The horror genre is treated as the “getaway drug” for filmmakers and actors who want to grow in the industry.
Hence, the genre is twisted and turned, and the results are not always good. In fact, they can be horrendous.
However, Mike Flanagan shows us that when you have the right tools and the vision to combine them, horror can be powerful and go beyond shallow scares.
With his newest project, The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan combines ghost stories with a very clever depiction of the aftermaths of loss and mental illness.
Presented by Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House has a great cast, including Carla Gugino, Kate Siegel, Henry Thomas, Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Victoria Pedretti.
The series tells the story of the family who briefly live in Hill House.
They struggle to move on as the lingering effects of the suicide of their mother, Olivia and the events that happened in the house shadow their lives.
Flanagan explores the psychological side of horror in his past films, especially the Stephen King adaptation, Gerald’s Game.
In this project, he takes it a step further.
The story is told in a non-linear way, jumping from the past to the future. It leaves the audience putting the pieces together, alongside the Crain siblings, who don’t have full knowledge of what really happened.
On their last night in the house, Olivia commits suicide, leaving her husband, Hugh to take care of the kids.
However, Hugh is unable to fully explain to his kids, and the wider world, what really happened in the house. He knows no one will believe him if he blames ghosts for the death of his wife.
The kids live with the trauma of their mother’s suicide and are unable to live their lives happily.
The show depicts their struggles as each kid represents stage of grief:
Steve, the older brother, is the embodiment of denial. He rejects the possibility that his mother was haunted and blames his father for not caring for his mother’s depression.
Shirley is a mortician. It’s her way of coping with death and being in control. She also struggles to lead a carefree life as she is the personification of anger.
Theo, the middle child, has put her effort into becoming a child psychologist and to help others. But she is unable to sustain a loving relationship, distracting herself with meaningless sex and drinking alcohol.
She’s always searching for the better outcome; this is the bargaining stage.
As the embodiment of depression, Luke struggles with addiction his whole life. He fails to see any meaning in life or any possibility of moving on after the death of his twin sister, Nell.
The youngest Crain, Nell represents acceptance. Her narrative spirals as she loses grip on reality after the loss of her husband. She accepts that she will forever be bound to Hill House.
This show is a grounded family drama, with a twist of horror and a spattering of ghosts as the backdrop.
The fact that the show is a family drama about death and loss is not a secret, however, what I thought was most interesting is that the show plays with the understanding of horror as well.
Yes, the show’s genre is horror, but not a scary one, which many people have complained about.
It doesn’t deliver the haunted-house formula: a family moves into a house, they start experiencing strange phenomena e.g. a chair moves by itself, the clocks stop at 3am, there is a strong smell, they hear strange noises, etc.
The resolution for these formulaic films is usually death, exorcism, or the family moves away.
The Haunting of Hill House has no time for this formula. However, it does fall on some tropes.
One of the most important aspects of haunted houses formula is the claustrophobia we experience and the deterioration of the house itself.
The family is trapped inside the house, the walls are closing in and the ripped wallpaper resembles the character’s fears and mental state.
The Haunting of Hill House’s characters have left the house and what confines their fears is not the physical walls of the house, but the crumbling walls they’ve put up to isolate themselves from the world.
The openness is crippling to them. Being alone in the world is far worse than being inside a safe place, even though the safe place was created from their own imagination. Or so they think…
To move on, the family needs to get together and face the house one last time, finally confronting their fears.
Nell’s death brings the family together, unlike the death of Olivia that drives them apart.
In turn, Nellie’s ghost tries to help the family by warning them against the house, as Olivia’s ghost wants them dead to keep them in the house forever.
On a meta level, The Haunting of Hill House plays with the perception of horror by the audience.
Either we follow Aristotle’s theory that horror is cathartic, or Wood’s theory which states that horror is the embodiment of our anxieties as a society and by killing the monster we are re-establishing normalcy.
Or Carroll’s theory that horror is the stimulation of the cognitivist side of our brain.
Every theory is validated by Flanagan’s show.
However, this idea of “is this horror or not?” is even debated by the characters.
On one hand, we have the cynical ones who instead of believing in horror (ghosts) blame it on mental illness (suicide).
Steve cannot fathom the possibility of ghosts haunting the house and that his family would rather blame Olivia’s on ghosts than to acknowledge the fact that his mother had a mental illness.
He sees depression as a hereditary disease in his family.
On the other hand, there are the believers, who truly believe in the ghosts and reject the fact that Olivia and Nellie killed themselves because of a disease.
They believe they were driven to it by the disabling anxiety and fear caused by the hauntings.
Is it a horror TV show or is it a family drama examining loss and mental illness? Maybe it’s a combination of both.
The audience sees what they want to see, but as we’ve seen in horror theories, horror is much more than simple scares.
And behind every monster there is always something deeper.
The ending of the show, which I won’t spoil here, should be enough to turn every cynic into a believer, as it does with Steve.
Mike Flanagan has delivered a fantastic show that horror fans deserve.
It’s not perfect. It sometimes stumbles as it tries too much to deliver the duality previous stated between haunting apparitions and family drama.
But it’s a great show nonetheless.
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