By Casey Campbell
“This house, she’s holdin’ secrets,” croons folk singer Gregory Alan Isakov during the final frames of The Haunting of Hill House. The lyrics, from his song “If I Go, I’m Goin’,” strike a melancholy chord, befitting such a bittersweet conclusion. The titular house resoundingly holds its share of secrets, and throughout the ten episode season, it proves itself the site of many haunts. More importantly, Hill House captivates with its delicate and human portrayal of a family in the throws of trauma and messy aftermath.
While the series shares its name with Shirley Jackson’s 1959 paranormal novel, creator and director Mike Flanagan uses the source as inspiration to tell an entirely new story. We meet the Crains in the 1990’s, a family moving into the Hill House mansion with the intention of flipping it to finally build their “forever home.” Olivia, played with matronly warmth by Carla Gugino, works with her husband Hugh, a sweet and gentle Henry Thomas, to watch over their five young children and complete the renovation on their new historical house. Their plans get sidetracked when the kids start waking up to ghostly visitors, the house becomes malicious, and the matriarch mysteriously dies.
Then, the story turns its focus on the family today. As adults, the Crain siblings deal with the trauma suffered at the house. Like the house itself, the structure of the show takes on a fragmented, often disjointed narrative style. The first half of the season is told through bottle episodes focusing on each individual sibling. Providing a direct correlation between the child and adult makes the disjointed narrative come together into a wonderfully cohesive and compelling study on the lasting effects of trauma.
Even more compelling is how empathetic the writing is toward the characters. By offering characters worthy of caring about, the horror elements flourish. It’s much more terrifying to see someone deal with grey faced ghouls if you have a predilection toward the characters. It also helps that the children dealing with the dread of malign ghosts and a mother slowly losing her mind play their parts mostly great.
While the kids fair well, the adults uniformly perform their parts with excellence. Michiel Huisman plays the eldest sibling, Steven, as an accomplished novelist who views his childhood trauma with skepticism. He blames the experience on the deteriorating mental health of his mother. Elizabeth Reaser plays the second oldest sibling, Shirley, a funeral home owner with perfectionist tendencies. Her early and traumatic brush with death informs her choice of profession, as well as the ability to “fix” people once they’ve passed. The middle child, Theodora, portrayed by Kate Siegel, plays as an emotionally stunted child therapist who uses her special “gift” of touch to read people. The youngest kids, twins Luke and Nell, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Victoria Pedretti, were just six-years-old when living at Hill House, and their stories show the series at its most tragic. Luke, once a wide-eyed young artist, grows into a heroin junky with a history of using and lying to his loved ones. Nell faces her own personal tragedy later in life and makes a decision that puts the modern timeline in motion. With Nell’s bottle episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” the series morphs from a well-shot and well-acted show, into a clever and deceptively emotional work of tempered brilliance. I had never before cried over, nor felt an emotional connection with the characters in a piece of horror.
By taking the time to flesh out their characters, Hill House reaches levels that serialized horror could only dream to achieve; think the abysmal first season of American Horror Story and what it could’ve been. Here, the characters don’t fit into any predetermined archetypes, which helps this story feel fresh and dynamic. The series thrives on its own, without the need to lean into genre tropes. Fresh ideas, coupled with the truly impressive photography and mostly subtle sound design, elevate Hill House even further.
Mike Flanagan directed the whole season, and wrote most of it too. In recent years, he’s been a man known for his horror movies, which have dealt with similar themes — especially Oculus — but his work on Hill House allows for more extensive exploration of trauma. Over the course of ten hours, timelines blend, and characters become fully realized, all with the possibility of hope. As a carefully brilliant work of dramatic horror, The Haunting of Hill House allows the viewer to actively root for the wonderfully rendered, multi-dimensional characters throughout. What could have been an old and tired haunted house story surprisingly blossoms into a genuinely unnerving story which touches on mental illness and the toll it can take. The ghosts here are very real, but that doesn’t mean the more literary explanations or analyses of the ghosts fall flat. As a multi-tiered and truly dynamic series, Hill House succeeds almost perfectly, and it sticks with you for longer than you might expect.