I came across The Haunting of Hill house like many others. A friend recommended it, everyone was talking about it, social media was going crazy with stories of watchers suffering from lack of sleep, anxiety attacks and even hallucination. As a teenager I loved horror films. Growing up with Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, then other teen horror stories such as I know what you did last summer, The Blair Witch project, The Grudge and of course The Silence of the Lambs. It was a case of the scarier the better. I’ve always been a big fan of Stephen King too. Although one of his films I still can’t watch after a childhood experience with it which left me quite terrified.
As I’ve got older, I’ve stopped seeking the same terrifying thrills such as roller coaster riding, high adrenaline sports and horror films. Something about being an adult takes away that sense of fun when being scared. The reality of life seems much more apparent. But, I pushed all that aside, to experience the new horror craze on netflix. I was told it was very well written, beautifully shot and that Horror master Stephen King himself had called it ‘a work of genius’.
So one evening I settled down to watch the first episode. It took me around a month to finish watching it. Everyone I’d spoke to was right. It is very well written, cleverly moving back and forward between the past and present to tell the story of a family who grew up in a house which was haunted, and the effects that their experiences there have on them in their adult lives. The filming is extremely beautiful, with a feature film like quality, the setting adding something to the atmosphere and the eerie beauty of the story. It is also absolutely terrifying, plugging into every fear that is humanly possible. From haunting by unsightly, silent and hovering figures, to sleep paralysis, locked rooms, one way trips to abandoned basements…. and most of this happening to young children, whose imaginations are rife. This is cleverly interlaced with clips of their modern-day lives, in which each of them seem plagued by troubles and memories of the past. Constantly being drawn back to their experiences and the house that they abandoned in the middle of the night, their Mother having disappeared, later discovering she is dead, before becoming estranged from their father and each other. In the present, a family death forces them to come back together and face the past and their uncertain future.
What we know about horror, is that suspense is crucial. As the narrative moves on, over a series of episodes, we slowly discover the real story behind the characters memories, and it’s perhaps more terrifying than what we can ever imagine. The series is created and directed by Mike Flanagan and based on a book by Shirley Jackson. It has recently been commended by Stephen King, who it has been rumoured, has commissioned Flanagan to make the sequel to The Shining, based on his 2013 novel ‘Doctor Sleep’. It seems we have a new horror director in our midst.
Perhaps what makes Hill House so suspenseful and effective is the fact that it’s a horror series. The format allows the creator to develop the story slowly which is far more effective in the long run. Whether it’s consumed over days, weeks or months, the development of the story and characters is the same and the experience is just as gradual, hitting with maximum impact when it reaches it’s conclusion. The format is perfect for the genre.
The characters in the Haunting of Hill House are just the right level of interesting. Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton play the mother and father of the children, who they have brought to Hill House until they can fix the house up to sell and finally build their own dream house. Their children are Shirley, Steven, twins Nell and Luke, and Theo. From early on in the series, we get to see them in the house, and their experiences of the strange goings on than plague their surroundings. Nell is seen waking in the night and staring into the darkness at an open doorway, or screaming out for her Mother. She talks of the ‘bent neck lady’, an incredibly powerful image and reference to something that will become poignant in tragic later episodes. While her twin brother Luke, who shares her room, has visions of a disturbing floating man, with a cane and bowler hat. He also gets trapped, screaming in a basement when a dumb-waiter jams. On his return, his shirt is ripped and his glasses askew. He later draws pictures in the tree house of strange figures and a girl with short blonde hair that he sees in the grounds, often referring to her ‘old fashioned’ clothing.
We also slowly see the unravelling of their Mother, who is particularly susceptible to the varying presences in the house. Her migraines are planted as a signpost for this early on, as is a link to touch which she learns that her daughter Theo has too.
As adults, we get to know how their upbringing at Hill house, which is to become one of the most famous haunted houses in the world, effects their daily lives. Shirley, (Elizabeth Reaser) owns a funeral home and spends her days embalming dead people, until the choice to embalm her own dead sister becomes too much and forces her to face her past and the realities of her present situation. Steven (Michiel Huisman), a sceptic about what really happened at their family home, has written a book on hill house, to the distress of his family, based on the stories his brothers and sisters told him growing up. Believing it will bring him closure in his past, he finds it only opens more doors and brings up more questions. Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and her twin brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) seem most effected by Hill House, and despite being separated, still feel deeply each other’s pain and suffering. Nell continues to be haunted by her experiences and struggles to cope, leading to shocking consequences. Luke uses his drug addiction as a way to avoid dealing with the past and his problems in the present day. Theo (Kate Siegal) is the most interesting character for me. We see from a young age that she shares her mothers trait for feeling. This trait continues to haunt her into adulthood, where she is rarely seen without gloves, and avoids touching people for fear of what she will uncover. A particularly disturbing scene with her dead sister, leaves the viewer quite cold and disturbed. Only later, is what she has seen revealed to us. Theo, like many of her family, struggles to connect with people and to form sustainable relationships. She works as a child psychologist, with children who talk of having visions of dead people.
Despite being incredibly scary (I even tried watching it in broad daylight) The Haunting of Hill House was incredibly addictive. I wanted to keep watching. I wanted to find out what happened there and how it had effected the family in their present lives. The piecing together of the story was certainly worthy of its praise. The pace never altered and only increased in adrenaline as it approached the finale. The rave reviews and positive audience feedback, despite the siting of insomnia, anxiety attacks e.t.c, makes me wonder if they’ll produce another series. It would certainly pull in the ratings. Hill House is a refreshing take on the Horror genre, that stays with you, long after watching. If it takes you 3 days or 3 weeks to watch, it’s certainly worth it. It’s worthy of its comparison to Stephen King’s work. And it seems it’s gained the approval of the Author himself. The only thing better would perhaps be a collaboration between Flanagan and King himself. That would definitely be worth a watch.