Tardy to the Party: The Haunting of Hill House

A well-timed arrival can make or break your enjoyment of an event. But sometimes circumstances beyond your control make you tardy to the party. Luckily that doesn’t always ruin a good time. In this particular unusual situation, I was tardy to not one, but three separate parties. Two of them were thrown long before I was born (an acceptable reason for my tardiness, I think)and the last one took place in early October, when I was otherwise occupied with my 31 Days of Horror and didn’t have time to partake in the fun.Thankfully, I was only about a month late to this one. They are three distinctly different parties, all with a common theme, with varying levels of execution of that theme; from elaborate and painstakingly hand-crafted to sturdy and store-bought to modest and DIY. None of these parties is better than the others, they’re simply disparate ways of celebrating the same holiday.

Imagine these gatherings represent three distinct iterations of the same story – the novel TheHaunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the 1963 black and white movie The Haunting, and the recent Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. (Side note – another movie version of TheHaunting was released in 1999, but it completely butchered the narrative and was generally regarded as awful, so I like to pretend that it doesn’t exist.) While this review will focus on the Netflix series, I re-read the novel last week and re-watched the movie at the end of October as part of my 31 Days of Horror (you can read that review here) for the sake of completeness. It was a remarkable experience, to compare three versions of something, especially since each version is depicted by a different medium. I’m pleased to report that despite my tendency of becoming completely attached to the first version of something I’m exposed to, usually resulting in my inability to accept other versions, I thoroughly enjoyed all of these stories, just as I would have had a great time at all of those Halloween parties.

Of the three, the novel and the movie are the most similar, though there are of course notable differences. As with any book adaptation, certain scenes were cut, while others were changed, and new ones added. Surprisingly, most of the characters’ personalities have been altered in the movie to the point that they’re almost entirely different people.More intriguingly, a significant number of lines taken from the book are spoken by a different character in the movie. Reading the reattribution of familiar words to characters other than those I’m used to hearing speak them was fascinating. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adaptation quite like that before.There’s also one small scene in the movie (when Eleanor is leaning back over a railing trying to look at the top of a tower) that feels out of place until it’s placed in the context of the book. Without context, it’s confusing and difficult to understand what she’s talking about in this scene, but within it, the scene makes much more sense. It seems to me that a vital part of the film, or even a line or two, ended up on the cutting room floor. Had it been left in, it could have helped the viewer understand what she was thinking. Despite these differences, both the book and the movie follow the same general storyline, more-or-less.

But what I’m really here to talk about is the Netflix series. When I first heard about it, I was unsure of whether it was connected to Shirley Jackson’s work at all; it wouldn’t be the first time two completely unrelated works to share the same title. This particular title is relatively unique, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Upon watching the trailer, I became convinced that there was some kind of link between the two, if only because of the presence of the beautiful rod iron spiral staircase that plays a key role in the story. Still, I didn’t know if this was supposed to be a continuation of sorts, picking up years after the events in the novel/movie took place, a retelling of the same events, or a completely new tale. Even the very beginning of the series kept me guessing, as it describes Hill House as having stood for 100 years (in the movie it’s 90years, in the book it’s 80 years), which still made me wonder if it was picking up after the other versions.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was a new story only very loosely based on previous iterations, and once I did, it took me a few episodes to get into it. Admittedly I was initially skeptical about the series–partly because I’m resistant to change in general and partly because I’m so attached to the versions I’d already been exposed to–but it won me over by the third episode. To give you a basis for comparison, the basic plots of both the book and movie involve a small group of people investigating a supposedly haunted house, and follows the events that unfold over the course of about a week. The series also involves a haunted house, this time focusing on a family’s relationship with it. The action alternates between the past, when the family moved into said house (completely unaware of its possible hauntedness) with the intention of fixing it up and selling it, and the present, where we see the long-term effects living in the house has had on all of them. Some of the character names from the book/movie are re-used–Eleanor,Theo, and Luke are the names of three of the five children and Hugh Crain is their father–though their relationships have been altered (the originalEleanor, Theo, and Luke are three strangers who investigate the house, and HughCrain is the man who built the house). Several scenes are similar to, or at the very least reminiscent of, scenes in the book/movie, and a fair number of lines are reused, much to my delight.

But the series is very much a separate entity, and to say it was “based on” the book is somewhat misleading, in my opinion. When it comes to narratives that are “based on” a true story, some such films are at least accurate about the big details, but many seem like they’re barely related (as in the case of the movie The Strangers, which is supposedly based on the Manson murders, but is actually only superficially linked to them). In this case, I’d venture to call the series a distant cousin to the book at best, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During the opening credits, I recognized the name of series creator, director, and writer Mike Flanagan (his wife, Kate Siegel plays adult Theo Crain), but couldn’t place it until IMDB helped me discover that he wrote and directed Hush (an excellent horror film also starring his wife) and Oculus (you’d think a movie about a haunted mirror would be stupid…it’s actually quite good).This is where my initial discomfort with the series began to grow. It felt veryOculus-y to me and, as I hold the original story in high regard, I considered the movie a form of blasphemy.

It was only upon the viewing of subsequent episodes that I was struck by an epiphany that brought me a great deal joy – The Haunting of Hill House (the series)isn’t Oculus-y…Oculus is The Haunting ofHill House (the novel) -esque! The show doesn’t borrow themes and ideas from Oculus, it’s the other way around, which makes perfect sense since the novel was published back in 1959. That realization was quickly followed by a second, that the first season of American Horror Story was clearly influenced by the novel as well. I feel silly for not noticing it before, but now that I have I’m almost proud to see how Shirley Jackson has influenced modern horror. This was my turning point, when I opened my heart to the series and began every episode with the excitement and giddiness that accompanies discovering something new.

I find it incredibly difficult to talk about it in any kind of detail because I believe all the best stories should be experienced as spoiler-free as possible in order to derive the greatest amount of pleasure. And I savored watching this show, uncovering every little piece of the puzzle (like finally finding out what’s up with the red room) until I had the complete, horrifyingly beautiful picture. Be warned, you have to totally focus on it; look away for a second and you could miss a surprisingly important minute detail. In fact, I’d definitely recommend re-watching the series with knowledge of the ending, so you can catch all of the things you missed the first time around. I’ve just finished my second viewing, watching with my uninitiated parents, so that I could monitor their viewing and make sure they didn’t miss anything.

So, what can I say without ruining it? Well, first of all, it’s about more than just a haunted house. It’s about haunted people and how our past can shape our present. It’s about the importance of listening to others. It’s about loss. It’s about the heartbreaking experiences that both addicts and their loved ones go through as they struggle to achieve long-term sobriety.And, of course, at its core, it’s about a house that was born bad and the humans and ghosts that dwell within it. The format of the series is unique and easy to miss, at least initially. Of the ten episodes, seven focus on a specific character (one episode for each child, plus one for mom and one for dad), while three are more of an ensemble effort. The first five episodes focus on the adult children, with flashbacks to their own personal experiences in the house. It’s pretty cool how they weave the stories together, with the adult children briefly interacting with each other during each one. Such scenes are often repeated in the other sibling’s episode, so we’re able to watch events unfold between them from each individual’s point of view. Things are not often what they seem in these instances, so it’s best to withhold judgement until you see the other sibling’s side of the story.

My main complaint about the series involves the way the parents handle their children’s fears, repeatedly dismissing the vivid descriptions of their experiences as the result of bad dreams and overactive imaginations. In some cases it’s understandable, but in others it’s unforgivable. For example, there’s a scene when two of the sisters hear loud banging sounds seemingly coming from all around them. When they describe the incident to their father, he suggests that it was the sound of noisy old pipes, something they’re not used to since they only just moved in. Fair enough. But when one of the young children accidentally rides the dumbwaiter down to a secret basement (and predictably gets stuck down there briefly), the parents assure him that what he’s saying is impossible since no such room exists on the house’s blueprints, without ever investigating his claims. I’m sorry, are they suggesting the dumbwaiter goes down to nothing at all? That makes even less sense. After he gave them a detailed description of the room, including information about where to find it, at minimum they should have done at least a cursory search for it, if only to put their son’s mind at ease. As far as I’m concerned, that’s like having a child express concern there’s a monster under his/her bed, and the parent brushing his/her fear aside without checking under there. It’s ridiculous. Parents should know better.

Even when the parents are reasonable about their children’s fears, they still somehow manage to fall short. For instance, despite the fact they don’t believe their youngest daughter’s assertion that a bent-necked lady keeps visiting her at night, they allow her to sleep in a different room when she asks to. The mom even stays with her, sleeping on the floor just in case she gets scared again. I thought that was parenting well done. Until, you know, the mom got up in the middle of the night and left her daughter there alone. Inevitably, the bent-necked lady pops up shortly after her hasty exit. I don’t get it. Her response was great until she left her sleeping, terrified daughter by herself. If you’re going to stay with her, you stay the entire night. I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable, you stay. Period. End of story.

Another issue I have is with the ending; I’m not sure how I feel about it. I don’t particularly like it, although I don’t necessarily have a better one. My thoughts on the matter include spoilers, so only highlight here if you’re more tardy to this party than I was (or if you don’t mind spoilers, I guess).

The end is too…cheerful. On one hand, I agree that this particular family has been through enough, so it’s kinda nice to give them a happy ending (or, I guess, as happy as it can be, considering the circumstances). On the other, it goes against everything the original book and movie stand for. The house is evil. It collects souls, for lack of a better phrase, and those souls are not happy. I suppose you could argue that at least some of those souls might be content, depending on your interpretation, but “happy” certainly isn’t an accurate adjective to describe them. The book and movie conclude with the line “…and whatever walked there, walked alone.” whereas the final line of the series was “…and whatever walked there, walked together,” which really bothered me. It perverts the line and completely distorts the message of the original work. There is no “happily ever after” for the ghosts of Hill House, and if there was, would the house really be so bad after all? I mean, yeah you’re dead, but if you get to go on existing without pain and suffering in the company of your loved ones, is that so terrible? I was surprised to discover that an alternate ending was considered, but ultimately scrapped. I think this alternative is closer in tone to the original, even though it still implies that being trapped in the house isn’t particularly unpleasant. Unless you interpret it as the house keeping them comfortable while it slowly consumes them…that everything seems great while they’re still clinging to life, but will become horrific once they’ve died and their souls are trapped for eternity. That would be pretty in line with the original. I prefer that to the actual ending, though it’s only somewhat gratifying.

Regardless of its flaws, The Haunting of Hill House was entertaining. It was an excellent blend of old and new, paying respectful homage to previous incarnations while incorporating a number of original ideas into the mix. Scary, but not terrifying (I read an article that claimed some people had trouble sleeping after watching it, but my not-so-fond-of-horror parents were fine), complex but not impossible to follow, it keeps you guessing until the last episode, and then it explains away anything you’re still unclear about. All your questions will be answered, all loose ends will be tied up, and you’ll appreciate that even if you’re not entirely satisfied with its conclusion. This is a rare case in which my dislike of the ending didn’t ruin the rest of a series for me. The work as a whole was so well done that I can actually overlook that which would usually irrevocably destroy my enthusiasm for it. So I recommend watching it, as well as watching the 1963 movie and reading the book. The movie will always be my favorite–it’s the first version I saw–but all of the versions are exceptional in their own special ways and are worth your time. So give them a chance…you’ll be haunted by the feeling that you’re missing out if you don’t.

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