Horror is a film genre that I notoriously avoid, yet I thought it was a great idea to watch the new Netflix hit series The Haunting of Hill House. I was prepared to have sleepless nights and an irrational fear for basements, but I wasn’t prepared for this.
Even though I appreciate The Exorcist and everything it has done for cinema (a whole other article completely), I never had the desire to go and watch it. Neither do I want to see people being sawn in half in whichever Saw installment, horror clowns luring children into sewers in It or vague shadows creeping around in the dark on surveillance camera footage in Paranormal Activity. I know it will give me sleepless nights, and I’ll be lying in my bed wide awake, listening to every single sound and breathlessly waiting for the monsters to creep up on me. Thus, out of self-preservation, I stay far far away from horror movies.
I did, for some reason, thought it was an excellent idea to go and watch Netflix’ new horror hit series The Haunting of Hill House. For days I had seen Michiel Huisman’s face on advertisements in the metro, my Facebook feed was filled with news articles about people barfing and/or fainting while watching the show, and my favourite film platforms graced the series with four or five stars. Maybe I should hop on that bandwagon and ride it home, I thought to myself, but it wasn’t until my Mom recommended the show that I decided to take a leap of faith and dive into The Haunting of Hill House. Oh boy, am I glad that I did.
Based upon the classic novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House follows the story of the Crain family. When the five children were young, the family moved into the beautiful gothic mansion of Hill House. At first it’s all games, exploring and fun, but soon strange things start to happen. The eldest daughter Shirley hears dogs barking at night, while the groundskeeper insists there aren’t any dogs on the premises – and there never have been – and youngest son Luke makes eerie drawings of ghosts, monsters and mysterious little girls of which he swears he has seen in and around the house. Mother Olivia gets strange headaches and dreams, daughter Theodora hears banging on the walls and little Eleanor wakes up to a shadow standing at the edge of her bed, a woman with a crooked neck.
Years later, the members of the Crain family are still haunted by the horrors that took place in Hill House. When another death in the family brings the surviving members together, they have to face years of guilt, pain and loss, and confront the ghosts that are still haunting them, years after leaving the dark halls of Hill House. Over the course of 10 episodes, The Haunting of Hill House explores the ways in which the characters have been affected by the house, with each episode focusing on a different family member, diving deep into their past and the personal problems deriving from that. The past and the present become more and more intertwined, as both the members of the Crain family and the audience puzzle the shards of memory, reality and fantasy together. In the end, both remain with the same burning question: what was real, and what was a twisted, dark and dangerous concoction of the mind?
I’m not going to lie, the first few episodes (until episode 6, The Bent-Neck Lady to be very precise) I did spent constantly creeped out. All of the classic horror elements are there, from monsters hiding in the basement, whispers in the hallways at night, doors and windows creaking, mysterious banging on the walls, silhouettes creeping up on you, and girls with long black hair, ragged breathing and a crooked neck haunting your dreams. They are definitely present throughout the series and yes, they are scary.
But here’s the thing about horror: as soon as it’s explained and understood, it loses everything that ever made it scary in the first place. In the case of The Haunting of Hill House, this is a shift that does take place, but not in one final moment where everything is revealed and explained. Instead, it’s a gradual shift that takes place over all 10 episodes, and gradually dismantles the horror and its classic elements that both the main characters and the audience associate with the genre. Slowly but steadily, the horror of it all gets stripped away, and what is left is a series about a troubled family that is visually stunning, wonderfully acted and made with immense attention to detail. Fun fact: in nearly every scene there’s a hidden ghost lurking somewhere in the frame, which only shows the thought and care that went into creating this show.
That’s why I would say The Haunting of Hill House isn’t horror at all, not really. Instead, the series fits into a very current trend within the horror genre and the rise of a new subgenre, which I would then describe as post-horror. For example, Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Ari Aster’s Hereditary use horror or supernatural elements to tell a story that is actually very human. So don’t get scared away by the shouty headlines about people fainting and/or barfing, or because horror isn’t your thing. It was never mine either, but here I am, preaching about The Haunting of Hill House, truly one of the best series I’ve seen in 2018.