“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” That’s the first line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. First published in 1959, it has gone on to inspire two films and a play. Here, it’s resurrected once again as a TV series, which reimagines the story as a 10-part drama. The tale may have changed, but director Mike Flanagan returns to Jackson’s opening sentiment and proves it over and over again.
The series charts the lineage of the Crain family, starting with father and mother Hugh and Olivia (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino). After moving into Hill House to renovate the old mansion and sell it on, things go very wrong, and Olivia ends up dead one dark night, as Hugh and their five children flee the estate in a panic. The series follows them as adults, jumping between their dysfunctional lives in the present and the origins of their problems several decades past. Each character gets an episode devoted to their experiences, and Flanagan uses that age-old device to weave a freshly compelling, complex tapestry of trauma and the mechanisms humans have devised to cope with it.
The result is as much family drama as it is horror story, and it’s all the better for it; like the best entries in the genre, it’s as moving as it is purely terrifying. More to the point, it understands that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. “A ghost can be a lot of things,” says Steven (Michiel Huisman) at one point. “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt…” And so the various chapters dissect these emotions and the way they can haunt us.
There’s Theodora (Kate Siegel) a therapist who channels her loss and trauma as a child into a career specialising in helping kids – even though her own family connections remain adolescently undeveloped. There’s Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), a mortician who seeks to wrestle back some control and understanding over death. And, more tragically, there’s Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has sought refuge in the numbing effects of substance abuse, taking him into a spiralling struggle with addiction. Most concerned about him is Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who, as per the original story, seems to have the strongest tie to the house and their deceased mother – she soon begins to see visions of The Bent-Neck Lady, a spirit that loomed over her childhood. In between, and yet separate, to them all is Steven, who is a writer and has used the events of that shocking night to pen a bestselling book.
It’s no coincidence that it’s the latter three who prove the most engaging, as they fit into the show’s exploration of the line between what’s real and what’s residual trauma. While Nell and Luke have grown into the kind of unreliable narrators who could easily be imagining things that go bump in the nght, Steven tellingly uses his book to rewrite the family narrative into one of skeptical, rational explanations. “Fear is the release of logic. The willing relinquishment of patterns,” he muses. And the show’s at its best when it’s charting the trio’s reconciliation with how much they’re willing to release.
That, in itself, would be tricky enough to pull off – even with this fantastic cast sinking their teeth into the material hour after hour. But Flanagan does so with a remarkable, surprising and masterful ability to send chills down your spine. From Oculus to Hush, he’s repeatedly proven himself a filmmaker with a knack for inventive and creative scares, often achieved through seamless transitions between strikingly juxtaposed scenes. The winding, non-linear format that he’s crafted here is a perfect fit for that unique appoach to editing, using memories, feelings and visual and audio cues to jump from one place and character to another; the result is a puzzlebox mystery where the characters drive the structure.
The introduction of Timothy Hutton as the older Hugh, mostly absent from his childrens’ lives, is the final piece of the puzzle, as his refusal to speak about what happened that night both puts events in motion and keeps that momentum going; he emerges as the understated heart of the piece, his inability to communicate (whether it’s to protect himself or his kids) fostering a festering household of unhappiness and unsupported victims. If the characters won’t relinquish logic in the face of fear, they certainly won’t do it for love, and their patriarch is a large part of that looming problem.
Going back to younger Hugh’s initial excavations of Hill House is a satisfying way to unpack the secrets buried beneath all this drama. “Why don’t you sleep? Take a break?” prompts Olivia, as he gets carried away with exhuming the basement. “Hill House will still be there in the morning.” And, of course, she’s right: it continues to stretch up into the sky regardless of the Crains’ lives, a defiant piece of architecture in the face of time and suffering. Flanagan has huge fun prowling through its endless corridors, blasting through its windows and stalking closer and closer to the elusive red-doored room that’s locked on the property’s top floor. Recalling The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, it’s a magnificent piece of set design, opening up a space for the production team to choreograph physical and CGI effects at a breakneck pace and unerring precision.
Because, it should be noted, all of the show’s other achievements don’t stop it from delivering pure and simple scares: The Haunting of Hill House is relentlessly scary, serving up horror and nastiness with a cruel glee. Over 10 hours, you’ll see eyeballs melt, mouths froth, necks break, people get stabbed and faces ripped to pieces – and the jump scares that do occur are the kind that will literally make you jump out of your seat. The terror is all the more effective, though, thanks to the emotional punch that goes with it; the subplot surrounding The Bent-Neck Lady, for example, is squirmingly sad, as she drops into chapter after chapter of Nell’s life, while the echoes of generations gone past turn something as innocent as a tea party into a spectacle that’s nail-bitingly tense and heart-breakingly poignant. As we revisit every scene from a new perspective, brought to life by a faultless ensemble, spirits appear where there were none, monsters are revealed as spectres much more ordinary, and motivations veer between twisted and tender – an elegant, cathartic examination of the way we perceive the paranormal. The result is simultaneously gripping and unbearable to witness; you’ll be dying to watch one more episode, even though you know you’ll be peeking through your fingers. It joins Penny Dreadful and Les Revenants as one of the scariest TV shows in recent memory – a grounded frightfest that stares reality in the face and dares you to stay sane as long as possible.
The Haunting of Hill House is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.