**There are no spoilers for specific scenes in this review, but in discussing the overall themes and story structure, there is a good chance some of the viewing experience will be spoiled. The Haunting of Hill House is best viewed with only the most basic understanding of what the story is about. The Crain family spends a few months living in Hill House, it’s haunted. Bad things happen. They eventually have to do something about that experience. Now, go watch it, and come back when you’re done.**
Gothic horror began with tragedy. With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley brought both the gothic horror and science fiction into being. It’s full title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus ties it directly to the tradition of Greek tragedy. The story is about human frailty and human failings. Beyond just the title, it ties itself to the Greek tragedies by being a story that is fundamentally about hubris, regret, consequences and shame.
The Haunting of Hill House, a new ten episode series on Netflix is billed as a “re-imaging of Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic horror novel.” It follows the Crain family, their ordeal and the repercussions from having lived in Hill House. Re-imagining is a good description in this case, in that it holds on to the basics of the original 1959 novel, but brings the story into a modern context, not just by giving it markers of time (the existence of cell phones, for example), but also by reflecting the changes in the social realities of the modern world, and the way those effect the Crain’s in their attempts to deal with and come to terms with their experience in Hill House. The original novel was in no ways as complex in scope as this series.
The Haunting of Hill House isn’t perfect, but in keeping with the story it tells, it is still a piece of fiction worth loving. If the viewer approaches imperfections with some generosity, it may be genuinely great. It’s courageous in some ways, telling this particular story, exploring and employing these particular themes and ideas. Where it deviates from the foundations Frankenstein laid is that it doesn’t suggest a hopeless fate for its protagonists. In some ways, it recalls the best of Stephen King’s work, in that it tells a story of extremely flawed characters, with an acceptance of their flawed being as part of their humanity, and that their humanity is the thing that makes them worth following on this journey. In an era where pessimism, cynicism and doom seem to be overwhelming not just genre storytelling, but society as a whole, Hill House’s refusal to be overcome by those emotions is a courageous move. The horror genre has reflected this in moving away from the kind of humanistic tragedies that much of its foundation are based, though there have been some signs of a new generation of film makers beginning to come back to those ideas, in new and interesting ways. Hill House is a good one.
Hill House is using genre conventions in a clever and interesting way. It puts the story of the Crain family into a narrative structure that through the first few episodes, seems familiar to anyone with any familiarity with haunted house stories. After the first few episodes, it starts to reveal that it’s not the narrative structure we expected, and does so in an organic way that also doesn’t feel like a cheap trick or gimmick. This is one of the things that differentiates it thoroughly from previous adaptations of the novel. Even as it has some issues in the script related to dialog, it creates a revelatory process that mimics that aging and maturing. What we were sure we knew, may be true, but the context in which events happen and people make decisions, adds a new depth and understanding to them and changes our own perspective on the event and the character. Nothing is as simple as it initially seems, and no one is simply good or bad. This revelatory feature of the narrative structure helps over come some of the flaws in the series (some clunky dialog being its biggest flaw), because it helps ground it an emotional reality. It’s a supernatural reality, but it is not in any way, an inhuman reality.
In this way Hill House shines most though, the development of its characters. Where they may seem one dimensional, trapped in the conventions of a haunted house film, the expanding revelations and the context they create makes the characters become fuller and more real. Hill House isn’t interested in just putting characters through a series of terrifying experiences as a way to give the audience what it expects and giving the characters a number of rote clichès to overcome. When there are some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments, they are all revealing something about the characters. As the story continues, we’re confronted with the idea that what we thought was malignant may not really be malignant. It may not be benevolent either. It may just be.
Hill House overcomes its limitations because it does succeed in some of its ambitions. To strip it down to the fundamentals, its a story about grief, regret, trauma, consequences and healing. It uses the foundations of gothic horror and Greek tragedy to overcome the limitations of the majority of haunted house films. It succeeds in part because of the context that’s given by being able to tell this story in the scope of seven different perspectives. Each individuals response to that trauma playing havoc in their lives in different ways and rightfully, the consequences are different, as well as what they need to do to heal, but they aren’t able to do so fully until they’ve come to a point of honesty with the other family members. The individuals aren’t whole until they understand the context of their family. It is something that every family has had to deal with to some degree. Omissions or dishonesty, mixed with the basic human flaws of character in each of them, have made their relationships to each other and to the rest of the world fraught at best or destructive at worst.
This is part of what makes Hill House feel thoroughly modern as well and is one of the things that makes it laudable. There isn’t much of a history of cinematic narrative made for mass consumption dealing with trauma in a way that is multifaceted and centering context, especially in genre. More often than not, it’s basically an add-on. A characters history with trauma is given as a shorthand to help explain why they would take particular actions that are necessary to make the story continue. If trauma is part of a central narrative, it’s also almost always in the context of the individual will to overcome it or as a substitution for complexity. Hero did X that is harmful to a supporting character because they have Y history, and from the perspective of the narrative, we should feel sympathy for them. It becomes a narrative of the hero bucking up, seizing their boot strings, and just lifting themselves up. The solution is reaching simplicity. Depending on the quality of the film making, overall, this can produce a satisfying film to watch, but as it concerns the reality of how humans actually act and exist, it can’t be described as being anything but fantastic. Hill House as a narrative, is built on a more realistic human narrative, even though it involves the supernatural and is still a product made for mass consumption. It isn’t blowing the doors open or reinventing the wheel or whatever cliché you might prefer to suggest large scale change or progress, but it is doing it in a small, specific way. The characters feel like complex people, who also experienced this trauma.
Hill House is fundamentally less judgmental toward its characters. There isn’t an empty suggestion we feel sympathy for them when their actions are causing the other characters harm, nor a suggestion to ignore the effects of that harm and expecting it to be summarily forgiven. This may work best because they are a family, but all of these characters have endured a trauma (or a series of them) that are beyond their control. Their exact experiences, and some of their perspectives are different, but that trauma has the same source. They have all been effected in ways that harms the others as well, none of them is a saint, but none of them is a villain either. Retreating into their grief, and the fears created by those instances of trauma is completely understandable and presented in ways that are relatable, but is the very thing that is most damaging. By not relying on the people who most well understand the experience, who have also been part of that experience and communicating with them honestly, they do themselves and each other more harm than good.
The Haunting of Hill House also demonstrates that genre stories may have the most to benefit as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon etc continue to change cinematic storytelling. Being a ten part series, without the limitations of network television (like mini-series of the past) gives this narrative the time and scope to progress in a way that is just not possible in a two hour film either, and allows for a maturity of content that is never going to sell on network television. Saying “maturity of content” is not to suggest anything necessarily graphic. There isn’t any particularly gratuitous violence or gore, there isn’t any gratuitous sex or nudity, but the general themes and ideas are necessarily more mature, if for no other reason than the entire point of the narrative is going to go right over the heads of younger viewers. It is all about being adults, in a family, and relating to that family in a way that is different from childhood. Even as it centers on family, children just aren’t going to have had the experience to be able to fully enjoy it, in spite of its lack of the more graphic content.
Hill House is in many ways, the best of what genre and specifically horror can offer. It’s humane storytelling, for imperfect people, using the templates of the genre to tell a story about human relationships without being curt or taking an objective view from nowhere that cheapens that humanity. The writers have the most responsibility for its flaws (the aforementioned clunky dialog and relying a bit too much on haunted house tropes), and at the same time are responsible for bringing the drive to take that perspective on genre storytelling and bringing that tradition into a thoroughly modern day setting, within the story itself, but also by using the new mediums of content delivery to do so. It is a small step, in genre storytelling meant for mass consumption, but also worth recognizing.
It should be noted that Hill House may be particularly tough for people who grew up in abusive families. The dynamics of the Crain family as adults are dysfunctional, to say the least, and even as there is a supernatural explanation for what they experience in Hill House as children, anyone who has experience being in an abusive household as a child is probably going to be impacted by that aspect of the story more directly than those who haven’t. It may just hit too close to home and they may not find the same level of entertainment in the process of discovery the story presents. Even at a ten hour runtime, it can’t do justice to the process of trying to heal from that experience.