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Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is a curious beast, in many ways. Following on from Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name – which has itself had several previous adaptations – this is very much an “inspired by” rather than a “based upon” affair, as the series has an entirely new cast of characters, sharing only names with the original. Perhaps director and writer Mike Flanagan was attempting to instead catch the essence of Jackson in this. Or perhaps not even that.
The Crain family never had it quite normal, as they moved from house to house in order to renovate and then flip them for profit. Things get decidedly less-than-normal when they move into Hill House one summer during the eighties. A sprawling, chaotic mish-mash of different designs, the manor soon begins to act menacingly towards its inhabitants. Suddenly, dry rot is discovered on all floors, and multiple windows are destroyed in a storm that only appears over the house – and the Crains’ mother, Olivia (Carla Guigno), starts acting more and more possessive of her youngest children, Nell (Violet McGraw) and Luke (Julian Hilliard).
The story of the Crains then picks up again twenty-five years later, with the Crain siblings still trying to process their time in Hill House, which ultimately left them mother-less and questioning what they did (and didn’t) see with their own eyes. Their father Hugh (Timothy Hutton), we learn, has never disclosed what happened on the fateful night when Olivia died. Each of the Crain siblings has attempted to deal with their grief in different forms: the eldest, Steven (Michiel Huisman), has become a bestselling novelist by writing the Crain family’s story (known in-universe as The Haunting of Hill House). Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) have the hardest time of it, as they still see the ghosts that haunted them at the house, causing them to turn to medication and drugs.
If this description appears confusing, I can only say that that fits in with the series’ wider aims. The non-linear, double structure of Haunting makes it quite difficult to figure out what’s going on at times, particularly at first. The opening episodes are deliberately disorientating as they illustrate disjointed scenes of individual members of the Crain family without providing the wider context that will be explained throughout the series. On top of that, there are two whole sets of actors for the five Crain siblings and their father. The impressive visual casting for the large family – in which the female siblings in particular look alike – means it’s often difficult to figure out who is meant to be who in certain scenes. This sheepish viewer will admit that it took her until maybe the third episode to realise that sisters Nell/Victoria Pedretti and Theo/Kate Siegel weren’t in fact one interchangeable person.
And yes, ghosts. It should be made clear that there are a lot of ghosts in Haunting. And for the eagle-eyed, there are a lot more ghosts than are initially evident, as seen in numerous articles pointing out all the ones you might have missed. One of the strengths of the series is its ability to blur the line between what should be narrative and what should be scary, with the intrusion of spectres at genuinely unexpected moments forcing the viewer to reconsider the scene they are watching. As other critics have observed, Haunting is ultimately about grief. Den of Geek, points out that “The horror elements are manifestations of character pain, not the sole cause of it.” And any visual horror should be considered in relation to the cast, whose performances, particularly Pedretti’s, highlight why the haunting should be so effecting. Much of the horror comes from the Cranes’ sickening realisation of just how much Hill House has – and continues to – affect their lives and relationships.
Similarly, the camera work and foreboding sets are a huge part of Haunting’s success. From the very beginning Hill House becomes a character itself, with its huge doors and corridors dwarfing its occupants. Episode Six in particular demonstrates Flanagan and the camera team’s considerable talent, with a seventeen-minute tracking shot without any cuts. Unlike similar impressive manoeuvrers in True Detective and Game of Thrones, things are not frantic but are instead patiently rolled out, permitting the horror to build as the camera slowly swings around to observe the way that the Cranes’ surroundings change and mutate.
There are, however, aspects which can start to grate, things which may even have seemed attractive at first: in particular, the link between the two-time frames is often signalled by an aural or visual motif that unites the two. Someone gently knocking on a door in the eighties, for example, might become someone desperately trying to break down another door in the twenty-tens. While such a device can have a resonance – and at certain times does – the amount of times it’s used brings into question whether any thought has really been put into it. Similarly, while Carla Guigno’s performance is excellent, after a while her character starts to feel uncomfortably like a madwoman in the attic written without much recognition to its problematic tropes.
Where Haunting particularly seems to be lacking is references to Shirley Jackson’s original novel of the same name. As others have observed, it is quite clear whenever Jackson’s original dialogue is inserted, simply because it is written in a completely different register to the rest of the show. Perhaps a more pressing problem is the way in which Flanagan, when addressing authorial issues, can be at times down-right insulting. There is a clear link to Jackson in the character of Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser/Lulu Wilson), the eldest Crain sister. However, in the series it’s Steven who is the author of The Haunting of Hill House, while Shirley is instead a mortician who objects angrily to her brother’s retelling of their childhood.
Endowing a male character with authorship, particularly when Jackson struggled to be taken seriously as a female author in her own life (she lived and worked in the fifties, so that shouldn’t be a huge surprise), is a huge misstep. While certainly narratively it is helpful for one of the Crain siblings to own a funeral home, there is no particular reason why it should be a character named after the source text. Is Flanagan implying in some way that Jackson was obsessed with preservation and wouldn’t approve of his meddling with the text? I guess, in an axiomatic way, maybe she wouldn’t have been.
While the series is at all times narratively different from the novel, the one place where it diverges more than any other is in the ending, which is also tonally at odds with the source material (as well, arguably, as with the rest of the series) and indeed, depending on your view of what has come so far, may diminish your viewing experience considerably. While I wouldn’t advise not to watch Haunting, there are other recent explorations into similar territory that might be more deserving of attention, such as the Channel 4 gothic family drama series Flowers (2016-18) and Lenny Abrahamson’s haunting film The Little Stranger. Perhaps more than anything it’s interesting to see how Flanagan can take Jackson’s tale, one which was so concerned with the destabilising of societal norms and use many of the same ideas to ultimately re-stabilise them.