The Startling Humanity of Hill House: A Screenqueens Roundtable Discussion

A film or series about a haunted house released in and around Halloween isn’t a rare thing. It’s not even a particularly rare thing to see an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; it’s been done at least three times, beginning with Robert Wise’s classic, and most faithful adaptation, The Haunting (1963). But for a multitude of reasons, Mike Flanagan’s version, debuting on Netflix last month (and binged by most of us in a matter of days), does feel like a rare thing, indeed.

What follows is a discussion between four Screen Queens on The Haunting of Hill House (2018), its rich characters, flawed and haunted women, scariest moments, and its respect for the source material. Is it the best horror series of the year? Is it the right adaptation of Shirley Jackson? We’ve got opinions. Here are some of the answers we came to.

What were your initial thoughts when you heard about this Netflix series? Did you know about it before it premiered? Did you discover it on a dark and stormy night?

Juliette Faraone: I first heard about this project back in maybe April of 2017, and thought until fairly recently it would be a straight adaptation of the novel. I’m thrilled I was wrong–Flanagan’s end product feels like a dream someone had after reading the book, ultimately maintaining the spirit if not the substance of The Haunting of Hill House.

Alex Landers: Juliette, you were way ahead of me. I think I heard little grumblings across twitter a few months before it premiered. And although I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan’s work in the past, I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of this series. I have really strong feelings about Shirley Jackson’s work, and I just long to see a woman director tackle this (or any) piece. However, your idea that this “feels like a dream someone had after reading the book” is probably the closest I can get to how I feel about it, too. It was very fever dreamy, and felt reactionary to absorbing the original story. I don’t care for appropriation of other people’s stories, but I can show up for conscious adaptations that are respectful and honoring the source material in an original way. This checked those boxes for me.

Fatima Sheriff: I didn’t really hear much about it except after its release when Stephen King tweeted about how he “didn’t usually like this kind of revisionism but thought it a work of genius.” That drew my attention because I’m not that into horror but I’ve seen a few adaptations of his work. I’ve heard that Steven was named after him the way Shirley was named after the author, so if that tribute is true, his approval may have been important to Flanagan.

Millicent Thomas: I knew the name Shirley Jackson but hadn’t read any of her work myself (though I definitely will be doing so now). I really only heard about the series after its premiere through people raving about it on Twitter. I’d seen so many articles floating about all in its praise and I just thought I’d give it a shot. I’m so glad I did.

Are you familiar with Mike Flanagan’s previous work?

AL: I have been an early fan since Absentia (which I still think is the most disturbing and my favorite), and really bought in when Oculus came out. More recent works like Hush, Gerald’s Game, Before I Wake have been misses for me, but never uninteresting. I really feel strongly that The Haunting of Hill House has been a culmination of skills this director and artist has acquired making these films.

JF: With you 100%. His work first came to me courtesy of my friend Alison (who showed me Absentia and Oculus over dinner and probably some Miller High Life), and now I think I’ve seen everything but Before I Wake. My personal reaction to his work has been split 50/50, though like you said, his ideas are usually interesting and that’s most of what I’m after in a viewing experience anyway. Hill House countered a lot of my past qualms with his previous output because the format really provided Flanagan with a solid foundation for character-building. I gotta say, he’s been sort of on a roll lately for me with Gerald’s Game and now this.

AL: It’s really comforting to see that artistic movement and growth in a studio filmmaker. Hill House felt like a beautifully complete work, and something to be very proud of thematically. I’ll definitely be looking forward to the next project. This is the part where I encourage you to see Before I Wake, not because I think it’s good, but because I think its failures are deeply interesting. Especially if what you find intriguing about him is character building. I find it fascinating for other reasons (namely, its experiments with rubbery CGI effects that mostly don’t work, but are WEIRD), but it was probably his deepest attempt before this to do more than high concept narrative, and really look at characters.

How do you feel about the representation of women and their experiences in this series? How do you feel about Steven Crain being given a central role?

FS: Though I haven’t read the book, I’d say Steven’s character fit in well with the progression of the first five episodes, focusing on each sibling starting with the eldest and least affected. That way the psychological tension in weaving the timelines together was built up as we began mostly in the dark, with the whispers of what happened and then saw the more harrowing perspectives of the others.

AL:  That’s a great point. I found Steven the least interesting of all the characters, and that probably makes sense, as he seems to serve as the voice of Flanagan, or “the adaptor.” Was he necessary, I wonder? I keep trying to imagine the series without him, and can’t quite do it. So whether he belongs or not seems baseless–though I do think maybe Flanagan needed him to tell this story.

JF: There’s something so whimsical yet entirely serious about Eleanor’s narration in the novel. It’s like she’s in her own head 99% of the time and it’s a great place to be–until it’s not. Of the things Flanagan brought to the table in his adaptation, his ability to retain that kind of mood is probably my favorite, even if we miss out on Nell as the primary narrator. I’m glad Steven’s appropriation of Jackson’s lines felt at least a little bit acknowledged–in both the writing of the character itself and in Nell’s “call-out” scene at Steven’s book reading. Whenever Nell yells at him for more or less hijacking their childhood experiences, I like to think she’s speaking for the book’s Eleanor, too.

AL: Juliette, I agree, and was pretty astounded when she shows up at the reading–it felt like a very deserved acknowledgement and terribly meta (I like that). Gotta admit, I was initially heartbroken to find that the main character of this series was Steven Crain–an essentially invented character, definitely not a woman, and not Eleanor. Nell is the heart and soul of the novel: she’s who the house speaks to, and I couldn’t imagine the story without her. Luckily, this iteration didn’t end up being so much Shirley Jackson’s story, but an adaptation to sit alongside it. I think the three sisters are an incredibly strong set of women, not just for their strengths, but their flaws and weaknesses.

JF: Not to mention Olivia, who’s steadily becoming my favorite invented element of the series, probably because she’s such a combination of her daughters. I’ve been reading a lot of Nancy Chodorow lately, and she writes about a sort of double identification process that occurs in the mother-daughter relationship–how there’s no real split for a daughter from the mother the same way a son might experience. It’s all obviously pretty binaristic due to the nature of the material she’s responding to (Sigmund Freud was a lot of things, but nuanced is maybe not a word that comes to mind)–still, it’s fascinating stuff regardless, and feels a little at work in this series.

MT: I personally loved that each sibling had an episode in the lead up to Nell’s death. I found it so interesting seeing the same scenes again from the other side of the coin. I thought the family were all equal protagonists, and in terms of the female representation, I thought it was brilliant. Each woman had a distinct and multi-faceted personality, and her own reasons for every decision she made.

Was there a particular character you felt most invested in?

AL: Theo is just magnetic. I love the gloves, I love her battle with emotion and feeling, and I felt her sexuality was treated in a rather sophisticated way (which echoes the book, though it’s an absolutely different narrative). It’s all parts of her, and she is a very whole and complete person.

FS: I definitely feel like there was more to be said about Theo, but I think the mystery fit in well with her being such a guarded character. The way she suspected abuse on the part of the foster parent was fascinating, and an interesting contrast to acknowledge that some ghosts aren’t real but just a compartmentalization of abuse.

JF: Kate Siegel really channelled something in her portrayal of Theo. Her monologue explaining what happened with Shirley’s husband not only saves the character from being just another trope-y lesbian who’s actually into men but also opens her up emotionally in a way that was both painfully and vitally relatable. Beyond sexuality, Theo’s granted range: we see how guarded she is around family, but we also see a tender side whenever she’s working with her patients. My one disappointment was that she’s partnered up by the end of the series. Lesbians are so often defined by their relationships that we sometimes forget women on their own can be lesbians as well–that it’s just another part of human identity and doesn’t necessitate another individual.

AL: That particular element of Theo’s story–especially with this partner who didn’t feel all that special to me as a character –could have been left behind for me. I find her far more interesting in her confidence to be without others, and the times when she chooses to take off her gloves are for really warm, mothering reasons. I felt like that footnote omits something important about her empathic ability, which is this choice to feel. Yes, it’s powerful that she chooses to feel more and not less by the end of this ordeal, especially as it pertains to her family and her memory (because I do think this is a memory play). But this shiny bookend relationship moment feels regressive, and something we do to women regularly on-screen.

MT: I personally was most engaged when Nell was on screen. I found her character, and Victoria’s portrayal, just so endearing and constantly felt she didn’t deserve what happened to her when she was so loving and kind to everyone else from a young age. Her story with her husband broke my heart. Nell’s desire to have the family together and for her siblings to get along demonstrated her innate kindness, and in the end she achieved that–even through her sacrifice.

JF: For sure! I was all about Olivia and Nell. Give me a continuing series called Red Room Tea Party and I’d binge it in a heartbeat. 2018’s been a big year in media for fraught mother-child relationships–first with Hereditary, then Sharp Objects. Like those narratives, The Haunting of Hill House explores the theme of toxic motherhood, but is maybe more sympathetic to its causes. I still don’t know how I feel about what motivated Olivia to do what she did in the Red Room, but that draws me to her storyline all the more. God, all the women really.

AL: I would have loved to spend more time with Timothy Hutton’s character, too. His haunting by his wife–or rather, his partnership with her ghost–is really alluring.

Let’s talk favorite scenes. What stood out most?

AL: I am willing to bet most film nerds are interested in the funeral home episode which appears to be one long take (appears being key there). I found that scene to be the strongest in terms of acting and dialogue–it would make a phenomenally scary stage play. But I’d like to call everyone’s attention to Carla Gugino’s scene where she recalls her twins telling her that she poisons them to death. Her horror at that idea, and simultaneous denial and realization, are to me one of the most gut wrenching, psychologically moments. To watch it unravel and be discovered in different ways, by different family members, over and over again, is just so grim.

JF: Grim is right! We’ve gotten to know and appreciate how much love Olivia has for her family, so to see it all taken and twisted is really frightening.

FS: Honorable mention to Poppy, watching her influence and twist Olivia was really something.

JF: Definitely. Nell’s dancing in episode 6 was another huge moment for me–probably one of the saddest, most beautiful scenes I’ve ever encountered in a Netflix series. Second place goes to Hugh telling Luke how Olivia’s still with him, and honorable mention for me was the entirely of Olivia’s speech to Hugh in the last episode. Or any of Olivia’s scenes y’all mentioned. Would like to take this moment to express my undying love for Carla Gugino, if that’s not completely obvious by now.

AL: I feel like we’ve somehow done her a disservice. Or at least, everyone except Zack Snyder, who casts her in everything (Any other Watchmen fans? Her Silk Spectre is wonderful).

JF: Silk Spectre deserves her own film. Don’t even get me started on Silk Spectre.

MT: Literally every scene with Olivia is superbly impactful (Gugino will forever be my spy-mother, Ingrid Cortez). But the accolade of favorite specific moments would probably go to Nell’s dance and the funeral parlour argument. Episodes five and six were two of Netflix’s most memorable episodes of anything. Again, the long takes in episode six, as the camera spun around the family whilst hey argued just a few feet away from Nell’s body were gut-wrenching, the performances there were at an all time high.

FS: All of the heart-wrenching monologues in the last episodes get my vote. I love going to the theatre and those heart-breaking performances felt positively Shakespearean. Theo’s breakdown about feeling nothing, Nell’s ghost saying goodbye and Hugh’s last conversation with Olivia’s ghost were just so well-performed and engrossing.

Did you find the series effectively scary?

FS: Definitely, it felt like how I wanted to be scared by The Conjuring. I think having the 10 hours to understand the characters, build up the tension with the repeated images and weave the story together from so many angles really got inside my head. There were times when the SFX got too much, like showing Luke’s girlfriend becoming the girl with the melted eyes was a lot but aside from that, very effective.

AL: There are a lot of jump scares, but once we get past them and onto what Flanagan does best–uncanny, lingering shots of discomfort you have to contend with as a viewer–I think it works beautifully, something between practical effects work and psychological uneasiness. I still cringe at certain digital effects that I find rubbery, but I think it might actually fit Flanagan’s overall desire for the uncanny. His previous film that Netflix released, Before I Wake, was particularly rife with this. Here it’s more developed, more fully realized, and I buy into the stylistic choice.

JF: Yes! SFX landed best in moments when they married a general element of fright or disgust (the slow and terrifying emergence of the bug from the cat’s mouth, for instance) with an emotional consequence (Shirley’s relationship with death). The gradual questioning of reality featured in Nell and Olivia’s scenes hit me hardest overall, because that shit’s in your head.

MT: Totally agreed. The lingering shots with no payoff put me in a real place of unease. I especially liked the use of shadows and reflections, like when the tall man bends down to pick up the hat and we see just his feet and shadow on the door. Also just never knowing quite what you’re seeing – like the people cropping up in the background, and like you said Juliette, Nell and Olivia’s scenes where we had no idea what to believe.

FS: I can’t stop thinking about Nelly as the bent-neck lady, and I’ve still not recovered from the image of her screaming at her younger self. It began as a fear of the unknown but the truth was shockingly worse.

AL: What I’ve enjoyed about Mike Flanagan’s work in the past is its interest in looking: and by that, I mean a tendency to let the camera linger on images that are slightly strange, menacing, or even intensely gory. To that end, I do find this series to be at its best when it’s carefully paced and unafraid of a slow, honest scare. Taking long looks at the bent-neck lady, and Nell in her coffin come to mind. I also don’t want to gloss over the psychological disturbance – moments or thoughts that are horrifying but not necessarily frightening outright. Shirley’s visions of a man in a bar are reminiscent to me of The Shining (maybe even the man and the bear in the one of the rooms…), and while they’re not breathtaking or earth shattering when they show up, they haunt. And that’s something this series succeeds at that other adaptations of this work haven’t – that lingering feeling that something is attached to you that you simply can’t shake.

JF: Unshakable is such a perfect word for this series. I didn’t necessarily find a lot of Hill House scary in the conventional sense, but its sense of tragedy troubles the soul on a deeper level. I’m the youngest in a family with five kids–three girls and two boys. I know the Crain family isn’t my family, but it’s hard not to see parallels sometimes–I think what I find scariest is how quickly things change for families, and how final the consequences are.

What about that timeline?

AL: I expected it– it’s key to Oculus, and an obsession Flanagan seems to have in nearly every work. There’s some confusion in the last couple episodes here, but not enough to be confounding–just enough to demand a rewatch, which for Netflix is no bad thing. I think if anything I was disappointed that things wrapped up so neatly with a bow–felt a bit Hallmark movie at the end there. There’s a nice rumor floating around the internet that the original ending intended the family to experience their happy ending under the guise of the red room. Call me a cynical horror viewer, but I would have preferred it.

JF: That last episode was probably my favorite of the bunch, and that’s in large part due to the muddled ending, which felt both happy enough to accept at first glance yet too tidy to trust upon closer inspection. Rewatch time, like you said.

FS: I wasn’t sure about it until Nell’s speech about time not as a line but like rain, or snow, or confetti falling all around them. I really appreciated how the second half of the series became incredibly theatrical: episode 6 with the long-shots made time feel really slow to reflect on the grief, the isolation of the Red Room illusions felt timeless, bubbles of moments compared to the beginning when the anchoring of contact with each other kept the story grounded in the events leading up to Nell’s death. Overall I thought the explanation of time really fed into the way they told the story, and how the ghosts were overlapping between past, present and future.

JF: Absolutely! I’m not sure we need to fully grasp how time functions in the series, because it feels like an understanding not meant for those outside Hill House. Nell understands it, and in her final lines Victoria Pedretti as Nell blends mania and stoicism in such a way that viewers buy her conviction, even if we get lost in the details.

MT: It actually got my brain going with the amount of levels that came with every little thing, that then all connected at a later date. For example, when Luke said how he felt cold and stiff, we are made to assume it’s withdrawal, but later he learns Nell is dead and it suddenly clicks that he felt that way because “It’s a twin thing”. As hard as I try, I’m genuinely struggling to fault the series in any way.

Did you like the ending? Is all’s well that ends well?

FS: I think the resolution gave me some kind of comfort, the way Nell and Hugh helped save the other Crains so Olivia wouldn’t be restless and alone. The side-plot of Abigail and the Dudleys was sad but beautiful. But with the shot of them all wandering at the end, do all the ghosts get the same peaceful resolution? I’m not a regular horror viewer so I think the neater ending helps me sleep at night but I can definitely see why you’d appreciate a more classically scary ending, Alexandra.

MT: I cried a LOT. It was such a profound portrait of a parents sacrifice. The way Hugh stayed behind for both his children and Olivia got me in my core. His kids, especially Steven, had been treating him so harshly all these years and I dread to think of the regret they feel now they know the truth. I have read theories that in every Red Room scene something is red (i.e. Steven’s jumper, Luke’s converse) and in the final ‘happy’ moment, Luke’s cake is red. People seem to believe they all might still be in the Red Room, but I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear that theory and everything is okay…

Have you seen any of the other films based on Hill House? The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) or The Haunting (Jan de Bont, 1999). Do you like them/hate them/prefer them to this?

AL: I’ve seen both and have grown to love them both. The Robert Wise film is beautiful, incorporating Nell’s narration from the novel in a way that felt equally diaristic and menacing. And of course, it remains relatively true to the book. The 1999 version defined early 00s horror for me for a long time. Its effects are rubbery and gummy and mostly silly at this point, and the performance from Lili Taylor either really great or really bad (I’m never quite sure). But it’s ambience is something spectacular, and I felt it captured the house’s architecture in a special way. But this iteration is something else entirely. It’s not an adaptation so much as a response to the source material. And I really, really appreciated that.

JF: I love both versions, though will admit the 1999 film has my whole heart. I think it gets a little away from us near the end, but that’s life, right? Alex, you mentioned the invented backstory with Hugh Crain earlier–apart from performances and production design, that was my favorite element of the film (and made me more than a little suspicious toward the Hugh Crain of the Netflix series).

For folks’ who loved the series, what other works would you recommend?  

AL: Absentia and Oculus, certainly. Also Before I Wake if you’re interested in seeing something imperfect but I think an essential building block for this director to build to this project.

JF: I mentioned it before, but to anyone seeking a female-centric narrative suffused with dreamy visuals, uneasy family dynamics and a painful but poetic exploration of trauma rooted to a specific time or place, I’d recommend Sharp Objects. If Nell’s close encounters with the Bent-Neck Lady got you hyped on the concept of the double, you can’t go wrong with that one. On that same note, I’d suggest The Tale and Game–all three works (released this year!) feature moments in which a female protagonist confronts either her past or future self. Honorable movie mentions include The Others and The Midnight Swim, a female-directed gem from 2014 also concerning three sisters processing their mother’s death.

MT: I hate to be ‘basic’, but I’m a big fan of The Conjuring films. They’re a lot more scary and big on the horror, but the first one in particular is another interesting take on family and motherhood. The addition of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, along with their own backstory and family is really effective also.

JF: As far as literature goes, Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny is another slow burn of a novel that treads a delicate line between exploration and exploitation. Despite its gruesome opening description of two murdered children, it proves more character study than cliffhanger, and as with the figure of Olivia in The Haunting of Hill House, the violence of the title character remains something of a mystery to readers–in a great way. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the criminally underrated Hangsahman are additional must-reads for fans of any version of the Hill House story.

AL: I think I’d also suggest people search out the most recently published book of Jackson short stories, Let Me Tell You. Reads like a dream (nightmare?).

There’s been discussion about a potential second season of the show that doesn’t focus on the Crain family. What do you envision as a subject for season two?

MT: I personally do not want a second season, I felt it ended on a fantastic note and anything added further – especially without these amazing characters – would feel as though it was just for the sake of it. I don’t want to see Hill House without the Crain’s, but alas, the Crain’s story is ended.

FS: Perhaps using the subjects of Steven’s other books would be a way to keep within the same universe without focusing on the Crain family. But I’m always cautious of Netflix ordering new seasons based on success rather than merit, I think they should only agree if there’s a strong enough concept, I’d be satisfied with this as a standalone adaptation.

JF: I could envision an origin story for the house being ordered, though I’d also be interested in an exploration of Poppy’s psyche. Truthfully, I have no taste whatsoever and would commit to watching anything with solid female characters–maybe Theo and Jessica Jones could team up for some crime-fighting. (You’re welcome, Netflix.)

FS: I would watch that – way better than Iron Fist!

AL: So many things are better than Iron Fist (disclosure – I’ve not been bothered to watch Iron Fist, but I have a feeling… queue the angry comments).

by Juliette Faraone, Alex Landers, Fatima Sheriff and Millicent Thomas

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