Review: The Haunting of Hill House

I’m not really a fan of the horror genre (though several exceptions come to mind). Nonetheless, I was quite entranced by Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, created by Mike Flanagan. That’s largely because it’s just as much a family drama and psychological thriller as it is outright horror, and the hauntings are often just as metaphorical as they are literal, as the central family is haunted by grief, trauma, and mental illness.

Ghosts are everywhere in this show. Sometimes they lurk ominously in the background; sometimes, they’re clearly visible on the screen, looking lively and human, and these ghosts are often only registered as ghosts by audience and protagonists after the fact. (On that note, the final few episodes offer some mind-bending twists that skew perception of earlier episodes.)

In this version of the story, a family consisting of a house-building husband, an architect wife, and their five kids moves into a dilapidated old mansion so that the couple can renovate and flip the house. They hope that this rebuild and sale will be the project that finally allows them to finance their dream forever home. Things fall apart quickly, and the youngest children in particular begin to be harassed by ghosts; in the end, their mother kills herself in disturbing and confusing circumstances. The kids grow up traumatized by the event without ever really knowing what happened, as their father refused to talk about it. In the present, they are brought back together after the youngest daughter returns to the house. The show cuts between past and present throughout.

I never read Shirley Jackson’s novel, but I know enough to recognize that show and book are rather different. I liked the show a lot. If there was a misstep, I’d say it was including The Haunting of Hill House in the show as a memoir by the eldest son. It’s unsettling to me that the show’s creators removed the female author and replaced her with a male–and that they took a work of imaginative fiction and reframed it as a work inspired by reality (that latter element makes the book a little more mundane, at least to me). Bizarrely, they even name one of the children Shirley, although she is vehemently opposed to the writing of the book.

Besides that, the show felt pretty close to perfect. The acting–in both scenes from present and past–was phenomenal. The writing was excellent, and the show explored the nature of ghosts and hauntings in a variety of ways. Ghosts and what they mean in relation to fear, hope, observing and being observed, and even how we think about time were examined in depth. Mental illness and its relationship to the hauntings was a prominent theme, but it never seemed to be for spectacle, or treated in a casual or disdainful manner.

Dread was prominent throughout. But the show had very few jump scares. It was brooding and ominous and sometimes terrifying. But my typical feeling was that of anxiety and foreboding, rather than of fear. Even if you scare easily, you should be able to get through the show reasonably well.

If I can get myself to focus on this more, there’s a lot that this show touches on that I’d like to discuss in more detail. We’ll see if that happens. But The Haunting of Hill House is an excellent show, and I strongly recommend it. Even if horror’s not really your thing.

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