Netflix just unleashed The Haunting of Hill House and what you discover within its walls may take you by surprise. I admit I wasn’t prepared for what I watched this weekend, (regardless of having read the Shirley Jackson novel multiple times). For me, what writer / director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) created was less of an adaptation of the source material and more a “What If” storyline. What if a family was raised within the walls of such a demented structure?
10 time-bending episodes reveal the answer. Secrets and specters of the Crain family are present through a series of flashbacks. We see the Crain kids wander Hill House daily, while their parents attempt to flip the place in order to build their “Forever House.” Their experiences help us understand where their current adult selves have been and where their motivations come from. Because of the time shifting, we meet two sets of The Crain Family; the younger Crains and the current adult Crains.
Throughout the episodes, there are echoes of Jackson’s lyrical prose and touches of the book’s eeriness. Anyone familiar with the novel will recognize the names Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Hugh (one of the Crain daughters is named Shirley after the author). You’ll also smile over the cup of stars and the episodes with The Dudleys. But the new series takes the horror several steps further than the source material. Before we can delve into the dread, though, we need to meet The Crains.
The Crain Family
It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. ~ Shirley Jackson
We first encounter the Crains as their younger counterparts, but it doesn’t take long for us to see who they have become as adults. Henry Thomas (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial) and Timothy Hutton (Leverage) play the young and current day Hugh Crain, respectively. Daddy Crain is married to Olivia “Liv” Craine played by Carla Gugino (Gerald’s Game). Together they have five children.
Steve is the eldest, played by Paxton Singleton as a child. Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) portrays adult Steven, who has become a best-selling author. Next is Shirley, whose younger self is portrayed by Lulu Wilson. Elizabeth Reaser (Ouija: Origin of Evil) plays the adult Shirley, who is a mortician running her own funeral home. Middle child Theodora, aka “Theo,” is considered “sensitive” by her mother as a kid, played by McKenna Grace. As an adult Theo, Kate Siegal (Hush), has become a child psychologist. Finally, the twins are the youngest of the brood. Julian Hilliard portrays little Luke, the easily frightened, 90-seconds-0lder brother to Nell. Still scared as an adult, we later find Luke, Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Dracula, 2013), has been in and out of rehab for years. His twin, Eleanor, or “Nell,” suffers with sleep paralysis from a young age. Played as a child by Violet McGraw, Nell grows up and continues to struggle with her nightmare visions. Victoria Pedretti (Once Upon a Time In Hollywood) is the tragic, adult version of Eleanor.
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“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?” ~ Shirley Jackson
While The Crains only intend on spending a summer at Hill House, events happen that cause them to stay longer. Inexplicable black mold shows up in odd places, hail storms shatter windows and water buckles the walls. What once seemed fixable to Hugh is starting to make Liv feel more and more scattered.
Then there is the Red Room, which remains locked, door unbreakable. Despite attempts to get in with a master-key, screwdriver, and even sledge-hammer, the Red Room remains closed. Or does it? We see movement under the door at times and Hugh suspects that the water causing the black mold could be coming from the barricaded room. Stranger still, we learn that there was a tea party in the Red Room that took place on the last night The Craines spent in Hill House.
The house’s caretakers, The Dudleys, refuse to work after sunset, preferring to stay in their own home a short distance from Hill House. Annabeth Gish (The X-Files) is the firm-yet-doting Mrs. Dudley. In Episode 3, Luke refers to Mrs. Dudley as being mean. But strangely insightful Theo corrects him saying, “She’s not mean… she’s scared.”
Mr. Dudley, portrayed by Robert Longstreet (Sorry to Bother You), also seems standoffish about the house. He suggests to Hugh that maybe Liv should take a break from being in the house all the time.
“Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” ~ Steven Crain
Hugh tells his kids that their dreams are like the ocean and can spill out sometimes, but not to be afraid. However, Hill House will dampen your own dreams, too, with apparitions like “Bent-Neck Lady” and the tall man in a bowler hat. Truly, the show has moments that will ice your spine, but it’s deeper than typical jump scares and gore. The Haunting of Hill House maintains the psychological fear that Jackson captured in her novel and takes it even further with raw family drama.
As children, the Crain kids experience the tragic loss of their mother, which leaves its imprint on them well into adulthood. Their coping mechanisms vary between denial (Steven and Shirley), anger (Theo), depression, (Nell) and addiction (Luke). They lash out at one another, yet maintain the loving concern that siblings share. While widower Hugh maintains that it was the house that ultimately killed Olivia, some of their children disagree. Having compartmentalized their trauma in the house so well, Steven and Shirley can’t understand their father’s delusion whatsoever.
Steve earns a living selling his family’s ghost story to the chagrin of his siblings, even though he denies believing in such schlock. In his estimation, his family suffers from mental illness, some of which he feels has gone untreated.
Shirley is too practical to admit when something paranormal is happening around her. Instead, she prefers to keep her responsible feet planted firmly on the ground.
Theo experiences the supernatural on a daily basis. Her brother Steve describes her as “basically a clenched fist with hair.” She puts up walls to protect herself, but uses her gift to help children in need.
The twins, Luke and Nell, are closest of all. The duo experience “the twin thing” (which Nell’s therapist reduces to “shared empathy” during one of their sessions). Both experience specters from their past that makes it hard to cope in the present.
Journeys End in Lovers Meeting
The brutal reality of The Crain family’s pain and loss has enough roots in the real world to give a viewer pause. Some of the scenes are visceral, others more poignant. And none better than those in Episode 6, “Two Storms,” where the family reunion takes place in Shirley’s funeral home. The shots go on, uncut, for stretches at a time. The mood is tense, mysterious. The setting is somber, sweeping. The acting is strong to match the story. The entire scene is so real to life, so painful to watch, that when the scares crop up, they’re enough to set your teeth chattering.
The final episode, “Silence Lay Steadily,” holds onto much of what made the previous 9 episodes so enthralling. More horrors discovered, more heartbreak unearthed. However, the dread dissipates as Hill House begins spinning into something more sacred. Mr. Dudley remarks through his sadness that “This house, it’s full of precious, precious things.”
If I had to grumble at all, it would be that the show ends on a nearly happy note. Do The Crains deserve to be happy? I think they’ve earned it, certainly, after all their tragedies. But it’s unsettling to me that we’re almost lead to feel content that Hill House is allowed to remain. I can understand the why, but I don’t have to feel content about it. It feels as though they’re smoothing over the terror with a bit too much sentimentality.
On the whole, the series is an impressive accomplishment. It balances the psychological terrors we face in life with the supernatural scares we horror fans yearn to see. Mike Flanagan may not have kept the source material intact, but he certainly recreates the stifling feel of Shirley Jackson’s novel. The female characters are strong and able as those written by Jackson. The story is solid and not only perfect for bingeing, but for re-watching as well. How else are you going to spot all the ghosts you missed the first time around?