With the series The Haunting of Bly Manor out recently, it is a good time to (re)visit its spiritual predecessor. The Haunting of Hill House, a Netflix series based on the famed horror story by Shirley Jackson, is an immensely well-made spook-fest. But what makes the show stand out is that the horror is not always brought upon by the typical ghouls and ghosts. There are enough creepy sequences of those, of course, including one of a properly terrifying ‘bent-neck lady’, but the real scares here are of the psychological nature: long burning scars on the soul that tear a family apart from within, with hopes of redemption fast diminishing. There are changes made to the original story’s characters and situations and these do help to make for compelling viewing over the course of the ten episodes directed by Mike Flanagan, who has a bit of a name for himself by now among genre aficionados.
In the past, the Crains, Hugh and Olivia, were a couple who along with their brood of five kids, including Steve (the eldest), Shirley, Theodora and twins Nell and Luke, buy and move into seemingly undervalued old places and fix them up to flip them at a profit. They had similar designs when they move into the apparently haunted Hill House, but what they get there is much more than they ever bargained for. Pretty soon the kids, especially Nell and Luke, start having their night times haunted by horribly scary apparitions and sounds. The parents are understandably sceptical and slow to catch on, but some of the other kids, especially Theodora, who has some kind of mysterious sixth sense in her hands which makes her see into something beyond the present time when she touches someone or something, realise that all is not right. Soon, Hugh himself starts to see some strange idiosyncrasies in his wife’s behaviour and in the happenings at the house in general, not helped by the ambiguous utterings of the caretaker couple, the Dudleys, who have been living with the house at its grounds long enough to understand its character. Why, for example, do they insist on not being in the house after dark? What is inside the mysterious locked red room for which no key can be found and for which not even the master key works? Who are Luke’s imaginary friends?
The story intercuts between the past (when the family moved into Hill House) and the present. The present is a confusing place for the siblings, who are all grown up. They still don’t particularly understand what transpired at Hill House (or do not want to) and each deals with it in their own way. Steve is now a bestselling author who has mined the family history for his stories despite claiming not to believe in any of his father’s crazy stories and steadfastly insisting that it is a kind of mental illness that his younger siblings, Nell and Luke (and probably the rest of the family), suffer from. Shirley runs a funeral home with her husband and is something of a control freak who scoffs at what she considers to be irresponsible behaviour from the others in her family. Theo, who lives with Shirley, is a sort of child psychologist who uses her oracular skills to help kids stay safe from predators. She also has relationship issues and an inability to form deeper bonds with potential partners, both male and female. But it’s Nell and Luke who appear to have taken the brunt of the childhood traumas to their adult lives. Nell is a jumpy, mentally unstable young woman who keeps seeing the bent-neck lady and suffers deeply on account of the house. Luke is a constantly relapsing addict who is periodically dropped off at rehabilitation centres by his disillusioned siblings. Both are increasingly treated with disdain and despair by their older siblings who are sceptical of their struggle and its potential relation to the house of their childhood. Hugh, their father, is a distant figure now with his inability to exactly explain what the tragedy that befell their mother at the house was, not endearing him much to any of them, especially Steve and Shirley. He cuts a disconsolate, unhinged figure to both us, the audience, and to his children. But is he the one who actually has a clue to the past? And perhaps Hill House isn’t yet done with them. Perhaps it needs one last visit from them all, back to the house, to finally figure out what happened there all those years ago. The question is, of course, will they live to tell the tale?
The horror doesn’t come at you like a sledgehammer as in a lot of sub-standard products of the genre. Instead, it’s carefully worked into the narrative, creating a tapestry of scares, both psychological and physical. The family dynamics and scars left unhealed are fascinating to watch unfold on screen and while initially one may feel some ill-will towards the behaviour of some of the characters, the series progresses superbly in building up our ultimate sympathy and empathy for these broken adults who never got past childhood trauma. There are individual episodes dedicated to each of their struggles and it is in these that the quality of the dialogue and craftsmanship of the series comes truly alive. Some of the family discourses and monologues could be used as a textbook for great relationship drama, such is the biting truth they display; truths which many relationships do not acknowledge until it becomes way too late. The sibling and filial dynamics in the present intercut with the spook fests in the past at Hill House make the impact of this series a double whammy.
Don’t let the horror tag keep you away from this if you’re not a usual fan of the genre. This is one of the best series I’ve seen in recent times, a veritably intense concoction of scares and drama of the best kind.