The Haunting of Hill House is a Netflix series that is a reimagined adaptation of the book by Shirley Jackson of the same name. It centers around the Crain family as they temporarily stay in the well-known abandoned mansion of Hill House over one summer as the parents attempt to flip it, and what happened to them during this time affects them later in their lives. The series begins with the death of their younger sister, Nell, and from there they must confront the ghosts from their pasts.
One of the things I enjoyed immensely about this series is how well-structured it was, from the writing to the character development to the slow-build of the episodes and gradual revealing of what happened during that summer from their different perspectives, almost like piecing together a puzzle until the grand finale. There are a lot of intricate details that you don't immediately catch upon your first viewing, but when you rewatch it and see those connections, those little things in the background, the symbolism and how everything comes together in the end, it makes you appreciate how this show was made, both storytelling wise and on a technical level. I'm a huge fan of the horror genre, and believe me when I say that this was a refreshing series to watch. It's more of a psychological horror with dysfunctional family dynamics than a straight-up ghost story, which I'm sure most people, myself included, were expecting the latter when starting it, but I was pleasantly surprised that it had more to offer than merely being a cheap jump-scare fest.
This was a heavily character-driven show, with each episode focusing on a different character and showing their individual perspective of what happened during that summer and their own experiences which made them who they are as adults, which I think is a very clever storytelling device. It's nothing new, but the way it was utilized fit perfectly for how the show was structured, transitioning between the past and present.
When it comes to the characters, I know that Nell's story is often brought up as being incredibly devastating, and it truly was. The fifth episode is by far the most heartbreaking and depressing episode of the whole series, with the twist of her having been the "bent-neck lady" the entire time, her own death haunting her throughout her entire life, gets even more devastating the more you think about it. However, I think an equally devastating character that I don't think many talk about as much is Olivia Crain. Her fate is just as tragic because we see her spiraling and descending into madness, the House feeding off of her anxiety and fears about her children's safety and implanting this idea inside her head that she needs to kill her youngest children in order to "wake them up", to "save" them from a dangerous world. It's awful in that regard, that someone who was so normal got so warped by the house that, even in death, she still believes she was doing the right thing. And that's the truly scariest part, because death didn't snap her out of it, because she died with that belief and therefore can never go back to who she was before the House got to her. Even in the final episode we see that she's still not quite right, and it makes you wonder that, even with Hugh having sacrificing himself to save their kids, would she ever actually be in her right mind again in death? Can Hugh convince her to come back to herself now that he's with her for eternity in that house? That's something we'll never quite know the answer to, and it's up for interpretation. But overall, Olivia's story is just so fucking tragic.
I'm also quite partial to Steve, which seems to be an unpopular opinion since he seems to be the most disliked character on the show. But I really adore his character arc throughout the entire series. He started out being unlikable, which was the point. He was a very easy target to dislike because he basically made a profit off of his family's personal encounters with Hill House that he claims he doesn't believe in, outright dismissing certain things and being a jerk to his siblings, towards Luke and Nell especially being the youngest. So I understand the reason why people didn't like him because he was setup to not be likable from the beginning. But as the show progressed I found myself intrigued by the notion of why he was in deep denial of everything that happened at that house. And as the story was unfolding it became clear that it was a combination of things. He definitely had repressed memories and fears from that house that he didn't want to relive. We also see through flashbacks that, since he was the oldest, he got to see things from a different perspective than the rest of his siblings. He was with Hugh a lot of the time, and we see him witnessing certain events and moments that the rest of them didn't, such as the tabloids and the discussions between Hugh and his lawyer. Things like this really tainted Steve's outlook on his father and what happened at that house, things that even he probably didn't understand because he didn't have all the information. Him writing that book was his way of working out things that didn't make sense to him, it was his coping mechanism. He didn't go about it in the right way or even a healthy way by literally pushing all of his family away, but none of them dealt with things healthily. Steve's was just more pronounced with his aggressive he was with his denial, especially framed in the first episode and that we, the audience, know that yes, the things they saw were real and we're just wanting and waiting for him to accept it.
But I really loved his arc, the fact that he goes from being the one so deep in his denial to being the one who has to take on the responsibility of keeping the promise that Hugh made about Hill House, and him finally accepting everything that he kept repressed and hidden for so long. I liked that he starts off the show so angry and by the end he lets it all go and confesses his weaknesses, confronting what he's been afraid of all this time and asks for forgiveness. I felt it was fitting, and it was cathartic in a way to see where his character journey led to.
In fact, it was cathartic for all of them in the end. All of these characters were so deeply flawed and fucked up, but they somehow managed to correct things, to confront these ghosts and move forward from what was holding them back, to make amends, to make peace with things that they held on for so long. And I liked how it all came full circle for them. Hill House may have been the cause of their traumas and what broke their family apart initially, but it was also what brought them back together. Although it was bittersweet and tragic in certain ways, it's still incredibly poetic as it sends a hopeful message that despite the traumas you've suffered, the hardships you encounter, the ghosts that haunt you from your past, you can still climb your way out. You shouldn't be afraid of confronting them, because it may be the only way to move forward.
Little interesting things I noticed afterwards:
→ The episodes focused on each of the children in the order they were born. Steve's was the first episode, with him being the first born, then it was Shirley in the second episode, then Theo, then for the twins it was Luke before Nell since he was born seconds before she was. Obviously we had to have the Hugh episode before the final revelation of what really happened to Olivia, but I really thought it was so well-done in terms of focusing on the order of the children.
→ Obviously many are aware of the hidden ghosts in the episodes, there have been multiple videos pointing them out and such. But the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense in a way of subverting the usual expectations of what a "haunted house" entails. Most expect ghosts to just appear and spook you around every turn, but it makes sense that most times they're just lingering in the shadows, watching you, without you being aware of it. I mean, aside from the random scare here and there what else are multiple ghosts going to do? It makes it more unsettling to make it seem like they're just always there, night and day, just watching.
→ I like that, even though they all had their own experiences in that house, the way the house affected them depended on their age and their sensitivity levels. You'll notice that Hugh and Steve didn't have as much encounters with ghosts as the others did, neither did Shirley although she was sensitive to the house via her premonitions/dreams, but Theo (being the middle child) and the twins (being the youngest) were definitely vulnerable to everything happening around them. Olivia was affected due to being sensitive which made her susceptible to the thrall of the House/Poppy's influence. You'll also notice that the Crain women feature certain sensitive abilities, and Luke was only affected by this due to his connection with Nell, with their "twin thing".
→ When it comes to storytelling, the focus on parenting and protecting children is something that the show does well with giving different perspectives on how parents try different methods, and demonstrating how sometimes being overprotective and cautious can be unhealthy and dangerous. From Olivia's fears of her youngest growing up in a dangerous world which the House fed on, to Hugh keeping secrets from them to protect them which drove them away, to the Dudley's always keeping Abigail in the house and never venturing into the outside world to protect her from the dangers, and even with Steve with wanting to prevent having children by getting a vasectomy so they weren't cursed with whatever he believed their family had, i.e. mental illness. Hell, even Poppy, who basically was just unfit to even be a mother due to having killed all her children.
→ The Red Room being the stomach of Hill House, where if feasting on all of them. That reveal was fantastic in the finale, how the Red Room appeared to each of them, disguised and dressed itself in the room that appeals to their individual needs. Considering how the House basically disguises itself to be comforting to those it wants to feed on is interesting. We saw that with Nell when she goes back to the Hill House where it appears warm and welcoming, filled with memories and the things that it knows she wants to see and hear. It's a scary and haunting notion that the House wants its victims to feel comforted instead of being afraid when it finally kills them. Although it can be tragic, when you consider what happened to Olivia with literally being driven insane but the House made it seem "comforting" that she needed to "wake up" by dying.
→ The scene where Nell spontaneously pops up in between Theo and Shirley as they're arguing in the car has been iconic for many people as the "scariest" moment of the entire show, which it absolutely was since it came out of nowhere, but it wasn't done without meaning. It was a significant moment to establish that Nell was trying to stop her sisters from fighting, and it works because after it happens Theo basically freaks out and breaks down, and it makes it a point to where it's basically her and Shirley reconciling. Moments like this happened a lot in the show, where you would have a particular "scare" but it was always, always done with a specific purpose of moving the plot along. It never went into being a useless cheap trick as most would resort to, and I applaud the show for doing that.
Overall: The Haunting of Hill House was an exquisite family drama wrapped up in psychological horror, it hit all the right emotional buttons for me, and it rejuvenated my love of the horror genre in a way I didn't realize I needed. The performances were fantastic, both by the adults and the child actors, the cinematography was just absolutely phenomenal, most notably in the sixth episode but the entire show was filled with excellent use of camera work and transitional scenes that made the viewing experience so amazing. Yes, it's a slow-burn, but it's done so beautifully that you want to take the time to digest everything you're watching since many of the episodes are quite heavy. I went into this show expecting a typical scary show, but I didn't expect to get so emotionally attached to these characters, to the Crain family, so quickly. This was an emotional rollarcoaster from beginning to end and I absolutely loved it.
It has recently been announced that the show has been renewed, but will undergo the title The Haunting as it will become an anthology series focusing on different haunted houses and stories. The second season, which will debut in 2020, will be entitled The Haunting of Bly Manor, an adaptation of the psychological gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
I actually think this is a good direction to take, because I didn't want a continuation of Hill House since I felt the story was complete. Sure, some may have wanted answers to the mysteries of the house, but I feel like if you truly needed that a short story could be written (similar to how The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer was for Rose Red). Hill House was perfect the way it was and adding onto it would've been unnecessary, imho. I feel like some of the unanswered questions are there for you to make your own interpretations, which I feel is better. Not everything needs an explanation. Furthermore, the fact that this new deal will continue the theme of focusing on basing stories off of existing gothic horrors makes me super excited. Mike Flanagan did a phenomenal job with Hill House, and I'm eager to see what he'll do next with the future of this series.