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Is The Haunting of Hill House a ghost story?
But, yes, it rightly belongs to the horror genre — at least, until the final minutes of the last episode.
Some spoilers ahead.
Based on the 1959 gothic horror novel by Shirley Jackson, the 10-episode series does start out as a spine-chilling story about the Hugh and Olivia Crain and their five children — Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell — who move into Hill House in the summer of 1992. Hugh and Olivia are in the business of flipping houses and selling them. With the size of the Hill House project, they envision that after selling it, they can build their "forever house" and never have to move again.
But there are a few problems. A black mold spreads on the house making renovation difficult. There is a room with a red door that no key can open. Nell starts seeing an apparition that she calls the Bent-neck Lady which appears near her bed and leaves her paralyzed with fear. Theo perceives feelings and impressions from people and objects that she touches with her bare hands. Even in summer, she wears a sweater because she feels cold inside the house. Luke gets trapped in the basement when the dumbwaiter gets mysteriously stuck, something attacks him but no one believes him. Olivia, suffering from stress, agrees to take a break and visit her sister, Janet.
What the family encountered at Hill House, how they escaped and how each lived out his / her adult life are told in a non-linear narrative. And you don't get to experience the full horror of the experience of living in that haunted house until you're way too invested in the series to quit — quit for whatever reason, whether it's because the visuals and moods are already giving you nightmares or because you find the story moving too slowly.
I watched The Haunting of Hill House over three nights — the first four episodes on the first night, the next four on the second night and the last two on the third night. The first four episodes got me hooked. See, the book had been adapted into film twice before — in 1963 and in 1999. I've never seen the 1963 film but the 1999 adaptation, The Haunting, that starred Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor was plain terrible. Then, along came Netflix's adaptation, four episodes in and I already knew that it was going to be ten times better, if not more, than the 1999 version.
At that point, I felt that Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House was everything that I want a horror story should be — creepy old house, fantastic lighting to make it appear even creepier, and ghostly figures that I was almost sure were former inhabitants of the house that, for one reason or another, were trapped there in agony or grief, or both. So, I reserved the following evening for more of Hill House.
The next four episodes got me excited about how the story would conclude. I was thrilled at the idea that there is a dimension where time and space collide, and that future experiences can and does affect the present of a person. The time-space continuum has been the subject of countless films but I had never seen it used in a horror story. It's such a great twist and a wonderful new context for what could have been just another haunted house ghost story.
The ninth episode almost made me sure that the series would land on my Top 5 horror stories of all time... but the ending was so disappointing. In conclusion, The Haunting of Hill House might be a scary story but not a ghost story at all with the adult Steven rationalizing all their experiences about the house as nothing more than manifestations of their personal fears and frustrations.
Perhaps, the ending is more in tune with the novel which leaves the reader hanging as to whether what the characters experienced at Hill House were imagined or real. And that's great because the reader is left to ponder the 50% possibility that ghosts may have indeed haunted the house. But Mike Flanagan, the Netflix's series writer and director, killed that mystery with psychological babble.
Flanagan did admit that it wasn't the ending that was originally intended and he changed it because, "I'd come to love the characters so much that I wanted them to be happy."
What the heck.
And that makes writing about Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House difficult. Quantitatively, I could say that it's 99% terrific and 1% lousy with the 1% covering the last few minutes of the 10th episode where Steven was delivering his psycho-babble analysis. But the thing is, that lousy 1% ruined what was so great about the 99%. I can't honestly rave and say that Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House is as good as most who have seen it claim. Not with that ending.