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How Netflix Made The Haunting of Hill House Less Scary

The show based on Shirley Jackson’s novel ultimately shies away from the book’s raw horror.

Steve Dietl/Netflix

In an early scene of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling 1959 gothic novel, The Haunting of Hill House, a young woman named Eleanor Vance drives through tall trees. She is on her way to a menacing mansion, where she has pledged to spend the summer taking part in a supernatural study. A crackpot anthropologist named Dr. John Montague has decided that he wants to prove the existence of the paranormal once and for all, and sends out letters to several strangers who have had past experiences with ghosts and grief, inviting them to serve as his “assistants” in the house for several months.

It’s not a particularly alluring offer: to put your life on hold to sleep in haunted bedrooms while your blood-curdling screams are monitored. The two women who accept this proposition already have little to lose. Theodora (no last name given) is an eccentric artist and free spirit, a wandering woman who loves adventure almost as much as she hates commitment and emotional connection. Eleanor’s attraction to Hill House is a bit more complicated. She is in mourning for her mother, for whom she cared through eleven long years of debilitating illness. For a decade, Eleanor lived more or less as an on-call nurse, and she doesn’t quite know how to live without her familial obligations. So she takes a wild swing at independence: She sees Hill House as a formal break, a distraction, possibly even a direction.           

Of course both women end up scared out of their minds. They are manipulated, tortured, and psychologically unraveled by the specters that inhabit the house. But Eleanor doesn’t know this yet. On her drive up the hill, she peers into cozy homes along the road and begins to fantasize about other paths she might have taken. She sees a country cottage and begins to daydream. “I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step,” Jackson writes. “I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.”

These words find their way into the final episode of The Haunting of Hill House, a new 10-part series on Netflix from horror director Mike Flanagan, but it is not Eleanor who says them. Flanagan’s version of the show is not a direct adaptation, but a family drama inspired by the novel. He keeps much of Jackson’s glinty language, a few of her characters’ names, and the central conceit of a haunted house, but loses her original plot. Instead, Hill House, the Netflix show, follows the Crain family, a brood of five siblings and two parents who move into the house (in the series, it sits somewhere in rural Western Massachusetts) in the 1990s for a summer with the intention of fixing it up and selling it for cash. 

In some ways, it makes sense that Flanagan departed from the book for a television series: We are used to settling in for sweeping, interconnected epics about families in hour-long chunks (a tradition that took off with The Sopranos and runs through This is Us). It would be difficult to stretch the fights and freak scares that take place inside Hill House into ten hours without a family to follow outside its walls. And yet, there is something lost in translation. Shirley Jackson’s novel is about lonesome people without anchors or attachments; they are vulnerable to the house because they are so vulnerable and untethered in life. Flanagan’s series places more webbing between its characters, even if the webs are made of spiders. He is not content to allow Hill House to simply isolate its visitors and take them apart; he needs to show some redemption in all the terror. Jackson’s novel leaves you queasy, uncertain about the world. Flanagan’s show attempts to leave you with a gooey heart and the warm assurance of human connection.

The Crain family, in the world of the show, are professional home renovators. When we first meet Hugh, shortly after he has purchased Hill House in the nineties, (he is played by Henry Thomas; later, in the modern-day flash-forward timeline, Timothy Hutton plays the older version of the character) we learn that he and his wife Olivia (Carla Gugino) are professional flippers. In another universe, they would have a delightful show on HGTV. Hugh does the tactile cosmetic work (spackling, carpentry, reupholstery, ridding the basement of black mold), while Olivia draws up the blueprints, conceiving of the big picture. But Hill House doesn’t yield to their (lucrative) fantasies of domesticity. It tends to drive its occupants mad; or perhaps it simply reveals the madness they always had lurking underneath.

The line about toasting apples in one’s own hearth belongs, in the screen version, to Olivia. She utters these words to her oldest son Stephen in the finale, when she is already ghost. This is not much of a spoiler: We know from the first episode that only six members of the Crain family make it out of Hill House alive. Olivia killed herself there, leaping from the spiral staircase in the library. We also know that she might have snapped mentally, and she might have tried to harm her own children had Hugh not smuggled them out of the house in the middle of the night. When she speaks from beyond the grave to Stephen, she talks about how she fell in love with houses as a little girl. Her father died when she was young, and so she indulged a rich imaginative life, where she could feel whole and safe inside structures she had built. In this way, Olivia becomes like the Eleanor of Jackson’s novel—she learned to pour her boundless grief into architectural containers. 

In the show, Olivia’s youngest daughter is named Eleanor (they call her Nell). She has another daughter named Theodora, another named Shirley, and a son called Luke (all Jackson homages). Stephen Crain has made his millions in adulthood by writing a novel called The Haunting of Hill House, attempting to explain what his family went through in the months leading up to his mother’s death, a move that the children find vaguely ethical, and which also undercuts the feminist messaging of Jackson’s original work (why put her masterwork in a man’s hands?).

It is important that all of the women of the Crain family, when they grow up, look alike. They are all brunettes, with pale skin and sunken eyes. They all dress similarly: Nell and Olivia share a penchant for flowing white nightgowns, while Theodora and Shirley are always wearing complimentary shades of dark blue and black. When we meet the Crain children in the house (the show is constantly shifting between the past and the present, between the claustrophobic creepiness of the house and the floaty surreality of everything outside of it), they each have unique styles and personalities: Theo is a performer, Shirley is an empath, Stephen is the gallant big brother, Nell is an anxious skittery softie (as is Luke, her twin, who later becomes a heroin addict). As they age, however, their quirks begin to converge: The same ghost torments them all.

Their mother’s death radiates throughout their lives, hovering over their actions. The older children are able to suppress it. Stephen narrates his way through it, Theo compensates with meaningless sex, Shirley becomes a control-freak. The younger twins suffer more; Luke self-medicates and Nell struggles with harrowing depression and anxiety. She suffers from sleep paralysis and night terrors, which feature the image of a “bent-neck lady,” a ghost from her Hill House days. The Bent-Neck Lady too is a brunette in a billowing nightgown. 

The Haunting of Hill House is a show about generational trauma, about the silent presence of ghosts in families. Olivia lost her mind and her life in Hill House, but it is never clear whether or not the house was really her undoing. It is possible that her instability began in childhood, with a pain that she was never able to process. Similarly, her own children felt a gnawing sense of unease inside Hill House, with an unraveling mother and distracted father, and they might have visualized those fears into ghostly shapes. In a heartbreaking scene, an adult Nell also leaps from the staircase in Hill House, feeling so isolated and alone in her journey through mental illness that she decides to follow her mother’s path. 

What Hill House suggests is that a family that refuses to talk about its skeletons will be ruled by those skeletons. In the finale, every surviving member of the Crain clan is forced to bring their darkest secrets to light, in an attempt to grow closer and learn to love one another. It ends on a practically sunny note: An acoustic guitar plays and the family unit is restored to safety, far away from Hill House.

It is a moving message, but one that seems to stray from the terrors of Jackson’s original text; in her novel, there was never any sanity to be found in Hill House. It was a dark and deranged place, and one that was pulsing with feral, feminine energy. It beckoned its inhabitants to come home as if it were a sinister womb, a nest that kills its baby birds. The television series, as scary and brutal as it can be, ultimately shies away from allowing the house to devour the innocent. 

In episode five, the series’ best, we find out that the “Bent-Neck Lady,” the shadowy woman that Nell has been seeing since her youth, was a future version of herself all along. She has premonitions of dying by hanging, of breaking her own neck to get away from her pain. This is the closest the series gets to the raw horror of Jackson’s novel, in which the house mutates to play on each character’s worst fears. Nell always worries that she will die alone and then she does. She never gets to experience the warm house with apples in the hearth. She’s doomed from the beginning, living with a family that will never take her fear seriously. The only comfort she has, her only constant companion, is her own ghost.