I think I’ve figured out the difference between today’s “elevated horror” and the more traditional horror that we so often write about on these pages. The slasher killers of my childhood didn’t have complicated backstories or motivations, at least at first. The Shape killed because he was a killer. Leatherface and his family killed and ate because that was just their life. Sure, Jason was a mentally challenged child who drowned in a lake and somehow lived on the bottom of it for some time before coming back three movies in and wearing a hockey mask, but his mom, for all her faults, loved him.
The terrors of today’s horror? It all comes down to bad parenting. The Graham family of Hereditary was doing more than dealing with the King of Hell, they were dealing with years of family madness and secrets. Jay Height wasn’t just dealing with a sexually transmitted demon in It Follows, she was dealing with parental neglect. And in The Babadook, the real beast was just the crushing boredom of that film. It was that Amelia Vanek is a mother that blames her child for her husband’s death. She is, you guessed it, a bad mother.
There are times when you want subtext and reasons behind things. And other times, you just want to be scared. After all, when you’re looking for significance where there should be none, Freud would like to remind you that “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.”
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of “elevated horror” or trying to find the meaning behind everything — ironic as I spend a good chunk of my days debating movies right here. It’s more that I hate when people have agendas and force them into every movie. Sometimes, I just want that cigar. to be a cigar. Sometimes, I just want to watch a scary movie.
So it was without no small trepidation that I entered into the ten-hour commitment that came with watching Netflix’s new The Haunting of Hill House, an adaption of Shirley Jackson’s 1957 book (which was already made as 1963 and 1999’s The Haunting).
In the summer of 1992, Hugh and Olivia Crain plan on flipping an old mansion, just as they have with several other homes. Along with their five children, Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke and Eleanor, they go face to face with the paranormal, barely escaping with their lives (well, I lied, not all of them make it out as Olivia dies). Nnearlyalry a quarter of a second later, another death in the family brings the Crains back to Hill House to confront a lifetime of an absent parent, a lost mother and the ways that they’ve tried to handle so much grief and pain.
The story starts with Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), the author of the book The Haunting of Hill House, which details his experiences in the house, as well as those of his brothers and sisters. The fact that he’s written this book — and made the money from it — has been a point of contention between he and his family ever since. That may be because of all the Crain family, he was the only one who didn’t see anything. His books and a lot of his life have been lies. At the end of the first episode, he finds his sister Nell hiding in his house. That’s when he meets a ghost for the first time — his sister has committed suicide inside Hill House hours before.
Each episode introduces us to another member of the family, from control freak Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Annabelle: Creation as an adult; Lulu Wilson from as a child) to child psychologist and psychic sensitive Theodora (who is married to director/creator Mike Flanagan, working with him on his other films like the aforementioned Ouija: Origin of Evil and Gerald’s Game) and Nell’s twin Luke, who struggles with addiction. Their lives and stories intersect and build upon one another, showing how the house and what happened on one night have ruined their lives in one way or another.
I’ve always had a theory that ghosts aren’t real. What we see in these apparitions aren’t things that go bump in the night, but moments where reality has been recorded over and over, like an old VHS tape, with the more horrible moments of life eating through the layers of reality, replaying over and over again. Hill House works that way, with the ghosts the children saw in the past simply being their future. I really want to discuss the moment that Nell realizes who the ghost she has seen her entire life is, but doing so would completely ruin this show if you haven’t seen it yet.
I was surprised by just how emotional this show made me. Credit for that is due to Timothy Hutton, who I’ve always known is an incredible actor, but he really proves it all over again as the father of this brood (the same role in 1992 in played by Henry Thomas from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). Carla Gugino is wonderful, as usual, as the mother who may never go away. I loved the long cuts that the actors got to use, which really added to the emotion of this. For example, the first fifteen minutes of episode six are all one straight take with no edits or cuts (there are only give cuts in the entire episode!). And bonus points for having Russ Tamblyn in here, as he was Luke in the original The Haunting!
I love that people are reporting sleep disorders and anxiety attacks after watching this show. Have we really grown so weak as a species that shows like this can trigger — that word! — us in such a way? I enjoyed this show, but I don’t enjoy reading clickbait articles like this that basically collect the tweets of people who should never, ever watch Cannibal Ferox. Just let a cigar be a cigar. Just enjoy scary shows for what they are.
But don’t just take it from me. No less of a voice in horror than Stephen King had this to say: “THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, revised and remodeled by Mike Flanagan. I don’t usually care for this kind of revisionism, but this is great. Close to a work of genius, really. I think Shirley Jackson would approve, but who knows for sure.” You watch it for yourself on Netflix.