Netflix’s new horror series is the perfect Halloween treat.
This is an advanced, spoiler-free review of the first season of The Haunting of Hill House. You can stream all 10 episodes on Netflix on Friday, October 12.
The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal 1959 gothic-horror novel of the same name, avoids the blood, shock, and guts from most titles that we see this time of year, and instead, favors something that is perhaps more existential, but nonetheless terrifying – specifically, the difficult journey of a family trying to come to grips with the ghosts of their past. Through 10 emotionally-charged episodes, the series centers on the Crain family, and the lifelong scars that come from growing up in America’s most famous haunted house.
It all starts with the kids (we begin with five), who, after growing apart, are tragically brought back together after one of them dies. In terms of its narrative structure, The Haunting of Hill House resembles Lost, bouncing through time to offer different points of view from each of the children at various stages in their lives. Each timeline is impactful throughout the season, due to the strong performances from both the young and adult cast members.
Under the careful guidance of series creator and director Mike Flanagan (Oculus), The Haunting of Hill House skillfully balances real world scares with the supernatural ones. When the kids are young and still at the titular house, their imaginations run wild with visions of ghosts, zombies, and even a creepy slender man with a top hat – and while some of these terrifying creatures follow them into adulthood, many of the demons they face are of their own making, like the guilt that comes from extra-marital affairs and drug addiction.
There’s a complex theme throughout the story concerning the house’s complicity in all of the kids’ failings as adults. This is where the real-world scares begin to manifest themselves into the plot. A prime example of this is Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). As an adult, Luke is a drug addict who struggles to get clean. As we learn more about his childhood, we’re given glimpses of a neglected kid whose parents never believed in his nightmares. In a typical horror scenario, the things that go bump in the night are always easier to blame, but when it’s your own mother and father who are at fault, it’s all the more frightening.
If you’re thinking that Hill House sounds like a demented version of NBC’s This is Us, there are certainly similarities in both shows’ examination of how a past trauma can inform a person’s future – but fear not – Flanagan doesn’t shy away from the scares, especially in the flashbacks with the kids. The slow camera pans through the dark-ominous hallways of the old mansion create a mood that is perfect for the Halloween season. The creature designs are horrific too, like a crooked-neck lady with stringy black hair and a muffled voice.
While the children are the narrative spine of Hill House, a family tale wouldn’t be complete without the parents. Carla Gugino (Watchmen) plays Olivia Crain, a formidable matriarch in the eyes of her kids, and husband, Hugh, portrayed as an older man by veteran actor Timothy Hutton (Leverage). Olivia struggles to find a sense of purpose in a big old house with nothing to occupy her mind. Gugino delivers some of her best work here, effectively embodying the characteristics of someone who may be slowly losing her mind.
Like her children, Olivia is deeply affected by the house, but is there really something hiding in the shadows, or are her symptoms a result of a troubled marriage and the pressures of raising five kids? The ambiguity is a through-line that Flanagan uses in Season 1 as an effective way to create doubt in the mind of the viewer. If the horrors that dwell inside Hill House are real or simply figments of its inhabitants’ imaginations, Flanagan is in no hurry to confirm it, and the show is all the better for it.