Cherie Priest: How To Build a Haunted House

Cherie Priest is an amazing and award-winning horror author — one whose resume, outside of amazingness and awards, is very hard to sum up. She’s published over twenty books since 2007, in genres ranging from “young adult thriller comic” (I Am Princess X, 2015) to “steampunk zombies” (her Hugo-nominated 2009 novel Boneshaker). I was drawn to Priest’s work, predictably, through a more traditional vein: She writes really, really great haunted houses.

Priest’s 2016 book, The Family Plot, about a home salvage team stripping an evil Southern mansion for parts, was the only thing that got me through a horrific move. Her latest YA book, The Agony House (illustrated by Tara O’Connor) returns to the hybrid novel-slash-comic form of I Am Princess X to tell yet another haunted house story — about Denise, a New Orleans teenager who finds a banned comic book and/or unspeakable evil living in the attic of her new house.

I spoke to Priest by e-mail about the possibilities of the “feminist Gothic,” strong female characters and weak male ones, and what it takes to create a haunted house that feels like somebody’s actual home.

The first book of yours that I read was The Family Plot, from 2016, which is very much a haunted-house story. The Agony House is, unsurprisingly, also about a house. What is it about that particular genre that appeals to you? 

I moved a lot as a kid. My dad was in the army, but he and my mother divorced when I was small and then I bounced back and forth between them, all over the country, until I went off to college - and after that? I mostly rented garbage apartments, packing up and heading for someplace new every two or three years as the rent went up or my situation changed. So I definitely find some weird romance in the idea of having a family home, the kind you grow up in - the kind you return to for holidays. The kind that gets passed down and kept in the same family that built it, ages before. But right alongside the warm fantasy of a family home... is all the baggage that comes with such a place. All the drama, all the births, all the deaths, all the people who've passed through the place as guests. A good haunted house is a place that's been seasoned with stories. It's a four-walled microcosm of the human experience. 

One thing about your haunted houses, which makes them unique, is that they are very real places. You explain what sort of wood the staircase is made of, and why it matters. You make sure we know whether the rooms are air-conditioned or not, whether there’s mold or asbestos. The Agony House has something horrible up in the attic, but we also spend a lot of time learning about the New Orleans real estate market and gentrification. It’s that Stephen King tradition of horror realism — your houses don’t feel like nightmares or surreal staging grounds, they feel like actual old houses that happen to have dead people in them. How do you set about designing a haunted house? 

Broadly speaking, a haunted house needs two things besides the spectral dead — history and context. Since you mentioned Stephen King, his story 1408, and the resulting movie, are an excellent study in something in that vein that I find difficult to articulate. The eponymous location is just an evil hotel room (as Samuel L. Jackson so bluntly informs John Cusack) but it could be any room, in any hotel, in any city. It's the details that set it apart. The room 1408 has the same shampoo, individually wrapped bars of soap, the triangle-folded toilet paper edges, and rolled-up towels as any other hotel room. But it also has an unhinged malevolence, a gleeful cruelty, and malicious tendency to dangle hope. It is an abattoir dressed as a DoubleTree. Hell, it's done so nicely that you don't need much in the way of motive to sell it — and that's quite a trick, in my opinion. 

Likewise, you can take literally any house and say that it's haunted — and tell a story about ghosts, set inside it — but if you want the physical location to be its own character and/or a credible participant in the narrative, it's worth explaining how it got the way it is, and why that matters in the grander scheme of things. The devil is in the details, and so is everything else. 

When it comes to the mystery in The Agony House, it wasn't enough to give the kids a comic book full of clues. The mystery in the comic only makes sense when you know about the woman who lived in the house, and the man who was in her life, and the difficulties she faced in her career. The house only makes sense when you know that it's in a neighborhood full of largely lower-income people of color who are wary of newcomers, in a city that's still recovering from a storm that hit a dozen years ago, in a region with an especially dark history with regards to race and money and power.

A good haunted house should be anchored by details to a place, to a time, to a person or family, or even an event. These are heavy things  — the "weight of history" and all that — and heavy things give even the most mundane places the gravitas necessary to hold up under the weight of a ghost story.

Haunted houses are a very gothic trope — and gothic horror is a very feminine genre, all about home and family and the dangers of intimate relationships. But where a traditional gothic heroine is typically working to uncover some horrible secret within her family, your heroines are often dealing with the ghosts of women from prior eras in history, and the injustices they faced. The Family Plot is about unplanned pregnancy; The Agony House is about a time in history when stories about rebellious, competent women were censored and erased. Is there such a thing as a feminist gothic? Are you setting out to write them? 

I don't know if "feminist gothic" is a formal sub-genre or not, but I'm quite happy to plant a flag and rally my stories beneath it. (Along with fellow gothic-enthusiasts like Leanna Renee Hieber, for example.) 

I enjoy writing gothics because they hit two of my storytelling sweet spots: ghosts, and people who lack agency. The desperate girl who takes a job as a live-in housekeeper for a mysterious old man; the second wife who figures out that something terrible happened to the first Mrs. So-And-So, but won't bring it up for fear of meeting the same fate; the governess whose young charges never dare speak of what happened to their mother. More often than not a gothic heroine is the second wife, or a governess, or stepdaughter... someone living in the house who isn't native to it; someone half a step down in a family hierarchy, with less power and fewer options.

When a gothic's secret is dragged into the light, the spell typically is broken and violence ensues. There's at least a climax, possibly an escape, and definitely some bloody mayhem. So the trick (if you should find yourself trapped in a gothic drama, I suppose) is to aggressively ignore the secret until you can escape it. Or barring that, ignore it until it becomes someone else's problem... or until everyone who gives a damn about it is dead. Once that happens, it's up to some unrelated player to take the stage and excavate the mystery, exhume the ghosts, and so forth. 

That's how The Family Plot and The Agony House are both set up: the women who drive those books didn't participate in the events that led up to the hauntings; they happen to stumble upon — and are effectively saddled with — the aftermath thereof.

At its core (at least from a certain slant) a gothic is horror story about being poor and vulnerable, and lacking options. With the addition of, like, billowing gowns and craggy moors and stuff. But a female gothic heroine - or a feminist one, specifically (I would argue), takes initiative to excavate the secrets even when they aren't hers, and even when it might be dangerous to do so. That's where my favorite part of the story happens. I don't know why. Maybe I'm just nosy.

The Box of Birds: BIRDBOX (dir. Susanne Bier, 2018)

A few concerns: 

1) Every time I get a new haircut, I see it on Sandra Bullock about a month later. Gravity forever ended the shaggy-pixie-with-bangs phase of my existence. My long, beachy waves were doomed. I can never thoroughly embody the unwholesome edge or glamour I seek, as the world’s most determinedly wholesome movie star is always right behind me, in line for the barber’s chair, endowing every style choice with coltish all-American charm. It is very frustrating. 

This has been my review of the jaw-length bob with no bangs or gradation in back and lightly choppy ends, a very nice haircut sported by Sandra Bullock in the hit movie BIRDBOX.

1a) The title is actually “Bird Box,” with a very confusing font, but I am physically incapable of thinking of that title as two words. I will type it accordingly.  

2) In Birdbox, Sandra Bullock plays a single, working artist who is eight months pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want. She goes to her doctor for prenatal exams, only to stand sadly in the bathroom stall holding pamphlets that say CONSIDERING ADOPTION? on the front. Her sister comes over to give her lectures on the joy of motherhood, because Sandy hates the very idea of motherhood and has evidently been saying so, loudly, for three straight trimesters. In this way, we can intuit that Birdbox is set in a futuristic dystopia after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, because come on, in what world has this woman not already had an abortion? 

3) Also, although I’m glad we’re now doing this with female movie stars and not just male ones, I would like to point out that Sandra Bullock — who, again, is supposedly in the third trimester of her pregnancy for much of Birdbox — is fifty-four years old. 

4) I watched Birdbox with my husband, a man who considers movies to be less an art form than a set of conversation prompts. I watched A Quiet Place with him and he spoke for, I think, fifteen uninterrupted minutes, simply because none of the characters had piped up to distract him.

Birdbox is frequently compared to A Quiet Place, because its monsters have sensory triggers — in Birdbox, the monster makes you commit suicide if you look at it; in A Quiet Place, the monster eats you if you make a noise — but let me tell you, one feature of watching Birdbox with my husband is that I now know there are many more places from which Birdbox could have ripped off its premise. There is a podcast about monsters that kill you if you look at them. There is a book about them. (No, not the book Birdbox is based on. There are two.) The monsters are sort of like the suicide plague in The Happening. They are sort of like the Medusa, who are sort of like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who. There are a lot of monsters that kill you if you look at them, is my point, and now I know about nearly all of them. 

There are no monsters that kill you if you talk over a movie. I know that, too.

5) Sandra Bullock, running from invisible suicide monsters, finds shelter where God intended it: Among a set of charming and recognizable character actors, all of whom will die to provide fodder for her journey. These include Sarah Paulson (her sister, instantly dead), B.D. Wong (a homeowner, almost instantly dead), John Malkovich (Malkovich, Malkovich) and Lil Rel Howery, who is apparently on a list for Guys In Horror Movies Whose Wild Theory Turns Out To Be Correct. 

Lil Rel’s theory is especially wild this time. A few excerpts: 

So, in summary: There have been monsters in various mythologies, they were all real, they were all invisible suicide monsters as it turns out, and Lil Rel found out about it on Google during NaNoWriMo. 

Screenwriters: You can just say “invisible suicide monsters!” You don’t need a mythology if you have no plans to go into it! You don’t actually have to have someone say “ah, yes, invisible suicide monsters, as have been spoken of through all the world’s religions,” especially not if the invisible suicide monsters are actually not in all world religions, and you just took it from some guy’s podcast.

6) Sandra Bullock is very competent and strong in this movie. Lest we get the idea that women are competent and strong in general, they introduce yet another pregnant lady, who, we are encouraged to think, is more typical of the species: Olympia the Big Pregnant Idiot. 

Here is a quick summary of Olympia: In one of the movie’s major set pieces, all the other characters realize they’ll starve without food, so they take a car with blacked-out windows to the grocery store, where some birds go nuts in the presence of the monster (thus inspiring the titular Bird Box) just before Lil Rel is killed (RIP) and they all pile into the car and come back into the house screaming and sobbing and mourning their fallen colleague but with the crucial supplies and/or box of birds they need to live another day. 

At which point Olympia, who has been at home doing nothing this entire time, stares vacantly at them and says the following: “Birdies??????” 

7) Lil Rel’s theory did not explain why birds can sense the invisible suicide monsters.

8) Lil Rel’s theory did not explain why mentally ill people who see the monster survive, start worshiping it and try to rip everybody’s blindfolds off. 

9) Lil Rel’s theory did not explain, frankly, anything about these monsters, except the fact that they exist, and are every other kind of monster that has ever existed.

This information plays no role in the plot, Lil Rel! Nobody thinks their baby is a lobster at any point in Birdbox!

10) Alas, Sandra’s time in Xavier’s Home for Gifted Character Actors is short, for someone lets in Gary, an impish, hollow-eyed British man who says everything in an ominous sing-song. Gary, in the world’s least surprising development, turns out to worship the monster, and kills everyone while Sandra and Olympia are giving birth. Who, I ask you, is stupid enough to let an ominous British man into their house in the middle of a horror movie? 

Oh, Olympia. I bet Olympia thinks her baby is a lobster, actually. Not because of the monster. It’s just how she is. 

11) By the end of the movie, Sandra is just straight-up talking to Olympia like she’s a dog. 

GET OVER HERE, OLYMPIA! GET! OLYMPIA! NO BARKIES!  

12) At any rate, Gary — like a pitiless reality TV audience — kills all but the two hottest housemates, Sandra and Trevante Rhodes, who is now, by default, Sandra’s boyfriend. They live together for five happy years, rearing her baby as well as Olympia’s, before hearing of a magical commune down the river, and Trevante runs out into the road with no blindfold on to save Sandra from monster-worshipers. I should mention, here, that Lil Rel Howery also dies by running straight at the monster to save Sandra. Black men do not fare well in the cruel, Bullock-centric world of Birdbox. 

Were Lil Rel Howery alive, maybe he could explain how Sandra and Trevante can fuck for five years straight in the middle of the apocalypse, with no access to birth control, and still manage to avoid having more children. Admittedly, it may have something to do with the fact that Sandra is in her mid-fifties. 

13) In another proof of Sandra’s competence, hardness, and un-girliness, the names of Sandra’s girl and boy turn out to be Girl and Boy. This — aside from all the loud cackling — is the closest my husband has ever come to speechlessness during a movie. 

14) There’s a whole other half of the movie! Sandra goes down the river with the kids! It’s quite tense! You may have questions, like: Does Sandra ever learn the value of motherhood? (She does.) Does her heart grow three sizes? (And a half!) Is there a speech about the importance of family? (“And we’re all together! Because we have to be together!!!!!”) Does the looming threat that “someone will have to look” as they steer over rocky rapids pay off in any way whatsoever? (No-one looks, they all live, it’s bullshit.) 

Does Sandra ever give Girl a name? 

Man. She really hates that kid. 

BIRDBOX / Birdbox / Bird Box is streaming on Netflix.

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Alex West: '90s Teen Horror and the Cinematic Importance of "Scream"

Anyone trying to write smart, feminist horror coverage is operating in the shadow of Alex West.

West is a sociologist, a very good podcast host, and a horror fan, whose work as a critic combines intellectual rigor with sheer fannish joy. She’s been able to dive deep into movies that other critics have written off as merely gory — her first book is on the New French Extremity, and its cover features a still from Trouble Every Day, wherein, I regret to inform you, Vincent Gallo bites a woman’s clit off — and emerge with a deeper understanding of cultures that created them.

West is also about my age, which explains why I lost my mind when I heard about the concept of her newest book, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula. She was generous enough to answer some questions by e-mail about Carol Clover, The Craft, and why critics write off horror that centers on teen girls.

The idea of a book on the ‘90s teen horror cycle fills me with joy. Can you define that cycle a little, so we’re clear on our terms? Where do you set the start and end points? 

The start and end points, for any film cycle in my opinion, lie with production. How is a film made and why is a film made? Once you align on these you can begin to see patterns. For me, to be included in this cycle a film had to be a major studio film with celebrities, have a significant theatrical release and employ callbacks and/or subversions to previous entries in the horror genre. Ideally they would have all three of those things, but in the case of something like Cherry Falls, I made an exception. It never got a major theatrical release (due to the Columbine shootings) but it was so indebted to the films that came before that it felt wrong to not include it. Ultimately, all these films have to work together to form pieces of a larger puzzle so when you step back you can see the bigger picture and examine how each piece ladders up to major ideas and themes. Final Destination was a true end point for me with the cycle as I could see the remnants of Scream in there (teen focused, cultural references, recognizable actors) but I could also see the beginnings of torture porn (elaborate deaths at the cost of narrative).

You wrote the phrase I realize I’ve always been waiting to hear from a critic, which is: “Scream is an important film.” You make an argument for the Scream trilogy as Cinema, capital C. Yet even a lot of horror critics and fans have written it off — I remember Rob Zombie fulminating in Rolling Stone about how Scream had ruined horror. 

Scream was a cultural phenomenon in terms of buzz and box office. It brought legitimacy to the genre for a period of time where mainstream media was actively covering the sequels and actors were fighting for parts in them. I don't care how many dude-bros say it ruined horror. Maybe it did for them, but it reignited the slasher film and the teen horror film. It took the elements of slasher films which had become punchlines, called them out and, in many cases, subverted them, while still being quite dark and gory, from Drew Barrymore's steaming guts hanging out of her body to Sidney's boyfriend taunting her that he raped and murdered her mother. Scream ultimately was a film about misogyny and women being forced to fight back against it, which is incredibly uncomfortable for a lot of people because that means acknowledging that misogyny is real and palpable.  I think fans, critics and other filmmakers (Robert Zombie) have a strong aversion to it because it explained the codes of the slasher and commented on them, allowing a new generation of fans to access these films, and making it harder for them to be gatekeepers. 

My theory is that people hate Scream because it’s for girls. Kathleen Rowe Karlyn says it was the first slasher movie to succeed largely on ticket sales to teenage girls. (It was also the highest-grossing slasher movie ever made.) It was teen girls who made Scream a cultural phenomenon, just like they did for Titanic a few years later. I don’t think it’s at all unclear why: It’s a story about a girl surviving an abusive relationship. People nowadays connect it to GamerGate, with these maladjusted guys who use their fandom as an excuse to hurt women. At the time, as you note, the momentum around Scream died because the two angry white boys killing their classmates reminded people of Columbine. Toxic nerd masculinity has single-handedly kept Scream relevant. You write a lot about the perception that ‘90s teen horror was “corporate” and inauthentic. But to what degree would you entertain the poptimist argument, that these movies were seen as unserious because of who their audience was? 

I think that's bang on! One of the first quotes I put in the book is a guy calling the Scream films "a bit misandrist" because it illustrated so clearly that films, particularly genre films, centered around women were threatening to a male audience. While I think we have to be wary of the corporatization of art and entertainment sometimes, it’s not all bad. These films were interested in young women, were willing to discuss female trauma (The Rage: Carrie 2 is another great example of this) and yes, they were made for a large audience, a large audience of young women who hadn't been spoken to before about the realities they were experiencing as young women. The idea of celebrating a film that wrestles with violence and sexual assault is hard for a lot of people because it means they have to acknowledge it as a fact of life that women have to grapple with on a daily basis. It is easier to dismiss them as silly or inauthentic rather than examine where these narratives come from and why they resonate so strongly with audiences. (Also, I like this article by Entertainment Weekly about female ticket buyers for horror, which uses a famous Scream quote in its title.)

You write about how this era really re-defined the Final Girl. In Carol Clover’s original formulation, the Final Girl is not necessarily a feminist trope; she’s just a female character who is portrayed as androgynous so that men can project their own conflicts onto her. This new wave of movies made her more human. Can you go into that transformation a little?

Clover is a bit tricky for me. I have tremendous respect for the foundational work she did but she never seemed to like the genre all that much. Her description and dismissal of the character (who must take on male traits to defeat the killer, but always reverts to dropping her weapon, and is saved by a male authority figure) isn't all that off-base for these characters in the 70s and 80s, even though I adore many of them. Before Scream, the Final Girls were grappling with the sins of a previous generation. In the ‘90s they are far more involved in the initial trauma that sets things into motion, whether it be Sidney's refusal to deal with the reality of her mother, or Natalie's joyriding in Urban Legend. They have pain, trauma and guilt and are often wrestling with symptoms of PTSD. They felt real. They weren't happy-go-lucky kids who discover their parents murdered a pedophile, they are living with trauma before the film begins, whether it’s guilt, the dissolution of a family, or traumatic violence — they are imperfect.

I also wonder what you think about how the female victims in these slasher movies were portrayed. You write about something that I hadn’t seen anyone else notice before, which is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in I Know What You Did Last Summer. She’s so sad! She’s playing what should be a standard bitchy-beauty-queen archetype who gets offed, but she’s just an incredibly affecting, lonely, tragic character. Do you think the revisions to the Final Girl trickled down to all the non-final girls, or am I being too optimistic? 

The Authors: The Haunting of Hill House (Mike Flanagan, 2018)

A ghost can be a lot of things.

Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, is a really, really terrible adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. However, it’s one of the most Mike-Flanagan-esque things that Mike Flanagan has ever done. 

Female writers are often protective of Shirley Jackson, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s a depressingly representative figure. Her books were initially written off as minor, non-literary “genre” work (family comedy, horror, thriller, etc.) only to reveal themselves, decades down the line, as tight, angry, luminous books about what it was like to be a woman stranded in the mid-20th-century, each one written in near-perfect prose. Her home life, despite all the wacky essays she produced about it, was awful; she paid for her philandering husband’s doomed literary ambitions by cranking out bestsellers, and she was still expected to do the cooking and the cleaning so he could focus. She crumpled under the weight of her misery, developed anxiety so intense she frequently couldn’t leave the house, and just when she was finally ready to file for divorce, she died in her sleep. She was 48 years old. 

We want the best for Shirley Jackson. We want her to be taken seriously in death, as she never was in life. The Haunting of Hill House, which borrows the title and some character names from Jackson’s best-known work, has almost nothing to do with Shirley Jackson, and for some people, that signifies disrespect. It doesn’t help that Flanagan’s style and Jackson’s are wildly incompatible, or that the series ends on an unspeakably awful rewrite of Jackson’s most famous line. 

But maybe viewing Hill House in terms of Shirley Jackson is beside the point. Flanagan is not so much adapting Jackson as he is using her story as a framework on which to hang his own obsessions: Estranged siblings, dead mothers, memory as time travel, angry women with brown hair. Hill House is one of the most widely known and adapted ghost stories in the canon; it’s presented here as a melody to riff on, a familiar premise Flanagan can use to illuminate his own recurring themes. This is how houses work: People move out, other people move in. 

*

So: Here’s a story. Some of it is new. At some point in the mid-1980s, the Crain family moved into Hill House, with the goal of renovating and flipping it. This stay ended when Olivia Crain, the mother of the family, jumped or fell off a staircase and was killed. Various unspeakably awful, mostly paranormal events took place leading up to her death. Different children saw different pieces of the story, some of them saw almost nothing, and only two of them saw it all. The story begins when one of those two children commits suicide. 

Because it is the way of the Internet, I will now rank the six non-Olivia family members from least to most insufferable: 

6) Eleanor. It’s very hard to be mad at Eleanor, mostly because she’s dead, which is sad, and also a ghost, which is entertaining. Having been haunted all her life by one particular Hill House ghost, the “Bent-Neck Lady,” she goes back to Hill House as an adult and winds up hanging herself on the balcony where her mother leapt to her death. This is tragic on many levels, but Eleanor soon gains by becoming spooky AF. 

5) Luke. Eleanor’s twin. He’s deeply self-destructive, does a lot of heroin, and is obsessed with saving troubled women. This is a recipe for a very obnoxious character, but consider: Luke is also hot.

4) Theo. Theo is played by Kate Siegel, who not only starred in my favorite Mike Flanagan movie, Hush, but co-wrote its screenplay. She is also Flanagan’s wife, apparently, though I will leave it up to you to tell me why every single review mentions this instead of the fact that she’s his recurring star and co-writer. My hatred of sexism, and my affection for Hush, are the only reasons Theo ranks high on the list, as she is otherwise a walking collection of whiskey-swigging “tough girl” cliches taped together with girl-on-girl scenes. 

3) Hugh Crain. Patriarch of the family. Maybe killed his wife. Still boring. 

2) Shirley. The oldest daughter, who tries to take care of the rest after their mother’s death, Shirley is an undertaker whose damage plays out in the need to “fix” death. Sounds interesting on paper, but in practice: 

1) Steve. Steve thinks there were no ghosts in the house. His hobbies include: (1) Writing bestsellers about how there were totally ghosts in that house, and (2) Being a condescending little shit to everyone.

DON’T FUCKING SCOFF AT ME, STEVE. I OBJECT, STEVE. I OBJECT.

Anyway. Here’s a picture of Baby Luke to make it better:

I would not be surprised if this miniseries blew much of its budget on Luke Casting. It’s just top-notch throughout.

It is impossible to think about Hill House, or to say what it does well, without mentioning Flanagan’s great 2013 haunted-house movie, Oculus, a dizzying head-trip about memory and trauma. That movie (which I already covered in an earlier newsletter; subscriber-only, for the moment) is about two siblings whose mother died under mysterious circumstances after seemingly trying to kill them. One of the siblings, the brother, thinks this is a story about inherited mental illness and abuse. His sister thinks that one of the family’s prize possessions, an antique mirror, is demonic and drives all its owners to madness and death. We get lots of flashbacks, through which we learn that the sister is correct, although in the present day the siblings have unfortunately decided to lock themselves in their childhood home with the haunted mirror and wait to see if it kills them. 

As you’ve probably figured out by now, Hill House is an almost beat-for-beat retelling of Oculus. It’s much longer, there are more siblings, and the problem is a haunted house rather than a piece of haunted furniture, but it’s still just a much bigger version of the same story. All of the odd quirks and storytelling maneuvers that made Oculus stand out — the non-linear time, the flashbacks that interact with the present, the unreliable narrators and big “but the ghost was there all along!!!! moments — are in Hill House too. 

I mention this because if you watch Hill House as a sequel to Flanagan’s own work, rather than an adaptation of someone else’s, it makes more sense. I also mention it because the differences stand out. Flanagan and Jackson do share some core concerns — family secrets, unreliable narrators — but her work is interior, delicate, often dreamlike. Jackson works through atmosphere and suggestion, frightening the reader by destabilizing her assumptions. (The biggest scare in Hill House, as I think I’ve said every time I’ve written about it, is not a ghost, but a mundane statement about how much time has passed; we don’t realize how delusional the protagonist Eleanor is until we realize we’ve been sharing her delusions.) Flanagan is realistic and propulsive and plot-driven. He has scarier jump-scares than any director I know. Flanagan’s Hill House has a whole cast of ghosts, with backstories, who leap out of dark corners and deliver monologues in terrible ‘20s slang; Jackson’s Hill House may not even have any ghosts. 

I do not think Flanagan is a particularly sexist director, and in fact, I think he writes women very well. But he typically writes one specific type of woman: Tough, resilient, determined, the kind of woman who, even if she feels like a victim, is never genuinely helpless. Flanagan does not understand fragility, not the way Jackson did. His characters can be haunted by the past, or hurt by other people, but the kind of deep, self-generating, self-defeating neurosis that drives Jackson’s Hill House — and defines her Eleanor — is not in his wheelhouse. The Haunting of Hill House, the book, is a story about what it feels like to fall apart. The Haunting of Hill House, the show, is about watching someone else fall apart, and learning to live in the aftermath of the fall. 

Here comes the part with the spoilers. 

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