Though I have never read the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House, I have enjoyed watching adaptations of it throughout the years, the most successful of which being the 1963 film The Haunting. I have always been a fan of the horror genre, appreciating how, regardless of the quality of the film, it is the one genre that will always elicit a response. Comedy is subjective, and drama doesn’t always move you but even a bad horror movie will have one or two good scares.
Over the years I have become more discerning in what I see as a successful, and satisfying horror viewing experience. Sometimes it can just be a film that truly gives you the creeps but my favorite kind of horror films are the ones that pose bigger philosophical questions, and set about answering them by building tension through a slow burn plot and well developed characters. That is exactly what The Haunting of Hill House does.
Clearly as a television series it has an advantage at being able to set a slow pace but this can also be to its detriment if the creators aren’t smart about the pacing. Thankfully, Hill House does a very nice job of breaking its story into ten fifty-ish minute chapters. The first half of the season is essentially broken up by character with the first five episodes focusing on each of the five siblings involved in the story. Over the course of these episodes we learn that this family lived in the legendary Hill House, that there was some dark tragedy that occurred, and that lasting psychological effects have plagued each of them into adulthood.
This first batch of episodes follows a classic horror narrative with its focus on the past haunted house story and other supernatural elements. It has the most horror style conventions, with the slow camera pans to the right or left to reveal something from the shadows, and the sudden cuts that result in good jump scares. Each of these scares feels earned thanks to the constant tension that is built throughout each episode and the season as a whole. Additionally, because we get to spend one whole episode with each of the main characters, when the second half of the season starts, we feel more attached and invested in the outcome. Learning how each sibling interacted with the house when they were children, and how they have coped with what they experienced adds a deeper layer to what horrors lay ahead.
Episode 6, “Two Storms,” may be my favorite of the series. It stands as the transition between the individual storylines, and what will be the final, family intwined storyline. It is the culmination of all of these egos and personalities, all performed beautifully by the cast, that we have been getting to know coming together to finally spark something. It also provides some wonderful flashbacks that add both to the dark mood but also the idea that this family used to be a tight unit, and that the house, both then and now, is determined to drive them apart.
After that episode turn we get into the meat of the larger story and what this house is really capable of. This is where the true appeal of the show for me began to be revealed. This entire time the story has been laying the groundwork for its deeper themes of family unity and mental illness. There is the idea of a family that works together is stronger and we see again and again that when two members of the family are working in partnership, the supernatural elements are not as successful in their scheming. On the other hand, there is also the idea that family member idiosyncrasies may be genetic. Each of the characters has been dealing with some sort of post-traumatic stress but it is the introduction of the thought that maybe some of their issues have been inherited that we see a more meaningful thread in the story.
Horror films that play with reality versus the imagined can be very tricky. There is a fine line to walk in both trying to lend credibility to the idea of supernatural events while providing just enough doubt to suggest that they are simply imagined. Many films botch this portion of the story and fall too heavily on one side, fumbling in the end to provide an ambiguous enough answer to that more philosophical question of “What was real?” Hill House handles this balancing act by not addressing the question directly. There are characters that readily admit to having some sort of mental illness, and the question is never if they imagined it all. As Dumbledore would say to them, “Of course it is happening inside your head … but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” It is how they learn to live with it in a world that rejects the idea of the fantastical that really matters.
At the end of the series I was both scared, of the horrors in this house and for these characters I had come to care about, and sad. I had been so caught up in the horror philosophy of the show that I hadn’t noticed the impact of the drama portion of the story. It had been stitched in throughout and though there had been some obvious plot points, generally the feeling it evoked had been a subtle presence, revealing itself at the end to be the true heart of the story.
I watched this series more than a month ago now but it has really stuck with me. I have had some vivid dreams thanks to the creep factor of the show but more than that I have been mulling over those other elements of the story, family and reality. Specifically, how your connection to your family can sometimes seem like a different reality than the one other people live in, and how that can be both wonderful and terrible at the same time. I love a good scary movie/show but even more I love one that keeps me thinking days and weeks later, and that is exactly what The Haunting of Hill House has done.