First, a confession: I’ve never gone into a TV show with more trepidation. The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is my favorite novel by Shirley Jackson, an author with whom I’m so obsessed that I spent six years writing her biography. Stephen King called this dark jewel of a book one of the “only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” (The other was Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.) It’s less than 200 pages, but I don’t recommend it as bedtime reading. When The New York Times recently asked a bunch of horror aficionados to name the scariest book they ever read, three of them mentioned Hill House.
It’s hard to say exactly what makes the book so scary, but my guess is that it’s the ambiguity. When the story begins, a small group of ad hoc “psychical researchers” — that is, 1950s ghost hunters — are living in the house to record its supernatural manifestations, which are … impressive. Something pounds as loud as a cannonball on the bedroom doors at night and tries to open them. Messages appear written in blood on the walls. One character believes she is clutching another’s hand in the dark, only to discover when the lights go on that no one is there. At first, it appears that the house, which itself may possess supernatural powers, identifies Eleanor — a spinster who has spent most of her life taking care of her invalid mother — as the most vulnerable of the crew and preys on her feelings of isolation. But as the hauntings progress, it seems increasingly possible that the so-called ghosts might actually be Eleanor’s psychic projections. The scariest place of all, the book tells us, is inside our own heads.
I suspect this is also why Hill House has resisted adaptation. Yes, there was The Haunting, made in 1963 by none other than Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), with Julie Harris as Eleanor and Claire Bloom as Theodora, her charming and flamboyant counterpart. Wise follows Jackson in never showing exactly what the source of the haunting is, and in the hands of a modern-day director, the tension might be unbearable. But the movie indulges in all the campy cliches of 1950s and 60s horror films — creepy soundtrack, dramatic camera angles, overly emotive acting — and it’s just not scary. (About the more recent adaptation by Jan de Bont, the less said, the better; it’s generally acknowledged as a disaster.)
So it’s for the best that the Netflix series by director Mike Flanagan is a new story inspired by the novel rather than a faithful adaptation. There are plenty of Easter eggs, and I’ll be only too happy to point them out. But you don’t need to know the book to watch the show, though it will deepen your understanding of the characters and — I suspect — your ability to predict what’s going to happen. What I’m most curious to discover is how Flanagan, who also wrote the show, plans to update the themes of the original — which, coming at the tail end of the 1950s, played with some of that decade’s tension over gender roles as well as its general claustrophobia — to mirror contemporary American anxieties.
It all starts with the house. The series opens with a voiceover of a male voice reading the novel’s inimitable first paragraph:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might stand for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
There’s one important adjustment: Instead of “80 years,” the time is given as “one hundred years before my family moved in.” The speaker is Steve Crain (Michiel Huisman), the author of popular books describing famous hauntings, including one called The Haunting of Hill House. The show will alternate between “then” and “now”: the period the Crain family spent living in the house in the 1980s and their adult lives. In the first scene, young Steve (Paxton Singleton), the eldest, comforts his little sister Nell (Violet McGraw), who’s terrified after seeing a “bent-neck lady” at the foot of her bed. Luke (Julian Hilliard), her twin, spends a lot of time alone in the treehouse, making drawings of a mysterious little girl in a blue dress. There’s also Theodora (Mckenna Grace) — we don’t see much of her as a child in this episode — and Shirley (Lulu Wilson), the oldest of the girls and the least supernaturally inclined: Her sleep-talking involves pandas and macaroni.
In the original, Hill House was built by a man named Hugh Crain, who turns out to have some nasty quirks. Here, Hugh (Henry Thomas) is the children’s father, and he’s bought the house intending to renovate and flip it. The house, it should be said, is cast perfectly: a big old Gothic place that manages to be elegant and ugly at the same time. As in the novel, it’s filled with patterned wallpaper, heavy wood paneling, and creepy-looking statues on pedestals. The color palette is also just right — muted, sickly-looking reds and blues and greens. In the book, it’s very much a character in its own right; I’m curious to see how that will play out here.
The central mystery of the house emanates from the tower. Nell and Shirley try to open a red door at the top of a narrow, twisty iron staircase, but it won’t budge. As they head back down, the camera, lingering on the strip of light shining at the threshold, shows us the shadow of something — someone? — walking away. The novel’s readers already know that a local girl hired as a caretaker for one of the original Crain family is said to have hanged herself from the tower. Later, Nell will have another vision of a “bent-neck lady” hanging above her, dark hair shielding her face. Is it their mother, Olivia (Carla Gugino), who gets left behind when Hugh flees with the kids in the family’s wood-paneled station wagon? (“We can’t leave Mom!” the children scream, to which Hugh replies, “That’s not Mom.”) Or someone — something — else?
In the present, adult Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), who now lives outside Boston, runs the Harris Funeral Home together with her husband, Kevin. Living with them is Theodora (Kate Siegel), whose main occupation seems to be having one-night stands with women she meets in bars. Steve, who’s researching a new book, interviews a woman who claims to have seen her husband’s ghost shortly after his horrific death in an accident. Explaining that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, Steve sets up his equipment, settles in for the night, and discovers a rational explanation for the details of her haunting. “A ghost can be a lot of things,” he tells her. “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see.” It’s a theory that’s very similar to Jackson’s own beliefs.
What the siblings — who, despite tensions between them, are still mysteriously in sync — feel most guilty about is Nell, who’s just as much of a mess as her childhood self was: “One foot in crazy and the other on a banana peel.” Steve and Shirley both ignore her frantic phone calls; by the end of the episode, she’s dead. We get a glimpse of her in a white dress, dancing through a cobwebby Hill House, her arm raised to encircle an invisible partner. In the climactic scene of the novel, Eleanor, losing her mind, also dances through the house, banging on the doors and finally climbing the iron staircase to the tower, where the others fear that she will throw herself over the edge. Does Nell commit suicide? Or is there an evil in the house that finally gets her? If the series follows the novel’s love of ambiguity, we may never find out. The only thing we can be sure of is that Steve’s ghost-hunting technology can’t capture what goes on in people’s minds.
• Nell (Eleanor), Luke, and Theodora are all characters in the original novel; the names, like Shirley’s, seem intended mainly as homage, although the new characters share characteristics with their namesakes. Steve, I assume, is a reference to Stephen King.
• The Dudleys, husband and wife, are the caretakers of Hill House in the novel as well as the show. Mrs. Dudley (Annabeth Gish), the cook, is now a Jesus freak, mostly to give Olivia Crain a chance to show off her enlightened parenting philosophies. Mr. Dudley, as the resident handyman, is considerably more cheerful than his predecessor.
• The doorknobs in Hill House are shaped like lion’s heads. That detail is new to the show, although in an early draft of the novel Hill House had a lion’s head knocker on the front door. In the final version of the novel, the knocker has the face of a child.
• I would have guessed that the childhood scenes were supposed to be in the 1970s, but in Luke’s treehouse there’s an E.T.-themed lunchbox, a sly reminder of Henry Thomas’s role as Elliott. The movie came out in 1982.
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