Warning: Mild Spoilers to the Series Included.
Take a look at any and all supernatural tales, and you’ll find that they are deep down about three things: They’re either about family, about death, or about mental illness. From “The Babadook,” and “The Conjuring,” to “The Haunting” or “Rebecca,” every great ghost story deep down is about those core themes. “The Haunting of Hill House” is the most riveting ghost story and horror series I’ve seen all year, and I say that as someone who has seen the supernatural sub-genre reduced to nothing but a series of shocks and bumps on the wall when films like “The Ring” and “Grudge” were popularized in the early aughts. To their credit, they are fine ghost films, but I missed the more humanistic elements.
Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” is one of the greatest, if not the greatest ghost tale, mainly because it focuses on a woman’s dwindling insanity, and how the house she visits is something of a metaphor for her psyche and deteriorating sense of self. Mike Flanagan has shown immense skill for exploring the idea of the darkness of our world, and takes on what is an admittedly ambitious task like Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” From beginning to end, the first season of “The Haunting of Hill House” is a meticulous, carefully crafted puzzle that even the most skilled storyteller and craftsman could have botched from out the starting gates. Thankfully Flanagan has a keen sense of building tension and creating real human struggles in the face of extraordinary circumstances.
He proved it with his debut “Absentia,” and continued on with stellar films like “Hush,” “Gerald’s Game,” and so on. When Netflix was conducting its cryptic ad campaign for “The Haunting of Hill House,” Mike Flanagan suggested that viewers watch the first five episodes twice to catch on to what we may have missed. Ever since I finished the season in one sitting, I think back constantly on what unfolded and it dawns upon me that there’s a lot of small aspects that I missed. It’s not the hidden ghosts in almost every episode, no, it’s the smaller more intricate elements involving character actions and gestures. For example, in “Screaming Meemies,” Olivia is sleeping with the twins and wishes they could be frozen that way in her arms.
Before she could finish the sentence, she realizes Hugh has scooped up Luke and is carrying him away. This is a crucial bit of foreshadowing to the finale where in Olivia is hell bent on keeping Luke and Nellie with her, and Luke is scooped up from death with the help of Hugh before she could fully embrace the twins. Nellie meanwhile stays with Olivia. “The Haunting of Hill House” is a loose adaptation of the classic Shirley Jackson novel, and is set in various periods of time. It’s centered on the Crain Family, a brood of five children raised by parents Olivia and Hugh.
Olivia and Hugh are house flippers that have decided to move in to the Hill mansion for eight weeks to renovate it and potentially get wealthy off of selling it. While there we view the exploits of children Steven, Shirley, Theo, and twins Nellie and Luke, all of whom garner their own experiences at the house. While there a horrendous incident involving mom Olivia causes Hugh to take the children and flee in the middle of the night. When Olivia dies, Hugh is blamed for her death, and the children are sent to their aunt’s house where they all grow in to incredibly different people.
Although they’re still in contact with one another, they’re consistently at odds with each other. Told through flashbacks, the ten episode season follows every member of the Crain family, and by the final two episodes, everything we’ve seen comes crashing down on to us. What results is a surreal, creepy, and incredibly heartbreaking tale about fate, the concept of family, the strength of evil, and immense power grief can have over us. Can our past decide our future? Is time a path set for us or is a series of diverging trails that we can change?
“The Haunting of Hill House” is not entirely about ghosts in the traditional sense so much as it is about the ghosts of the elements of our lives that can haunt us. Whether it’s the ghosts of regret, the ghosts of trauma, the ghosts of a horrendous crime, or the ghosts of sin, the specters in Mike Flanagan’s series are plagues upon the lives of the Crain family. Once they are forced to acknowledge what they’ve spent their lives avoiding, can they finally figure out that maybe they can decide for themselves, rather than let the concept of fate intervene.
Through and through, Flanagan keeps “The Haunting of Hill House” a rich and complex tale about a family torn apart by tragedy, and he spends an immense amount of time exploring the Crain brood and how one event in their lives helped define who they became as adults. The conflict becomes whether or not they can change for the better, or be subdued by the Hill House, which has already managed to consume so many in its decades on its estate. Mike Flanagan is excellent in grabbing strong turns from his cast, and every single performance is measured, skillful, and gut wrenching. Whether it’s Theo’s struggles with her unusual powers, Hugh’s inability to comprehend what occurred as a young man, Shirley’s inherent anger at just about every aspect of life, or Olivia’s paralyzing fear of the future, Flanagan digs deep down and brings these individuals to life.
Folks like Henry Thomas, Carla Gugino, Elizabeth Reaser, McKenna Grace, and Kate Siegel bring these individuals to life with great complexity. “The Haunting of Hill House” is a riveting and beautiful ghost story, and possibly the best television experience I’ve had all October; anyone that can appreciate elaborate and thoughtful storytelling will love what Mike Flanagan has envisioned. While the Crain’s story is over for season one, I hope Mike Flanagan can return to unfold yet another beautiful tale of family, and loss for season two.