You might think a bad decision is going out with friends on a weeknight and getting home past 11 PM. But no, a bad decision is deciding to wind down from a night out by watching just one more episode of Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, which turns into two more episodes until finally it’s 3:45 AM, the final episode just ended and there’s no way you’re falling asleep after that; not alone, not in the dark.
Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House is what they call “based” on a book by Shirley Jackson. The 1960’s version The Haunting, was very faithful to the story, characters and themes. This new version uses names taken from the original characters and some scenes (the handholding scene, the banging on the walls, the story of the rain of stones) taken straight out of the novel, but plot, characters and themes are so far from the original that it’s obvious the creators were just working on the fame of Shirley Jackson to propel their own story. I resisted it for a year, and then broke down and watched it. I’m impressed. It’s tightly written, with unexpected twists and a surprising lack of loose ends. It’s barely similar to Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, but it’s still really good.
What really works about this new Hill House is that it strikes a great balance between the emotional drama of the characters and the horror of the haunted house. It is written around a family of 7 who moved into Hill House to fix and flip it. Something terrible happened one night and six of them fled, while one (the mother) was driven to suicide. 20 years later the children are still dealing with the traumas the house inflicted and their inability to understand what actually happened that mysterious night. Themes of denial, depression, grief, addiction, mental illness are explored. Relationships between siblings, estranged parents, and spouses are built and broken and dissected with detail. It’s like watching a prime time family drama, but better because there are ghosts; scary ghosts that fill me with glee and terror.
The horror genre has been making a comeback in the last few years. In the case of a lot of movies trying to get in on a trendy genre, it’s just cheap scares meant to make a buck. Newer horror novels are trying to be a bit deeper. It’s not the story of a couple moving into a haunted house – it’s the story of a couple with marital problems that buy a house the may be haunted or may just be a metaphor for the breakdown of their relationship. It’s much more cerebral than supernatural. It’s a way to explore the darker side of current fears, events, topics in society.
The best horror stories are not just about the monsters. They are about human emotions and the ways people deal with internal or external conflicts. The monsters are a metaphor and sometimes that’s all they turn out to be. But me, I really want the monsters to be monsters in all their terrifying glory. On the flip side, I also want the monsters to represent some aspect of human-centric fear that elevates them above shock value.
What I love about the Netflix version is that the characters are dealing with the fallout from being haunted. Their emotional issues are a direct result of a supernatural force that broke apart their previously wholesome family. It’s fascinating to see how each of them deals with each different experience. Some saw actual ghosts, some think it’s mental illness. The ghosts from their pasts are both literal and figurative ghosts. The house haunted them on an external level, but they continued to be haunted on an internal level by their past experiences and decisions. It has metaphor and real haunting combined.
Shirley Jackson used characters brilliantly. The Netflix people were smart to take that aspect of the novel and run with it. Of course, Hill House too is a character, mysterious and antagonistic. That’s why it is such a great haunted house and why it continues even now to haunt us in the night, in the dark.