The (Quite Convincing) Haunting of Hill House
* this essay contains spoilers *
Of all the classic movie monsters, the only ones I’m really afraid of are ghosts. Because there’s no real, efficient way to kill a ghost, isn’t it? Vampires have crosses and garlic, werewolves have silver bullets, but ghosts? Nothing gets to them and they just fucking kick your ass. That’s why I thread lightly with them. But last weekend was so insanely cold and windy in Montreal, Josie (who’s even more afraid of ghosts than I am) and I locked ourselves indoors with Netflix’s new hit series The Haunting of Hill House. A decision I could only qualify of ill-informed and emotional, which will fucking teach us to be curious, next time
The Haunting of Hill House itself was predictably great. It is based on an iconic novel by Shirley Jackson, who’s herself iconic enough to have a literary award named after her. The book was published in 1959 and it’s scary enough that it’s still considered one of the scariest novels of all-time today. It was adapted by Mike Flanagan, who you might know for his sucker punching adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game and from what I could gather, it takes major liberties with the book despite staying true to its spirit. I haven’t read the book myself, so I’m no position of being a purist on this one.
If you didn’t already know, it’s the story of Hugh Crain (Timothy Hutton, who you might remember for a show called Leverage), and his five children, who spent eight weeks together in a haunted manor. It killed Hugh’s wife Olivia (the talented Carla Gugino) and left its imprint on every family member’s life: Steven (Michiel Huisman) is terrified to have kids, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a control freak, Theodora (Kate Siegel) can’t touch people, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a healthiest-looking heroin addict you’ve ever seen and his twin sister Nellie (Victoria Pedretti)… well, Nellie’s fucked up.
The Crains left Hill House, but they’re still haunted by it. And when Nellie starts calling her brothers and sisters throughout the night, that haunting will stop being allegorical.
The Rules of Hill House
The great majority of people who watched The Haunting of Hill House loved it. The show has a 91% rating on RottenTomatoes, which tell you what you need to know about people’s opinion of it and mine is no better or worse. What I’m interested in is the why. Why does The Haunting of Hill House work, while every other haunted house movies don’t? After all, it features the same Gothic settings, the same herky-jerky, rotten-looking ghosts but it only helps the credibility of the stereotype instead of looking opportunistic and contrived. What kind of witchcraft did Mike Flanagan do?
See, there are usually two kinds of hauntings in ghost movies: objective and subjective. Objective haunting involves a deceased the protagonists may or may not know. He or she is haunting a premise, looking for resolution of some sort, which the protagonist must provide or have their asses thoroughly kicked. There’s a ghost everyone could see, given the right circumstances. Subjective haunting involves a protagonist haunted by something in his/her past that takes a scary physical form and chases him/her down until it can force a confrontation. The protagonist then either kills him/herself or eventually move on with their lives, leaving ghosts be.
What makes The Haunting of Hill House great is that it features both objective and subjective haunting and that they function together, to some degree. Bear with me.
Hugh and Olivia Crain bought the Hill manor, hoping to flip it and make a fortune. The place was already literally and metaphorically rotting away, thanks to decades of habitation by a manic and abusive family. Hill House is objectively haunted. But it created subjective hauntings for the members of the Crain family who escaped. Ghosts that only could perceive. For example, Nellie is the only person who can see the Bent-Neck Lady until…. * shudders * she becomes the actual fucking Bent-Neck Lady. In The Haunting of Hill House, subjective ghosts become objective ghosts and perpetuate a cycle of haunting. The fucking plact take the most relatable form of haunting (one we can understand) and creates classic ghosts out of it.
In The Haunting of Hill House, ghosts are scary because you can become one yourself. It imbues classic horror movie signifiers with a more intimate and vulnerable meaning.
It’s not ALWAYS scary
Another aspect of The Haunting of Hill House that makes it petrifying is that you never know when it’ll actually be scary. Because in order to get under your skin, Mike Flanagan crafted characters you could actually relate to. Broken, imperfect men and women grieving and fearing their little sister’s passing throughout ten episodes. The Haunting of Hill House is mostly sad over the last half. The Crain family is trying to cope with the passing of Nellie without succumbing to the call of Hill House, like her. Hill House created a subjective ghost that pursues them in order to reclaim their souls and turn them into objective ghosts. So, the scary parts kind of organically happen, like when you mix ingredients in a recipe.
That said, the writing of The Haunting of Hill House is nothing short of spectacular. It’s mostly scary because Mike Flanagan and his writing team created beautiful human being you don’t want turned into otherworldly creatures through mental torture. While the ghosts are stereotypical, the human beings are complex and engaging. Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of The Haunting of Hill House, making the audience afraid to see protagonists turned into stereotypes via horror movie clichés. I see what you’re going, Mike Flanagan. And I want you to know that I respect it.
So, watch The Haunting of Hill House. Whether you’re afraid of ghosts or not. Because it’ll make you afraid of your own, personal hauntings if you aren’t and it’ll give ghosts a more humane face is you are. Either way, you have something to gain.