‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Works Because of its Characters

In drawing realistic, layered characters, Netflix's horror-drama succeeds where the genre sometimes falls flat.

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Oct 18 2018, 1:40pm

All images courtesy Netflix

Some very light spoilers for episode three of The Haunting of Hill House, and a content warning for a discussion of death/illness.

I don’t know if I’ve ever related to characters in a horror series more than I do in The Haunting of Hill House.

I live for horror (and sci-fi), but I’m happy to admit the genre doesn’t always produce the most complex or layered characters. Even in many great horror pieces—The Thing, The Fly, even my beloved favorite of all time, Alien—which feature memorable, relatable badasses, obsessed scientists and average Joes/Janes doing their best, don’t always present their characters as having rich interior lives. (I’ll posit the second season of Channel Zero as a rare exception).

The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix’ just released horror-drama is premised almost entirely on that: in telling the intimate, uncomfortable, layered tales of its core family. It plays across two main timelines: the Crain family’s stay in hill house (a cursed, most-definitely haunted house) in the late 80s, ostensibly a bid to flip the house and get rich off the profits, and the modern day, where the traumatized, now grown, five children have to come to grips with their (literal and metaphorical) hauntings.

Haunting of hill house Nellie

They come across as real people, rather than archetypes, and the text and subtext are heavily invested in their traumas and the ways they’ve processed them. I’ve weirdly never felt closer to horror characters than I have here, and, three episodes in, the focus has largely been on the two older sisters: Shirley and Theodora.

Shirley is a mortician who constantly goes out of her way to help others. After a couple of awful brushes with death early in life (and some terrifying hauntings in the house), she’s determined to be a person who “fixes” others and gives comfort in death. She’s sensitive to the supernatural in a similar fashion to her mother (and in fact most of the family), haunted by phantasms and the lingering pain of her early traumas.

Her need to save people, and fix people, and do way too much for those in her life, as a sort of coping mechanism, spoke to me.

She lives with her husband and kids and her sister Theodora, a gifted child psychologist who can intuit things about a person’s feelings and memories by making a physical connection to them. She, too, was literally haunted in hill house, by ghosts who used that touching power against her. She’s used her trauma to try to help others experiencing it, and has her own issues with boundaries and a realistic frustration with the social systems she’s constrained by (say, the foster system and police, when someone hurts one of her young patients). Her powers are no match for the grim reality that everyone has to wrestle with.

Theodora is also a queer woman, a fact she hides from her family until one genuinely hilarious incident with a bridesmaid at her younger sister Nellie’s wedding. There are layers to this as well: Theodora has a complicated relationship to sex and girlfriends, with an (understandable) suit of emotional armor as strong-and delicately tended to- as the gloves she wears whenever she’s out in the world. The metaphors operate on a few levels here: Theodora keeps the cards close to her chest, so to speak, she’s sexual but slow to allow people in. Her queerness can be read as a complication here, another factor that she keeps in the dark (like her power), another thing that makes her special or simply different from the rest of her family, despite all their shared secrets and psychic pain.

She spoke to me too.

When these two characters, in particular, are in focus, I feel for them. There’s an almost painful physical sensation of being there with them, because they’re so well-drawn and I’m so readily able to see myself in their shoes. I’m watching the show snuggled up with my dog, and when things get scary enough, I’m squeezing him (gently). One scene, at the end of episode three, had me clutching him tight, muttering “oh, this is going to hurt. This is going to really hurt!” at the TV.

Haunting of Hill House photography

Because this is a horror show, and vague terrors are made literal onscreen, we see and hear and know exactly what haunts Shirley and Theodora, and the rest of the family. The death of loved ones, of pets, the agony and frustration of illnesses and struggles that don’t just go away, these real-life elements are all mixed in with the terrifying visuals of ghosts and ghouls and other terrifying phenomena. They’re all experienced at the same volume, and the show’s editing is always on-point, drawing the parallels in ways that aren’t subtle, but they sure are effective. All of these things hurt, and all of them will change a person, mold them, for better or worse. The show knows this, and deals with this, in explicitly showing how events shaped its protagonists.

A big part of why I love horror so much is it’s core emotional honesty. Good horror gives the audience a chance to be honest (at least, for 90-120 minutes) about the fact that it is terrifying to be human, and mortal, and impotent in the face of the universe. To know that everyone dies, that every single person either gets sick or hurt or becomes old and frail. There’s no denying the existential horror that we’re all dimly aware of, but we don’t talk about that very often in polite society. In horror, We get to contend with those fears for a bit and often feel some kind of catharsis—even bleak horror stories have some kind of conclusion, even if it’s a very grim one. The movie ends. Sometimes, there are survivors. Either way, you, in the audience, are safe, for the moment. You got a small glimpse at the awful truth and you get to go home from the movie theater despite it.

It’s healthy, psychologically, to contend with deep-seated fears, and horror is a portion of how I (and so many others) do that.

The Haunting of Hill House knows this, at its core, and supports it so well due to that care and deft handling of these characters through writing, acting, and directing choices. These are people going through trauma, not walking stereotypes.

I still have a long ways to go—and Patrick tells me episodes four and five are real roller coasters to deal with—but I’m really eating up this series. It came out of nowhere, for me, but it’s doing everything I love about horror, and giving me so much to chew on above the genre tropes.

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