The latest on-screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), is far from the first ever modern “haunted house” series to grow rapidly in popularity and critical acclaim. However, fans still laud Hill House as a worthy contender in the horror genre, praising its ability to both pay tribute to and subvert popular tropes and commending its multilayered storytelling. Indeed, underneath the seemingly simple “ghost story” lies such heavy themes as depression, abuse, trauma, and the dire consequences of long-term family estrangement.
The 10-episode Netflix series, created by Mike Flanagan, contains a number of deviations from Jackson’s original work but remains faithful in portraying the novel’s true protagonist: Hill House. Its latest residents, the Crain family, experience strange events that range from mild to sinister, all culminating in a sudden tragedy—the death of the mother, Olivia—that alienates the Crains from one another. Decades later, after the bizarre suicide of their youngest sister, Nell, the now-grown Crain siblings—author Steven, mortician Shirley, child psychologist Theo, and recovering drug addict Luke—reunite with their estranged father, Hugh, not out of sympathy but out of necessity to solve the mystery that is Hill House, the place of origin of their shared trauma.
Flanagan does an exemplary job of keeping the camera lens long enough on each character that we may see their innermost anxieties, faults, and regrets. However, though the Crains are laid bare before our very eyes in each episode, no one, not even the audience, is truly privy to the horrors Hill House has inflicted on the family for decades until the show’s finale. In this way, Flanagan is aware of the importance of the series’ slow-burn development, not only to prolong audience anticipation before the eventual scare but also to remind viewers that the true horror lies not among the ghosts of Hill House but in the aftermath of the family’s (futile) escape from them.
It’s important to remember that the cause of the Crain children’s trauma, which would ultimately lead to the family’s dissolution, isn’t the paranormal phenomena in Hill House—the two eldest siblings, Steven and Shirley, remain staunch skeptics—but their father’s refusal to reveal what happened on the night their mother had died. From this restraint and secrecy, ill feelings among the family members festered into apathy toward one another. Indeed, the presence of ghosts before the grown-up Crains only exacerbated what was already haunting them: the disillusion (and dissolution) of family ties.
The infamous Red Room is one stark example of the warmth of security warped into something far more insidious. In the series’ gripping finale, “Silence Lay Steadily,” Nell’s ghost remarks, “This room is like the heart of the house. No, not a heart—a stomach.” As Nell’s playroom, Luke’s tree house, Theo’s dance studio, Shirley’s family room, Steven’s game room, and Olivia’s reading room, the Red Room has put on various facades to lull the Crains into a false sense of security, slowly consuming them until they are forever trapped in its clutches.
No other character is more vulnerable to the Red Room’s (and consequently Hill House’s) brainwashing than Olivia, whose mental and emotional degradation eventually causes her to “preserve” her children’s youth. Just like how the Red Room lures the family into it under the guise of a safe abode, Olivia (almost) tricks her youngest children, twins Luke and Nell, to attend a rat-poison tea party. In the series’ fifth episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” decades later, Olivia’s ghost (tragically) succeeds in killing Nell after calling her “home” to Hill House and to the ruse of a loving and accepting family and husband. The pain of betrayal and the fear of premature death are clear in Nell’s expression before the specter of Olivia pushes her from the attic railing.
At the very end, after the dust has settled and the evil of Hill House has (more or less) been overcome, the sight of the Crains slowly bonding after years of isolation and picking up the pieces of their once-lost familial affection is a small yet nevertheless comforting sight. It’s a worthy finale, heartrending and bittersweet, the long-awaited conclusion to a very trying and reluctant family reunion. Yet the trauma is still apparent in the midst of their mending circle, and Hill House still stands. Could this mean the presence of more loose ends to be tied up and more dark family secrets to explore? We can only find out in the next season.
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