I am not a huge horror fan, but I like me a good ghost story. My tastes run towards the atmospheric and the clever, not towards the gory, and since gory tends to be a substitute for scary, and atmosphere and clever are hard to pull off, there aren’t a lot of horror stories that really impress me all that much. So it’s kind of a mixed bag for me; I’m forever searching for another The Ring (or Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly for games)and forever disillusioned. At this point I mostly go based on the odd recommendations here or there, and recently, a coworker recommended the Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House. Since it’s that time of year, I figured, hey. Why not.
The Haunting of Hill House follows two narrative threads: a “now” thread, following the traumatized Crain family in adult aftermath of their mother’s suicide twenty-five years ago, and a “then” thread about the events surrounding that tragedy. In the past, the Crains are a relatively happy and healthy family– Mom, Dad, three girls and two boys. In the “then” line, The Crain family moves into Hill House, an old and abandoned mansion in order to flip it for resale and fund the construction of their forever home. Unfortunately , Hill House is haunted, though the initial manifestations come in the form of night terrors and encounters that the parents won’t believe. And for good reason– I mean, kids make stuff up, right? Imaginations run wild, particularly in spooky mansions with a mysterious red-doored room that cannot be unlocked no matter what. But as times goes on, and events begin to pile up, it becomes evident that something is wrong with the place, culminating in the death of Mom Crain and the rest of the family’s flight from the house.
In the now, the family is largely dysfunctional and their relationships fragmentary. Steven, the oldest, is an author whose star rose after he wrote a book about their experiences, infuriating his sister, Shirley. Shirley is now married with kids of her own, and running a funeral home; Theodora, a psychiatrist, lives in Shirley’s guest house. The youngest are the twins, Nell and Luke, and while Nell had been living a relatively happy life, her brother is struggling to overcome a drug addiction. Dad has been an off again on again presence since that night, leaving the family to be raised by their aunt. But when Nell returns to Hill House, for reasons that no one understands, and is found dead the next morning, apparently from suicide, the family is forced to come together and deal with their issues. What really happened that night? No one quite believes the story that their mother committed suicide, and it’s hinted that Dad’s absence later on in their lives was to protect them from a media scandal. And certainly no one is going to believe that a haunted house did it.
Like I said, I like a clever story, and I like atmosphere. The Haunting of Hill House knocks it out of the park with both of these. Atmosphere is particularly strong during the first half of the series, before we begin getting into the explanations. In the back half, the explanations and increased visibility of some of the malevolent presences leaches away some of the tension. And that’s actually okay; Hill House might get less scary, but, by and large, its answers are legitimately clever. Nell’s personal ghost, the “Bent Neck Lady” that haunted her throughout her childhood, is explained with a reveal that I honestly did not see coming. In part, that comes from some clever misdirection, but I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a horror story play with some of the stuff that Hill House does.
Now, as I’m always saying, nothing is perfect. Hill House isn’t flawless. If you’re bored by family drama, it might be hard to stick with Hill House. There are certainly a lot sibling squabbles played out on our screen. But the show’s biggest flaw comes from its ending. Hill House gives us the happiest ending it can manage, and I’m not sure it needed to. I know, I know. The Superversive thing is wonder and hope and heroism, but I think we could have gotten that without stretching for feel good territory. Because it was a stretch, hinging on a perspective shift that I don’t particularly feel the rest of the series supports– even as recently as ten minutes prior to the the sudden shift towards a happy ending. The ending isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just that I was left with the uncomfortable sensation that the Crains had been duped– which is okay– but that the writer hadn’t realized they’d been duped. And even with the ending we had, there was a chance for an Inception style spinning top moment that could’ve hauled us back into the territory the show had so wonderfully mastered, but we don’t get it.
That quibble aside, The Haunting of Hill House was a pretty great ride. It’s not for the kiddies or the sensitive– though what horror story is?– but it nicely scratched my itch for something scary this month. And it was well done enough that I’m looking forward to the all-new story next season.