Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is one of the all-time classics of the horror genre, bringing the classic Gothic tale of a haunted mansion into the twentieth century and firmly locating the horror in the psychological reactions of the men and women who unwisely choose to enter its orbit. Jackson’s novel was doubly notable because it was a rare-for-its-time masterpiece by a female writer in a field that was, and largely remains, dominated by men. Its opening lines are famous:
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 so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more…and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Jackson’s story worked because it was a portrait of psychological terror and the breakdown of the rational mind. Its characters were unrelated—guests of a psychical researcher who rented the title mansion in pursuit of evidence of the paranormal. The mansion itself was cleverly described, a modernist’s nightmare impression of the Victorians. Jackson saw it as a Second Empire or Queen Anne pile in the style of the 1870s or 1880s, whose angles were all askew and whose overstuffed furniture and closed floorplan made for a claustrophobic maze. This worked because the Victorians were seen at the time as the antithesis of everything modern—there is a reason that Hill House, the Psycho House, and the Addams Family house were all imagined on the same model.
For us, however, more than half a century removed, the concerns and fears of midcentury nearly as distant as the Victorians were for Shirley Jackson. The Victorians themselves have faded into a sort of rose-colored mythic past, and their architecture is now charming. They no longer feel like real people, and so it is perhaps no surprise that the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House dispenses with the Victorian backstory and translates Hill House to a period that has increasingly become the new locus of horror over recent years, the 1910s and 1920s, the period just before most adults’ grandparents were born—just old enough to sit in that uncanny valley between the unimaginable antiquity beyond living memory and the sharp relief of stories heard firsthand from living people.
The new Hill House is the worst thing about the Netflix series, and it alone nearly breaks what might have been an excellent horror show if it had had the courage to stand on its own rather than to try to rewrite a masterpiece of the twentieth century in the idiom of the twenty-first. But let me be clear: The show itself at times approaches being a masterpiece of horror, but it never quite reaches it because it tries to do so by polluting source material it seems to actively hate. As its own story, it is a wonderful, complex, and devastating piece of horror. As an adaptation of Shirley Jackson, it is a betrayal of the novel and the classic 1963 film. It would have benefited from either rejecting the adaptation altogether or by posing itself as a sequel to the story rather than a replacement for it.
As imagined by series creator Mike Flanagan (of the movie version of the Ouija board), Shirley Jackson’s novel has been stripped of all of its themes, ideas, meaning, and purpose. What remains is Hill House, after a fashion, its surly caretakers, and the unfortunate choice to name several members of the Crain family who occupy the home for one fateful summer twenty-six years ago after a character in the novel. The characters mimic some of the actions of their counterparts in the novel, but only in a stagy way that calls attention to what Flanagan clearly feels is the cleverness of echoing the book’s surface while burning out its soul.
The new story Flanagan has grafted onto the bones of the novel is devilishly clever, composed of a series of inexplicable events unfolding across the deep past, the recent past, and the present. It concerns the seven-member Crain family—a name stolen from the builders of Hill House in the novel—who move into Hill House (now reimagined as the erstwhile home of the, sigh, Hill family) in the summer of 1992 in hopes of renovating the property and flipping it for a handsome profit. The story of how their home improvement goes terribly wrong unfolds in parallel with the present, where the Crain children, now grown, struggle with personal demons and come together when one sister takes her life at the abandoned Hill House. As the series unfolds, we see that the timeline cannot be expressed linearly, and the three-dimensional timeline of interlocking events forms a labyrinthine puzzle-box that leads inevitably to the heart of horror.
I genuinely enjoyed the puzzle-box story and the clever way the past and present interacted across time and space in surprising and exquisitely plotted ways. The actors, both child and adult, are excellent in their roles (even if child and adult characters don’t always seem a perfect match), and I also liked that Flanagan chose to explore a relatively uncommon theme in horror—sibling relationships. I will admit that the second episode, focusing on sad things happening to small animals, was almost enough to make me stop watching, since harm to baby animals is not something I can stomach, but I am glad I pushed past it to see how the story painted its portrait of generational sin and the terrible burdens family members take upon themselves in hope of protecting those they love.
But it is Hill House itself that is the story’s albatross.
As much as I like and admired the storytelling, Flanagan’s compulsive need to show the audience how clever he is and to remind the viewer of the novel he is decidedly not adapting faithfully, or even loosely, kept taking me out of the story.
All of the set-pieces from Shirley Jackson’s novel are present in this Hill House, even though they make no sense here and exist only to nod at a story Flanagan is not telling. The conservatory full of Classicizing statuary is present, even though it plays no role in the story and the Hugh Crain who commissioned the carvings upon building Hill House is not part of this story’s world, and the style of the statues doesn’t quite comport with the Tudor Revival architecture. The opening credits even focus on the sculptures, despite their complete irrelevance to the story. The library features the unusual two-story circular iron staircase from the book, but again, it is but decoration and doesn’t quite match the 1920s house surrounding it. The locked nursery where in the novel the last Crain died is still here, under new management as a locus of horror that is nearly identical to its counterpart in Channel Zero: No End House from the Syfy Channel.
But the worst sin of all is that the set of Hill House—the show’s showstopping centerpiece—never felt real. It always looked and felt like a soundstage. Its visual echoes were less the 1963 Haunting or any real Tudor Revival home than the awful 1999 Haunting, from which, on a smaller scale, it borrows a number of visual flourishes. I know that in the minds of many, everything between the Civil War and World War II has blended into a sort of mythic past full of crunchy gravel, dark wood, and pointy decorations, but the set design never felt coherent and never felt wholly real. More’s the pity, since the rest of the series was shot realistically, often on location, heightening the artificiality of the Hill House sets. This might have worked to give a hallucinatory quality to the interiors, but to me it was unconvincing and ineffective. Your mileage may vary.
At one point in the series, someone painted some graffiti on the front gate of Hill House, covering over the plaque marking the property with the moniker “Hell House.” Whether this was an intentional nod to Richard Matheson’s unauthorized rewrite of The Haunting of Hill House by that name, I cannot say, but it’s also worth noting that Flanagan borrowed more than a little from the backstory in Matheson’s version of the story in adding texture to his own. (The ghosts in the house seem to be Matheson’s rather than Jackson’s creations.) The problem, though, is that he never actually fleshed out the backstory of his Hill House. He hints at it here and there, presumably to be creepy by allusion and omission, but since his backstory can’t be that of the novel, and he chooses not to tell us what it is, some of the spookiness loses its power, and the various monsters and apparitions are basically just there to look cool.
If you are a fan of American Horror Story, or even just know a little about its first season, Murder House, its hard not to see this series as all but a straight remake of that one (albeit with a dollop of The Others), stripping it of its camp and humor and playing the whole story as an unrelieved nightmare. In conversation with Murder House, it is a fascinating postmodern exercise. But I would have liked to see the postmodernism toned down—perhaps by cutting the extra 5-10 minutes of flab in each episode—to better focus on what this series did so much better than Murder House, folding past and present into each other in a way that enhances both.
Ultimately, Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is a schizophrenic series, trying to be two in one—not unlike its narrative. As a straightforward horror story, it is one of the best of its era, cleverly plotted and moving in its devastating portrait of familial crisis. But as an adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House and a postmodern text commenting on everything from Hell House to Murder House, it undercuts its own greatness by trying to be things it cannot be and wedging in a story it didn’t have to tell and can’t actually do justice to. Perhaps nothing better captures the uncomfortable nature of this approach than the fact that Flanagan assigns the dramatic and evocative prose of Shirley Jackson, one of the great female fiction writers, to a male character, now the author of The Haunting of Hill House, and takes her story of the madness and tragedy of Eleanor in Hill House and makes it his story about how men keep secrets and take action to protect their families from crazy women.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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