Sometimes dreams can spill.
It may have been 26 years since they fled Hill House in the middle of the night, but the Crain family are still haunted by their time there. Steven has made a career of writing about ghosts he doesn’t believe in. Shirley, inspired by her own experience of death, is now an undertaker. Theodora is a psychologist, living in her sister’s guest house and struggling to make connections with other people. Luke is a drug addict the family have all but given up on. Nell is still plagued by ghosts and labelled crazy by her skeptical siblings. And their estranged father, who whisked his children away from Hill House the night his wife died, is full of secrets he refuses to share.
The story goes back and forth in time, from the Crain family’s experience of Hill House to their lives in the present day, and every little thing ties together. Nothing is without meaning. The first five episodes each follow a Crain sibling and the effect the house has had on them, and as the series progresses the story of what happened in the house is gradually filled in. There are so many mysteries to solve: the bent-neck lady Nell first encounters when she’s 6 years old; the Red Room with no key to the door; the story of how Olivia Crain died. Mysteries are woven into the fabric of the series, and they all find the light eventually.
This Netflix original is based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, and while the plot is entirely different, I loved how much of the book still featured in the show. The Haunting of Hill House still exists as a book in the show’s world, but it’s a semi-autobiographical novel written by Steven, and many of the lines read from his book are quotes from Jackson’s own story. Three of the main characters in the book, Eleanor Vance, Theodora (“Just Theodora”) and Luke Sanderson clearly inspired the names of three of the siblings, as did Shirley Jackson herself. Doctor Montague, the scientist in the book, appears briefly as Nell’s psychiatrist. Little things in the book, from the famous “whose hand was I holding?” scene to the cup of stars, all make appearances in quietly clever ways. This was far from a direct adaptation of the novel, but it maintained the feeling of unease at the centre of the book while putting its own spin on the story.
No series about a haunted house is complete without the ghosts, and Hill House used its ghosts perfectly. There was nothing heavy-handed about the horror, but it wasn’t too subtle either. There was just the right balance between building the tension and revealing the ghosts to make it terrifying. For most of the series, the fear is amplified even further by the uncertainty over whether the ghosts are really there. There are characters who vehemently believe they are and characters who vehemently believe they’re not, and the conflicting perceptions set you even more on edge.
I can’t end this review without mentioning how amazing the acting was in this series. The characters were fantastic and everybody had their own emotional arc to see out, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective had the cast not been as convincing as they were. I believed every second, which just made the show even better.
Simply put, The Haunting of Hill House is incredible. It’s chillingly atmospheric, consistently tense and genuinely frightening. If you’re a fan of the book, you should watch this show. If you’ve never read the book, you should still watch this show. You might need to sleep with the lights on afterwards, but it’s worth it.