Another confession: Your tenderhearted recapper has a low tolerance for horror. I spent a lot of the first episode grabbing my husband’s arm and then sheepishly letting go when the frights turned out to be anticlimactic. In the Haunting of Hill House opener, Mike Flanagan, the show’s director, teased us with horror-movie clichés: close-ups of people sleeping, then their eyes flicking open; long, lingering shots of empty hallways; a door left closed that opens by itself. But as Shirley Jackson (author of the original Haunting of Hill House) knew well, the most effective horror isn’t just scary — it’s also profoundly, painfully sad.
We start to approach that territory in episode two. The pace slows down, and the focus is on Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) — who, I should clarify, isn’t Shirley Jackson, but the second-oldest of the Crain siblings and the only one with anything like a normal life. She’s married to a man named Kevin Harris, and they have two children, a boy and a girl. They look like a happy family, but there’s an uneasiness to the household. Jackson fans will know that the name Harris is a red flag — James Harris was a character from English or Scottish mythology who preyed on vulnerable women as the “daemon lover,” seducing them and sweeping them off to Hell. In the first episode, Kevin seemed okay, but the mysterious checkbook Shirley discovers with his name on it suggests he might have a sinister side after all.
We still don’t know the back story of the Harris Funeral Home — was it Kevin’s family business, or did he and Shirley open it together? He does the books; she prepares the bodies for burial and handles grieving families. Earlier we saw her trying to console a little boy who didn’t want an open casket at his grandmother’s funeral, apparently because she’s haunting him: “Her eyes must hurt … because she doesn’t blink.” Shirley chooses to hear this as an expression of his grief, reassuring him that she can “fix” his grandma so that she looks the way he remembers her and “cover up” his scary thoughts. Of course, she can only fix what’s on the surface — not what’s in his head. And covering things up always works so well.
The Harris household includes Shirley’s younger sister Theodora, who’s living with them at the funeral home temporarily, though we still don’t know why. Her niece has taken her quirk of wearing gloves all the time as a fashion statement, but clearly something else is going on. Watching the last episode, I puzzled over why she put her gloves back on after her one-night stand — if she were really a germaphobe, as she claimed, wouldn’t she want to wear them during sex, too? In the novel, Theo is a kind of super-empath, capable of responding to people’s thoughts. I’m wondering if this version of the character has special powers — touch or otherwise — that the gloves muffle. That would explain why the woman she took to bed was so impressed: It’s easy to blow someone’s mind if you can also read it.
In the flashback scenes, we get a sense of what brought Shirley to her line of work. She finds a litter of abandoned newborn kittens in the garden shed at Hill House; naturally, they all die on her. Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (the lovely Carla Gugino, whom we got to see more of this episode) help her hold a funeral for the first one, finding a box in which to bury it and explaining what a eulogy is: “When we die,” Olivia says, “we turn into stories.” (Speaking of horror-movie clichés, was it necessary to have a beetle come out of the poor kitten’s mouth?) There’s another flashback to Olivia’s funeral scene, in which it’s Shirley who’s afraid to approach the open casket. “You fixed her!” she exclaims, with something like a look of dismay, to the funeral director who escorts her to it. Again, the cosmetic fix goes only so far; the images of whatever happened to Olivia’s body will linger in her children’s minds.
The one who can’t be fixed, apparently, is Luke, although Shirley tried by paying for his rehab. In the first episode, he was introduced as the world’s worst thief, strolling down the steps of his brother’s apartment building with iPad and camera in his hands. Dude, next time use a bag. (When Luke is first introduced in the novel, in which he’s the heir to Hill House, he’s identified as “a liar and a thief.”) Whatever it was that happened to the siblings in Hill House — “Dad fucked her up,” Shirley exclaims about Nell — becoming a drug addict seems like a pretty understandable way of dealing with it. “Kittens aren’t supposed to be without their mommies,” Olivia tells Shirley in the flashback. For the Crain siblings, losing their mother was probably worse, in the long run, than whatever their dad did.
In the original Hill House, part of the tragedy is the way Hugh Crain’s sins are visited upon future generations. We don’t get any more clues about what happened to Olivia, but it’s clear that one of the fundamental questions is going to be who’s responsible. Did Hugh murder his wife and try to cover up his crime by claiming that the house somehow did it, as the tabloid headlines we got a glimpse of in the last episode hinted? Or did the house make her into a monster, as Hugh seems to believe? The only hint of it is the blinding migraine she suddenly gets while arguing with Shirley over the kittens. But the emphasis on the human cost of the tragedy — measured not in jump scares but in shattered lives — is a smart choice that will allow Flanagan to dig deep, I hope.
Flanagan shows a taste for guts and gore in the scenes following Nell’s death. (The siblings are calling it a suicide, but I’m not convinced.) Despite the ickiness, the shots of Shirley embalming her sister’s body, as she insists on doing herself, are genuinely moving. As she repairs Nell’s face — which has what look like lacerations around the eyes and mouth — she remembers doing Nell’s makeup for her wedding, which should have been a happy scene but was marred by the cloud that seems to hover over the Crain siblings. (If Luke and Nell have a telepathic connection, why doesn’t she look out the window when he pulls up in a cab?) Elizabeth Reaser, who previously had small parts on Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Wife, is wonderful in this role. She’s just odd-looking enough, and her deep-set, almost feline eyes give her expressions a special depth.
• In the novel, Jackson toyed with making the Theodora character explicitly lesbian — a controversial choice in 1959 — but decided against it. Instead, she has a partner whose gender is never specified. The show’s sex scenes (so far, Theo’s the only character who’s gotten any) are a reminder of how far we’ve come.
• The hallucination Shirley has after embalming Nell might be a sign that she’s not as stable as she seems. In the first episode, Steve made a comment about the apple not falling far from the tree. She may be the one to watch out for.
• Olivia, showing Shirley her blueprint for the “forever house,” says the dining room is “the heart of the house.” That phrase is used in the novel about the “cold spot” — an area outside the former nursery that’s always freezing. In the novel, the hauntings are associated with children. With children (alas) no longer confined to a nursery where a governess watches over them, it makes sense to update the locus of family life to the dining room. If there’s a cold spot in the house in the show, we haven’t discovered it yet.
• Young Shirley and Nell feed the kittens from a bottle of milk that reads, “They came to visit, not to stay.” It’s a slogan that sounds less sinister in real life — it was meant to remind customers to return their milk bottles. The only trouble is, it was apparently used by Shady Oaks Farm in Massachusetts. What’s that bottle doing at Hill House, which is in California?
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