‘The Haunting Of Hill House’ Shows That We Are In A New Era Of TV Horror

Ghosts are real because we want them to be.

The Haunting Of Hill House - Netflix

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The Haunting of Hill House unapologetically believes in ghosts.

I say this less as a descriptive device, and more as a warning. It’s a sentiment which was carried by the author of the original 1959 novel, Shirley Jackson, on which this series is based, who wrote:

“No one can get into a novel about a haunted house without hitting the subject of reality head-on; either I have to believe in ghosts, which I do, or I have to write another kind of novel altogether.”

After a weekend of bingeing the new Netflix series, on Sunday night, for the first time since I was a small child, I slept with the lights on.

Well, ‘slept’ might be too strong a word.

Ghosts Can Be A Lot Of Things

The Netflix series isn’t a direct adaptation, but almost a prequel.

While the novel follows a doctor determined to prove the existence of the supernatural in the house long after it was abandoned, the show follows the Crain family who move into Hill House for a summer in the early 90s, working to restore it to its former glory and then sell it on.

The show borrows names and references from the novel, but never once shies away from “taking liberties”, as the eldest Crain son Steven (Michiel Huisman) puts it.

As an adult, Steven is an author writing other peoples ghost stories, stories he doesn’t believe, or at least not in a conventional way.

He tells us a ghost “can be a lot of things, a memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt.”

He even claims they can be what we want to see, that they can be “a wish”.

In the first episode a woman claims to see the disfigured, rotting corpse of her dead husband hovering over her bed, and she asks Steven why she would want to see him like that.

“Because it’s better than never seeing him again”, he says.

The Haunting Of Hill House takes its time to convince Steven that ghosts – the spooky kind – are real.

We see them watch him, as a child in the house and even as an adult going about his daily life. Out of all the Crain children, he is most determined to shut his eyes to them, to look away, but they are persistent.

Fear Itself

As the story unravels, it becomes clear that the show isn’t only trying to convince Steven, it is attempting to convince us as well.

It seems fitting that half the series is set in 90s flashbacks, a decade in which the horror genre overdosed on postmodern self-awareness, with staples like Scream and The Blair Witch Project.

To convince us to the point of fear, protagonists back then needed to be equally as savvy as the viewer, actively deconstructing the narrative as it progressed, never running up the stairs when it’s clear they should be climbing out the back window.

The Crain family are savvy, but the ghosts who haunt them are as solid and convincing as the house in which they reside, so much so that questioning their existence puts the characters at risk.

Seeing ghosts is consistently explained away as mental illness. As an almost homage to Jack in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) is “driven mad” by the house. But unlike in The Shining, it is Olivia, not the audience, who doubts her own visions, calling them dreams.

It’s the viewer who is thrown into the unease of arguing against our own natural skepticism, grown from decades of reading metaphor into the supernatural.

The hauntings are active, the house described as a beast with a belly who eats. It feels as real a threat as a serial killer stalking young teens at a summer camp. The youngest siblings, twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), are both most vulnerable to this beast as children, seeing its face more often than the others.

Because of this, they have run the furthest from the house, turning to drugs — prescription or otherwise. And as we meet them in adult life, we see that they are also both the most detached from anything happy and good.

Things That Go Bump

Creator Mike Flanagan has a history of playing with vulnerability and fear.

His Netflix debut was the underrated thriller Hush (2016), about a masked killer attempting to break into the house of a woman who is hearing impaired. His follow up, Gerald’s Game (2017), is about a woman whose husband dies of a heart attack immediately after handcuffing her to a bed during foreplay.

Both films are about survival and self-empowerment, but what makes them different to the usual Final Girl slaughter porn is in the way that they twist vulnerabilities into strengths, forcing protagonists to confront and utilise perceived weakness.

In The Haunting Of Hill House, the scripting is overwrought poetry, the characters monologuing about their emotions so deliberately that there were times when I felt as if I was watching an especially eye-rolling episode of This is Us.

But then a hand would reach out from darkness and cover their mouth, or a word would fall out of place like they’d hit the wrong key on a piano. It is in these moments of earnestness, not in skepticism, that Flanagan seeks to evoke fear.

The characters are most painfully vulnerable to being eaten when they expose themselves, but in true Flanagan fashion, there is no way to escape the beast without first walking through it.

This is what makes The Haunting Of Hill House not just effective, but powerful.

It reads like a novel, taking its time to convince us of things that go bump in the night, forcing us to watch these things unflinching as they eat away at the light.

The horrors only grow, the jump scares keeping pace with an ever accelerating plot. And in its crescendo we are made to confront those things we would prefer to remain only objective observers to.

Ghosts are real, the show argues, because we want them to be. Because seeing something horrific is better than seeing nothing at all.

The Haunting Of Hill House is currently streaming on Netflix.

Kara Eva Schlegl is a writer, comedian and producer out of Sydney. She writes for SBS Comedy, co-founded Sydney comedy room Wolf Comedy and hosts Little Tiny History Podcast.