Why ”The Haunting of Hill House” is the most important horror production of the last 10 years.
Every once in a while that “one” series comes around that you “absolutely” have to see. Of course, hyped up series are often fired up by the producers and gratefully received by the media in order to write the next sensational headline. This article, on the other hand, isn’t meant to be a review of the series, but rather wants to use the concrete example of “The Haunting of Hill House” to find out what makes horror good — and what in particular makes “Hill House” an immensely important representative of its time.
First to the facts: Over 90% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, nearly 9 out of 10 stars on IMDb — one is used to that kind of positive rating for “Game of Thrones” and Breaking Bad. A second season has not yet been officially confirmed, but is highly likely. The very good series “Dark” strikes a similar note while producing much less traction, but a second season has already been given the green light. “Hill House” rightly deserves the laurels it has received so far, but for a completely different reason.
What makes a series good?
“Game of Thrones”, for example, combines fantasy storytelling with a believable world, plus an outstanding production with the courage to let important actors die on screen — often without warning. The deaths are not heroic deaths, but they are understandable, unpredictable and above all, exciting. The producers are very self-aware about that specific trait. One marketing strategy concentrated exclusively on the question “Who will die next?” Incorrectly, as the author finds, because “Game of Thrones” creates a stunning universe without the necessity of this marketing grip. Looking at the overall density and filigree within this fantasy epos, you have to head over to “Lord of the Rings” to find something equally atmospherically. John Bradley, the actor who plays Samwell Tarly, was once asked why he hadn’t lost any weight in the series, as the “Night’s Watch” was permanently on the move. Bradley’s response was:
“We’ve got fire-breathing giant dragons, we’ve got ice zombies, we’ve got a woman giving birth to a cloud. Why is it me still being fat that you just don’t buy?”
This response is a fantastic example of how a series works today: There is an intrinsic logic and within that logical frame almost anything is allowed, as long as the universe created by the series is not violated. Fantasy or horror series, like “Haunting of Hill House” open up a topical space with their own set of rules and as long as these are not violated, the plot is comprehensible, solid and makes sense. It is a mistake to measure a fictitious world against the standards of reality. Strictly speaking this is already a contradiction in itself — fiction wants to entertain, fiction is a “what if”, but woe betide he who violates the inner laws of the fictional universe. In this case, you slip into the cinematic uncanny valley, and viewers begin to ask questions — a self-reinforcing effect that gets worse the more the series tries to justify itself.
It’s particularly hard to make good horror.
“The Haunting of Hill House” focuses on one core competence: telling the viewer a story — and the series does this without overtaxing, without misleading, without taking the audience for a fool, without open ends, without loose questions and also without explosions.
Today’s audience is spoiled — and unfortunately bored. What’s the difference between Iron Man and Batman? The color of the suit, the actors and the year of production? Almost every Hollywood script can be summarized in 5 minutes. Even if you take a look at “Game of Thrones”, a series which is such a great experience, you can find the cancer that consumes Hollywood: You can effortlessly name the season from which point on the story is no longer based on the iconic books of George R. R. Martin. But the audience is not to blame. The average person doesn’t want to watch rubbish, the problem is that Hollywood productions don’t want to be imaginative. Instead, simply put, they rely on well-rehearsed material and on CGI: Let’s make another sequel. Or a prequel. Establishing a new cinematic universe is associated with high risk, because on the one hand the audience is constantly on the lookout for something new, on the other hand, man is a very cautious creature — as an example, I order the type of ice cream I know I like before trying something new, which I mightn’t.
But this is exactly the crux of today’s film and television productions. The focus is not on the audience and entertainment, but on profit and fear of backlash. An artificially primitive production is a symptom of that attitude.
The secret to good storytelling
No producer says: “I take hundreds of millions of dollars into my hands and try to make as bad a film as possible”. No, instead a film and most series are produced and run like a company, i.e designed for maximum profit. That’s why they try to find scriptwriters who promise good profitability. The formula “turnover per minute of film” is meticulously calculated in advance and good stories only have a place in it if it further embellishes the equation — to the satisfaction of investors.
Another recent work that has been showered with premature praise by audiences and critics alike was the re-filming of Stephen King’s “IT”. After the promising first 5 minutes, this film version also gets lost in the seemingly proven formula. Jump scare follows after jump scare, but CGI saves the day.
Dear directors: I make it as easy as possible for you at this point. Do you want to know the simple formula how good horror works? Here you go:
Tell, don’t show.
Scary horror takes place in your head. A shock effect serves to unload the accumulated horror and to make room for a new scene and new feelings. Jump scares are neither what people expect, nor is it what people pay money for. People pay money because they’re hoping to get spooked. An overload of jump scares is a symptom of a lack of ingenuity: By showing everything as loudly and as in-your-face as possible, the director wants to reach the goal quickly. After 90 minutes the audience leaves the theatre unsatisfied, because there was no place left for a real story and the unfolding of real horror.
What you can learn from “Hill House”
“The Haunting of Hill House” follows a different, better path, and therefore can be compared to “Game of Thrones” in that just like HBO’s fantasy series, it is also based on a no less outstanding book by Shirley Jackson. A book as the basis for a script is something thoroughly positive, because a book is something very intimate, something that wants to address and entertain the reader one on one. If a book doesn’t entertain me, I’ll put it away. On the other hand, I’ll finish a boring film out of laziness — because after all, the money has already been invested, right?
Series have a particularly hard time, because they have to offer high quality entertainment over a long period of time, something that is difficult to master and can take a hard hit even on long distance runners like “The Walking Dead”. The latter example in particular shows how much you can alienate a fan community that is loyal to you: There is a difference between a cliffhanger and “leaving the audience in the rain”, and the transit from season 6 to season 7 in the zombie marathon was a blow to the pit of the stomach for even the most hardened fans.
So, in order to understand what makes “The Haunting of Hill House” so unique and important, you don’t have to see the series itself as such, you just have to see a lot of similar material. If we take a look at the more popular horror series of the 2000s, we will find, among others, for example “American Horror Story” and “Supernatural”. Another positive example is the afore mentioned series “Dark” and in a way, “Grimm” also brought a breath of fresh air, but ultimately failed because of its own restrictions. “Stranger Things” carefully scratched the door to the horror for the masses, but in the second season towards the end got lost again in the “proven” formula. i.e. : Higher, further, bigger, no brainers, big bangs, end of the world, rescuer in distress. This concept also killed “Sherlock” in the last season and even “Game of Thrones” is already on a knife’s edge — one can only hope that season 8 gets it.
“Haunting of Hill House” strikes a completely different note. The series is about 7 people and accompanies them through half of their lives. In contrast to the negligible film of 1999, which is also based on the book and about which we don’t want to talk at this point, the series creates something that we are rarely allowed to experience on TV — to unfold a story and to finish it with all due respect, so that in the end we can only marvel in awe. If you really want to understand “Hill House”, you have to watch the sixth episode and there you will find everything that makes the series appear so wonderful, scary, inviting and at the same time, as creepy as the empty windows of the “Crain” property: A cinematography as you would only expect from Alfonso Cuarón or Park Chan-wook, excellently written dialogues, softly and effectively placed horrors and a transit from the old to the new world around “Hill House”, which is so flawless, that you almost long to experience such talent not just in a TV series.
Technical brilliance is a tool, not a mark of distinction.
In “Birdman” the filming without cuts was an end in itself — and brought amazement and applause from the critics in an effective and grateful way. This style was not really necessary — the film would have done just fine with regular cutting. In the (especially noteworthy) episode 6 of “Hill House” on the other hand, you are so spellbound by the intimate theater and the helpless, emotional and dense dialogues of Theo, Luke, Shirley, Hugh, Steven and, if you take a close look, Nell, that you might not even notice what a cinematic and acting masterpiece you are dealing with.
“Have you noticed that the first half of the episode gets by without a cut” — “No, but now that you say so…”
And not only what happens in the foreground is enormously important. Every flickering light, every person in the background, every camera shot lets us dive into the psyche of the respective characters, doesn’t let us degenerate into spectators, but allows us to actively participate, discover and admire.
So why is Episode 6, “Two Storms”, just such a masterpiece, maybe even the best TV episode since “The Rains of Castamere”? Because this episode manages to make us forget that we are right on the edge of our couch. “The Haunting of Hill House” proves that it is not shock effects, not blood & splatter and nor the obligatory “princess in need looks away from the camera, then turns over to the camera in the other direction, the camera swings along and boo, there’s a ghost” — scene is needed for exciting entertainment and subtle, good creeps. Instead, the series provides believable, deeply and excellently drawn characters, with whom we are really excited. It is a story that spins a thousand threads to pick up at very different times and once in a while we hear ourselves say: “Oh THAT’s what it was about!” It’s a cinematic craft that is visibly fun for the creators, leaves room for experimentation and bows to the greats.
Another positive example can be found in the first episode. A woman tells Steven about her husband’s accident — it is detailed and emotional. Nothing else is to be found in this scene. No jump scare, no camera movement, it’s not dark, we don’t have a thunderstorm, there are no ghosts in the background, we simply listen to the narrative spellbound. “Hill House” couldn’t be more aptly described:
We listen to the story.
Later, in the same episode, the woman’s story is taken up and plays with the viewer’s imagination. Nothing really happens — the important stuff only happens in our heads.
Watching “The Haunting of Hill House” only once is therefore not at all enough. It’s not only about the gently placed visitors in the background that can be collected like photos in an album, but also about gestures, shadows, sentences, date and time: All of this plays a decisive role and unfolds its full effect only with the last episode.
But I like jump scares!
The invasion of the shock effects of other series and movies is replaced by “Wow” and “Aha!” moments in “Hill House” and can sometimes be compared to the explanation of how “Hodor” actually got his name in Game of Thrones. When a ghost speaks up in “Hill House”, he doesn’t do so without a reason, not as an end in itself and not to annoy our Crain family or the audience — but that doesn’t make it less scary. “Hill House” doesn’t use shock effects you might deduce from that? Well, that’s not exactly true. There are quite a lot actually, some of which can be called quite “cheap”. But they are stretched over a time period of 10 hours — and not squeezed into a 90 minutes flick. You have time to breathe and time to be excited.
There is a especially noteworthy shock effect, which is comparable with the cabinet scene from “Ring”, only far, far scarier. You could say that this one shock effect from “Hill House” redefines how a jump scare should actually look — not only in execution and placement, but also in dramaturgy and justification. At this point we do not want to reveal where this jump scare can be found, but to pick up a proverb: “When two argue, the third rejoices”.
As imaginative and illuminating as the last episode presents itself, it is also a drop of resistance, which was so often skipped in the past 9 episodes, and it easily could have been the icing on the cake. A little more towards the end of “The Mist” and a “Drayton”-like feeling would have been a welcome courageous index finger towards Hollywood. But that’s bleating at the very highest level — because it takes courage not only to release and finance a series with such precision with regards to the high-risk genre, but also to produce it from start to finish with the same level of commitment.
The market is tough and “Stranger Things” has paved the way for a wider audience for horror — but where “Stranger Things” is almost family-friendly and plays with the flair and appeal of an 80s setting, “Hill House” places itself in the middle of society and even manages to question itself: Maybe Steve is right, after all? Perhaps the Crain family is its own curse, one touch of madness and one tragedy after another. Luke would be a good indicator of this, the black spot of the family that can no longer cope with his thoughts and childhood memories. And yet the escape from the escape takes place and — without revealing too much — a dinner and a conversation between brothers, that also communicates to the audience: Yes, there are these problems, some people have these problems and they are part of life, whether you are affected or not. So is “Hill House” ultimately a family drama with occasional show elements? Or another horror series washed down for the suitability of the Netflix masses?
No, that would be unfair and inappropriate. Because the series dares to do something very specific: It doesn’t assume its audience is stupid.
“Hill House” does not attempt to invoke a higher power through pseudo-spiritual explanatory models. Neither does the series attempt to focus on clumsy shocks, blood or violence in general. The series attests to the viewer’s maturity and intelligence by offering hints and support, but you have to come up with the solution on your own. And even then there is room for interpretation — anyone who wants to find and pick up a thread can do so.
But what is the all decisive reason why “The Haunting of Hill House” can be seen as the most important contribution to horror of the last 10 years? It’s simple if you just think about it a little longer. Because “Hill House” treats the allegedly “difficult” genre of horror with awe, while other series smile at the theme, milk it, flush it until it is no longer recognizable, feed it with clichés, jump scares and the princess in distress — or elevate it to an absurdity that creates an emotional distance that we can no longer take seriously.
“Hill House” strikes a note that shows us that you can actually make a good horror series and that it is damn entertaining, exciting, sad, loving and can not only keep up with the “low risk” genres, no, it can even surpass them.
With “Hill House” you can penetrate terribly deep into the rabbit hole, but you don’t have to. So everyone can draw what he wants from the series. One person may see it as a drug drama, the other as a series about an enchanted house, another waits eagerly for some of the most imaginative and creepy ghosts in recent TV history and others experience what is probably the best jump scare ever seen on television, and you will say “patience paid out” — while changing your trousers.