Happy Halloween! If you are a horror fan and you haven’t watched the Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House, I highly recommend you sit down for the ten hours it takes to watch it all. If you have read the book the series is based upon you will realize that it is the definition of a very loose adaptation. Many names are recycled, plot points reused, and broad strokes painted, but in the end the story is very different. And this is a good thing.
The Haunting of Hill House already received a very faithful cinematic treatment in 1969’s The Haunting from director Robert Wise (with an accompanying terrible American remake in 1999). It was refreshing to see a familiar story get a new take from Netflix, this time focusing on the scariest thing of all: family.
In the original novel, the Crain family were the landowners and builders of Hill House, all of whom were driven insane and died in various horrible ways by the malevolent presence in their home. The Netflix show recasts them as a family of home flippers who have invested in the haunted Hill House as their latest project. The familial drama as it relates to the supernatural projects of the house takes center stage this time around, and it’s powerful stuff.
I’ve long held that most modern horror films and television shows are terrible, because they so often lack the very literary roots of the genre. Genuinely good horror delves so deep into the subconscious that it’s nothing but inky blackness obscuring our true fears. The fear of death, your own or a loved ones. The fear of mental illness, real or imagined. And of course, the fear of the unknown, the actual ghosts.
This is where the screen, big or small, so often fails. Subconscious is notoriously difficult to portray visually. Many Stephen King adaptations fail miserably because the internalization of his characters is so important. The Haunting of Hill House succeeds spectacularly at delving into the traumatized members of the Crain family. All five children and both parents receive an episode in the limelight where we really get to know them as people, and how the House has come to envelop their lives and poison their relationships with one another.
Subtlety is sorely lacking in contemporary horror, and while the series does indulge in a few jump scare moments, the real horror lurks around the edges of the screen. Just take a look at all the hidden horror in between frames. This is the cinematic equivalent of reading and then rereading a passage in a book over and over again, going back because you’re sure you’ve missed something. I often did this while reading The Haunting of Hill House and similar fare. The dread is palpable.
I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again. The best horror has its feet firmly in a literary tradition. It’s less about the demon girl popping up behind you in the mirror and screaming her undead lungs off, and more about the circumstances of the demon girl’s death, and her state of mind when she surrendered her soul to Satan, or what have one. One makes you jump out of your seat for a few moments, the other stays with you for years.