As you return home to family or family returns home to you this week, you will be inevitably confronted with the past. Childhood homes always look smaller and grownup children always look too tall. I’m from New England, and when I go home I notice the shortness of the days and the dragging feeling of evening all afternoon. When the dark has settled and the wine has been poured, there will be stories and questions. This year, after your uncle has finally broached the subject of what everyone is watching on Netflix, I invite you to reply with a question of your own:
Have you ever seen a ghost? Really seen one? And by seen I mean felt, and by felt I mean—it was always there.
Mike Flanagan’s hit Netflix adaption The Haunting of Hill House, a ten part mini-series based on the famous Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, desperately wants to ask this question. The show, which follows the Crane family as they wander apart and are pushed back together by tragedy, is constantly seeking to define the very word. What is a ghost? Sometimes, a ghost is the way an old house settles before falling to sleep in early morning. Sometimes, a ghost is a spot of cold air or the feeling of a warm hand when there is no hand. Other times it is the raw outcome of loss, grief, and trauma. Once or twice it is simply a bad dream hiding five steps away—just far enough to be shrouded in shadow, to be cast in doubt. Always, an encounter with a ghost ripples through the family and rattles believers and skeptics alike.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Really seen one? And by seen I mean felt, and by felt I mean—it was always there.
At its worst The Haunting of Hill House takes the abstraction of the paranormal too far, and we are subjected to monologue, montage, and guitar strings. At its best the show trusts us, its characters, and Jackson’s dark universe, holding the camera steady while the house unravels its trauma and reveals itself slowly. We live in the age of reddit-television, and our shows demand disassembly. These same shows also invite discovery.
When my editor and I sat down to binge the show together (mostly for moral support) we would discuss the episodes like kids around the campfire. Trading our own tales and telling ghost stories, we would ask each other the natural questions: have you seen one? What was it like? And every night, after the gin was poured and the lights turned down, one of us would get around to telling a true story…
Have you ever seen a ghost?
Long before she fled to the city, Mother’s daughter was not the daughter she’d expected. The mother woke drowsy and disoriented that morning but wasted no time in pursuing the daughter. Eventually, she found her, and moved in to the apartment above hers. Every day she spied on the daughter, watching her leave at seven in a maid’s costume to return again at seven in the evening. On days that the daughter returned late, the mother paced the window and chewed on grapes until the skin melted to paste on her tongue. After the daughter would settle, the mother would grab her cane and tap, tap, tap on the floor. She moved about the apartment, and tap-tap-tapped. She crouched downstairs to the empty hallway that shared a wall with her daughter’s and—tap, tap, tap.
One morning was especially hard for the daughter to leave her apartment: doors slammed in the hallway and dogs barked outside. Shaking, she eventually left for the grocer and saw Mother on the threshold of the building. She took her bags and ushered her inside. Removing her gloves, and grimacing at the apartment’s odor, Mother consoled her daughter, “Mother knows best.”
The problem was, they soon remembered, Mother and Daughter did not like each other very much.
As is the trend in this post Game of Thrones world, The Haunting of Hill House marries camera perspective to character perspective, and almost every episode is given to one of the Crain’s (the exceptions being the sixth episode and the finale). The pilot follows Steven, the oldest son who firmly states he doesn’t believe in ghosts despite being a horror author—to questionably stand in for Jackson. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari relies on mostly static shots and dollies to construct Steven’s rigid world, and he chooses to light his space in heavily contrasted neutral colors. Compare this to the camera given to his preternaturally sensitive but emotionally isolated sister Theo. Her episode, “Touch,” has a number of shots from above and in the corners of rooms, invoking the feeling that someone is always lurking, watching.
Separately, the camera is careful to frame Theo as distant from whoever is sharing the scene with her. Sometimes she is placed behind barriers, others in front of starkly contrasted backgrounds, and once she is foregrounded in focus while her one-time lover is blurred into the dark behind her. Fimognari’s skill is in its highest form in the sixth episode, “Two Storms.” As one of the two episodes that does not mostly focus on a single character, “Two Storms” seamlessly enjoins the events of two nights thirty years apart. Adding to this difficult task is Flanagan’s decision to shoot the episode in five 15-20 minute unbroken scenes (called one-takes). Fimognari’s camera moves snake-like on a Steadicam around the set, changing in position and speed to mirror the perspective of who he is following. As the characters become drunk and more argumentative (and yes there’s plenty of that in the family) the fluidity of the shots increase and the effect is powerful. Stellar performances from Timothy Hutton and John Thomas (both playing Hugh Crain) ground the tangled narrative of the episode, and the house feels more Hill-like here in these sixty minutes than any other point in the series. When the family is brought back together to mourn, old trauma rises to the surface. As they drink one room over from where Nell’s casket lies open, their tempers flare and dissipate, and there is some bonding, but mostly, there is breaking. The most moving scene comes at the end of the episode, where Nell’s ghost looks over the scene, desolate and alone, representing the one who is never seen, the one, who despite her efforts, is never heard.
Truly scary stories don’t have wrap-ups, because truly scary things don’t have tidy endings (usually they don’t have endings).
Living together again, Mother and Daughter were reminded they did not get along. Things only got worse once mother fell ill. The daughter was convinced Mother’s complaining had made her ill; Mother resented that remark. The city was too loud and the closets were too small and the people were too young and the wallpaper was too thin and the walls—something moved inside the walls. Then there was the smell. Since day one, there was the smell. The mother pulled up the floorboards and hammered holes in the walls and tore the wallpaper and traced the baseboard of the apartment on her knees, following the odor. “Coming, mother, coming. Just a minute,” the daughter would call in the night but they could never locate the smell. “Child, it’s gotten on my skin,” the mother said, and the daughter brought in several doctors. The mother cursed their incompetence and threw them out. The daughter eventually stopped being around, stopped yelling to Mother that she was “coming.”
Before long, the mother died. Her arm hung from the bed, limply, over an overturned bowl of grapes. The daughter stepped on some by accident before she noticed. Mother’s eyes were open and her skin was stained.
When Flanagan was approached by Netflix to adapt Jackson’s novel, he was more than hesitant. Like many of his colleagues in horror, he grew up with the book, and didn’t see how it would translate into a ten hour show. There was not enough material that could be displayed—the novel occupied the mindspace of its narrator, Eleanor, and bore too many unknowns that would doubtlessly resist interpretation and adaptation. He had no desire to incense any Hill House fans with an unfaithful adaptation. Instead, he chose to write a narrative divorced from the plot of the novel but descending from the same universe. The final product is oddly self-aware—full of easter eggs and even entire paragraphs from the novel in new voices (the most explicit being the opening paragraph of the book serving as the opening narration for the show). These details—teacups rimmed with stars, a copy of “The Lottery,” yellowed wallpaper—ensure Shirley Jackson’s presence is felt throughout the series, but simultaneously they suggest she has become a spirit herself. As she fades into the background like the little faces Flanagan hides for patient viewers, so does the book this is all built on. Like all stories about the paranormal and the strange, Hill House warps and changes over time, always reflecting the voice of the one doing the telling. Flanagan fails to quite capture what Jackson’s Hill House stood for, though he did, in part, capture what stood within.
After mother died, the daughter moved into a top floor apartment across town and stopped saying Mother’s name. When people asked how she died, the daughter said, “Same as anyone.” People began to talk: Mother choked on a grape; she was neglected; she rotted from mold.
They said the daughter checked the wallpaper every night, they said she barked back at barking dogs, they said she kicked the walking sticks from under old folks. They said she threw up at the sight of grapes. There were never too few or too many stories to go round.
Where The Haunting of Hill House fails, unfortunately, is at its close. Truly scary stories don’t have wrap-ups, because truly scary things don’t have tidy endings (usually they don’t have endings). Shirley Jackson’s novel concludes in tragedy and has no patience for answering our questions. Flanagan, conversely, is no longer asking the question of what a ghost is, and is instead trying to answer it. In a series of convoluted monologues that somehow feel oversimplified, Nell and Steven undermine Jackson’s core conceit: some things, late at night after everyone else has gone to sleep, grip you and shake you until you are consumed by them. These things can be causal but they can also be terrifyingly random. Shirley Jackson understood this deeply, and the latter of the two fears is never far from her pages.
As Jackson fades into the background like the little faces Flanagan hides for patient viewers, so does the book this is all built on.
To a true Hill House fan, Flanagan failed to deliver the complexity of Jackson’s story of Eleanor. Her tale was not fit for the rough hands and narrow mind of disbelieving Steven. Jackson told a story about a lonely woman with neither the support nor the love of her friends or family, who lived on borrowed dreams, who survived entirely on the life of her imagination. This woman felt lost and trapped and craved attention, even attention so dark and ominous as that exuded by Hill House. For the first time in her life, Eleanor felt spoken for, she felt something call out to her, she felt a sense of belonging. Eleanor’s tale is tragic, it is not idyllic by any means. But Jackson captured a sweet and disturbing complexity of the female mind and she left many questions unanswered as they are, in reality. Jackson spoke to girls and women who at one time or other could relate to quirky, awkward Eleanor. As for the haunted house tale—especially from a feminist tradition—it is a tale of trauma and untold secrets and silenced voices. Nell was primarily that voice in the show, until she was reduced to a scapegoat to save the rest—the beautiful young woman as martyr.
So, if you decide to commit ten hours of your break to chasing frights by watching The Haunting of Hill House, I urge you to allow yourself a few more to read the source material.
As happens often in any city, there was a jumper from the top floor who some say was the daughter, and others say, wasn’t. But who knows? Who’s to say but the living what happens of the dead?