The Haunting of Hill House is a story about ruined childhoods. The 10-part Netflix series, adapted by Mike Flanagan from the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, picks its way through the psychic detritus of a summer that the Crain family spent in an old haunted mansion—one possessed of such malignancy toward its inhabitants that it seems almost alive. The Crains’ eight-week stay at Hill House ends with the suicide of the family matriarch, Olivia; the five children, frantically evacuated by their father in the middle of the night, do not witness it, and they are kept in the dark about how or why Olivia died. The show takes place decades later, after the siblings have grown up. The trauma of that earlier period fuels a stifled, wounded rage that has driven each one into a cocoon of isolation, which they’re forced to confront after the death of Nell, their youngest sister.
Horror is enjoying a moment of relevance these days: Hill House is the latest in a series of films and TV shows acclaimed for their treatment of the painful, repressed things that happen to a lot of people—notably, themes of sexual assault and PTSD in 2015’s It Follows and the treatment of systemic racism in 2017’s Get Out. Unlike a lot of classic horror films, where the dialogue serves as the mortar between murder scenes and character traits indicate mainly who gets killed in what order, these stories allow their protagonists nuance and humanity. The horror comes from their private trauma, a force so inchoate and violent that it can only be represented by ghosts or murder cults. Hill House occasionally veers into melodrama, but at its best, the series is an examination of a family splintered by profound denial. It often takes more energy to see trauma than to ignore it, and in the series’ present day, the three oldest siblings—Shirley, Steven, and Theo—have run out of energy to recognize what happened.
The youngest of the siblings, twins Nell and Luke, can’t escape their special sensitivity to the house; they grow from happy, oddball kids into wounded adults. Luke is a recovering heroin addict, still stalked by a ghost in a bowler hat. (The existence of the ghost and his ability to stay sober are met with similar skepticism.) Nell, shattered by the death of her husband, secretly returns to Hill House, where she commits suicide, compelled by her mother’s apparition. The day before, Steven and Shirley reject her phone calls. “I know you don’t need me to tell you this,” Steven says to Shirley later, phone tucked between his ear and shoulder, “but literally everything is an emergency with Nell…. I can’t deal with this right now, I’m working.”
The horror of Hill House is in moments like this—after the haunting, the survivors are smaller, less capable of compassion. In an interview with HuffPost, Flanagan said that he was interested in the aftershocks of a ghost story: “Typically, in horror stories, the unlucky victims of a haunting leave the house, or exorcise the demon, and then the credits roll. I was really fascinated by the question of what happened after, and how someone would carry that trauma―or even some of the ghosts themselves―with them into their lives.”
Although there are roughly a dozen ghosts per episode hidden in the gloomy corners of Hill House, the series’ tensest moments are in the present, when the family gathers the night before Nell’s funeral in the bilious-green parlor of Shirley’s funeral home. At one point, Nell’s broken-necked ghost appears in the back of the room, passively watching the prelude to a brutal family fight.
In this sense, Flanagan’s Hill House pays homage to Jackson’s novel, the story of a sensitive, sheltered woman named Eleanor who travels to the haunted mansion to take part in a month-long paranormal study. For the last 11 years, Eleanor has cared for her sick mother and, after her death, moved into her sister’s apartment, where she sleeps on a cot in the “baby’s room.” The invitation to Hill House is Eleanor’s jailbreak from her interminable childhood. But there’s also something predatory in her loneliness: After a decade of isolation, she’s so hungry for the acknowledgment that comes with a real relationship that she’ll devour the first one she catches. She perceives rejection from the group that gathers at Hill House—at one point, she suggests moving near a new friend, who counters, “I am not in the habit of taking home stray cats”—and, as she’s being forced to leave, crashes her car into a tree so she can remain there forever. Hill House offers Eleanor the home she never had. “They can’t turn me out or shut me out or laugh at me or hide from me,” she sings before the crash. “I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me.”
The house’s saturnine tendency to prey on the vulnerable reminds me of a story in Ruth Franklin’s biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. In 1962, Jackson’s mother sent her a letter haranguing her about a photograph that accompanied Time’s positive review of her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. “Why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you,” Jackson’s mother wrote. “If you don’t care what you look like or care about your appearance why don’t you do something about it for your children’s sake—and your husband’s…. You were and I guess still are a very wilful [sic] child.” (At the time, Jackson was 46 years old, a best-selling author, and had been nominated for a National Book Award.) Jackson penned an angry reply that was still unsent at the time of her death two years later. One line reads: “will you try to realize that i am grown up and fully capable of handling my own affairs?”
In Jackson’s novel, there are hints that the ghost story began before Eleanor’s journey to Hill House. Something unutterable happened to her in her mother’s home, and only the haunted house believes her, so she dies there. Jackson presents it as an awful mistake: The house is evil, and it will never give Eleanor the comfort she seeks. We like to hear stories about noble deaths because they mean something. It’s terrifying to consider—as good horror forces us to—that our end might not be meaningful; that we may not be better understood in death than we were in life; that sometimes all that’s left behind is a hole at the center of a family. Where Flanagan’s series ends with a tacked-on happy ending so incongruous that it’s tempting to interpret it as irony, Jackson lets the unspeakable question linger. “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House,” she writes, “and whatever walked there, walked alone.”