The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

Mike Flanagan's Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Hill House is not an adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. The miniseries is a work of its own, separate, unique — but haunted by The Haunting of Hill House. And not only The Haunting of Hill House: the miniseries is also haunted by the first adaptation of Jackson's novel, the classic 1963 film The Haunting, and by numerous other stories and movies (The Legend of Hell House, The Shining, etc.).

During the first few episodes, I thought the connection to Jackson's novel was unnecessary, perhaps even burdensome. I assumed somebody had bought the rights and then, through the tortuous (and torturous) process of Hollywood development, the novel got more and more distant from the project while remaining contractually bound to it. Perhaps, I thought, Flanagan was able to do with this property what he'd done with Ouija: Origin of Evil and convince the producers to let him make the movie he wanted to make, mostly regardless of the source material.

Similarly, I was skeptical of the fragmentation of time in the narrative. It jumps around a lot, and not just between the time when the characters lived in Hill House and a few decades later. It also bounces between times within those eras. This can be effective, but it can just as often be a falsely clever way to keep the audience ignorant of material that in its normal, linear narrative order would be less shocking/exciting/interesting than it is when sprung upon us at a dramatic moment.

By the middle of the series, though, I was more and more convinced that the intertextuality was a significant element of the story's form, and by the end I knew that the nonlinear narrative movement was essential. To a large extent, the intertextuality is a nice added layer for audience members in the know (I don't think there's any reference anybody needs to get to understand and appreciate the miniseries), thus functioning mostly at the level of easter eggs or Hitchcock's cameos. (My favorite, both cameo and easter egg, is Russ Tamblyn as a certain Dr. Montague.) These references function much like the glimpses of ghosts in many scenes, glimpses that most viewers will likely miss on a first viewing, but which add to the visual texture of the whole. It's the accumulation of references that adds resonance. This is primarily true for the references to Jackson's novel. If we've read the novel, we know another Eleanor (Nell) Vance, another Crain family, another Theodora, another Luke. The characters in one are not the characters in another, but, like apparitions, they share traits. (That, in the series, Eleanor Vance was born Eleanor Crain is particularly apt.) The effect is eerie. The resonances literally unsettle the reality we think we know from Jackson's novel.

I began The Haunting of Hill House cautiously. The novel seems to me just about perfect, and though I don't love The Haunting as much as some people, it has some excellent moments and is a good adaptation overall. I have liked but not loved the previous movies by Mike Flanagan that I've seen. I didn't think he would do a terrible job with the material, but I was skeptical that there would be enough for 10 episodes or that it would stay true to the feeling of Jackson's original. But friends who'd seen most of the episodes in advance of the premiere said it was remarkable, so my caution was that of someone cautiously optimistic.

That optimism soon became excitement. The first epsiode is nothing special, really, but it's not bad, and so I kept watching. The second episode is good, and then the third was, for me, the clincher. It's got plenty of good horror movie material, but I also found it deeply resonant emotionally. I had not expected this quality from the series. And it continued with the following episodes — episode 5 is even more powerful than anything before it, with an ending that reconfigures our relationship to ghosts that previously were simply horrifying. Episode 6 makes a sharp stylistic break from the rest of the series, the episode becoming a kind of chamber play unto itself, with extremely long shots that are far more than stunts; they do the narratively and thematically necessary work of uniting characters and situations. It became difficult to stop watching, but now and then the body requires sleep.

(From here, I can't avoid talking about the final episode, so if you haven't seen it yet and prefer to continue on in innocence, you might want to wait. Or not. Innocence is often overrated.)

As the series continued, a new dread grew in me. My greatest fear was not anything on the screen, but the impending conclusion. Plenty of even great horror stories and movies have terrible endings. Stephen King is famous for them (indeed, I thought the recent Hulu series Castle Rock, which had many fine moments, was completely true to its King origins in finishing with a final episode that undermined everything that had gone before and handwaved away all complications in its nearly-nonsensical final scenes). Shirley Jackson was a master in many ways, and one of those ways was her endings, some of which are among the most effective of 20th century American literature ("The Lottery", "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts", The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle). Ending a miniseries is a lot like ending a novel, and poses similar challenges: the reader/viewer has invested significant time and attention into this work, and now desires something that will finish things up in a satisfying and perhaps unexpected way. I dreaded the final episode of The Haunting of Hill House.

And, indeed, much of that dread was justified. The final episode is by far the weakest of the series. It's preachy, sentimental, and simplifying. Instead of opening the story out to more meaning, more resonance, more power, it closes off all possibilities in tear-jerking but shallow ways. It is a consoling ending, one that treats its audience like small children listening to a ghost story, and the storyteller doesn't want to leave them with nightmares. Here, Flanagan's avowed love of Stephen King betrays him, because like so many of King's endings (and so few of Jackson's), the ending of Flanagan's series turns away from what it has imagined and seeks to console us.

This is a common tendency in many tellers of horrific tales. (There is an opposite, and equally regrettable, tendency as well: the story that forces bleakness on an ending that didn't need or earn it. Endings are tightrope walks, certainly, and finding the right balance in a horror story is especially difficult.) Recently, I watched A Dark Song, a little movie about paranormal activities that is relentless and powerful for most of its length and then self-destructs in the final ten or even just five minutes with an ending so false and cloying that it ruins most of the excellence that came before. (Fuller thoughts on the film here.) Part of this is the tyranny of character arcs, with both creators and audiences addicted to the idea that characters must change and, even more corroding, that there must be redemption in the end. But perhaps even more of an influence is the completely understandable desire to be liked. It's a rare writer who wants to alienate the audience. This poses great challenges for horror stories, because most horror stories, if they scrupulously followed the logic of their premises, would be deeply unlikeable and alienating to a majority of their audience. (One example: though Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects is a cult classic at this point, it is quite far from being mainstream entertainment. A lot in the film would have to change to make it so, and the ending is one of those things: in its own way, it's actually redemptive, but the way the film positions the viewer to sympathize with utterly irredeemable characters alienates anyone with even a whiff of moral sense. To me, this makes it one of the great horror movies of all time. Another example: Kathe Koja's The Cipher. While such works make the horror far deeper and longer-lasting than a jump scare, you'd have to be some sort of masochist to want these things to be your primary entertainment diet. Even calling them entertainment feels wrong. For a somewhat less bleak, but no less affecting, ending see the extraordinary final episode of Hannibal.) Thus, most horror stories, particularly longer ones that have asked much of their audience's time and attention, end softly.

And so it is with the miniseries of The Haunting of Hill House, which betrays the spirit of the book's ending by turning Hill House into a kind of purgatorial club. The final episode uses the language of the extraordinary last paragraph of the novel, but the story and images contradict the language. Both Hill Houses may not be sane, but the Hill House of the miniseries is no longer evil, and the final line of the novel is completely flipped: Where Jackson asserts that "whatever walked there, walked alone", Flanagan's images show us that this is not true. The entire final episode is set up to deny this whole idea, to turn away from the inescapable loneliness that Jackson set up and followed through on. The final episode solves its characters' problems and brings everyone together in a heartwarming conclusion. Even the dead spout monologues of consolation to the living. It's ghastly, but not in a good way.

I forgave the ending, though. Yes, it's (to my mind) the only real betrayal of Shirley Jackson in the series, and it's shallow, but it doesn't fatally undermine the many excellent moments in the other episodes, a few of which are perfect gems of their own. Many series glow despite landing badly, a virtue of the length — where A Dark Song's ending, happening after only an hour and a half, feels like a cheat, even a self-caricature, the final episode of The Haunting of Hill House is merely disappointing, a few false notes in an impressive symphony. The rest of the series gave us much else to revel in, much else to remember and to think about, and we can take those many moments with us when we go and let the ending slip off into a hazy dream. And, in any case, there is something to be said for warming the heart after long nights of suspense and terror. While I find the ending false, I can hardly begrudge it.