Netflix is releasing so much content so fast these days that it’s sometimes hard for anything to really stand out. But when a show does break out from the streaming service deluge of content, it usually does so in a big way. That’s the case with The Haunting of Hill House, a horror TV series that dropped on October 12th as a little pre-Halloween treat. But while those who tuned in looking for scares certainly got frights and terrifying imagery in spades, The Haunting of Hill House is a far deeper, more emotionally devastating series than most expected. Creator Mike Flanagan digs into childhood trauma and its long-lasting effects well into adulthood, resulting in a series that’s more Six Feet Under than The Conjuring—and is all the better for it.
The Haunting of Hill House is based on Shirley Jackson’s iconic horror novel of the same name, but Flanagan wisely realized that in order to adapt this book into a 10-episode season of TV, he needed to expand the scope of the story. Indeed, the Netflix series feels positively epic, but without huge visual effects, wide vistas, or a globe-trotting narrative. Instead, the epic nature of Hill House comes from the show’s eagerness to dig deep into each and every character in its large ensemble, and that intense focus leads to big emotional payoffs.
Hill House plays out in two separate timelines, each of which is revealed piecemeal over the course of the show’s first season, with the Cain family at its heart. Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Cugino) are parents to five children, and they all move into an old mansion called Hill House in the summer of 1992, intending to flip it. But as revealed in the first episode, one night something horrible happens. The father wakes the children and runs them out to the car to leave their mother behind, with no firm answers as to what exactly happened that night. Her death is alluded to, but the other timeline—the one set in the present—finds the now-grown children trying to come to terms with the events that occurred at Hill House that summer, learning that old wounds never fully heal.
The interweaving between the two timelines is executed brilliantly by Flanagan, and indeed is a testament to the craft involved in this series. The atmospheric cinematography is immersive, and while the two timelines have a slightly different aesthetic, they both feel like they’re part of the same story. In fact, Flanagan’s expertise as a filmmaker is on full display in the season’s sixth episode, which is crafted using only three, 20-minute, unbroken shots. That technique in and of itself is breathtaking, especially given that the episode takes place in two very different settings. But more than that, there’s a motivation behind telling the story this way beyond it being a neat trick.
That sixth episode also revolves around a character’s death, and takes place at a funeral home for the present day storyline and in the sprawling atrium of Hill House from the past. I won’t spoil how Flanagan manages to blend these two locations in one seamless shot, but the entire episode had my jaw on the ground and then had me in tears. It’s a haunting, candid chronicle of grief and the varying reactions to losing a loved one, which really gets to the heart of what Haunting of Hill House is all about: family.
Families are difficult; families are great. Families are vindictive; families are loving. Two things can be true at once, and while not every family is the same, there’s a shared something that exists among family members that’s tough to ignore. The Haunting of Hill House is, on the surface, about ghosts. But ghosts can be anything. They can manifest as addiction, guilt, fear, greed, and even loss. The show brilliantly chronicles how these seven very different family members lived their lives, and how their lives were forever altered by the malevolence at the heart of Hill House. The care with which Flanagan lays out these characters is readily apparent, and all of the performers bring their A-game, from veteran Timothy Hutton to newcomer Victoria Pedretti (in what should be a star-making performance as the most PTSD-riddled member of the Crain family, Nell).
Flanagan makes sure not to get too muddled in the mythology or history of Hill House itself, which proves to be a wise decision. Instead of flooding the series with unanswered questions and mystery boxes, Flanagan plants a few key mysteries but lets the characters lead the storytelling. When answers do come, they almost always have a thematic resonance behind them. Even the most terrifying elements of the series have many layers under the surface.
While the literal haunting of Hill House kicks the story into gear, the series very quickly becomes a family drama in the vein of Six Feet Under. Indeed, it may have more in common with that HBO series than The Conjuring, although don’t get me wrong—The Haunting of Hill House is also insanely scary. Again, two things can be true at once. The Haunting of Hill House is both an absolutely terrifying ghost story, but it’s also an emotionally devastating familial drama. And it’s one of the best shows Netflix has released thus far.