The Shirley Jackson 5: The Haunting of Hill House (Eps. 1-5)
In other words, Jane Hu and Phil Maciak have resurrected Dear TV and are here to talk about the first half of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. (We’ll follow up in a week or two with a post on the back half of the series.) There will be spoilers for episodes 1-5 so, if you’re not caught up, put on a floor-length blue silk nightgown and get watching!
Phil Maciak: Jane, when I saw that Netflix was adapting The Haunting of Hill House as a series, and that it would involve cell phones, I knew we needed to talk about it here in a Dear Television yak, the antique brass speaking-tube of television criticism formats. There’s so much to say! Has Michiel Huisman overtaken Aaron Eckhart in Possession as the most preposterous approximation of a “writer” in contemporary media? How did this casting director locate so many different women who look like they could plausibly be the daughters of Carla Gugino? And how did Jessica Paré miss out?
[Spoiler: Jessica Paré is not on this show.]
But we should start with you, Shirley Jackson aficionado that you are: what’d you think of Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House?
Jane Hu: Phil, I have to admit that when I first came across the advertisement for this series on my Netflix dashboard, my immediate response was...not excitement. As someone who loves the novel (I think it’s the thing I’ve read the most, second maybe to James’s “Daisy Miller” lol), it’s a disconcerting image. Obviously, I clicked play—but with trepidation! The 1963 Robert Wise film adaptation is already so good, and the novel is, like, not very long? So I wasn’t completely sure how Flanagan was going to draw this out across 10 episodes.
And, to be honest, if I were Flanagan, I’m not sure I would have begun the pilot that way. There’s a sort of double-take quality to the first 15 minutes of the series, which moves from cold-open flashback to a long abstract credit sequence and then finally to the present, where Steve (one of the show’s five protagonist siblings) is interviewing a potential subject for his next book on paranormal activity. I’d love to know what watching Flanagan’s pilot felt like for those who hadn’t read Jackson’s novel, but I found it deeply disorienting, and partly because I was expecting more of a straightforward adaptation. I turned it off soon after Steve’s interviewee’s monologue, only to go back upon encouragement from a few others, and most importantly you. Spoiler: the series does get much better. But the start feels like a series of misdirections—a bumpy beginning into what turns out to be a richly fleshed out character world.
PM: Jane, I totally agree. I certainly can’t claim anything like Hu-vian devotion to Hill House. I read it in high school and, turns out, remember very very little! But even still, that opening was unusual—both in terms of its relationship to the novel, apparently, but also the rest of the show. That monologue with Steve is an overture that suggests a different style of narrative and visual suspense. Or, maybe more accurately, it’s an overture that really focuses in on one particular element of Flanagan’s style. So much of what makes this series magnetic is its movement, its hiding-in-plain-sight sense of unease, and even the constipated inarticulateness of its characters. Flanagan uses monologues like this one to break and punctuate that general aesthetic, so encountering one right from the jump means that we stutter-step with the series, doing more “figuring-out” about the episodic structure and character network than we really ought to need to do. (A weird trick this show does is that it kind of makes us think adult Steve is a psychologist when we meet him, then it kind of makes us think adult Shirley is a psychologist when we meet her, then, when we meet adult Theo, who is an actual psychologist, somebody has to say "she's a psychologist!" before we realize it. Maybe I just think everyone I meet is a psychologist until proven otherwise. That's on me.)
That said, what’s weird about the opening gambit is precisely what’s kind of great about the rest of the show. I have deliberately stopped myself at episode 5, but there’s a kind of natural pause in the series here I think. The twist (no pun intended—gross) that is revealed at the end of the episode—that the bent-neck lady is actually Nell appearing to herself at moments of crisis—forces us as viewers to begin guessing again about the whole deal with Hill House. It’s, quite literally, the mystery box at the center of the show, and, by episode 5, I was beginning to feel comfortable in my assessment of the house and its various inhabitants, but Ghost Nell messes with that. Her appearance asks us to imagine an explanation of events that’s primarily about time. Not how and why is Nell seeing a ghost but how and why is Nell’s ghost visiting her younger self or how and why is young Nell haunted by decontextualized visions of her own death? It asks us to ask fewer questions about space (the house, the line between living and dead) and ask more questions about time.
JH: Which is an interesting move, considering how deeply obsessed Jackson’s novel is with space. She famously drew sketches of Hill House to try to capture its impossible geometry. What makes The Haunting of Hill House an incredible horror novel is its profound obsession with representing the phenomenology of space (something arguably easier to do visually). And part of what drives the characters mad in the novel is that the house just doesn’t make architectural sense. It’s dizzying, and Nell’s insanity in that novel is a product of the unbearable sense of speed she gets inside that house. Everything ramps up too quickly: Nell runs to her car, starts driving, and suddenly hits a tree.
In Flanagan’s televisual serialization of the novel, however, time is significantly expanded in strange drawn-out ways. As you note about the twist ending in episode 5, Nell’s proleptic hauntings of her younger self are narratively disorienting in a way the novel—which proceeds chronologically over the course of a few days—is not.
PM: It is maybe the Lostiest thing that’s happened on Hill House, a show that already evinced a lot of structural parallels to Lost, from individual character-centric episodes, to the we-made-it-off-the-island-but-did-we-really-make-it-off-the-island vibe of the flash-forwards, to, well, a fucking hatch. I largely buy into Holly Green’s critique of this show as “ransacking” Jackson’s novel. I think it’s true that the show has a somewhat needlessly parasitic relationship to its source material, that it trades in on the cache of that title without attending necessarily to the things that make that novel uniquely beloved. But the note upon which that essay ends (that Hill House, in treating Jackson’s novel as “just a ghost story” becomes itself “just a TV show”) obviously bums me out, if only because what was a strong ethical argument about using Jackson’s novel to reinforce and reenact her gendered and genre-d exclusion from the canon reveals itself in the end to be animated by garden variety anti-TV, the-book-was-better snobbery. What kind of excites me about this show, then, is how shamelessly televisual it is. It’s prestige, but it’s prestige pulp, and the degree to which it flagrantly tramples upon Jackson while simultaneously snatching whole conceptual and structural apparatuses from Lost and, to a lesser extent, Six Feet Under and American Horror Story: Murder House and even This is Us makes it even more strange and unexpected.
JH: Yes, completely. Green’s essay ends up reinforcing all the usual modernist arguments against “genre fiction” to canonize a novel that seems, tbh, pretty okay with how hard it leans on genre. After all, most of the “Haunting of Hill House is the greatest horror novel, second only to that one by Henry James” testaments are relatively recent assessments. Green’s sentence ”That the woman who was capable of writing ‘The Lottery’ could also write a horror novel like The Haunting of Hill House, without sacrificing her artistic sensibilities, is a testament to her ingenuity and versatility” doesn’t make sense to me because...isn’t…“The Lottery”...a...short...story...in...the...horror...genre? This is all to say that a lot of these genre/prestige distinctions seem totally based on where we are in the history of a text’s—and medium’s—reception. Television, as you note, is still seen as somewhat shameful, even in its shamelessness. But I like your thesis about Flanagan’s series as “prestige pulp”! Is that like saying his Haunting of Hill House is the televisual equivalent of “literary genre fiction”?
PM: What I mean by that is this: prestige television is a genre, but it’s a genre whose existence depends on a denial of its generic identity. Every Breaking Bad is a precious parseable text, but it’s also a bundle of particular conventions just like a Marvel movie or a romance novel. The grummy genius of the Netflix model of production is that its eight kazillion original series and films unabashedly embrace that invisible generic aspect—nobody knows better than Netflix that prestige television is a generic construct. (Everybody knows it at some level, but the anxiety over it, rather than acceptance of it, is what we have to thank for Matthew Weiner following up Mad Men with a series of hour and a half late-Woody Allen films, or Sam Esmail doodling Fight Club logos over all of his Mr. Robot scripts.) That knowledge frees Netflix to imagine a world outside or inverting those conventions in wackadoodle experiments like The OA, and it also allows them to be super canny and conspicuous about embracing them for satisfying cannibalistic exercises like Stranger Things. This TV show owes a hell of a lot more to JJ Abrams than it does to Shirley Jackson. Even as that is very understandably frustrating to fans of Jackson and Hill House, it’s liberating in terms of creative freedom and audience expectation.
JH: Yes, and it’s actually in Netflix’s favor to embrace genre—just look at their category headings and sub-headings! The narrative logic of interminability in serial television spreads to Netflix’s algorithm, which basically just wants you to keep watching more and more. You might also like etc. But I also appreciate that within Netflix’s eight kazillion original series is also, as you note, a perceived hierarchization between “prestige TV” and “prestige pulp.” Between shows like Mindhunter and The Crown versus shows like The OA, Stranger Things, Sense8, Maniac, and The Haunting of Hill House. You’re completely right that while all these shows follow generic conventions, the latter group might have more rope (cough) with which to play with them. Like Stranger Things et al., Hill House plays fast and loose with the categories of both “genre” and “television.” The slow-molting-images-accompanied-by-foreboding-orchestral-music-intro-credits to Hill House (inaugurated perhaps in HBO’s True Detective and reproduced in series such as The Night Of and The Crown and Westworld) signal a kind of “prestige” seriousness, but the series itself more sporadically moves across genres about domestic trouble, the supernatural, addiction and recovery, lesbian drama, and—my favorite—a small rom-com montage in the first half of episode 5. In selling Hill House as having it all (novel adaptation! glossy prestige TV intro! drugs! ghosts!), Netflix maximizes its audience, but it also creates a kind of psychedelic genre stew on overdrive that I totally dig. And which seems, moreover, especially conducive to the horror genre.
PM: Maybe I shouldn’t feel so good about this, but, as an audience member, I love being maximized in this way! Ladle more of that psychedelic genre stew into my cup of stars! That said, I don’t want to overplay how ingenious this show is. I still have questions! Circling back to time, does the bent-neck lady revelation overturn our sense of the temporality of these apparitions, maybe the things we’d assumed about how “haunting” works from seeing all of those old-timey artisanal ghouls? Is this revelation going to make things add up differently by the end of the series? Or is this revelation evidence that things don’t add up, narratively or otherwise? For instance, despite Vulture’s wonderful catalogue of ghosts who are hanging around unseen in various frames, there’s definitely an uneven distribution of supernatural encounter amongst our cast of characters. And, to that end, there’s an uncertainty about who’s seeing a ghost and who’s playing a scene where the screenwriter decided they’d experience a bad memory visually. Nell and Luke seem to actually see ghosts, right? But Steven didn’t until Nell showed up in his loft space. Theo feels things but doesn’t see specifics (though it seems that things go a little differently when she touches Nell’s corpse). And everything Shirley sees doubles as the sort of thing a person in crisis on a TV show would see in a dream sequence. (Are Don Draper and Tony Soprano seeing ghosts?) But then, you know, there’s dogs and cats, living together, in Hill House. MASS HYSTERIA!
JH: This is basically my question for the whole show so far! How real are the ghosts??? And, more specifically, is this dog a ghost?:
I think you’re absolutely right: it obviously doesn’t help that the show is one big genre stew teetering on the edge of incoherence. That this show has all the ghosts too doesn’t help. There’s the tall-floating-man-in-a-top-hat ghost (a Babadook shout-out?), the hanging-lady-with-long-hair ghost, the mother-figure ghost, the cute-animal-turned-grotesque-corpse ghost. If this is a commentary on mass hysteria, does it follow that different people would nonetheless experience different ghosts?
PM: It really does seem like Hill House is deliberately setting up this slippage between ghosts and mental illness and post-traumatic stress—Steven even gets a monologue about it in that stinky opening number—in order to say something about all of those things. That’s a muddy way of doing things, but maybe muddiness is good. The way American Horror Story tends to harness all of its provocative excesses into these Reddit-ready conspiracist meta-narratives, for instance, can feel perfunctory as often as it feels like a payoff. I don’t know whether I want Hill House’s haunts to make sense, either as a clearly delineated flow chart of historical spectres and their mortal mediums or as a mass delusion. One of the things I really like about the recent crop of modern prestige Blumhouse and Blumhouse-adjacent horror films that clearly influenced Hill House—like It Follows, The Babadook, Get Out, The Conjuring, House of the Devil, Hereditary, even Flanagan’s Oculus—is that they function as both sharply developed metaphorical architectures (the real ghosts were the friends we made along the way) and as movies about actual scary fucking ghosts that actually fucking exist. The babadook is motherhood and grief, but it’s also a babadook, you know?
JH: Totally. Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean there aren’t ghosts. I think the halfway point in Hill House leaves us on an appropriate cliffhanger of not just ambiguity, but batshit confusion—and what I like about it is that I don’t entirely expect or, like you, even want the second half to tie everything up neatly. I like how insane this show is! It reminds me of what I love about Jackson’s novel: which is that the madness of Hill House is both embedded in the literal spaces of the house, but also, in ourselves lol. Eleanor is mad before she ever goes to Hill House; that she goes to Hill House confirms her madness. It’s the overdeterminedness of her ending that makes it all so fucking chilling.
In its very twisty way, then, Flanagan’s Hill House actually follows Jackson’s logic of haunting. In the novel, Dr. Montague comes to the house as someone who wants to get to the scientific bottom of its ghosts. He wants to develop a theory of what seems otherwise inexplicable, and he invites Eleanor, Theo, and Luke (unrelated in the novel) as both his guests and test-subjects. Flanagan’s television series maintains this tension between “science” and the supernatural—between logic and magic. The Crain sibling’s traumas at Hill House as children translate to their decisions to become morticians, child psychologists, and non-fiction writers as adults. I mean, of course Nell would fall in love with a sleep technologist. Whatever to make sense of their batshit adolescence! And does it work? Kind of? Like you, I’m curious as to whether the show will clean up its ghost logic by the end, or whether all this ~science~ is simply another coping mechanism.
But what I’m actually even more curious about is: what did their father do?? He exhibits your run-of-the-mill toxic masculinity in the show’s first half, but the children talk about him as if he did something unforgivably abusive. And he looks reeaaaaally sad at Nell’s wedding. But the mom seems like the crazy one? But maybe he’s the source of everyone’s ongoing PTSD? Maybe they just need to kill dad?? Help me, Phil!
PM: I have all those same questions about the Dad, too, Jane, but you know I love it when you bring narratology into the mix! The Haunting of Hill House is a bad adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House because it isn’t about Hill House, it is Hill House.
JH: “I’m going to get my fucking PhD.”
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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