The Real Horror in The Haunting of Hill House

The Netflix adaptation discards the authentic fear at the heart of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel.

Netflix / The Atlantic / Paul Spella

When Eleanor Vance first encounters the eponymous mansion in Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, it seems to consume her before she even enters it. The house is “vile,” she thinks; “it is diseased.” It looms over her, “enormous and dark,” twisting her stomach and chilling the air around her. As Eleanor stands on the veranda of Hill House, it comes “around her in a rush,” enveloping her, swallowing her whole.

Hill House is less a home than a panic attack, a fog of anxiety and dread that disrupts Eleanor’s physiological state. But anxiety is nothing new to Eleanor, a shy 32-year-old woman who’s spent the past 11 years nursing her invalid mother. Eleanor finds it exceedingly difficult to talk to strangers, and her negative thoughts about herself pervade the book, which is told almost entirely from her perspective. “I am very foolish,” she frets in one moment. During a conversation, she thinks, “Why am I talking?” Later, she confesses, “I’m no good at talking to people and saying things.” Eleanor, rootless in the wake of her mother’s death, has come to Hill House for the summer to assist Dr. Montague, an investigator of paranormal phenomena who believes that the house is haunted. As the novel proceeds, it’s hard to discern where Hill House’s darkness ends and Eleanor’s personal agitation begins.

The Haunting of Hill House is superlative in many regards. It’s a masterful, restrained work of horror fiction (Stephen King, Carmen Maria Machado, and Neil Gaiman agree). The novel is a model for how to elicit profound terror without ever revealing a specific ghost or monster, one The Blair Witch Project mimics almost perfectly. But The Haunting is also a frighteningly sharp investigation of the female psyche, rooted in Eleanor’s sheltered, internalized life and her increasingly fragmented mind. Haunted houses are fraught with symbolism: They signify that homes—places supposed to be sanctuaries and shelters—can instead be corrupted. Eleanor, who’s only recently been relieved of the burden of caring for her mother, has ambiguous feelings about Hill House, and about community versus solitude, confinement versus freedom.

Jackson, who suffered from agoraphobia and often felt oppressed by her role as a wife and mother, seems to process her own troubled relationship with the concept of home in her story. The Haunting of Hill House is so terrifying because Jackson’s anxiety saturates her words. The reader remains stuck in Eleanor’s mind as it unravels, feeling her discomfort, self-doubt, and terror. “Fear,” Dr. Montague tells Eleanor in one moment, “is the relinquishment of logic”—as apt a summation of chronic anxiety as it is of the reason ghost stories abide.

But in the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, adapted from Jackson’s novel only in the loosest sense, this quote is changed. Fear might be the anti-logic, the willing relinquishment of reasonable patterns, one of the show’s protagonists, Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman), says in the series’s closing moments, “but so, it seems, is love.” The series abandons Jackson’s distinctly female gothic for a more generic examination of grief and trauma. Over 10 episodes, it’s stylish, moving, and sinister, riddled with ghosts both literal and metaphorical. But it’s hard not to feel like something has been lost in translation—that horror as a genre, bereft as it is of female voices, is missing what actually terrifies many of us.

In Jackson’s novel, Hill House was built in the late-19th century by an eccentric man named Hugh Crain. Eleanor is one of several people who join Dr. Montague in his investigation of Hill House’s supposed supernatural elements. The group also includes Theodora, a vivacious artist, and Luke, a good-natured but feckless young man who’s the eventual heir to Hill House and its property. Over a period of days, the four experience inexplicable banging in the middle of the night, doors that perpetually swing shut, feelings of “sickening, degrading cold,” mysterious voices and messages scrawled on the wall that read HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. In one scene, Theodora finds that all her clothes are covered in a substance that looks like blood; Luke and Dr. Montague, it’s heavily hinted, see apparitions they decline to describe. The longer they stay in the house, the more intent it appears on driving them apart, both physically and emotionally.

In the Netflix series, created by Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Gerald’s Game), Hugh Crain is instead the patriarch of a family that moves into Hill House during the 1980s, intent on restoring the property and flipping it for profit. In flashbacks, Hugh is played by Henry Thomas; he and his wife, Olivia (Carla Gugino), have five children, all of whom begin to have strange encounters while living in the house. Steven (Paxton Singleton), the oldest, is the least susceptible. Shirley (Lulu Wilson) fosters a family of abandoned kittens that die one by one. Theo (Mckenna Grace) senses monsters and feels a hand that isn’t apparently human clutch hers one night (an homage to a moment Eleanor also experiences in the book). Luke (Julian Hilliard) and Nell (Violet McGraw), twins and the youngest members of the family, are haunted by recurrent ghosts: a woman Nell calls “the bent-neck lady,” and an eerily tall apparition with a bowler hat and a cane that taps along the floor.

In the present day, it’s clear that Hill House’s ghosts aren’t the only ones tormenting the Crains. Their mother died at the house in an incident that becomes one of the central mysteries of the series, and the trauma from that event has rippled through the lives of the surviving family members. Hugh (now played by Timothy Hutton) is largely estranged from his children, while Steven (Huisman) has alienated his siblings by writing hugely successful horror fiction that profits from his family’s dark history. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) has turned her fixation with “solving” death into a career as a mortician. Theo (Kate Siegel) is a psychologist who avoids all relationships. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a recovering heroin addict. Nell (Victoria Pedretti) starts to see the bent-neck lady again in adulthood after a profound personal loss.

The first five episodes weave elegantly through the lives of the individual siblings, devoting an hour or so to each one by juxtaposing their current states with their experiences as children. As befits the genre, Flanagan leans heavily on visual storytelling. Hill House is an architectural monstrosity with no balance or symmetry in its construction; its interiors are dull and lifeless, as if the fog that surrounds the exterior has seeped inside, too. If you can move past the practical quibbles (would 1980s-era flippers really be renovating cursed-looking properties nowhere near a school district?), the period aesthetic of the house taps into a chilling, Turn of the Screw atmosphere that implies ghosts are everywhere.

And they are. The Haunting of Hill House hides wraiths and apparitions in different episodes as eerie Easter eggs for viewers to find. (In case anyone missed any, the show’s official Twitter account has been offering up their locations.) The result, for viewers, is that every scene starts to feel like being in a dark location while frightened: Every errant prop or doorway or glass panel seems to suggest things that aren’t actually there. The series spools out its frights unpredictably, hushing its audio to prepare for jump scares that aren’t where you think they are, and dropping others out of nowhere.

The problem with what’s essentially a 10-hour horror movie, though, is that familiarity breeds contempt. The first sighting of the bent-neck lady hovering near Nell is truly, stomach-twistingly frightening; by what feels like the 72nd time she appears, she’s no scarier than a spooky makeup tutorial on YouTube. The dark shadows in the corners of Hill House’s corridors start to feel more ominous than the white-faced walking corpses that actually appear. And the sixth episode, which is set in Shirley’s funeral parlor and consists of extended tracking shots (one is 17 minutes long) that swirl and eddy around the Crains, finds more suspense and claustrophobia in a brightly lit, sage-green room than any successive scenes can draw from Hill House itself.

The series also suffers from writing that’s generally poor and challenging for the actors at best. When Jackson reveals Hill House in her novel, it’s in terms that load the act of description with emotion and darkness: the house’s “maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky turned [it] into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake.” Luke, by contrast, turns to his father in one scene and says, “This house is bad, Dad. It’s bad.” The show occasionally drops sections of Jackson’s text into the story, as if Steven is writing it, but the contrast between her expansive, mannered prose and the more mundane chitchat between the characters is a gulf that’s hard to cross.

What’s fundamentally hard to accept, though, is the way the series takes Jackson’s conception of Hill House as a magnifying glass for human frailty and neuters it. Without spoiling the ending, which is both strange and strangely heartfelt, Flanagan’s show spends the best part of 10 episodes detailing how a cursed house has ruined the life of everyone who encounters it, and then seemingly changes its mind. The overriding theme of The Haunting of Hill House is grief and its accompanying sense of fear—fear of losing the people you love the most, and fear of not being able to protect them. That kind of fear, the show suggests, can turn people into monsters.

But can it really? Or is it a more benign, loving, ubiquitous kind of sentiment that most people can recognize and readily put aside? The sense of terror that comes from reading Jackson’s book comes instead from Eleanor’s cloying, troubled mind—her feelings of isolation, her permanent state of unease, her sense of being awkwardly at odds with herself and everyone around her. The fact that Eleanor never actually sees a ghost, even while Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague do, keeps the reader in a state of terror that never finds its release. But it also points to another fear: that the malignancy Eleanor senses in the house might actually come from her. That her darkest, most self-negating thoughts might actually be true.