The horror genre is currently in the midst of a modern renaissance thanks to films like A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Get Out, and Stephen King’s It, but the recent boom hasn’t been limited to the big screen. Stranger Things is one of Netflix’s buzziest original series, and already this year, AMC gave us an all-timer in The Terror: a fictionalized account of a real British nautical expedition that never returned from the Arctic. And joining The Terror now as a terrifying but welcome surprise is Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which dropped its 10-episode first season on Friday.
From promising horror auteur Mike Flanagan—the director behind Hush, Gerald’s Game, and Ouija: Origin of Evil—Hill House is a very loose adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, taking the book’s haunted house setting and repackaging it as a family drama spanning the course of several decades. And though Netflix has no shortage of original content, Hill House is the streamer’s first true horror series. Whereas Stranger Things and Black Mirror are horror/ science-fiction hybrids, and the forthcoming Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a teen drama—essentially a spookier Riverdale—Flanagan’s show is a classic psychological horror and ghost story, spread out over 10 hours. Like The Terror, Hill House is not just an affecting character-focused drama, but one that takes advantage of your investment in its intricately drawn-out story to produce scares that are twice as effective.
Hill House is successful on a variety of levels, transcending its primal thrills to become one of the most pleasant surprises in TV this year. Here’s why it works.
This Is Us, but Haunted
Like NBC’s (low-key manipulative, anti-Crock-Pot) megahit, Hill House is centered on a grief-stricken family, the Crains. Couple Hugh and Olivia (played by Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino, respectively) move into Hill House with their five children one summer, with the intention of flipping the place for profit. Obviously, things don’t go as planned as the house slowly comes to life around them—a sequence of events that tragically comes to a head one evening when Olivia dies by suicide.
As adults years later, the Crain kids are still dealing with the effects of that summer in the house, even though not all of them are willing to admit something supernatural was afoot. Eldest brother Steve (Michiel Huisman) is a successful horror writer who used his family’s tragedy for financial gain, a decision that’s alienated him from the rest of his family. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a type-A funeral director unwilling to compromise about anything. Middle child Theo (Kate Siegel) is a child psychologist afraid of human connection outside of her work; and the youngest siblings, twins Luke and Nell (Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Victoria Pedretti, respectively), are both so disturbed by (perhaps literal) demons that they’re barely functional. All of the kids are estranged from their dad (played by Timothy Hutton in the latter timeline), who believes the less they know about what happened to their mom, the better.
Similar to how This Is Us used Jack’s mysterious death to wring pathos and intrigue from a sprawling narrative jumping between different timelines, Hill House keeps the circumstances of Olivia’s death close to the vest, spending the first half of the season fleshing out the Crain kids’ pasts and presents in episodic vignettes. Because of Hill House, the family is, in short, pretty messed up. Whether or not actual ghosts are manifesting around them—the series frequently has ghosts lurking in the background of shots, if only to freak you out even more—the Crain family is haunted by grief, unspoken anxieties, and shame, which only builds up over the years as everyone avoids each other.
The show doesn’t leave up for debate whether Hill House is actually haunted or not (TL;DR it’s haunted AF); what matters more than anything is whether the Crains are actually going to listen to each other and talk about their experiences. Whether they can come together to overcome their shared obstacle. The push-pull between the surviving members of the family—as some of them are literally pulled back to the chilling estate years later—is the spine-tingling thread that holds the series together. These themes of shared trauma are devastatingly conveyed by Hill House’s talented ensemble—especially by Gugino as Olivia, who visits her family both in floral dresses and ragged nightgowns, vacillating between something warm and wicked. The best horror stories lend themselves to emotional investment, and by the end of Hill House, you just want all the Crains to be safe and talking to one another (preferably in therapy).
The Hill House
A haunted house story is only as good as, well, its haunted house, and Hill House lives up to Jackson’s iconic description of the locale as being “born bad.” Turning his eye toward Hill House’s gothic hallways, bedrooms, and creaky staircases, Flanagan incorporates some of the clever staging he used in Hush—a thriller set in a remote cabin in the woods that rarely leaves the confines of its rooms. Some of the series’ most effective and consistent thrills are the long, sweeping shots of characters roaming the house when there’s a bump in the night—the kind of moment when someone will peek into a room after a strange noise, and as they turn and continue walking down the hallway, a ghoulish figure emerges a few feet behind them. (Of course, the Crains rarely turn around to see this.)
The house feels so insidious and teeming with nightmare-inducing entities—as a little kid and even as an adult, Nell frequently sees a haunted figure she calls “The Bent-Neck Lady,” and it’s as horrifying as it sounds—that it almost suspends belief that the family would stay there for more than a couple of nights before cutting their losses and getting the hell out. But the longer the Crains stay at Hill House, the longer their own experiences are embedded in the house’s DNA, as though the place is feeding off of them.
That Hill House continually expresses the ways in which the house is truly alive is essential to the show’s suspense, making the environment feel lived in. In other words, Hill House will make you want to avoid old Victorian houses for a long time. I hope you don’t currently live in one.
Mike Flanagan, One of Horror’s Best Working Directors
With Hill House, Flanagan hasn’t just taken some of his previous collaborators—like Gugino, Reaser, Siegel (who is also his wife), and Lulu Wilson—and put them under one roof; he also does some of the best technical work of his career. The sixth episode of the season, “Two Storms,” continues the beguiling TV trend of executing lengthy single takes, setting up two long tracking shots in the past and present at Hill House and a funeral parlor, respectively. The result of Flanagan’s work in “Two Storms” is technically impressive—especially when spectral presences occasionally come into the frame, and one character’s corpse is swapped out for a younger version of themselves off-camera—but doesn’t feel gimmicky or done merely for the sake of itself. The episode is the first time the adult Crains (and their father) are all in the same room, so letting the characters go at each other while the camera lingers makes “Two Storms” feel like a particularly heartbreaking and spooky stage play. Flanagan’s directorial choices are always made in service of the characters and the story (which he also helped write), even if the flashy and impressive execution distract a bit from the plot.
Flanagan’s arrow continues to point up—his next project is the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a quasi-sequel to The Shining starring Ewan McGregor and Rebecca Ferguson. Following in the footsteps of King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film is a massive endeavor for any director, but Hill House is as good a sign as any that Flanagan is up to the task. Hill House is the kind of success that comes from somebody taking all of their previous successes—in Flanagan’s case, psychological horror, complicated family dynamics, creepy staging, and clever camera work—and putting them into one series.
While the ending of The Haunting of Hill House—minor spoiler alert—doesn’t really lend itself to a second season, the series wasn’t explicitly marketed as a limited series by Netflix. It’s possible the streamer will do with Hill House what AMC did with The Terror, in which unexpected success led to a second season focused on a new setting being green-lit.
Perhaps that’d be for the best: Not only does Netflix have its first truly great horror series on its hands, it wouldn’t have to let go of it yet, either. But if Hill House is just a one-off series, it will go down as not just a terrifying addition to the Netflix catalog, but a template for how to make a good horror series.