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. 

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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. 

There’s a reason I didn’t list Olivia Crain alongside the members of her family: She is not so much a person as she is an obsession personified, the Dead Mother whose beauty and terror underly everything. Carla Gugino (another repeat collaborator, who was amazing last year in Flanagan’s adaptation of Gerald’s Game) plays her as a glowing, all-wise mother goddess, perpetually wearing jewel-toned silken robes. But every mother goddess is a death goddess; where Jackson’s characters were absorbed into Hill House through their weakness, Olivia  melds with the house almost ecstatically. The image of her standing perfectly still, silent, arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross as a storm wind hurls shattered glass all around her, still haunts me. The possessed Olivia is elemental, like Mother Nature, who births and devours us all. 

Every Crain is living out the damage inflicted by Olivia. Shirley wants to smooth death over, make it less ugly. Theo spends life seducing and discarding women because losing her mother hurt her so much that she closed her heart for good. Eleanor (seriously, SPOILERS) kills herself because her mother wanted to kill her. Luke poisons himself because his mother fed him poison. Steve… I don’t know what Steve wants. Fuck Steve, honestly. But even he is still living in the wreckage, insisting that his life has to have some kind of reasonable explanation. 

For Flanagan, the family is an eternal present. In Hill House, as in Oculus, the past and the future are always in communication: Eleanor is haunted by the Bent-Neck Lady because she is the Bent-Neck Lady, or is destined to become her. Olivia tries to kill her youngest children because she sees what tragic lives they’ll lead, but they only lead such tragic lives because their mother tried to kill them. As adults, the Crain siblings can’t stand each other, and frequently don’t even see each other, but — as the big single-take set piece, “Two Storms,” insists — on some level they are always going to be stuck together. Their child selves remain trapped in Hill House, exerting a gravitational pull on the adults who think they’ve escaped. 

Jackson saw family this way, too: As a trap, something inescapable. Her books, especially in her later years, frequently feature characters who are so obsessively in love with their old family estates that they cannot leave them. For Jackson, a woman in the 1950s, it was terrifying to be stuck in the house, absorbed into the workings of a home. She understood the trap because she’d been caught in it. She died trying to break out. 

That experience is not something Mike Flanagan will ever be able to claim. Which explains his strangest choice: Embracing Hill House, finally, as a place of healing, a museum of the dead where everyone you’ve lost is still on display. Olivia Crain still walks the halls of Hill House. Eleanor still lurches, bent-necked, through the dark. I’m still not clear on why this is a good thing. But no matter how horrible ghosts are, Flanagan insists, they are people who loved you, and love you still. No matter how horrible your family or your past are, it is still part of you, still constantly playing out through what you say or do today. The Crains can never escape Hill House; the house is just who they are. 

Those who walk there, walk together, Steve concludes, in the final moments of Hill House. I physically grimaced in my chair. Steve really does ruin everything. Jackson told us that they walk alone for a reason: Because you can be alone in a crowded house, alone in a family. Because Hill House is not Heaven, it is a place where people break down and fall apart, a place entirely devoid of love. Flanagan does not let his characters fall apart that way. He loves them too much to let them go unloved by others. We suffer for it. But there is some consolation: Jackson would probably tell you that together is the more terrible option, after all. 

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The Haunting of Hill House is streaming on Netflix.

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