“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is widely considered one of the most important horror novels in history, a dissertation on gender roles in the 1950s, a cruel mockery of the standards imposed on women and the limitations of their sanity under duress. The above paragraph – a stark and somewhat nihilistic description of a house that is an unholy source of both paranormal and interpersonal chaos – bookends the novel, closing out a story that chews more than it answers.
Netflix’s 10-episode adaptation of Jackson’s book opens with the same familiar lines, albeit inverted. Instead of rising off the page as the words of an unseen narrator, they come from the voice of Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) – our new protagonist – and carry a more malleable strain. The show reorients the story to the modern day and dismisses most of what readers might hold dear. Instead of following the novel’s plot – about the paranormal investigation of a well-established haunted house – the series is a family tale, about an unfortunate lineage marred permanently by a house that provokes a number of pre-existing genetic frailties. But if you’re stuck on that deviation from source material, let me ease your mind: Shirley Jackson is my favorite writer of all time, the book is my favorite horror story of all time, and I still fell absolutely in love with this new version. The Haunting of Hill House is a special treat for horror fans, one of the greatest – and most satisfying – uses of the genre is this new, bingeable medium. And it’s arrived at the perfect time, just before Halloween, so you can enjoy it as its meant to be enjoyed: under the covers, with the cool air creeping outdoors, and things going bump in the night.
Here are some other reasons you don’t want to miss The Haunting of Hill House.
The family drama is brutally resonate.
The greatest strength of Hill House comes from the web of family drama its spinning. Steven is the eldest of five in the Crain clan (played by Paxton Singleton in youth), comprised of patriarch Hugh (E.T.’s Henry Thomas in flashbacks and Timothy Hutton in the modern day), matriarch Olivia (Carla Gugino), children Shirley (Lulu Wilson/Elizabeth Reaser), Theodora (Mckenna Grace/Kate Siegel), and twins Luke (Julian Hilliard/Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Violet McGraw/Victoria Pedretti). Their story is one of truth and myth in both eras the show occupies. As children, they bicker and love and torment. As adults, they do mostly the same, but to a more callous degree that comes with age. There is a hard line between those timelines, drawn firmly in the first episode: Their mother “dies” in Hill House – a home the parents bought to flip – when they are children, and they must grapple with her loss, and their own personal reactions to that loss, in the present. What that means to each individual Crain child is part of what empowers the reimagining. None of the kids deal with trauma the same way, each shattered hulls of the people they could be. For Steven and Shirley grief comes in the form of denial, for Theo it’s something more paranormal, and for the twins it manifests as addiction and depression; as the youngest, they fed most closely on their mother’s mania and the annihilating power of the house.
Steven uses family pain to gain profit by penning a story about their encounters at Hill House, most notably about the night they left in a frantic hurry for reasons that aren’t made clear until the finale. What exactly happened the night Olivia died? Did she kill herself or were there more sinister forces at play? That’s the main thrust of the series, which was directed in its entirety by Mike Flanagan – a modern horror maestro known for Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Gerald’s Game – and which mines the generational psyches of the Crains.
There is a bottle episode that is an absolute all-timer.
The Crains are struck by another terrible tragedy in the present, which forces them to the funeral parlor where Shirley now works as a mortician. In episode six, this confrontation plays out as a series of long shots that capture the family’s shared grief in real time. It’s a stunning hour of television, one that earns its gimmick. The long shots let the familial tension boil and brew, and we’re with them every second. When Hugh – who’s been largely absent from his children’s lives after their mother died – arrives, with him come the ghosts of the past. The halls of the funeral home bleed into memories of a night at Hill House, when a storm raged outdoors and when Olivia first succumbed to the house’s wicked hunger. The episode makes beautiful use of the show’s haunted house setting; every locked door is a different truth the Crains won’t confront.
It’s genuinely terrifying.
Yes, it’s a family drama, but make no mistake: The Haunting of Hill House is also nightmare fuel of the highest horror order. Youngest daughter Nell is visited by a specter she calls the Break Neck Lady, who stands before her bed or hovers over her as she sleeps. Her twin brother Luke has his own demon, a monstrously tall ghost who glides above the ground, steering himself with a cane. The stalking of the twins by these ghosts is easily the most viscerally scary thing in Hill House, but there are a few other well-placed jump scares to set your teeth on edge. The show understands that it wasn’t shlock that made Jackson’s original novel so scary, but what you don’t see that holds the most power. Phantom knocks on the door, a hand-holding ghost in the dark, long hallways and locked red doors.
It retains the spirit of Shirley Jackson
Going in, I was most worried that the series would betray Shirley Jackson’s tone and perspective. Jackson was known for her dark wit, her searing social commentaries, and her iron-hearted female protagonists. Though I was initially unimpressed that Steven gets to play the author, and that many of Jackson’s words are attributed to him, that element is toyed with as the series goes along. The women are the real heart here, and Jackson’s trademark quirkiness is best seen in matriarch Olivia, who walks the halls of Hill House in long velvet robes and speaks in dreamy stanzas. Likewise, Nell – the only character fully carried over from Jackson’s novel – feels spiritually linked to her text counterpoint. Both are mocked and disbelieved; their families ignore their mania instead of trying to understand it. But both have harrowing narratives, and steep Hill House in tragedy and beauty. And though the series dips into treacly territory in its finale, to the point that it literally rewrites some of Jackson’s famous prose, it never feels like a betrayal. It provides answers where Jackson didn’t, but it never maims her story into something its not; it’s a full reimagining that pays tribute to its originator in the spirit of its sprightly women.
All 10 episodes of The Haunting of Hill House hit Netflix on October 12. Will you be watching?