Everyone loves a good ghost story that makes you too scared to sleep at night. The Haunting of Hill House did it right.
Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House is a classic ghost story: a family moves into a mansion, only to leave soon after ghosts start haunting them.
But Hill House has another element that turns the horror up a notch. This show grounds the ghost story by showing how grief caused by childhood trauma follows the characters into their adult lives. That trauma includes what you might expect—ghosts, death, and dishonesty.
The show also explores how each character deals with that trauma. One turns to drug addiction. Another decides to embrace death in their everyday life through work at a funeral home. Another decides to push everyone away to protect themselves. Another decides to tell their own version of the story, one they can rationalize.
The show is character-driven and manages to affect the audience emotionally as well as viscerally, through jump scares and spooky imagery.
Overall, the whole story feels grounded in reality because the horrors don’t end after leaving the house. The world that Hill House exists in is immersive and does this through its use of terror, fleshed-out characters, realistic elements, and well-crafted shots.
Check out how Netflix UK & Ireland explain the horror of The Haunting of Hill House in their video:
- The gross-out (a scare the makes our skin crawl)
- The horror (the shock of the unnatural)
- The terror (the “I see” moment when the lights go out and you feel like something is behind you, only to turn and find nothing there)
Hill House incorporates all three of these horror elements into each episode, but there is a heavy emphasis on terror.
Terror can be the knock on the door only to find no one there, red writing underneath the wallpaper. Terror is the most effective of the three types of scares because it is inescapable.
We become fearful of the moments when the characters are supposed to be safe. Generally, horror viewers know what to expect and when (like when a scare is coming after dead silence, or who is supposed to survive and die). Rules make us feel safe, but the rules bend when terror is introduced.
Director Mike Flanagan sticks numerous ghosts in the frame throughout the show. They lurk in the background, watching the characters, motionless.
There isn’t a rule that says a ghost has to do something scary if it’s in the shot, and the fact that it doesn’t do anything makes the audience uncomfortable. The audiences’ expectations are thrown out the window. Hill House doesn’t allow the horror to be right in our face. It follows us, much like the ghost haunting the characters, until the fear of the unknown becomes too much to bear.
Stillness, solitude, and inescapable dread are the unholy trinity that makes The Haunting of Hill House so scary.
Terror only works if the audience is afraid for the person who leaves the bed in the middle of the night. Flanagan understands how important it is for an audience to be emotionally invested in the characters. This might be why the show is considered a drama. He spends much of the story making sure the audience sees how loved and cared for each character is.
Each episode fleshes out each character to make sure the audience is deeply invested. We sympathize with the characters, so when someone is in trouble, we begin to fear the worst while hoping for the best.
The opening scene shows how loving and caring the parents are, and how close the children are to one another. The scene is heart-warming, and the audience feels comfortable with this touching moment only to have terror take over as a ghost comes into focus from behind the young sleeping Nell (Violet McGraw).
The audiences’ sympathy was manipulated to fear anything horrible that could happen to adult Nell (Victoria Pedretti), and her unfortunate demise tugs at our heartstrings.
Never has a horror made me cry so hard because my worst fear for a character came true. Hill House has one foot in horror, and the other foot in our hearts.
The show’s set designs are based around the idea of “Make the horror real.” The sets are lit and color graded to look like it belongs in our world.
Horror tends to be dark and made to feel like it is in a different world, which makes us feel a safe distance from what is happening. When the lights are on, we are supposed to feel safe. In this way, The Haunting of Hill House breaks yet another horror rule, and our safety blanket is pulled back a little farther.
The show takes elements that people experience in real life, like sleep paralysis, and twist them into our worst fear. People do suffer from sleep paralysis, and doctors do tell people that the shadowy figure lurking in the doorway is just a part of our imagination.
But what if it wasn’t? Hill House takes our real-world fears and turns them into reality.
We have to talk about the 17-minute-long take in episode 6, “Two Storms,” which incorporates everything I’ve mentioned earlier.
Here, the camera acts as one of the hidden ghosts as it bends when a character bends, moves when they move. The camera is always at eye-level with the characters, which forces the audience to watch everything that is happening from their perspective. It is only when the audience realizes that there hasn’t been a cut in a while that our anxieties begin to emerge. The audience is stuck with the character’s trauma, and the amazingly long take amplifies our fears for the character’s well-being as tension lurks in the background.
There are no cues for us to cover our eyes and hide from the scare. The shots in Hill House force the audience to be immersed and invested in whatever is happening in the scene. There are so many hidden ghosts in the show that go unnoticed because the camera doesn’t feel a need to focus on them. That is not the camera’s job, but the viewer who sees the ghost peeking through the window is overtaken by fear of what could happen.
Melancholy and fear are not mutually exclusive in The Haunting of Hill House. You forget you’re watching a show until a scare gets you so good that you have to stop watching for the night. The terror of life and the anxieties in our minds are things we can understand and relate to more than giant spiders or decayed bodies slowly walking towards us. We can’t escape the terror of our minds.
Were you immersed in the world of The Haunting of Hill House? Let us know your thoughts below.