows plenty of the supernatural, introducing some very spooky ghosts, including a bent-necked woman and an extremely tall floater in a bowler hat. And more riskily, he strays farther from Hill House than previous adaptations do, which sacrifices some of the claustrophobia that a good haunted house story can generate.
Hill House is constantly anthropomorphized in the book, but instead of using design to show it to us, Flanagan has a character deliver a long monologue about how the house is like a body. It’s striking that the best episode of the series takes place outside of Hill House and in a funeral parlour, and it unfolds almost entirely through a few virtuosic tracking shots.
Flanagan previously directed the Stephen King adaptation “Gerald’s Game,” one of Netflix’s best horror movies and one so rooted in one place that it had the feel of a play. But he has made a version of “Hill House” in which the terrors of the haunted mansion are less prominent than those of the people and relationships in it. Like other directors contributing to the current renaissance of mature horror, he is drawn to the psychology of traumatized characters, to how apparitions can seem like the manifestation of a fragile mental state.
Instead of telling the story from the book about a group of strangers who are invited to the house by a doctor to study the supernatural, the series dispenses with this medical conceit and focuses on the dysfunctional relationships in a family who once stayed in Hill House. That family, a couple (Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas) with five children, moved into the house in order to renovate and flip it. Instead of making a profit, they paid dearly, and what happened in the house haunts each child through adulthood.
Its fractured plot, darting back and forth from childhood to adulthood, underlines how horrific events lodge themselves in your psyche. Early on, we see the father frantic, gathering his kids and fleeing to a hotel. Whatever happened that night hangs over all 10 episodes, and before revealing it, Flanagan shows how the past haunts the present.
The worst fear in this “Hill House” is not walking alone, but with your relatives. Steven Crain writes a tell-all book that makes him famous, but it also divides the family because his sister Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) thinks he is exploiting family tragedy. Theodora (Kate Siegel) works as a child psychologist, which also brings up gothic memories, and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) struggles with addiction. The most rattled child might be Nell (Victoria Pedretti), whose fragile state echoes that of Eleanor Vance from the original book and leads her back to Hill House and a reunion of the whole family. (Timothy Hutton plays the older version of the Crain patriarch.)
For horror — which has a tradition of thinly drawn victims and wildly evocative monsters, and of isolating people in space or in cabins in the woods instead of moving them around in dense narratives — this is a ton of plot, not to mention the many long theatrical speeches. And Flanagan has woven it together cleverly, with winks at fans of the original story and surprising bits of connective tissue across generations. It’s an intricate, emotionally gripping and sprawling story, but its scale does come at the expense of scares.
The major turning points hinge on familial lies, odd coincidence and decisions that are the stuff of midlife crisis novels set in Connecticut, not gothic tales of the uncanny. If it weren’t for the periodic bug crawling out of a corpse’s mouth or a floating ghost peering underneath a child’s bed, you could confuse “The Haunting of Hill House” for a kitchen-sink drama. For those worried that horror has become so sober and mature that it is losing some of its fun, there is some evidence to be found in this solemnly affecting series.
The biggest challenge for horror in the age of streaming might be pacing. Getting this right is as important in scary scenes as it is in jokes. This series is deliberate and slow, but it conforms to traditional episodic television structure. Episodes start and end with shocks, and while they are often quite effective, the scares don’t escalate. Flanagan has made an intelligent, engaging supernatural story in which the tension doesn’t mount so much as stop and start, and occasionally sputter.
Shirley Jackson’s classic tale “The Haunting of Hill House” comes to Netflix in an adaptation that marries the terrors of a ghost story with an intricate, multigenerational family drama.