Your heart pounds inside your chest. There is something dreadfully wrong with your wife, and your children are in danger. Who would have thought a simple house flip could descend into something so terrifying? You hurriedly get your children to the car, fearing for their lives while ignoring their own panicked cries of confusion. All the while you begin to understand their strange stories about the house – things begin to, even momentarily, make sense. As you start the car to leave the horrors of Hill House in the rear view, you wonder: will your family ever truly escape this place?
Inspired by Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House follows the Crain family’s tragic experiences in a haunted house and the impact those events have on their lives 26 years later. Forgoing the blood, guts, and gore of standard horror fare for something more mysterious and psychological, The Haunting of Hill House is an unforgettable and heartbreaking story that steers the horror genre in a more thought-provoking direction.
One of the show’s strongest elements is its unique approach to horror, relying mostly on unsettling and unnatural imagery. The most memorable and recurring image is young Nellie Crain’s visions of a “Bent Neck Lady,” an ominous screaming figure who floats in midair. In Hill House, fear doesn’t come from the knowledge of what will happen, and what is- rather, fear stems from the unknown, from the unexplained intentions of terrifying apparitions and events. The result is a queasy feeling of mounting dread for the viewer, and the fact that most of the show’s horrific events occur during the characters’ childhoods doubles this effect.
Equally important to Hill House’s take on horror is its exploration of childhood trauma and coping mechanisms. Right off the bat, it is very clear that none of the Crains made it out of Hill House completely whole, almost turning the show into a tragedy. Youngest daughter Nellie seeks treatment from a psychiatrist while her twin brother Luke struggles with addiction and substance abuse. Middle child Theodora emotionally isolates herself from others and prowls nightclubs. The eldest daughter Shirley runs a funeral home and strives for perfection. Oldest son Steven makes a fortune writing horror stories, despite his disbelief in the supernatural and mocking of his family’s experiences. And father Hugh sees long deceased wife Olivia wherever he goes, asking for her guidance in times of need. This deep dive into character psyches explores how supernatural events could create inner demons, resulting in some of the best character development on television in a long time.
The Haunting of Hill House doesn’t waste an ounce of that character development either. When tragedy strikes the family for the second time early in the show, the Crains are forced to come together after years of separation, resulting in some really powerful dramatic moments. Most of the family at this point feels exploited by Steven, and all of the siblings strongly resent their father. Personality clashes come flying left and right as the family is forced to reconcile with the horrible events that happened at Hill House all those years ago.
Details of what exactly happened at Hill House in 1992 are slowly revealed to great effect. The show brilliantly alternates between the past and present timelines, diving even deeper into the characters and giving a fresh take on the numerous tropes sprinkled throughout the show. The past events are explored from the perspectives of each character, giving every episode a distinct vantage point on the horrors that occurred at the titular family home.
One of the biggest mysteries to benefit from the dual timeline revolves around mother Olivia Crain, expertly played by Carla Guigno. We know from the intro to the show and from the reaction of the adult Crain siblings that something clearly went wrong with her, yet the flashbacks show an extremely loving and caring maternal figure. This stark contrast in and of itself keeps the audience on edge throughout the show’s run, creating an intense and emotional pay off once all is finally revealed.
Lingering in the background of the show’s main events are small details that flesh out the world of Hill House to give a sense of dark mythology. Olivia hints that members of her family are “sensitive” when one of the Crain children begins displaying supernatural abilities, while caretakers Horace and Clara Dudley are a treasure trove of information on the Hills, the family who built the foreboding house long ago. These small details all add up and almost subconsciously suck the viewer ever deeper into the twisted halls of Hill House. It’s the kind of storytelling one would expect from a King horror tale, crumbs left behind to make viewers feel as though they are piercing the veil into a deep, rich universe of supernatural tales and mystery.
On a second viewing, it is very clear that the writers of the show knew exactly what they were doing. Pieces of foreshadowing abound in every nook and cranny, yet are just subtle enough that they don’t immediately stand out or spoil any of the frightening yet fascinating events to come. It’s a true balancing act to pull off that level of foreshadowing, and Hill House does it in stunning fashion.
One of the few marks against the show is its deliberately slow pace. Some audience members may feel impatient while waiting for Hill House’s many mysteries and conflicts to resolve, but that is really just a testament to the show’s powerful writing. Patience is a virtue, and incredibly shocking yet satisfying conclusions come to those who wait.
Even with all of its scary twists and turns, The Haunting of Hill House manages to end on a surprisingly optimistic note. In a genre filled with mutilated corpses, bloodthirsty killers, and gratuitous torture, The Haunting of Hill House stands out as a sophisticated and refreshing slice of horror that forces us to look inwards at ourselves. By tackling real life family and relationship issues just as much as its more ghostly elements, The Haunting of Hill House becomes a truly engaging and introspective tale with a spooky twist. With just enough seeds planted to grow another season, The Haunting of Hill House will without a doubt be remembered as one of the greatest horror shows ever to grace the streaming medium.