The 2018 version of The Haunting of Hill House reminds me, in many ways, of another favorite ghost story of mine, Lake Mungo. I wouldn’t dare spoil the similarities they share in common, but suffice it to say that both have a scare that affected me in a deep way. It wasn’t a simple scare. It was something much more than that. It hit me right in the bottom of the soul.
And that’s the best way to be scary, I think. Any idiot can jump out of a dark corner and yell “BOO!” But it takes a sophistication and a nuance to make your audience ponder the implications of life and death and be troubled by it in an existential way. If you really want to scare an audience, make them remember that we’re all afraid of death and, much more than that, we’re afraid of what might (or might not) be waiting for us.
The Haunting of Hill House was originally a novel by Shirley Jackson in 1959 and then made as a movie twice–the one from the 60s was good, the one from the 90s was a fucking mess. Fun fact: Steven Spielberg produced (through his production company Amblin) both the 2018 Netflix version and the 1999 version, and one of the characters is named after him, as a thanks from series creator Mike Flanagan for giving him the job. And the character Shirley is named, of course, after Shirley Jackson, author of the original novel.
I feel like, in many ways, this new version of the story is sort of like a combination of the 1960s and the 1990s versions of the story. The 1960s one refuses to explain whether the phenomena is real or not. The 1990s one is an overblown spectacle of bad CGI in which ghosts are very, very real. This new version gets to have it both ways, it gets to toy with the idea of events occurring inside someone’s head, while also having terrific thrills of a specter going bump in the night and showing it beautifully, subtly. It’s hard to make an image with a monster or a ghost scary, but Mike Flanagan understands our most primal fears of the unknown. A ghost isn’t scary by itself, but hiding from one and seeing its feet hovering above the floor is. He can exploit and milk an image for all that it’s worth.
The story, which is only really inspired by the original novel, is about a family of seven, who move into a house, with the intent to flip it and make a profit in a two-or-three-month turnaround, and are haunted the rest of their lives by a house which is pure malevolence. The miniseries never takes pains to explain why, it just is. As the oldest of the five kids, Steven, explains, “Some houses are just born bad.”
Liv and Hugh are parents to five children, all of whom react to the powers of the house in different ways. Steven, the oldest, denies most everything. Shirley reacts similarly, disassociating herself as best she can. Theo, the middle daughter, has the power to sense psychic vibrations by touch, hence the gloves she wears. Luke and Nell, the youngest (and twins) see the most vivid imagery, like men in the shadows clicking about the floor with a cane (whilst levitating above the ground) and women with necks broken.
One night, Hugh packs up the kids and runs off, leaving Liv in the house. He explains to his frightened children that it’s not really her, that something is wrong. After that terrifying night, and learning later that their mother is dead, they have a fractured family relationship. Most of this is pretty straightforward family drama, but it doesn’t feel staged. It doesn’t feel phony. It feels earned. The events in the house, whether haunted or not, would be enough to fracture any family, and they way they deal with it–or attempt to deal with it–is realistic. They all want to like each other, they just harbor too many resentments.
The Haunting of Hill House plays with a lot of tropes, expectations and cliches. It subverts some, embraces others and just gets down to telling a compelling and earnest story about fear, loss and regret. It’s a supernatural story, but its themes are very much about the human experience.
Mike Flanagan has been active as a director since Oculus, which was beloved by many, but not by me. A lot were in love with his work as a horror filmmaker from the get-go, but it took me a while. I warmed up to him, and I’m glad to see that as a craftsman (and aided by his wife, Kate Siegel, who acts in and co-writes many of his films) he’s grown. It wouldn’t surprise me if The Haunting of Hill House becomes his career-long masterpiece, because I don’t know how much further up you can go from here.
I’m not easy to scare, really, but some moments of The Haunting of Hill House chilled me. This isn’t a show for people who scare easy. It’s not overly gory, and it’s not cynical and nihilistic, it just understands what’s scary. It knows that and exploits it.