the haunting of Hill House

Halloween has come and gone but that won’t stop horror fans from perusing all the streaming goodness available in their go-to movie genre. The good news to that is, if you’re looking for one of the better horror series to come along in the last few years, then Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House is a strong option.

Hill House; like many things, it doesn’t look so scary in the daylight.

Based off the 1959 Shirley Jackson horror novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House follows the Crain family during their short stay at the titular Hill House and the madness they experience there, even following them into adulthood. It’s a reminder of how even years of a somewhat normal life can be derailed when trauma hits, leaving scars that never fully heal.

Restructured for its modern update, the series begins in the early 90s when Hugh and Olivia Crain, along with their five children—Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke, and Nellie—move into Hill House for what was to be a very adventurous summer as the couple worked to repair and then flip the massive property for a major profit. Without delving into spoilers, the children are the first to realize that something’s very wrong with this house. It also becomes apparent that some of the kids are more sensitive to energies slithering within the walls. Whereas the two oldest, Steve and Shirley, experience the least amount of disturbances, they aren’t immune to a sort of restless unease. It could be argued that, as the oldest children, they’ve built up a healthy dose of skepticism. Steve is especially strong in this regard. The younger three— Theo and Nellie (as well as her twin Luke)—are the most sensitive to the spiritual remnants. Theo and Nellie both have their own unique abilities as it pertains to their psychic senses, something inherited from their mother, Olivia. Whereas Hugh dismisses his kids’ constant alarm of something sinister is afoot, he’s much more concerned with his wife’s apparent unraveling with reality.  The belief of mental disorders persists into the present, especially for Steve who, as a best-selling author, has made a fortune writing about other peoples’ encounters with the supernatural while unable to admit to himself that the events in Hill House were more than just his mother losing touch with reality.

Olivia and the Crain children during a most auspicious moment.

The juxtaposition between flashbacks of the past and present, including the use of the unreliable narrator point-of-view, makes the intersecting lives of the family even more real.  Peppered with half-true details of a person, the viewer is thrust into a scene only to realize that, a few episodes later on, it wasn’t what it appeared.  It’s a winning formula, especially for a series that highlights the complex relationships of siblings as time passes. More than that, this unreliable-narrator perspective is a simulation of how automatic assumptions about what one sees is tainted by one’s own prejudice. It’s made stronger as each character is highlighted in an episode where his or her journey is central to the story’s progression.

The care taken in fleshing out the Crain family offers viewers a broadened view of how much each person is holding inside and the fact that, when facing such a horrific trauma, one never explained, it sometimes becomes easier to live with one’s own pain than to share it with someone else; even if that person what there as well. Giving voice to the horrors only makes them return…sometimes with a vengeance.

When one gets around the ghosts and portents, at its core, The Haunting of Hill House is a deconstruction of family. The questionable experiences of Hill House aside, the Crains are typical in the sense that, despite loving each other, they are deeply flawed and, like many clans, more fractured than they’d like to admit. Despite its supernatural slant, there are similarities between the Crain siblings and the ‘Big Three’ (Kevin, Kate, and Randall) from This is Us. Being raised in the same household, given the same love, even experiencing the same traumatic events does not necessarily mean they can relate to one another over a shared experience. People internalize trauma differently and, as the distance from the trauma becomes greater, it can be easy to dissociate one’s self from both it and those close to us. More to the point, the worse the trauma, the more readily people wish for it to fade, framing the truth behind a wall of smoke and mirrors, afraid to face what, in their heart of hearts, knows to be true.

Timothy Hutton plays the older Hugh, patriarch of the Crain family.

Psychological babbling aside, The Haunting of Hill House is absolutely a horror series, one of the impending terror of catching the faintest glimpse of a shape in the background, unbeknownst to the POV character. With each episode the eeriness builds, making it clear that Hill House is an abomination, a place no one person or viewer, should give their attention. There’s very little in the way of B-movie cheese either, as the writers subscribe to the revitalized branch of horror resurrected by the wildly popular Conjuring franchise. There are moments where the fear created brings the viewer in such sync with the characters that you can’t help but wonder if what you’re seeing is just as real as the television screen you’re watching.

This is a feat achieved by the combination of great acting, layered writing, and using the mood created by a powerful narration as well as musical score and effects that offer just enough of an unnatural view. Even when, early on, the narrative provides enough uncertainty to the origin of the ‘haunting’ that a viewer may ask (if only briefly) “is this house really haunted?”, that notion is abolished as the ghostly-ness builds and the house’s history is revealed piece-by-piece. The ghosts themselves, some remnants of a past, mutilated by time or thought, are often a terrifying spectacle to behold. Not because they are overly frightening, rather the unique qualities of their appearance and their deliberate and unnatural movements create a mounting tension that never really leaves the viewer until the final credits roll. There are jump scares littered throughout but more often than not, the series uses the viewer’s own mind as the catalyst to expand upon its horror elements. In a word, it’s how true horror that stays with the audience days later was meant to be.

Discussing this series without spoilers is a difficult prospect as so much of the story is tied to both major and minor surprises, best left to experiencing it on screen.  The pacing, something that often gets away from some shows, is deliberate but not slow. Early on there seem to be unnecessary moments that could be cut for a smoother narration but, as the story progresses many of these moments become invaluable in understanding a particular character.

That’s not to say The Haunting of Hill House is without its flaws. Particularly the ending, one that loses some of its power due to the muddled nature of the ‘heart of the house’ reveal. And while the climax of facing the truth of one’s past is a strong one, there’s nothing really new about the message.

Overall, The Haunting of Hill House is a strong addition to Netflix’s ever-growing menagerie of original content whose quality is on par with the vast majority of shows on network television. It offers us the reminders of youthful innocence, the schisms of growing apart from those we love, and the coping mechanisms we reach for when truths of the past are too difficult to confront. It also reminds us that, real or not, there are ghosts all throughout our lives and, try as we might, we can never truly get away from them.

Netflix original air date –October 12th, 2018