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.
Read: Shirley Jackson’s haunted women
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.