The Haunting of Hill House was a hugely influential horror novel, and it’s a pretty big deal that Netflix is now adapting it. As one of the few books from the genre’s golden age that has become a film (and, in fact, a series) it’s been celebrated as something of an equal to The Exorcist or The Shining.
There is a lot to love about the new 10-episode Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, but there are also a few things that might be off-putting. The first is the series’s clumsy handling of the premise, which, at its heart, is about generations of grief and trauma.
It’s a common plot device in horror dramas to depict generations of family trauma in a way that makes it feel as though they are all connected, but the show seems to take this concept a step too far. It does so by ignoring the sex and gender dynamics that are at the core of Jackson’s novel, and replacing them with a more generic examination of grief and trauma.
That’s not to say that this version of the story doesn’t work: It’s quite stylish, moving and sinister. There are creaky hallways, closing doors, shuttered windows, unsettling angles, ill-advised walks alone, and plenty of things that literally go bump in the night.
But there is also a problem with it, and that’s that it doesn’t make any sense. As a writer and an avid reader of horror, I know how hard it can be to write a story that makes sense and is not simply surreal or confusing.
To achieve this, you have to make sure you’re doing a bunch of things right. The biggest thing is that you have to make the audience believe that what they’re seeing is real.
The other important thing is that you have to give the audience the right kind of information to build a solid narrative from it. That’s not to say that you don’t have to do it in an interesting way; it just means that you need to do it in a way that isn’t boring or predictable.
In this case, the writer and director Mike Flanagan is a bright light in the Blumhouse stable, and he does a terrific job of building a compelling narrative around what is effectively a series of short stories. He’s not content to just make us wonder what might be in Hill House and where everyone is going to go, he wants to show some redemption and, ultimately, hope that we’ll be able to get past the terror and be left with a warm and fuzzy heart.
There are a lot of things that make Hill House a very dark and disturbing film, but a lot of them don’t work as well in the 10-episode format as they would in an actual novel. The story itself, which is told in a series of flashbacks, isn’t long enough to really let you see the characters, and so the show ends up feeling like it’s not telling an actual story at all.