Director Mike Flanagan brings us yet another supernatural horror masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. Produced for Netflix, the 10-episode drama is the first instalment in The Haunting series. Loosely based on the novel written by Shirley Jackson in 1959, the story follows the paranormal experiences of the five Crain siblings who once resided in Hill House.
The Crain siblings
Hugh and Olivia Crain have five children: bestselling author Steven, Shirley who owns a mortuary with her husband, the twins Luke and Nell, and middle child Theodora who works as a child psychologist. Life may seem perfect at first for the older children but cracks are hidden carefully as they all try to overcome their traumatic childhoods. The youngest of the family, Luke struggles with drug addiction while Nell returns to their old manor and eventually commits suicide there.
In 1992, the gentle Olivia and the ambitious Hugh look forward to their stay in Hill House, intending to renovate the magnificent yet old mansion to sell it for a profit. However, the House has malevolent thoughts of its own, intending to devour those who stay. Extensive repairs are required, causing a delay in the sale. Eventually, paranormal phenomena and ghosts of the past get to the Crain family, leading to tragic deaths and the desperate escape from the mansion.
The horrific night
Olivia has become increasingly restless after meeting the ghosts of Hill House. Her strange desire to keep her children forever causes her to enter a fugue state, behaving peculiarly and dangerously. After Hugh finds Olivia having a tea party laced with rat poison, he carries the surviving children and escapes immediately. Then and there, Olivia becomes deranged and falls down the stairs, dying in the process. Her soul, however, rises and continues to walk the carpeted hallways of Hill House for an eternity.
The family fracture
After the tragic night in 1992, the surviving family members develop strained relationships with one another. Hugh, their estranged father who refuses to share the truth, has sent them to live with their aunt after their mother’s death. Further fuelling the tense relationships, the now adult Steven has published a well-received novel based on his siblings’ supernatural experiences despite being a firm non-believer.
“A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see.” – Steven Crain
Reunited reluctantly by Nell’s unexpected demise, the Crain siblings and their father have to face the truth of the horror in Hill House. Increasingly irritated by his siblings’ claims of their childhood paranormal experiences, Steven asserts that there are no ghosts but only their imagination encouraged by the history of mental illness. When Luke goes missing and the remaining family members are forced to visit their old home, then does Steven come face to face with his deceased family members, Nell and Olivia, and the many trapped souls of past residents. After the final reunion and revelation of the night, the remaining family members reconcile and live their lives as a happy family should — a happy ending that has been delayed for years.
The twist (spoiler alert!)
Nell has been plagued by visions of a Bent-Neck Lady since young. The distorted figure is disturbing, almost driving her insane every single time. Blaming the misfortunes in her life on the spectre, Nell suffers traumatic episodes whenever the Bent-Neck Lady visits her. In an attempt to overcome the horrific vision, Nell’s therapist convinced her to face her fears. Visiting her childhood home, now an abandoned place stripped of its former splendour, Nell meets her mother. Olivia, hauntingly beautiful in her prime, greets Nell warmly. In a continued attempt to keep her youngest daughter forever with her, Olivia pushes Nell off the staircase, thus breaking her neck in the process. Traversing through time and meeting the younger versions of herself, the dead Nell realises she herself is the Bent-Neck Lady. Inadvertently, Nell has caused her own death. The shockingly horrific twist is tragically played through the times.
The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional supernatural horror drama with only sudden jumpscares and loud noises. Interwoven with intricate details, every scene is performed brilliantly with a rich backstory against exalting backdrops.
A well-paced family drama imbued with elements of the supernatural, the story of each Crain member is further introduced with their hopes, fears, and dreams. Each episode focuses on one member, the appropriate pacing allows each character to be elaborately fleshed out without dawdling. Viewers can relate to the characters to a certain degree as the horror element is impressively grounded in human emotions such as grief, fear, and the sleepless nights dealing with ghosts (both metaphorically and literally).
The structure of the film follows two timelines, seamlessly transiting between the past and the present. From a family of hopeful, innocent souls to troubled and traumatised individuals with each their own baggage, their individual perspectives of their lives then and now have changed dramatically yet in a realistic manner.
Furthermore, the performance of the cast is flawless, especially the child actors and actresses, carrying out their roles wonderfully. The riveting plot, realistic acting, and the mise-en-scène have brought the story to life — Hill House may not be real but the tears it brought to my eyes definitely are.
In the end, there’s an important takeaway — there’s always a time for grief and when the time has gone, it is pertinent to let go and move forward with remembrance in the heart.