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Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is a slow-burn family nightmare

Mike Flanagan’s new series is a family drama first. That makes it all the more terrifying when the actual ghosts arrive.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Netflix’s new adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is far from a familiar version of a well-known tale.

Jackson’s 20th-century horror classic is a case study in mind games; as represented in the 1963 Robert Wise film adaptation The Haunting, it’s more a tale of psychological terror than the supernatural — if indeed there’s anything ghostly at all lurking within the dark, decrepit mansion known as Hill House.

The new version, directed and written by Mike Flanagan (Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil), is really more like fanfiction about the haunted house at its center laid atop the bones of the source material. But luckily for all of us, what it loses in faithfulness to plot it makes up for in faithfulness to Jackson’s fixation with the psychological nature of terror, and close studies of her characters.

On the surface, Flanagan might seem like an unusual choice to pair with Jackson’s deft exploration of mental collapse. Though he made his name on slow-burning indie fare like Oculus, his recent bigger-budget films, like Ouija: Origin of Evil, and his collaborations with Netflix, like last year’s Gerald’s Game, haven’t exactly been subtle. But with Hill House, Flanagan embraces serial storytelling in order to slow down and deeply explore the long-term effects of trauma.

Over the series’ 10 episodes, Flanagan adopts a lingering pace that’s almost excruciatingly measured, in order to take a long, close look at the Crain family, the last residents of Hill House. Weaving the past and the present into an almost continual overlap, Flanagan lets us get to know each of the seven Crain family members, particularly the children, Steve, Shirley, Theodora, and twins Luke and Nelly.

In the present-day timeline, the younger generation, now grown, has never fully dealt with, or really even made sense of, the terrifying night they left the mansion — the night that resulted in the death of their mother (Carla Gugino) and their estrangement from their close-lipped father (Timothy Hutton).

As the Crains grapple with decades of tightly held secrets, a long-bubbling cauldron of repression and family tension finally comes to a boil, forcing a confrontation.

Mike Flanagan’s Hill House is a slow-burn character study interspersed with genuine scares

What’s a haunted house without a bright red locked door at its center?

On the surface, Flanagan’s Hill House feels more like a riff on Stephen King’s It — in which a group of adults has to reunite to battle the evil they faced when they were children — than on the original Jackson novel. The main difference is that the children of It chose to return to the location of their horror and face their demons; in Flanagan’s version, they don’t have a choice, both because they’re all siblings, and because their demons have followed them all into adulthood, left un-dealt with for years.

Another crucial difference is that there’s so much the now-adult Crain kids don’t understand about the house and what happened to them in it, and it’s left them all barely on speaking terms. When a tragedy brings them together, it isn’t the rosy reunion of a family empowered by its strength in numbers. Rather, it’s a gathering of a group of loners who haven’t had an honest conversation with each other in decades, struggling to deal with grief, addiction, depression, lies, betrayal, and the unspoken threat that hangs over all of them: that they might each be on the verge of succumbing to the mental illness that may have led to their mother’s death in Hill House.

Flanagan loves stories of difficult families (see: Oculus, Gerald’s Game) and the experience of horror when framed from the perspective of children (Ouija: Origin of Evil). The narrative of Hill House gives him a chance to indulge in both to his heart’s content, and indulge he does. What’s remarkable is the measured care with which he unfolds every close-held family secret and every glimpse at the many dark things lurking in the shadows.

In the past, Flanagan’s storytelling has had a tendency to be unsubtle and too heavily reliant on sentiment, but Hill House is full of an almost tortured restraint and thus showcases what he does best; the deliberate pacing reminds me most of his debut film Absentia. But where Absentia felt at times like a thought experiment, here a much more assured Flanagan uses his best techniques to unearth a gripping character-driven narrative while blurring the line between the psychological and the supernatural.

Flanagan’s camera loves making slow, lingering sweeps of characters in empty rooms, as if to imply the extent to which each member of the Crain family is isolated in his or her own head. Through carefully considered staging and editing transitions that ping off visual or verbal cues, he creates a seamless overlap between the past and the present that makes it clear how entrenched the family still is in the brief time they spent at Hill House.

Flanagan’s writing and direction yield a seamless story of psychological terror and family dysfunction

As adults, all the Crain children are still being haunted by entities they encountered at the house — particularly the two twins, Luke and Nelly (Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Victoria Pedretti), who as the youngest children were most susceptible to paranormal experiences when they lived there.

The two oldest children, acclaimed writer Steve (Michiel Huisman) and frigid funeral director Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), experienced the least amount of activity at the house and are arguably therefore in the most denial about what kinds of events actually occurred there — even though they’ve built their careers in an attempt to process what they experienced.

Though the middle child, Theodora (Kate Siegel), is the most aloof sibling of all, she inevitably functions as a kind of empathic bridge between her mentally broken younger siblings and her two skeptical older siblings; yet she has a secret of her own, in that her empathic ability allows her to “sense” secrets tucked away inside people and objects. It’s implied that she, like her mother before her and like her younger siblings, has a psychic ability that still puts her in touch with the demons of Hill House.

But when the demons finally come, they come for the whole family — including their father, played in his younger years by Henry Thomas and in his current bedraggled state by a subdued Timothy Hutton.

A good portion of the series’ timeline is given to retelling the events that have led up to the family’s reunion from the different vantage point of each character. The original Jackson novel, and The Haunting film based on it, both end with one character’s death from what may have been suicide, or may have been a sort of spectral murder by the house itself. Flanagan chooses to open the series with this death, and then spend the rest of the narrative exploring the buildup to it and the resulting fallout among the rest of the family.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any significant scary moments; this is a horror story, and when the terror hits, it hits in full supply. Flanagan tells his story like a family drama interspersed by ghosts, eschewing most standard horror-movie cues, with the result that when the ghosts drop in, it’s often eerie, unnerving, and in at least one moment legitimately scream-your-head-off scary.

But Flanagan’s main concern, like Jackson before him, is the way his characters grapple with the evidence that they’re being haunted. The question of how much of the terror the family is experiencing is in their own heads, and how much of it is about untreated mental illness, is a source of building conflict among the family. “Luke’s an addict, Shirley’s a control freak, and Theo is basically a clenched fist with hair,” Steve frustratedly tells his father at one point. “It’s not the house, it’s our goddamn brains.”

But Flanagan is never too fully on the fence about whether all the scariness the family is experiencing is just in their minds, and so the story becomes as much about how much the characters are willing to let one another into their own experiences, and how much they’re willing to trust in one another’s accounts of the paranormal to begin with.

What’s remarkable is that Flanagan, thanks largely to stellar performances from the ensemble, manages to make all this sibling drama feel suspenseful rather than wearying. Siegel and Reaser as the two clashing older sisters, each brittle and defensive in their own ways, are particular standouts, while Jackson-Cohen makes Luke’s struggle with addiction feel believable.

It’s a monologue-heavy series, but the writing is rich and haltingly expressive. Characters often talk around each other rather than to each other, because talking is a way for them to stave off their confrontations with the house and with their past. The family’s issues with mental illness are treated sensitively and believably, and Flanagan makes sure to counter every moment of supernatural terror with a reminder that psychological terror is real, that depression, addiction, and ideation are every bit as terrifying as anything lurking in Hill House.

By the series’ conclusion, you’re rooting for a family that’s had to fight every step of the way just to learn to be a family again, not just because of apparitions and ghosts, but because of their own broken psychologies. And while the result may be the kind of sentiment I’ve eye-rolled at Flanagan for deploying in the past, here it not only feels earned, but moving, redemptive, and the rarest trait of all when you’re dealing with a haunted house: real.

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