This article contains minor spoilers for the first episode of “The Haunting of Hill House.”
Last weekend, a friend and I binged Netflix’s new original, The Haunting of Hill House. I’m not usually one for binging, but this show was different. It left me emotionally drained, but I couldn’t look away. Every episode was fascinating, intricately crafted, and riveting.
I’m not a huge fan of most horror movies and shows. I don’t like gore for the sake of gore, jump scares are okay but not something that I seek out, and I find most plots to be formulaic and uninteresting—but this show is different. I grew up reading Stephen King, so I have a soft spot for psychological horror, and that’s really where “Hill House” hit home for me.
Horror works don’t often address the aftermath of an event. If they do, it’s usually in a bad sequel. But “Hill House,” from the outset, focused on what happens after a traumatic experience with the supernatural. The story is told in disjointed pieces, flashing from the present day to the siblings’ childhood in the haunted house.
The horror genre has countless tropes that are tried and true, and “Hill House” includes characters who seem stereotypical at first. There’s the oldest, Steve, a staunch doubter of the paranormal and author of a book that essentially tells his family’s traumatic tale, marketed as fiction. Then there’s Shirley, a mortician who specializes in shutting her family members out in anger. Next is my personal favorite, Theo, a child psychologist who can sense feelings from touching a person or object, and who’s lesbian fashion sense is impeccable. Lastly, there are the twins: sweet, haunted Nell and her black sheep, and drug addict Luke. There’s even a caring father who’s not too good at communication, and mother growing steadily insane.
And yet while these characters seem so basic when they first appear, this is where “Hill House” divorces itself from the rest of the horror genre. Rather than telling the story of the haunting linearly from childhood, the show begins with the present day and the struggles the siblings have had since their mom apparently killed herself as their dad drove them away.
Steven is writing his books, living his logical, non-ghostly life, firmly believing that everything that happened in the house was due to mental illness running in his family. Shirley is living a seemingly picturesque marriage with her husband and two children, although she spends her days putting makeup on corpses and living in a funeral home. Theo lives in her guest house and hides from herself through alcohol and hookups. Nell, following the death of her husband, lives a lonely life struggling with sleep paralysis and likely bipolar disorder. And Luke is trying to make it to 90 days clean during his stay in rehab, but develops feelings along the way.
Interwoven in between are the memories of childhood from the five siblings. The twins’ old “imaginary” friend, the ghost Abigail, is common in these flashbacks; as well as Theo’s unusual sensory abilities,Shirley’s struggle with understanding death, and Steve’s relationship with his father. The story develops as the siblings remember what happened to them in the house and slowly reveal it to us, the watchers. We don’t truly understand the extent of the story until the last episode, when everything becomes horribly clear.
Interestingly, this show makes no effort to explain the existence of ghosts. They are not manifestations of depression like the Babadook. Some of them have explainable backstories, like the Bent-Neck Lady. Others are simply there. There’s no need to explain the jump scare, the inexplicable spiders who crawl from mouths. They are part of the house’s spell, and that’s all they need to be. It’s refreshing.
This was one of the best shows that I’ve watched in a while, and I can’t speak highly enough of it. It was genuinely scary as a ghost story, and fascinating as a psychological tale of the aftermath of trauma.