Remembering The Haunting of Hill House — Part 1
The modern-day horror maestro, Mike Flanagan, delivered one of the best limited TV series of the genre 3 years ago. In the spirit of Halloween, take a peek at what makes the Haunting of Hill House an essential watch for all classic gothic horror fans
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, has inspired several adaptations but Flanagan’s series (henceforth referred to as HOHH) has to be among the best. I was terrified of horror movies and shows until high school but slowly acquired a taste for the genre after learning how to handle the jump scares and overnight aftershocks. HOHH is one of my all-time favorites and after multiple viewings, certain scenes and ideas still manage to spook me to this day. I hope this commentary of the best scenes from each episode of HOHH inspires you to make your first leap into horror as I did with The Conjuring in 2013.
Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead for the Haunting of Hill House Netflix series!
Episode 1: The final scene where Steven sees a ghost — “Denial” [56:10]
Almost every episode in HOHH ends with a big reveal or an extraordinary shot that leaves the viewer on a cliffhanger. But the conclusion of the first episode is exceptional because the stress of Steven Crain denying and missing the ghosts keeps us on edge throughout the 60 minute-runtime. Mike Flanagan builds the tension really well, right from the episode title until the climax, as he creates several spooky sequences which keep teasing a jump scare or an instance where “Steven finally sees a ghost”. Denial, the first stage of grief, is perfectly depicted through Steven’s character continuously rationalizing his childhood experiences and channeling his trauma into his books. The opening episode does just about enough to get us hooked and this closing shot seals the deal on a tense well-constructed narrative.
Episode 2: The scene where Shirley sees her dead mother alonsgide her sister’s corpse — “Anger” [45:16]
Each of the first five episodes in HOHH is a character-based narrative shown from the perspective of one of the five Crain siblings. This becomes clear by episode 2, as the focus shifts to Shirley Crain who cares deeply about her family and siblings but her haughty and controlling personality makes her perhaps the least likable character of the Crain family. Many horror shows and films set up a character whose occupation makes it easier to create an edgy, terrifying atmosphere. Flanagan does this with Shirley who runs and lives in a creepy funeral home. Shirley’s childhood experiences at Hill House may be the least scary of the lot but her interactions with strange creatures and her mother in the past set up a chilling sequence in the funeral home as she prepares to host the funeral. Though not glaringly obvious, Flanagan again does an excellent job of manifesting the emotion of anger via Shirley’s character. This is obvious in how she interacts with almost everyone in her family and their reluctance to do or say anything that may upset her.
Episode 3: The disturbing scene where Theo catches a child predator instead of a ghost — “Bargaining” [32:38]
The third installment of HOHH introduces Theo Crain, played by Flanagan’s actual wife, and provides another intriguing backstory and emotional arc. In contrast to the use of Shirley’s occupation to depict creepy circumstances, Flanagan uses Theo’s ability to feel and derive emotions from sensations to create a different sort of spooky proposition for the viewer. Interestingly enough, the scariest sequence in Theo’s episode isn’t one to do with a ghost or a paranormal experience. Instead, the scene where Theo catches the pedophile during one of her child psychology sessions weaves a real-life disturbing and horrifying occurrence for the viewer. HOHH realizes that a horror series that is 10-episodes long can go beyond cheap jump scares and spook its audience in several disturbing and equally chilling ways. Theo is also the perfect embodiment of the bargaining stage of grief as she bargains — living with her sister, pursuing a relationship with a girl she meets at the club, etc. — with most situations and people in her life.
Episode 4: The scene with the tall ghost man haunting young Luke in his bedroom — “Depression” [18:49]
Several movies and shows depict an addict’s life prior to their addiction and provide a soft justification for their habits. But Flanagan’s handling of Luke Crain’s character is immaculate. The horrors of his childhood juxtaposed artistically next to his addiction habits as an adult makes for a compelling, terrifying, and emotional watch. Despite Luke’s flaws, immature choices, and addiction habits the show makes you route for him, the underdog that epitomizes the depression stage of grief in this episode superbly. The scene with the ghost of the tall man who steals his hat and haunts him is anxiety-inducing and sets up a tense precursor for all the hauntings he experiences as an adult. The “twin-thing” quirk that he shares with Nellie sets up one of the saddest subplots of the series.
Episode 5: The legendary scene in which the horror of the Bent-Neck Lady is fully revealed — “Acceptance” [1:05:39]
After four intense episodes, if you’re expecting a wind-down of the horror and a more relaxing watch then you’re in for a curveball. The story picks up from the ominous prologue sequence where a mysterious disfigured figure draws closer to Eleanor Crain (nicknamed Nellie). I’ve watched HOHH three times until now and I still get goosebumps every time I think or catch a glimpse of this episode. Invoking the bent-neck lady has become a reoccurring joke every time I watch something not-so-spooky with my partner or friends. If I wish to sell someone on Flanagan’s brilliance as a modern-day horror genius, I usually refer to this particular episode. The concluding scene of the episode in which the bent-neck lady’s time-based horror bit is revealed is hands down my favorite in the entire series. Nellie and her mother’s necklace-subplot is another incredible foreshadowing job by Flanagan and masterfully metaphorizes acceptance, the final stage of grief. The shocking ending to Nellie’s story leads to the birth of an incredibly horrifying idea: being stuck in a death-based time loop and scaring your past self is perhaps the most terrifying way to experience a haunting.
Final Thoughts —
Most horror films and shows solely focus on the actual events of a haunted house or a spooky situation. But Flanagan doesn’t just focus on developing the frightening aura of Hill House, he does it in tandem with all its characters and a storyline grounded in the Crain family’s emotional struggles and shared trauma. The first five episodes of this limited series are an absolute blast for any horror fan that is looking to experience an unorthodox and incredibly scary horror show. And like most addictive Netflix shows, HOHH episodes are designed to end on cliffhangers and work perfectly for those who prefer binge watching over pacing themselves. If you haven’t experienced it already, don’t forget to add it to your Halloween watchlist immediately!
(1) The Haunting of Hill House. Directed by Mike Flanagan, Produced by: Mike Flanagan, Trevor Macy, Netflix, Amblin Television and Paramount Television, Year published. Netflix.
(2) “The Haunting of…Hill House” by sgwarnog2010 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
(3) Edgar Renton. “The Haunting of Hill House 1x05 — Nelly’s Death Scene”. YouTube, Oct. 14th. 2018. https://youtu.be/vHkX4gNuSOI
(4) Nikhil Rana. “The Haunting of Hill House Official Trailer (2018) Netflix”. YouTube, Sept. 20th. 2018. https://youtu.be/VxEEGi9V0kI
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