Following the apparent suicide of Nellie Crain (Violet McGraw/Victoria Pedretti) her broken and often estranged family must try to piece together what happened. This means delving into the past, the death of their mother, Eleanor (Carla Gugino) and the sinister legacy of their former home, Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House can be interpreted in two very different ways.
The first is as a straight ghost story. Hill House is full of strange apparitions, unexplained happenings and things that go bump in the night. All members of the family of seven are impacted by the things they see and hear with Eleanor the most affected. As the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that many awful things have happened in the house and, if you believe in that sort of thing, it might very well be haunted.
The second is more of a metaphorical look at the lingering effects of trauma and unresolved mental health issues. Every member of the Crain family suffers from some kind of mental health problem, possibly hereditary, possibly from the trauma of their mother’s suicide and their father’s (Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton) refusal to talk about what happened. Older sisters, Shirley (Lulu Wilson/Elizabeth Reaser) and Theo (McKenna Grace/Kate Siegel) both struggle with intimacy. Shirley has turned her obsession with death into a career and Theo always wears gloves in fear of being impacted by the psychic “resonance” of people or objects. Eldest brother, Steve (Paxton Singleton/Michiel Huisman) uses his scepticism about what happened as fuel for his successful writing career no matter the impact on his family. Nellie’s twin, Luke (Julian Hilliard/Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is an addict. And Nellie herself suffers from anxiety, depression and sleep paralysis. Hugh has distanced himself from all five of his children in a misguided attempt to protect them and Eleanor, while alive, suffered from hallucinations and flights of fancy.
Both interpretations are explored through the series and either, as well as some kind of middle ground between the two, could be read as valid.
And it works, because who is to say what is in our heads and what is real? If something is real to you, does that make it real?
From a horror perspective, Hill House is excellent at building tension. It saves its big scares and focuses more on creating an unnerving atmosphere. The house itself is very, very creepy and the muted blue/green/black palette that is used gives off a sense of death and rot. The reveals are dark and unsettling and you’re never quite sure what grim discovery will happen next. There’s very little gore but you can never quite relax.
On a more psychological, character driven level it explores the dynamics between the family members skilfully and with real intensity. Each morsel of information that explains how and why the family members behave the way they do towards each other is delivered at the perfect time and with the right gravity. I found myself hooked waiting to see what new secret would be revealed.
I can’t fault any of the performances but Gugino is outstanding as the fragile yet tough Eleanor, who will do anything to protect her children and she and Thomas have a wonderful, natural chemistry. Reaser is also great as the highly strung Shirley. I thought all of the child actors were very impressive and I imagine they will have great careers ahead of them.
Overall I loved this series. It was thought-provoking, disturbing, scary and in many ways very touching. I did think the final episode fell just a tiny bit flat and that the big reveal could have maybe been a little bigger but I still felt like I was rewarded for the time I put in to watch the build up.
One of the better horror series out there.