In the Watch This Next column, Man of Many takes a look back at a great TV show or film that may have slipped under your radar. Given the near-limitless entertainment options in the Netflix era, it’s easy to overlook amazing content in favour of the latest hit. For every Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Stranger Things, there’s another thing equally worthy of attention and we make the case for why you should watch it and where you can find it.
The Haunting Of Hill House is one of the first of its kind in that TV Horror is not very common and not too long ago, it didn’t really exist. It’s even more rare, due to its being very, very good. And that’s probably because it’s based on an exceedingly well-written novel. Have a gander at the flawless opening paragraph.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The Netflix adaptation of the novel of the same name follows the lives of the Crane family; parents Hugh and Olivia Crane and their children Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke, Eleanor (Nell). The show, unlike the book, flits between 1992 and the present day. I have to note that the show’s use of time as a storytelling tool is bloody fantastic. Blink and you’re bound to miss a parallel, be it through dialogue, actors expression or even a simple (but actually very clever) transition of a frame, taking us expertly from the house then, to the family now.
The death of Olivia Crane
In 1992 the family are all together at Hill House. Hugh & Olivia (with a bit of help from the kidlets) are there to renovate and sell so they can buy the ‘forever home’. As you can imagine, some severely spooky shit gets in the way of this plan. Before Hill House, it seems that the family were happy and Hugh & Olivia are very much in love. As the house slowly begins to, for a lack of a better verb, ‘Hill House’ everybody, Olivia is driven mad and “commits suicide” (among many other things).
Throughout the show, the circumstances of her death are shrouded in mystery. We’re given various glimpses into the night of her death – known as ‘that night’ on the show – from the perspective of the other Cranes. Some remember a theatre of terrifying events, complete with bonafide ghosts. Others, like Steve, remember something being off with the father Hugh and whilst being whisked away in the car for reasons unknown, seeing his mother standing in the window of the highest room of Hill House—Hugh at the time insists that is not her.
The Haunting of Hill house puts us in a tough position from the outset. We are, as humans, inclined to disbelieve Hugh and go with the far saner conclusion: that Hugh murdered Olivia or that Olvia was wildly unhappy and decided to take her own life.
And that’s the guts of the show; individual perspective and the unreliable nature of memory. What did happen on ‘that night’? Something I can promise you is that it is very fun trying to guess.
The Crane children
Each of the Crane children gets their own episode, so when we do eventually see them all together we the viewer have a unique perspective that the characters do not. It’s layered storytelling at it’s best and within the horror genre of all places.
Steven Crane (Michiel Huisman as an adult/Paxton Singleton as a child) is the eldest and despite not believing in ghosts, he’s made a lucrative career from rehashing peoples ghost stories (including his own). At first, he struggles but his very meta-novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is a mega success. His siblings hate him for profiting from their shared misery, but some are still willing to cash the cheques.
Shirley Crane (Elizabeth Reaser/Lulu Wilson), is a funeral director with a kind heart (except when it comes to Steve). In keeping with the ‘older kids don’t believe in ghosts’ theory, she too believes that what happened in the lead up to, and ‘that night’, were macabre but not the handiwork of the otherworldly.
Theodora Crane (Kate Siegel/Mckenna Grace) the middle child and black sheep of the family, is in present times a child psychologist. We later find out that she is an empath; a mere touch of the skin and she too can feel her subjects feelings. This is the only Crane child with any kind of ‘power’. She uses it to identify and report a foster parent who is abusing one of her patients/clients and to help fight ghosts too.
Nell Crane (Victoria Pedretti/Violet McGraw), is a twin to Luke. She and her twin remember vividly the ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, that stalked the halls of Hill House. Like her bro, Nell is a basket case. She is affected by depression and plagued by sleep paralysis. It all stems from her first ghostly experience as a child. To this day, ‘lady with the bent neck’ (just typing her name gives me the willies), continues to haunt Nell, predominantly appearing when Nell is paralysed.
Those who aren’t familiar, many people who have experienced sleep paralysis claim to have seen monsters or ghosts at the foot of their bed, coupled with the feeling of dread. This is just another great example of the show sewing seeds of doubt wherever possible—is (and was) the lady with the bent neck real, or is she a potent symptom of Nell’s condition?
Lastly, we have Luke Crane (Oliver Jackson-Cohen/Julian Hilliard) the youngest. He is a trainwreck locked in a neverending battle of logic over ‘seeing is believing’. His whole life he’s been told that ghosts don’t exist and as a result, he thinks he’s crazy. As a child, Luke has vivid memories of a terrifying floating man with a cane. This spectre is always hovering and moving towards Luke (maybe because he wants his bowler hat back).
We later see that he’s Luke’s own personal demon, a personification of his addiction—always there, behind him. The show puts forward the question: is the ghost real or a representation of Luke’s affliction?
With its collection of interesting characters – primarily the Crane children – The Haunting of Hill house is so much more than a horror series, it’s characters are realistic and complex, thus elevating the horror genre towards new heights.
Elevating the horror genre
Thanks to films like The Conjuring and Sinister, the horror genre is no longer the vapid (but fun) wasteland of hacks, slashes and shrieks that it once was. These films taught us that we can be put on the edge of our seat and be terrified, whilst also being emotionally stimulated – in fact, the combination of fear and empathy is actually quite potent.
When we are scared, we are vulnerable and thus more receptive to our emotions. In essence, our emotional guard is down. Thus, a new and powerful formula is emerging: sprinkle a bit of empathy into the classic horror mix, whilst also showing an understanding of real-world, relateable day-to-day issues (like family dissonance and mental health) and there ya go, you’ve elevated the genre.
For the record, The Haunting Of Hill House follows in the footsteps of James Wan & Co. but does not mimic them. Netflix has done a great job of carving out their own space in the realm of terror.
Ghosts, both literal and within the mind
The best thing about the Haunting of Hill House is the shows use of doubt, perspective and time (and the odd jump scare). Throughout the season it’s pretty much just Hugh who believes in Ghosts, each of the children have to go through their own experiences to eventually arrive at the conclusion that Hill House is evil as shit and must be promptly burned to the ground.
The best thing about the ghosts within Hill House is that they have a purpose. There are twists that will blow your mind, but ultimately it’s the slow-burn storytelling and ghost-to-person pairing that really make this show exceptional.
The Haunting of Hill house will rollick your senses and your enjoyment of it will creep up on you faster than Freddy Krueger on cocaine. A brilliant cast, direction and sound editing, coupled with a script that doesn’t stray too far from its source material make for one of this years best Netflix series.