How Scary Is The Haunting of Hill House, Really?

Michiel Huisman and Timothy Hutton in The Haunting of Hill House.
Michiel Huisman and Timothy Hutton in The Haunting of Hill House. Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Whenever a horror film or TV show erupts into mainstream awareness — like The Haunting of Hill House has in October — you have to ask yourself the same dreaded question: Is this thing too scary for me? Everyone’s talking about how good it is! And you want to know what everyone’s talking about! You want to get the jokes, recognize the references, and generally be a part of the conversation!

But you are a wimp who doesn’t like scary things. I get it, because I too am a wimp who doesn’t like scary things. That’s why, for the greater good of wimps everywhere, I watched all ten episodes of The Haunting of Hill House to see out exactly how scary it is. The short version is: It’s really, really scary.

Episode 1 (“Steven Sees a Ghost”)

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

The first episode of Hill House does a lot of expositional heavy lifting, so you’ll be terrified without having any real idea why. The basic framework is clear — the Crain family live in a majorly haunted house with creepy faces on doorknobs — and the show puts its best terror foot forward. It’s very alarming when one of the signature ghosts, the Bent-Neck Lady, shows up for the first time.

But the real problem comes from every wimp’s mortal enemy: the jump scare. A solid one happens 30 minutes into the episode, one which I saw coming and still flipped out over anyhow. Then there’s another at the 39-minute mark, even though it is a total fake-out of an unexpected car horn. The scariest moment happens at the end, as stupid non-ghost-believing sibling Steve thinks that his sister Nell has come to crash at his apartment, but Nell turns around and she is super-dead. Ghost Nell screams, I screamed; I immediately regretted this project.

How scary is it? 7/10
Creepiness vibe: Moderate
Ratio of false alarms versus actual ghosts: Moderate
Jump scares: 3

Episode 2 (“Open Casket”)

Photo: Tina Rowden/Netflix

In this episode, young Shirley Crain gazes at a kitten she believes has died, but then she she sees its throat move, so she thinks it’s still alive. She picks up this kitten’s body and holds its face very, very close to her own, and then its mouth opens and a giant bug crawls out. I am still screaming about this.

This episode has lots of other scary stuff, too! There’s a bad jump scare when Shirley finds the kittens nestled next to a wasp nest that looks like a demon face. There’s a bit with a sick kitten who has very scary disfigured eyes. A couple of actual ghost appear in flashback scenes, and then there’s an echo of the horrible bug-mouth situation as Shirley embalms her sister’s body and their mom’s ghost shows up with a sudden cat howl sound. It messed me up for an hour!

How scary is it? 8/10
Creepiness vibe: High
Ratio of false alarms versus actual ghosts: Very high
Jump scares: Like 5?!
Dead kittens: 5 (which is 5 too many)

Episode 3 (“Touch”)

Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix

By now, you’ll realize most episodes focus on an individual character, and this one is about Theodora, the middle daughter. Guess what: When she was little, Theo agreed to lower her little brother Luke into Hill House’s giant malfunctioning dumbwaiter until he reached a basement that supposedly doesn’t exist! And when he gets there, he sees a very scary ghost monster thing lurking in the shadows!

This episode is very scary. But it’s also where you’ll start to get glimmers of the way Hill House makes its ghosts double as metaphors for specific traumatic experiences. Theo also has a whole plot about investigating a child abuser — he’s a child psychologist — that is much more real-life scary than it is supernatural-scary.

How scary is it? 7/10
Creepiness vibe: High
Jump scares: 2
Child molesters reimagined as a ghost named Mr. Smiley: 1
Times a child screams while he’s lowered inexorably into a hell basement: A dozen, at least

Episode 4 (“The Twin Thing”)

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

This episode is all about Luke, an addict who spends most of his time in a rehab facility trying to get clean. Thankfully, it is less scary! There’s plenty of “this is not great and no one here is safe” vibes, but it’s filtered through the rehab plot so it doesn’t feel like unadulterated terror. That said, Luke’s rehab story gets interwoven with his childhood story about trying to keep his family safe by counting to seven while touching seven objects, so at the very end, there’s a tall-ass ghost man thing stalking him. Let’s go to my notes:

How scary is it? 5/10
Creepiness vibe: Low
Jump scares: Not as many!
Days Luke has been clean: 90
Times we hear how long Luke has been clean: 90
Tall-ass ghost men: 1

Episode 5 (“The Bent-Neck Lady”)

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

I heard ahead of time that episode five was the standout hour of the season, and so I prepared myself by turning on all the lights and watching it in a tiny browser window that was sometimes partially occluded by another window open to the gift baskets tab of the Harry & David’s website. (We all have our soothing mechanisms.) But episode five is … not that bad! It has several big scares near the beginning, as we rewind through Nell’s encounters with the Bent-Neck Lady, but much of it is about the less turbulent years of Nell’s life. It’s dark, but it’s much more about grief than it is about terrifying you.

Until the very end. That’s when we get to the scene where the Bent-Neck Lady comes for Nell in the present. Nell returns to Hill House as an adult, imagines that she’s in the middle of her wedding, and then the ghost of her mother makes her put a noose around her neck and pushes her off the balcony. WHICH MEANS THAT NELL IS THE BENT-NECK LADY.

How scary is it? 3/10 at first, then 12/10
Jump scares: 6
Appearances by the Bent-Neck Lady: TOO MANY
Times I typed “OH NOOOOO” in my notes: 7
Times I regretted watching this show: 12

Episode 6 (“Two Storms”)

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Now this is the kind of scary story I can get behind, one where the ghost-as-metaphor takes the upper hand. The night before Nell’s funeral, the surviving members of the Crain family gather in Shirley’s mortuary to hash out all the old traumas and voice their guilt and fury at Nell for killing herself. It’s intense, but that intensity is internal rather than something inflicted on them by a demonic house. Once again, though, there’s a blood-curdling final scene: The Crains turn around and realize Nell’s corpse now has giant buttons placed on her eyes, and, well, let’s just go to my notes again.

How scary is it? 5/10
Jump scares: 2
Creepy buttons on Nell’s eyes: 2
Blood alcohol level of each Crain: 0.14%
Times I yelled “Steve is the worst sibling”: 4

Episode 7 (“Eulogy”)

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

“Two Storms” and “Eulogy” are the least terrifying episodes of the season. I was still so frightened that I covered my eyes several times, but by now, you know what the ghosts tend to look like, where they show up, and when to expect a sudden jump scare. This episode is all about slowly building dread: We know that Olivia gets subsumed by the house’s evil spirits, but we haven’t seen it yet, so we’re seeing her slowly lose her grip in the past timeline while the Crain family gets pulled back toward the house in the present.

How scary is it? 5/10
Jump scares: 3
Ghosts who scare people at Nell’s funeral: 2
Corpses discovered in the Hill House walls: 1
Mentions of black mold, the biggest homeowner’s fear of all: 4

Episode 8 (“Witness Marks”)

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Here are my complete notes for this episode:

How scary is it? 9/10
Creepiness vibe: Way too high
Jump scares: 2 (including one while Theo and Shirley are driving that made me shriek and slam my computer shut in a very public library atrium)
Reconned ghosts: 1
Number of Crains who willfully return to Hill House: 5
Number of Crains who are idiots: 5

Episode 9 (“Screaming Meemies”)

Photo: Netflix

I tried to finish this episode three times and failed, and then only managed to watch through the end by putting the Harry & David’s Harvest Collection page over three-quarters of the screen.

How scary is it? 10/10
Creepiness vibe: Off the charts
Jump scares: 2
Sense of overwhelming foreboding: Extremely high
Flapper ghosts who persuade Olivia Crain to murder her children: 1

Episode 10 (“Silence Lay Steadily”)

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

So there I was, exhausted from the perpetual scared-to-death adrenaline rush of the previous nine episodes, gearing myself up for Hill House to finally put an end to me. And the first half does have some frightening scenes! There’s an especially good one where the tall-ass man ghosts looms over Steve, and Hugh keeps chanting at him to look away.

But then it all turns into a giant pile of sentimental mush. The scariest thing about this finale is actually how it ends: After nine episodes of death and terror and the legacy of family trauma, the ending of Hill House is a chilling reminder that a montage accompanied by a Mumford-sounding dude with an acoustic guitar can show up and ruin a mood any time, anywhere.

How scary is it? 2/10
Creepiness vibe: High at first, then very, very low
Jump scares: 1 (when I yelled as the guitar cue kicked in)
Claims that having your soul trapped forever by an evil house is actually good: 1

How Scary Is Haunting of Hill House, Really?