(I tried to make this as spoiler-free as possible, as I don’t think I’ve revealed anything significant, but as always, it’s up to you whether to keep reading.)
I’m two years later to The Haunting of Hill House, but two weeks ago, I binged all 10 episodes of the series. Without further preamble, I’ll just say it: This series is the best ghost story I’ve ever seen put to the small screen. I’d have to think further about the silver screen (The Sixth Sense, The Devil’s Backbone, and I have a soft spot for The Paranormal Activity films, all come to mind as some of my favorite ghost stories).
The best works of art, whether television or film, are ostensibly about one thing, but really a vehicle for another. That’s the case here. The Haunting of Hill House is ostensibly about one thing (ghosts haunting a house and those who live within (and out) of it), but it’s really a vehicle for another (grief and family dynamics).
To that end, again without further preamble, I’ll say this, too: The seventh episode of the series, “Eulogy,” is one of the greatest episodes of a television show I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor, where the most biting and unrelenting dialogue between family occurs. When dialogue can be taken to that level (and correspondingly performed well), there’s nothing quite like it in film or TV for me. A great action sequence or a horror moment can blow my socks off, but what I will most remember about a film or TV show is a scene of exquisite dialogue.
Back to the preamble, the series was created and directed by Mike Flanagan, who did one of the better modern horror films, 2016’s Hush, as well as some Stephen King vehicles, 2017’s Gerald’s Game and 2019’s Doctor Sleep, and is based loosely on the novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson from 1959. The series focuses on a two-track plot between five adult siblings in the present day dealing with the paranormal experiences at Hill House from when they were kids, and so we then we flashback moments to that time of them as kids. The children actors are well-cast and do a commendable job, but I have to say, it’s the adults here who steal the show.
But what the siblings are really dealing with is the “suicide” of their mother, Olivia Crain (played by Carla Gugino), and their father Hugh Crain (played in different timelines by Timothy Hutton and Henry Thomas, respectively), who to the siblings, never gave them an explanation for what happened to their mother, and perhaps more odious, may have even had something to do with her death.
The adult siblings as such, Steven (played by Michiel Huisman), Shirley (played by Elizabeth Reaser), Luke (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Theo (played by Kate Siegel, who is also the wife of Flanagan), and Nell (played by Victoria Pedretti), represent the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Steve is “denial” because he doesn’t believe in ghosts; Shirley is “anger” because of her way of processing is to lash out at others; Theo is “bargaining” because she’s in a limbo state between wanting to feel and not wanting to feel; Luke is “depression” and a symptom of such is his ongoing addiction with heroin; and Nell is “acceptance,” as she comes to accept what has happened to all of them.
While I’ve already mentioned great interplay dialogue in the seventh episode, there are also memorable, beautiful and intense moments of dialogue. In fact, in the very next episode, episode eight, “Witness Marks,” we get two great monologue scenes. First, from Hugh, talking about loving his wife, and then from Theo talking about her pain, and in my view, it’s a great stand in for what depression is like (for context, Theo has the ability to touch people and see things and feel things, so for example, she uses that ability to catch a child predator):
Even watching it again, despite the low quality, I get goosebumps again. Siegel’s performance and the dialogue itself, just wow.
But! You can’t forget, this is also a horror series about ghosts, and on that level, it also works. The atmosphere is unnerving, and there are even moments where I jumped. On more than one occasion, I also had the classic “jaw-dropping” reaction to what I was watching. The horror pays off as well when we learn the identity of The Bent-Neck Lady and the Red Room, among other payoffs.
A welcome subversion to the haunted house aspect of the series is that the “haunting” can even happen beyond the walls of the house itself. Again, if you interpret it as “grief,” grief will follow you beyond the walls of where the tragedy occurred. But even within a ghostly interpretation, the ghosts are sort of latched on to the family here.
Horror — true, unsettling, burrowing into your bone marrow horror — is built on the back of human characters. You can throw all of the supernatural stuff at the creepy walls you want, but at the end of the day, it’s how all of that is affecting the human characters we care about and relate to that makes it all the more horrific and terrifying.
Flanagan achieved that here.
What a masterful, brilliant television show. Even for non-horror fans or horror fans who don’t typically like ghost stories, there is much to appreciate about this series. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s rightly earned a place as among the best of Netflix’s original television series, if not arguably the best (Stranger Things, Mindhunter, American Vandal, and Unbelievable all might have something to say here).
Come for the ghosts, stay for the meditations on grieving, addiction, depression, and love.
If you have already seen the series, what did you think about it? And no, I haven’t seen the follow-up in the anthology, The Haunting of Bly Manor yet, but hopefully I won’t wait two years to binge that one.