The horror genre on screen has long been punctuated by jump scares gore, crude sound effects, and extravagant special effects makeup. These hallmarks have begun to define the genre, leading to an unfortunate sense of Deja Vu in all who occupy the genre. With The Haunting of Hill House, Mike Flanagan quietly and with perfection created a horror undertaking that showed the best of what the genre could be.
Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House
Flanagan described the series as ‘a complex human story wrapped in the skin of horror.’ He makes good on this promise as he creates a complex story that lives and breathes with its setting. The camera, the set, the music, and the effects all play together in perfectly constructed harmony. It is what gives us a series that triumphs with all the best elements of the horror genre.
The questions Hill House asks through the Crain family are chilling to the core, playing out on-screen with that complexity.
What if the ghost that haunted you all along was your own death? What if a family loved each other so thoroughly that the loss of one member unraveled them all? What if the ghosts made you lose sight of the real world, deceiving you into a nightmare you cannot wake from?
The Haunting of Hill House series is filled to the brim with ghosts, the visible and invisible kind. It is apparent from every frame of the adult children that they are haunted. They do not walk around afraid or jumpy, but with a dark weight in their faces that cannot be shaken, even in moments of happiness.
And yet, in the light of their childhood, these are happy, healthy children. This is a family that is not haunted or hurt but excited and happy. They are a space that is loving and full of the bright places of life. But the house is anything but. It is apparent even visually, the sinister gravity of the house that is all the dark places of death. And as adults, that gravity has not left the children who lived in Hill House.
These are children who have seen horror, who have experienced the darkness and grown with it. We see this manifest differently in every family member.
In Steven Crain, the eldest, we see a desperate attachment to the rational, wading into every scary world out there- Alcatraz, Queen Mary’s, amongst others- and defiantly writing its story. The world can devour the irrational, but he will be the one feeding it to them.
With Shirley Crain, there is a need for honor and order, prettying up and planning every inch of her life. And as her ghosts reveal to her, Shirley never wants to look at the ugly.
Theo Crain is obvious with her wall to the world. Her gloves shield her from having to connect with the emotions of those around her, but she will use her hands to protect the children who need it.
It is in Luke and Nell Crain that we see the ghosts reign strongest. There are no shields or masks here, merely survival mechanisms. Luke has turned to drugs, and Nell’s sleep paralysis has left her fragile in her every day. ‘It’s a twin thing.’, they say as each one feels the extremes that the other does. It leads one to wonder, which twin’s fear poisoned the other’s?
In the parents’, we see a tightly bound love story, a pair that have cracked whatever it is that makes a marriage and a family. It is the house that spirals Olivia, targeting the motherly instinct that defines her. The house dares not touch Hugh, the fixer who could always see right through it. But as the house plays its cards with the ghosts that cackle and whisper inside it, the love story meets a devastating end. And Olivia remains bound in Hill House, waiting for her family while Hugh stands at a distance, watching his children forced to get by without their parents.
The Space of Horror
What Mike Flanagan does effectively is make use of the space that horror provides. A space to experience humanity in heightened ways, without the rules that govern our normal world. It is the unique gift of the genre that has too often gone ignored.
The Haunting of Hill House reminds us of what horror truly is. Rather than jumps-scares and moments of fright, it is a creeping, icy grip of memory and foreboding. It is being afraid of the past and the future, poisoning the present. It is in ghosts and banging on the walls, but also in grief and the relentless passage of time.
The horror genre has the capacity to be so much more than what it resorts to, and The Haunting of Hill House sets an excellent standard for what that could look like.
The Haunting of Hill House is a 2018 Drama Horror Series created by Mike Flanagan for Netflix.