All houses are haunted, really. So much life accumulated, dense in the walls. Even a happy home—suffused with the vague residue of life, of moments profound and regular—has weight and specific meaning, particularly if one was a child in it and knew its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies as totalizing fact. Doors behave this way; floors creak like that; rooms hold this mood, this memory. So if something bad—like, really bad—were to happen in your home, as a child, might not that place sear itself onto your psyche, looming over your life with a mythic grandeur?
Thats the premise, to an extent, of the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, a loose adaptation of Shirley Jacksons novel that premiered on the streaming service this past weekend. I was skeptical about the show, as Im not one for horror, and Hereditary offered enough grief-as-ghost scares for me this year. But, as sometimes happens, I found myself in bed on a gray Sunday morning and, based on some positive early reactions, decided to give the show a look. Im glad I did.
Warning: mild spoilers to come.
The Haunting of Hill House is by no means a fun show; its about a group of adult siblings reckoning with a legacy of childhood trauma and grief. But it is deeply engaging in the manner of the best binge television. Created, directed, and co-written by up-and-coming horror auteur Mike Flanagan, the series differentiates itself from its similar predecessors not by changing old tropes, exactly, but re-aligning them, teasing out surprisingly resonant notes from a hoary set-up.
Trauma and grief are the bedrocks of so many ghost stories; how else but through great pain and tragedy could a malevolent supernatural force be born? And the haunted house is foundational enough a narrative in the cultural consciousness to have its own Disney ride. So, how does one go about contributing something new to that tradition? In Flanagans case, by taking his time. Hill House spreads out over nine and half hours, giving Flanagan room to develop mystery, to give critical backstory a rich timbre, and, maybe most crucially, to create a truly credible sibling dynamic. Some stories work better as discrete two-hour movies, but the sad tale of the Crain family of Massachusetts benefits from a long, novelistic gaze. Its steeped in somber detail, and we acutely feel the yawn of years between when the Crains were frightened, innocent children and when they are adults, grown gnarled around a shared horror in different ways.
To play the grown-up Crains, all still reeling from the death of their mother in the titular nightmare house, Flanagan has assembled a cast of varying renown. Elizabeth Reaser, of Twilight and Greys Anatomy, and Michiel Huisman, of Game of Thrones, are perhaps the best-known. Kate Siegel, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Victoria Pedretti are a little more off the radar, particularly Pedretti, as this is her first substantial credit. And yet she gives maybe my favorite performance of the series, playing wounded youngest sister Nell, whose sudden death is the catalyst for the shows present-day story line.
All five work in wonderful concert together, while Flanagan is careful to give each their own narrative. Some are less compelling or fleshed out than others, but in aggregate, Flanagan has created a family to genuinely care for; we worry about their present states and mourn the happy life they had snatched away as children. The series can be a little maudlin in its view of childhood and familial love, but by the end of the 10 episodes, Id succumbed to its mild emotional manipulations, its hokey indulgences. Hill House is a supernatural melodrama that is smart and specific enough to overcome its clichés.
Its pretty scary, too! Most of the ghost stuff is in the past, during the months in 1992 when the Crains and their parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas, replaced by Timothy Hutton in the present-day timeline) lived in the spooky Hill House manor with the intention of sprucing it up and flipping it. The children each have interactions with some sort of spectral presence that takes many forms, be they simply ominous bumps and barks in the night, or actual, near-corporeal spirits. Flanagan elegantly builds to these dreadful moments. Theyre modestly staged, and all the more frightening for it.
As the show goes on and Guginos Olivia moves more to the center of the story, things get a bit more baroque, and a little less appealing. Its hard to invest as much in Olivia, because we know so much less about her than we do about her kids. For the bulk of the season, the character largely functions as a plot device, and Flanagans attempt to humanize her comes too late. Still, I at least appreciate the effort to clarify Olivia, rather than keeping her as yet another of horrors many unknowable dead women. By the end we more than accept her as a part of the seriess holistically satisfying picture.
The show satisfies despite some omission. Usually in a story like this, we eventually get some kind of origin story for the houses malevolence: there were wicked owners, it was built on cursed ground, etc. But as the Crains psychological knot slowly loosens, its increasingly apparent that the what and why of Hill House arent really going to be answered. There are hints of that dotted here and there throughout the show—an unsolved disappearance, an apparition of a boy in a wheelchair—and maybe more will be explicated if theres a second season. (Though, I cant imagine it would involve these characters.) But that backstory is meted out only in bits and pieces. Hill House instead persuasively suggests that the why of the house is ultimately incidental to the Crains story—just as searching for the cosmic reason behind tragedy in our own lives usually proves fruitless.
I suppose some people—maybe those more die-hard about horror than I am—could be annoyed by that. Is it a cop-out that The Haunting of Hill House doesnt really explain itself? Maybe. But, to me, the shows more human aspect makes up for that evasion, regardless of whether Flanagan intended to be vague or simply ran out of time. Regardless, theres so much to admire about the series hes made, from its achingly realized pathos to its technical merits, including one beguiling episode near entirely comprised of long takes. Its a series with authorship, possessed of clear, successful intent. It complicates its genre without forsaking it, hitting intensely moving chords squarely and confidently. The pain of the past is keenly grappled with, all the sadness of lost things murmuring in the shows air.
Ghosts make more sense shaped by grief, which arrives and lingers with its own kind of terror. We can flee the bad places, hide behind time and distance. But we carry the ghosts with us. We tend to haunt any home. The Haunting of Hill House offers the catharsis of watching the Crains confront those shadows, their fraught and tragic childhoods not redeemed, but at least, in some hopeful way, drawn closer toward resolution.
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