In 2018, the first season of The Haunting of Hill House was released to Netflix. It’s directed by Mike Flanagan, who is arguably one of the best horror directors around right now, and follows the Crain family as they move into an isolated, run-down mansion, or what eventually becomes known as Hill House. Upon its release, the series received nothing but praise from critics – every review was enticing, and every rating was high. Even the horror legend Stephen King stated that the series is “Close to a work of genius.” But despite all of this hype and admiration, I still found myself in a place where The Haunting of Hill House didn’t appeal to me. If it’s not obvious enough from the title, The Haunting of Hill House is a horror series, and it’s about a haunted house. This is the exact reason that I didn’t have any interest in watching it. While I absolutely love it, it could be argued that it is very easy for horror to fall into a repetitive or cliche cycle, and while there are countless films with varied stories one of the most common stories told are ones about haunted houses. Some are about ghosts, some are about monsters, and some are about possession – but ultimately, every story has already been told.
I found myself in a position where I was asking what could The Haunting of Hill House give me that The Shining (1980) didn’t? What could it give me that The Conjuring (2013) didn’t? And the answer that I would reach would always be nothing. I just didn’t believe that the series could provide me with anything I hadn’t already been given in the past. This was before I realised that The Haunting Of Hill House is based on the 1959 graphic horror novel written by Shirley Jackson. The novel relies not on the actual horror to evoke emotion from the reader, but terror. Instead of the monsters, ghosts or ghouls being the central concept of fear, it is the complex relationships between the characters and their psychological states that will keep you awake at night. While the Netflix series is only based on the graphic novel to a certain extent, it still sticks to this core value, and not only is this what drew me to The Haunting of Hill House, this is what makes me believe that it is, in fact, the best Netflix original series released to this day.
The Haunting Of Hill House switches between two different timelines, the past and the present. The present reveals any psychological damage caused by Hill House, and the past shows us how this psychological damage came to be – slowly but surely. The story is like a jigsaw puzzle, and as each episode goes on, the more the pieces start to fall into place – although the picture isn’t fully complete until the very last episode. Not only does this form of storytelling work best for a Netflix series (that is fully intended to be binged) as it creates a major curiosity factor, but this form of storytelling allows for a great amount of character depth that may not have been possible without this structure or series length. It allows the show to differ between supernatural scares and real-life trauma, which is something that is detrimental to each and every character on the show. It gives a clear picture as to how the characters’ fears as children, in the form of slender figures with bowling hats, will transfer over into their fears as adults, in the form of real life failures.
All of the Crain siblings’ adulthood’s are haunted by Hill House in their own indirect ways. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) , a child whose ghostly visions were ignored, is now a heroin addict struggling to live in reality. Steven (Michiel Huisman), a boy who had no control over his mother losing her mind, is now overly controlling and paranoid of the future. But perhaps the best example to use is Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who Hill House undeniably affected the most. As a child, Nell kept seeing a figure whom she referred to as the ‘bent neck lady,’ and this was always brushed under the carpet by her parents, who saw it as nothing more than a child having nightmares. When Nell grew older her fears as an adult link to her child life more literally than everyone else as she still continues to see the bent neck lady, and was so traumatized by it that she took her own life – in no place other than Hill House, the same place that lined out her entire existence. However, it is later revealed that Nell was the bent neck lady all along. Her neck is bent because she hung herself and her demons as an adult were ultimately significant to her childhood trauma. This is where it becomes clear that the past and the present tying together is detrimental not only to the story structure of Hill House but to the traits and experiences of each individual character. It leaves you in a place where you actually care about these characters, and you start to fear for their outcomes rather than your own peace of mind.
The personal backbone of the show isn’t just held up by the story structure, character arcs, and relationships but also by the perfect balance between psychological horror and emotional terror. The show focuses on the characters so much so that the monsters become a mere extra in a genre that they are usually dominating. This isn’t me saying that the supernatural figures aren’t one of the main symbols of fear in Hill House – because they are. Instead of being used for cheap jump scares, they are reserved for moments that matter. Most horror films and tv shows give the impression that in order for something to be scary, it has to be running towards you at full speed, screaming, but Hill House shows that a slow walk down a silent hallway is equally as terrifying. Everything from the innovative camera techniques, chilling score, and eerie set design works in making Hill House the suspenseful, unique horror drama that it is. While I admit that the genuinely scary horror style of Hill House is why it was so successful, I still believe that the personal horror it possesses should take most of the credit. It is easy to amp someone up through horrific imagery and unexpected scares, but the real challenge comes in being able to make them forget about it because they are so invested in the story being told. A horror that can make you cry as much as you scream is when the genre is at its best, and that is exactly what The Haunting of Hill House does.