Originally published: Sommet Dame Magazine
We’re living in a golden age of horror, there’s no doubt about that. From the politically prescient Get Out to the heartbreakingly family-oriented A Quiet Place, to the thematically resonant Hereditary and The Babadook, the once overlooked genre has proved time and time again that it is capable of telling stories just as nuanced, precise and memorable as any high drama. In fact, even the shlockiest scare-fests are coming around to using a film language that exists beyond jump scares and first-person POV shots, with the latest iteration in the Halloween franchise telling an unexpectedly poignant tale of trauma, and the way it can manifest intergenerationally in a family.
Given this trend towards more and more mature offerings, it’s no surprise that Netflix have thrown their hat into the ring, eager to deliver the genuine terror we were only given glimpses of with Stranger Things and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Featured in a thousand clickbait articles for apparently making viewers cry, faint, or even vomit, The Haunting of Hill House’s reputation now far proceeds it, but much of the coverage it has received has obscured what truly makes it shine. Sure, there are a few shots so gruesome that the image with haunt your nightmares for weeks, and sure there are frights so expertly executed that you’re at risk of dropping your phone in the bath in shock, but that isn’t what sets Hill House apart. What keeps you watching, through each slowburn scare and terrifying twist, is that you really truly care.
I mean, think back to your favorite slasher flick or monster movie, how much do you empathise with your protagonists? Often, the answer is zero. We rarely empathise with the killers, the knife-wielding maniacs like Jason and Mike Myers, or the supernatural threats like Freddie and Chucky, but we’re not really rooting for the helpless victims either. With a few exceptions, it’s fun and cathartic to watch the core cast try fruitlessly to escape what we know is their inevitable fate, especially since they so often boil down to uninteresting archetypes with paper thin backstories and motivations. When it comes down to it, they’re little more than cannon fodder thrown into the way of the villain by the script writer, and that’s usually more than enough.
With that said, as satisfying as that can be, Hill House takes a different approach. Most of the narrative isn’t designed to scare or even unsettle, but to make you care deeply about a family that is obviously suffering, before you are even allowed to know why. We open on the classic scenario of a little girl being woken by a nightmare in a big spooky house, but the scene is only there to show the tenderness the family has for each other, whether it’s elder brother Steve taking charge to save his parents the trouble, the girl Nelly’s twin brother Luke steadfastly refusing to sleep until he knows his sister is safe, and the other two girls, tomboy Theo and studious Lea, looking out for each other either half asleep or fully dreaming. Those relationships, and those that the siblings have with their down-to-earth father and head-in-the-clouds mother, are the heart of the show – lending the realistic scenes weight and the supernatural horror realism.
These relationships also keep the show anchored temporally. We flit between the siblings’ adult lives apart and their childhood ones together, brought on by more and more frequent reveries as the characters realize they can’t escape the past. We see their childhood fears continue to haunt their adult selves, and their adult neurosis slowly explained by childhood trauma – the kind of horrifying moments that are just extreme enough to possibly have an otherworldly explanation, but just mundane enough to be explained away as normal. Most of all though, we see the way the kids let each other down in the most childish ways: by impulsively agreeing to ideas they know aren’t good ones, by callously disregarding each other’s’ worries and questions, even by gaslighting each other about their scary experiences in order to feel better about their own. These behaviours, so common and innocuous in everyday households, prove toxic when set against such a uniquely evil backdrop, causing to play out the same mistakes again and again as they grow up.
It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the journey at the center of the show. In getting to know the characters, we traverse the different landscapes that pain can create, finding the core experience from their childhood that caused everything else to splinter outwards. Affairs, cynicism, insomnia, alcoholism and drug addiction, all these are adult issues dealt with in a mature and heart-wrenchingly realistic way, but they are merely vehicles to show the scared child at the heart of each character. Each sibling is escaping into bad habits to avoid returning to the childhood home they know it all leads back to, and those entirely human crutches prove just as destructive, if not more so, then the deadly secret at the heart of Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House is a horror series for anyone who says they’re too smart for horror, or for anyone who likes their supernatural mysteries with a healthy dose of existential dread. Whether you stay for the gorgeous gothic imagery, the hidden ghosts in the background of otherwise normal frames (seriously – keep an eye out!) or the troublingly realistic family dynamics, this is one haunted house that you’ll be in no hurry to leave.