Ghosts are guilt. Ghosts are secrets. Ghosts are regrets and failings. But most times, most times ghosts are a wish.
I am late to the party, but The Haunting Of Hill House is a remarkable season of television. More than a year after its release…how am I so late to the party? I have no idea. But I am very glad that I finally dove feet first into this horror story.
First of all, the show is scary is hell. Not always with the jump scares or obvious horror tactics, but rather with the constant sense of dread in every single frame of it. Much like how the mold in Hill House festered through all the walls, the eeriness in this show seeps deeper with every episode. The Haunting Of Hill House is constantly gnawing at the big scare, but the true terror is that the show never truly meets.
Mike Flanagan’s interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel is so powerful because it holds that door of cliché and expectations at bay. Most modern scary stories payoff with a massive climax or a bloody foray. There is typically an end point where the horror ends and the suffering of those inflicted with the terror are gone, whether it be in a newborn life or in death. In The Haunting Of Hill House, there is no finish line. Constantly jumping between the present and the past, the audience sees the supernatural horrors and how the never end, but rather grow and mold into true-to-life personal challenges.
Let’s place more love onto Flanagan for her interpretation. To have the metaphorical horror that the House conjures coincide with a truly wonderful twist at the end involving Abigail and the Dudley’s; that’s a remarkable achievement. The ghost version of Olivia and her fear of losing her children to growing up, in conjunction with the Dudley’s literally keeping their daughter in a vent, is a wonderful duality of fear. We see one mother of the family delve into madness over the hallucinations of losing her precious ones, while another takes the first steps into lunacy grasping onto the supernatural sense that she can keep her daughter young forever.
Though I can’t personally relate to this, it’s impossible to not get a true appreciation for how hard parenting must be. As shown most through the eyes of Hugh, the father of the Crain family; keeping secrets for the sanity and innocence of others is taxing. It weighs on you and pulls you down, like seaweed trying to grip you into a riptide. Constantly trying to swim upstream like that must be emblematic of what it’s like to be a parent. Always wondering if you are doing a right job. Not knowing which doors to open for certain life lessons to crawl through. Not knowing when is the right time to let go and allow your children to wake up into what they are as individuals.
The Haunting Of Hill House tackles the shattered puzzle pieces of childhood trauma in a real way. The fights between Luke, Theo, Nell, Shirley and Steven all have earthy branches, but the roots are in the unknown terror they went through at Hill House. The most memorable episode of the entire season is when the family is finally reunited in the night before the funeral next to Nell’s body. It’s when the script is at its cleanest and the dialogue at its crispest. Deep problems that were thought to be buried rise up, as symbolized by the grave of Nell being notched over and her body crumbling onto the floor.
On the technical side, the editing of The Haunting of Hill House is its most impressive aspect. The style of transitions used by Flannagan is established in the pilot episode. The turning of doorknobs acting as a turn style to a new setting/timeline is the most obvious visual tell throughout the ten episodes. It’s a smart choice because it directly touches upon the idea of Hugh keeping the door closed to his children. Rarely, if ever, does the audience see a full sequence of a doorknob turn or door open with a character entering the new setting in the current timeline.
The score of the show also deserves its credit. Like any horror entertainment, it plays a major part in setting the mood. But in The Haunting Of Hill House, it’s strength comes from not reaching for those pinnacle moments. There isn’t sharp violin screeching when a character is luring in the background of a passing frame. There isn’t a cymbal crash when a traumatic event takes place. The score by The Newton Brothers is slow and pulsing, forcing the audience to pay attention to the horror that’s unfolding. It acts like a malevolent whisper, forcing the audience to lean in and feel every series goosebumps a bit more.
I personally can’t leave this reaction without talking about the one moment in the show that scared the shit out of me. When Shirley and Theo are arguing in the car, talking about each has insecurities and how they cover for the other faults without knowing or appreciating. It’s a full-blown sibling argument that reaches dangerous levels. During their feuding, from out of NOWHERE, comes a ghost between the two front seats of Shirley’s car. The profile shot in which the sisters is framed makes it seem the entity was shot out of a gun from the left side of the frame and it penetrates the pair’s dialogue like an armor piercing bullet. It scared the shit out of me.
In terms of what the The Haunting Of Hill House prompted me of, there are a couple movies. First was The Shining (1980) for the similarities of isolation, ghostly visions, and losing one’s marbles. I was also reminded of The Woman In Black (2020) just because of the style of the house and setting. I want to say there are The Amityville Horror (1979) vibes, but it’s not as prevalent as I’d expect. Instead I was feeling more in regard to The Poltergeist (1982) and The Others (2001).
The Haunting Of Hill House is getting a sequel…but not with the Crain family. It’s a new family and a new story, The Haunting Of Bly Manor. Taking the path of an anthology series, the second season will take inspiration from Henry James’ novella, The Turn Of The Screw. A for fans of being scared, Flanagan has said repeatedly that season two is going to be scarier than season one.
Fear. Fear is the relinquishment of logic. The willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. But so it seems is love. Love is the relinquishment of logic. The willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns.