When we speak of haunted houses, we’re usually referring to the ghosts within their walls; specters and spooks that torment the living folks unlucky enough to reside here. Cleanse the house, exorcise the demons, or leave it behind, and you’ll find a way past its horrors.
But what if the house itself is the malevolent force? What if it has malice built into its foundations, cemented into its walls, buttressed against every beam? What if its force — once exerted — can never be shaken off?
Such an entity lies at the centre of the new Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House. We say new, but the story is old — dating back to 1959 when its source material, Shirley Jackson’s book of the same name, was published.
Jackson’s book is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of Gothic horror fiction, and the Netflix series both borrows, and diverges, from this tale.
A quick recap of Jackson’s plot: Dr James Montague studies paranormal phenomena in a scientific way. His most recent project is investigating the bleak Hill House — whose inhabitants have, over the 80 years since it’s been built, met morbid and often untimely ends. For his studies, he wants to gather together people who have had psychic experiences; two agree: Eleanor, a young woman who’s spent the past several years taking care of her invalid mother, and Theodora, a vivacious artist.
Luke, the nephew of the current owner of Hill House accompanies Dr Montague, and an eccentric and elderly couple — a Mr and Mrs Dudley — who serve as caretakers for the property (but refuse to ever spend the night on the premises) round off the main cast of characters.
Initially, the foursome have a nice enough time: the company is convivial, Mrs Dudley is an excellent cook — if odd, and they have the sprawling house and its surrounding woods to themselves. But soon, things begin to go awry. Minor irritations at first: never being able to find their way around the house (almost as though it is trying to confound them at every turn), doors slamming shut of their own accord. Then, loud crashes in the passageway outside their rooms at night, their clothes being doused in blood, messages appearing on the walls — in short, a campaign of terror so intense and sustained that the four begin to come apart under it. And the most emotionally fragile among them — Eleanor — faces especially tragic consequences.
The Netflix series, developed by Mike Flanagan (director of Hush, Ouija, Gerald’s Game et al, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts, home of the witch trials), does away with the Gothic horror, and gives the story a modern spin. It also adds another layer of drama by making the characters related.
So we have the Crains — parents Hugh and Olivia, children Steven, Shirley, Theodora (Theo), Luke and Eleanor (Nell for short) — moving into Hill House sometime in the 1980s. Hugh and Olivia ‘flip’ houses for a living; by fixing up and then selling Hill House for a marked profit, they hope to have enough capital to build their own dream home, there to reside with their brood happily ever after.
Hill House, now that it has the Crains in its maws, has other plans.
Nell is visited by visions of a ‘bent-necked lady’ — an apparition that takes to settling on her bed at night. Theo and Shirley cower in their room, terrified, as violent thuds and bangs reverberate against the walls. Luke becomes friends with a little girl called Abigail — except that no one else in the family ever sees her. Olivia’s near-crippling migraines increase in frequency; she begins to lose sleep, then her sanity. A room in the house — which the Crains call the ‘red room’ — stays firmly locked despite all their efforts to open it. Odd things crawl in a hidden basement. Hugh and the eldest child Steven seem to be the only ones who do not experience these frightening events.
Until one night, when a tense and anxious Hugh bundles Steven into the family’s car, where the other children already cower, and drives away from Hill House. What about their mother, the children ask? But Hugh has no answers.
Under the shadow of their mother’s mysterious death, and their father’s refusal to tell them what happened to her, the Crain children battle ghosts of a different sort. Steven becomes a successful writer; he — like the Dr Montague of Shirley Jackson’s story — investigates haunted places, although the book he writes on Hill House continues to be his biggest claim to fame, even as it alienates the rest of the family. Shirley runs a funeral home, and tries very hard to keep her siblings together. Theo works as a child psychologist, but her gift — being able to sense events and emotions affecting those around her, merely by touching them — can seem more like a curse. Luke has been battling a heroin addiction for years. And Nell, sweet Nell, is on the verge of a mental breakdown.
Cut to the present, and the Crains are brought together by a frantic call from Nell. The ‘bent-necked lady’ is back, and driven nearly mad, Nell revisits the long-shuttered Hill House. In doing so, she sets off a chain of events that will prove just as shattering for the family as those that occurred nearly two decades ago.
How does a family respond in a crisis? What do old animosities do to siblings who are no longer able to repress or look past them? Just how strong is the pull of shared memories? What if — despite having lived through the same events — your experience or memory of it in no way matches your brother or sister’s? When someone you love has let you down time and again, at what point do you stop giving them another chance? Can you see your own failings as clearly as those of your siblings or parents? In doing so, can you forgive them theirs?
Tolstoy famously noted: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Unique indeed are the Crains in their unhappiness. They may, like many families, be dysfunctional, but their dysfunction has an added edge: the horrors of the house they once inhabited, and the predisposition for mental illness they may carry in their genes.
Mike Flanagan picks up many of the elements that made Shirley Jackson’s book so frightening: for instance, the uncertainty over whether the paranormal happenings are ‘real’ or the imaginings of unstable protagonists. Are the happenings at Hill House anything more than a reflection of Olivia’s mental state? But Flanagan goes a step further and ‘shows’ the house’s ghosts as well: decaying forms that walk (mostly) in silence through the rooms, wondering where their lives went, trapped in the very place that caused their ruin and despair. This may work for those who like their horror visible, and may be off-putting for those who prefer to let their imagination fill in these details. But Flanagan relies on few jump scares, preferring instead to scatter cues throughout his scenes, to work on the viewers’ subconscious. There are shadowy ghosts in nearly every frame set in Hill House, always out of focus, in the distant background — so much a part of the setting that you don’t even notice them, like pieces of furniture.
Unlike Jackson’s book, in which Eleanor was the only narrator, Flanagan lets us view the happenings from each of the Crain children’s perspectives. One of the only cons of Jackson’s novel was Eleanor’s propensity for rambling inner monologues, and except for a brief moment in the finale, Flanagan does away with much of this flab. The finale is his own weak spot: after nine taut episodes, the 10th feels too much like an indulgence, an attempt at a neat resolution. However, it is also in this finale episode that Flanagan introduces some interesting ideas of his own.
The cast is a somewhat odd mix — perhaps the choices are deliberate, to depict the fanciful versus pragmatic natures of the various protagonists. So a younger Hugh Crain is played by Henry Thomas as a regular Joe so regular, you wonder how he ended up with the exotic and bewitching Olivia (played by Carla Gugino). Michiel Huisman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen do a good job of playing the grown-up Steven and Luke, and Kate Siegel infuses her version of Theodora with some amount of mystique. The young actors who play the Crain children though, are by far the most endearing.
Coming back to the finale episode, it sees the Crains gathered in the mysterious red room. The red room was not mentioned in Jackson’s book, to my recollection. Its inclusion here is interesting: in Stephen King’s The Shining ‘red rum’ is a warning that echoes repeatedly in young Danny Torrance’s mind (it is ‘murder’ spelt backwards); The Shining was influenced by Shirley Jackson’s book and has a similar premise: a place driving the person living in it insane. On the dark web, a ‘red room’ apparently refers to a person being tortured and killed over a live stream for others’ entertainment. Hill House’s red room is one where tragedy befalls the Crain family. It is also a place that lulls them, at various points of time, into a (false) sense of security. That fulfills their wishes, even if those wishes seemingly include death.
Flanagan’s big change is in introducing a non-linear concept of time to the proceedings. As Nell observes, time isn’t like a series of dominoes, each one falling onto the next in a sequence. Instead, it’s like confetti, falling around us. The explanation of time is important to understand the ghosts of Hill House, and the ones seen by the Crains. Ghosts are always presumed to be from the past, but what if some ghosts are from the future?
“A ghost can be a lot of things,” Steven explains. “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see. A ghost is a wish.” The Haunting of Hill House drives home the message — be careful what you wish for.
At the climax, however, Flanagan pulls back from giving his story a gory ending, preferring to introduce some optimism into the proceedings. Note how for Shirley Jackson, Hill House’s malevolence remained unabated till the very end:
“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might stand for 80 more. Within, its 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.”
Flanagan changes this to: “(And) whatever walked there, walked together”. In his version of the story, Hill House is satisfied, it has claimed its last victims, and they have found an odd peace and togetherness — one that was snatched from them in the world outside — within its walls.
The Haunting of Hill House is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here: