No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The famous opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, one of the finest and most affecting horror novels of the last century, is remarkable, among many other reasons, for laying out its terms so baldly. Many ghost stories end up taking the form of mysteries, in which living characters untangle a long-forgotten injustice that occurred in their home and lay it to rest (or die trying). More recent, socially aware ghost stories like Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching (2009), or Hari Kunzru’s White Tears (2017), posit that hauntings reflect broader, societal injustices, and that present-day hauntees can’t be said to be innocent of these ancestral wrongs so long as they continue to benefit from and to ignore them. But Jackson rejects such narrativizing. Hill House, she tells us plainly in her opening paragraph (and repeats in the novel’s closing one), is not sane. Whatever walks there, walks alone. To seek to understand it, much less lay it to rest, is a task that will leave the novel’s readers puzzled, and its characters in grave danger.
It’s not surprising that filmmakers seeking to adapt The Haunting of Hill House have been brought up short by its refusal to solve itself. Some of the novel’s most striking sequences rely, in fact, on the page’s vagueness relative to the screen—the famous “whose hand was I holding?” scene only works because an author can obscure information in a way that a director can’t. This has not, of course, discouraged adaptation attempts. The book has been adapted to film twice, both under the title The Haunting, in 1963 and 1999. The first is generally well-regarded; the second is very much not (I haven’t seen either). Both take as their premise something similar to the one introduced in the book: a scientist invites a group of strangers to stay in an empty mansion and conduct parapsychological research into its history of unexplained phenomenon. Weirdness and calamity ensue.
Netflix’s miniseries adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, by Mike Flanagan (who wrote most of the series’s ten episodes and directed all of them), throws most of that out the window. It takes only a few scenes for a viewer familiar with the book to realize that the only similarity between it and this miniseries are a few character names, and the fact that they both revolve around a Hill House which is haunted. To a Jackson fan (most of whom are, after all, extremely defensive of her reputation) this initially seems like sacrilege. Why use the name if you’re not going to honor the actual work?
Flanagan’s Haunting never offers a persuasive answer to this question. What it does instead, almost as soon as the issue is raised, is counter with a genuinely excellent piece of horror filmmaking that makes you forget, at least for a while, its total lack of fidelity to its source. This isn’t simply a case of Netflix showering its usual millions in production values, or its typically excellent casting, on the project. The Haunting of Hill House is haunting in the best of ways, both scary and harrowing, and its images and set-pieces linger in the mind in a way that is deeply disquieting. It doesn’t take very long for even the most avid Jackson fan to accept that a Haunting of Hill House that takes only the vaguest inspiration from the original novel can be an excellent work in its own right. Until it suddenly isn’t.
Instead of a group of strangers gathered for an experiment, this Haunting introduces us to a family, the Crains, who in the early 90s move into the titular house hoping to restore and sell it. Mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) is the visionary, and father Hugh (Henry Thomas) is the hands-on man, and they and their children Steven (Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Lulu Wilson), Theo (McKenna Grace), Luke (Julian Hilliard), and Nell (Violet McGraw) set about working, exploring, and steadfastly ignoring the way that first the children, and then Olivia, start being plagued by nightmares, strange noises in the night, and terrifying apparitions. Twenty-six years later, the grown-up Crain children and their estranged father (Timothy Hutton) are still in denial over the events of that summer. Both timelines are overshadowed by tragedy. In the past, the night on which Hugh suddenly collected the children and drove them away from the house, leaving Olivia, whose death was later ruled a suicide, to her fate. In the present, Nell’s sudden return to the house, where she is later found dead, also by an apparent suicide.
Haunting spends a great deal of time establishing the premise of both timelines and the contours of the horrors the characters encounter in both. The first five episodes of the season are each focused on a different Crain sibling, moving between the two timelines to reveal how they experienced Hill House’s horrors, and how those horrors have continued to blight their adult lives. Steven (Michiel Huisman) writes non-fiction about haunted houses, starting with his own, but claims never to have seen a ghost and blames his family’s tragedies on untreated mental illness and on Hugh’s refusal to discuss Olivia’s death with his children. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a high-strung perfectionist desperate to smooth over any sign of messiness or weirdness; she runs a funeral home where she pushes customers towards open-casket viewings (a custom that, as a non-American Jew, I have always found deeply weird, and which is not made any more palatable here) hoping to give them the relief she felt as a child, when her mother’s broken body was “fixed” by the mortician who attended her. Theo (Kate Siegel) is a dedicated child psychologist, but in her personal life she opts for meaningless sexual encounters with strange women, hoping to dull the psychic connection she feels when touching people or objects. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has been in and out of rehab for years and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) continues to experience terrifying bouts of sleep paralysis, during which she has visions of the creature she has dubbed The Bent-Neck Lady.
There’s a lot to admire in these chapters simply on the level of scriptwriting. Flanagan (and co-writer Meredith Averill) construct both timelines with remarkable care and intelligence, showing us scenes from multiple points of view to build, over the course of these episodes, a panoramic view of both the original haunting and the stunted dynamics of the Crain family in the present day. Several storytelling flourishes, such as the true identity of the Bent-Neck Lady or what lies within the locked Red Room, are so clever in their own right, and so excellently delivered, that you want to pause the show simply to applaud.
More importantly, these chapters deliver some of the miniseries’s most effective and harrowing frights. You have to wonder, going into a ten-hour haunted house story, whether it can really sustain the tropes of that genre over its entire running time. How many jump-scares, sudden bangs and clashes, and slow pans to reveal a lurking horror can a story deliver before they completely lose their effectiveness? The answer turns out to be: a hell of a lot, if you care about the characters and their wellbeing. Haunting is at its strongest when it combines the characters’ ordinary pain with their extraordinary experiences, as in a scene in which the camera pans across the Crains, standing bereft and speechless before Nell’s casket, only to reveal Nell’s hideous, rotting specter standing behind them. Or when Luke, thrown out of his rehab center and trying desperately to stay clean while living on the streets, keeps catching glimpses of the floating, bowler-hat-clad ghost he once saw as a child. Other running themes—Shirley’s anxiety, Theo’s deep well of compassion and the combative attitude she employs to conceal it—are similarly intensified and given shape by the characters’ contact with the supernatural. For all its horror flourishes, Haunting is first and foremost a story about human grief. By giving its characters space to breathe, it also gives its horror room to terrify us.
At the same time, there’s a certain degree of self-indulgence to Haunting’s stately pace and deliberate structure in these episodes, which feels typical of glossy, high-concept Netflix projects (the even more outlandish Maniac, which premiered on the service last month, was nearly overpowered by this tendency). The season’s sixth episode, “Two Storms,” is essentially an hour-long stage play in which the entire family gathers in Shirley’s funeral home for a private viewing of Nell’s body while a storm rages outside, interspersed with another storm in the past storyline, during which young Nell goes missing. The episode is shot in long takes, some as long as twenty minutes, with most of the characters on screen at all times, delivering long stretches of dialogue. Many other episodes pause their action for long minutes to let characters—even guest actors—deliver monologues straight to the camera, as when Steven interviews a woman (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) who claims to have seen the ghost of her husband floating over her bed. The feeling is often that Flanagan is showing off, even veering off on tangents just because he can (a subplot in which Shirley is wracked with guilt over a long-ago one-night-stand feels particularly out of place).
The counter, of course, is that this sort of thing works as long as it works. Steven’s interviewee is affecting because Ekulona delivers a fine monologue, conveying not only horror, but grief and guilt over a terrible death that happened too far away for her to help or offer comfort. The long takes in “Two Storms” are distracting, but the story they depict is strong enough to withstand them. When Steven, seeing his sister’s body for the first time, chokes out a shocked, cry-laughing exclamation of “that’s Nelly, and she’s dead!”, the theatricality of it registers, but so does the emotion. When they’re working, The Haunting of Hill House’s most gimmicky moments nevertheless land with devastating force, and what lingers in the mind is not the device, but the characters’ sorrow, and the terror of the show’s most striking images and moments.
And then it stops working. Having established its premise and history with such verve and emotion, The Haunting of Hill House stumbles mightily as it approaches its story’s final act. The last four episodes of the season are a shapeless mess, weighed down by the tendency towards monologues that now feel more like awkward, overlong scene-setting (a conversation between Hugh and Steven that hinges, for some inexplicable reason, on the repair of ancient timepieces is a particular lowlight), and by the unpersuasive shuffling of all the characters as they make their way back to the house. A slight uptick in episode nine, which focuses on Olivia’s perspective in the days leading up to her death, is followed by an unwieldy crash in episode ten, which makes a sudden, sharp turn into mawkish sentimentality. It’s at this point, too, that the limitations of Flanagan’s spin on Jackson’s material start to show themselves. What had before now, under the influence of excellent execution, seemed like a justifiable repurposing of the work now reveals the full depth of Flanagan’s incomprehension of it.
Like much of Jackson’s writing, The Haunting of Hill House is set in a world in which a profound chasm of misunderstanding and miscommunication separates men and women. Men, in Jackson’s novels and stories, can be harmful to women, and they can be useless, but they are never helpful, much less saviors. In Haunting, that incomprehension plays a significant role in dooming the novel’s heroine, Nell, a repressed, unhappy woman who comes to the house looking for a new beginning. The professor who oversees the experiment believes, with typical male arrogance, that he can untangle the house’s secrets through rationality and modern research methods. He fails to notice the way Nell’s sexual frustration plays out in interactions with the other experimenters—callow Luke, who flirts with her but has no intention of going any further, and glamorous Theo, who is taking a vacation from her lover and sees Nell as a harmless distraction—or the way the house takes advantage of this to persuade her to stay with it forever. Haunting is a story about women who have been failed by men.
In Flanagan’s hands, it becomes a story about men who have failed women. We might have guessed at this subtle but crucial shift already in the miniseries’s opening minutes, in which the novel’s opening paragraph is recited by Steven, its alleged author. Making the author in this version of the story a man (and the character who is Jackson’s namesake into an uptight bore who is obsessed with performing normality) initially seems like an annoying bit of thoughtlessness, but it soon becomes clear that this approach has infected the entire adaptation.
Like the professor, Hugh fails the women in his life, first Olivia and then Nell. As we see in the past timeline, while his wife and children were being harassed and manipulated by the house’s evil, Hugh repeatedly dismissed their experiences as dreams, the product of stress or an overactive imagination. It isn’t until the house’s scheme very nearly reaches its fruition that Hugh even deigns to notice that something is seriously wrong. In Jackson’s hands, this would have made him pathetic, but in Flanagan’s, it makes him grandly tragic. The final episodes of the miniseries are dedicated to providing Hugh with an opportunity to redeem himself, and to pass on the role of patriarch and protector to his sons.
In Flanagan’s Haunting, women, like Olivia and Nell, are tragic figures swallowed up by the house. They can act, but when they do it’s only to destroy themselves. (They are also, and unlike Jackson’s heroines, entirely sexless; Hugh spins paeans to his great love with Olivia, but there’s never any heat between them.) Men, like Hugh, Steven, and even Luke, are the ones who get to be rescuers. The fact that they often fail at this task doesn’t seem to do anything to tarnish their grandeur, or even suggest that their wives, daughters, and sisters might be better off without them. Shirley and Theo, meanwhile, are almost entirely excluded from the story’s climax. It’s particularly frustrating that Flanagan singles Steven out as the protagonist who will carry the story’s burden once his father has laid his down, since despite Huisman’s best efforts, Steven is by far the least compelling of the Crain siblings, and his behavior is often deeply unsympathetic without any meaningful acknowledgment by the narrative—for example, we learn late in the season that has lied to his partner of a decade about having had a vasectomy, despite knowing that she wanted children.
So complete is Flanagan’s reversal of Jackson’s message that he even ends the story with the redemption of the house through the power of Hugh’s love for his wife and daughter. Though one might argue for Flanagan’s right to change the original story to suit his purposes, the fact that he can only achieve this ending by downplaying the house’s horror, turning it into a system that can be comprehended and even gamed, feels like a profound cheat, unworthy of the chills that have come before it. When the miniseries ends with Steven reciting a reversed version of the novel’s concluding paragraph, in which “whatever walked there, walked together”, you can’t help but roll your eyes. It transforms the earlier episodes’ horror into something cloying, all in the service of elevating the pain and redemption of men.
It’s hard to know whether to recommend The Haunting of Hill House. The first six episodes are some of the finest TV I’ve seen this year, and an excellent use of horror tropes to explore grief, guilt, and the way that family ties can twist us up. The last four episodes, despite occasional highlights and a continuing excellent execution, feel a bit like watching the shambling, rotting corpse of something that was once beautiful make its lurching way towards you. And the ending is offensive as both a piece of storytelling in its own right and a bastardization of Jackson’s original. For all my problems with it, however, I can’t deny that The Haunting of Hill House has stayed with me since I finished watching, my outrage over its incomprehension of its source material outweighed by its effectiveness as a work of horror and a family drama. That might be enough for some viewers, but do yourself a favor and read the book too.
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