A year ago, Netflix was courting controversy with its adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Trailers told us the series–created and directed in its entirety by Mike Flanagan–would be a grand departure. Jackson’s plot follows a team of paranormal investigators sent to “prove” the existence of ghosts in a supposedly haunted, desolate New England manor. Flanagan’s version rewrote and reinterpreted characters, weaving them into a new fable about a family called the Crains and their inherited, generational trauma. Upon release, even those with their Jackson-purist pitchforks had to shut up; the series debuted to strong reviews and positive early word, and eventually became one of the most talked-about series of the year.
Fans flocked to the show, as much a family drama as a horror story. They latched onto the grieving, pained Crains and found hope in their tragic story. It became immediately apparent that Flanagan had something special on his hands; a series that used the (literal) blueprint of Jackson’s novel to tell a story for this generation–a story about inherited mental illness, addiction, terse family dynamics, and growth and healing after seemingly insurmountable grief. It’s a story that, a year on, is still inspiring fan art, Twitter threads, and personal conversations. The Haunting of Hill House has carved out its own cult legacy–one that is sure to multiply in the years to come, as new folks discover it on Netflix, or purchase the new director’s cut edition on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Ahead of its physical release, Nerdist chatted with two of the stars of The Haunting of Hill House: Carla Gugino, who plays the ghostly matriarch Olivia Crain, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays her grown son, the recovering opioid addict Luke. The two reflected on their roles in the series, working with Mike Flanagan, and what they hope audiences will continue to glean from their work. (Warning: This article will contain spoilers for the ending of The Haunting of Hill House, so if you haven’t caught up yet, proceed with caution.)
The show marries heart and horror
Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tells the story of the Crain family, who purchase the eponymous Boston mansion in hopes of flipping it and using the profit to build their “forever home”. But the house sinks its malicious hooks into the mentally fragile Olivia, who slowly descends into a madness that claims her life. Her loss ripples into the lives of her children and husband, the trauma affecting them all in different ways and eventually luring them back to the place where their tragedy began.
The show is that rare beast in that it’s bone-chillingly frightening and touchingly sentimental–and never tips the scale too far in either direction. That scare-heart alchemy was part of the allure for Gugino, who developed a working relationship with Flanagan during another Netflix horror project: the Stephen King adaptation, Gerald’s Game. “After that, I knew what his aesthetic was and the fact that he is interested in character and humanity above all, and that he happens to just have a real knack at accessing that through this particular genre,” Gugino said of Flanagan, whose previous work also includes horror films like Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil–all films that tackle dramatic familial storytelling in the horror realm.
“Mike is an incredibly sensitive, very caring man,” said Jackson-Cohen. “And so I think that that’s what makes his stories fascinating. He’s making these characters relatable, instead of these people on screen that you’re waiting to be killed.”
Indeed, the characters offer different, unique views on trauma. Flanagan has even admitted that the Crain children each represent one of the five stages of grief: There’s the skeptical eldest son Steven (Michel Huisman) who channels his frustration into a tell-all book about his family’s paranormal experiences; Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), a mortician whose anger wrestles with her desire to care for her siblings; Theodora (Kate Siegel), a psychic empath who uses Steve’s book profits to get a degree in child psychology; and twins Luke (Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who were the youngest children and therefore the target of their mother’s illness and paranoia.
Nell kills herself in the show’s pilot, and it’s her death that brings the surviving siblings together again to battle their demons–more physically this time. Via flashback, we see the Crains as children in Hill House–where they experience ghostly encounters–and as adults, where it’s clear the house represents a sort of PTSD experience, those visions still creeping into their psyches.
It’s a cathartic portrayal of mental illness
There are a lot of ways to interpret the haunts in Hill House, and its cruel grip on the Crains. Whether it’s a metaphor for mental illness, or a purely supernatural thing, it’s clear that viewers have latched onto the show’s depiction of mental illness, from Nell’s crippling depression to Luke’s addiction. In the series, Olivia–a talented architect–also experiences aural migraines, which was actually Gugino’s idea.
“There are many people that famously had [aural migraines] and made incredible art, like Lewis Carroll,” said Gugino, who admitted she also suffers from terrible migraines, although not aural ones. “When you get aural migraines you see a lot of different patterns in your visual scope, and I thought that would be really interesting for an architect. It probably made her a very brilliant architect, but it’s also probably what makes her more susceptible to the house, and more susceptible to insanity, however you want to look at that.”
For Jackson-Cohen, it was important to depict Luke’s illness without giving into the tropes of opioid addiction. “I thought if I played him as an addict, then I’m putting a judgment on the character and that’s not fair,” he said. “I think it’s true as a whole when you look at society, people look at addicts as these nuisances or these problems, or people that are lazy… All of these kind of horrific judgments get put on people that are struggling with addiction.”
Flanagan and Jackson-Cohen avoided the more explicit details of Luke’s addiction, focusing more on his recovery and the impact of his struggles on the family. That depiction ended up resonating so deeply, that Jackson-Cohen says people come up to him to talk about the character’s likeness to their own loved ones who’ve battled addiction. “It’s kind of insane the reaction that the show you get from an audience,” he said. “In a way it’s incredibly flattering for all of us, because we worked so hard to make the show what it is.”
Rewatches make it even more rewarding
Despite the show’s grueling subject matter and enveloping terror, part of its lasting appeal is in its re-watchability. Flanagan plots the story so that minor moments will later feel revelatory; certain details–like how the Crains scratch at their necks before they learn Nell hung herself, or the use of the color red when characters are unknowingly in the mysterious Red Room–won’t even register until a second viewing. That layered storytelling wasn’t even something the cast was necessarily aware of. In fact, Jackson-Cohen admitted that one of the show’s biggest hooks–its use of background ghosts to establish dread–wasn’t something they knew about ahead of time.
“In our scripts, there was nothing about hidden ghosts,” he said. “You’d be in the makeup truck in the morning and there’d be someone sitting in the chair being done up as a ghost, and you’d be like, ‘Who’s that?'” He also pointed out that in the opening moments of the pilot, Shirley mentions the Red Room; the show dangles some of its headiest mysteries before the audience before they even know what they are.
But that rewatch factor is why Hill House has stuck in the craw of so many viewers, who are hungry to revisit and discover, anxious to see what clues lurk in yet unseen corners.
“Mike Flanagan really does think things out and think things through,” said Gugino. “I’m a Virgo and I’m a perfectionist and I always appreciate anyone who does that. I believe God is in the details, and there are certainly a lot of details in Hill House.”
The show will live on as a seasonal discovery
The Haunting of Hill House is one of the few Netflix shows to gets a physical release, as well. An extended director’s cut of the series is currently available to purchase on Blu-ray, complete with new footage that sheds some light on the specifics of the family. Some extended scenes in the pilot focus on Olivia’s relationship with her husband, Hugh (played by Henry Thomas in the past and Timothy Hutton in the present), and the pressure on Steve from his agent to continue writing about Hill House instead of other haunted houses. We get more sequences with Nell in the heartbreaking mid-season episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” and some extended moments between Luke and Olivia in the Red Room in the finale. They aren’t super-long episodes, but they shade in the world with a little more detail, and a little more Shirley Jackson dialogue.
“When Mike puts something in, it really is thought out and he really does want it there,” explained Gugino, who admitted she’s a sucker for a good director’s cut herself. “It’s really cool to have the opportunity to see that.”
That physical release ensures that the show will live on as a Halloween classic, ready to be re-watched, or discovered anew by audiences. Being part of that sort of traditional experience is something that humbled both Gugino and Jackson-Cohen, especially for a Netflix series that easily could have been binged and forgotten.
“It’s a really, really nice thing that people like the show and relate to it and want to watch and rewatch it,” said Jackson-Cohen. “I’ve never been a part of something that has had such an impact on people, and so without sounding trite, it’s really an honor for all of us to be a part of something like that.”
Gugino shared that enthusiasm. “As storytellers, what you’re always trying to do is dig deeper, and for me movies–acting in them and making them and watching them–have saved my life, so I always hope for [the show] to have a deeper level of understanding and connection,” she said. “And if nothing else, I just hope it will be vastly entertaining.”
The show will reinvent itself next year as it tackles another haunted house classic, the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Jackson-Cohen will officially return. He couldn’t say much of anything, but did say next season will continue Flanagan’s tradition of marrying horror and heart. But however that season turns out, it’s clear that Hill House will remain a classic unto itself… where we can forever walk together, in the night… in the dark.
Featured Image: Netflix