The best horror stories aren’t about ghosts or demons or knife-wielding murderers. The monsters that chase us into basements and down darkened hallways aren’t real; they’re merely grotesque manifestations of the human condition. The best horror stories are psychological; they poke and prod at our fears and anxieties, they disquiet and unnerve us at our core by tapping into primal feelings of existential dread.
The new Netflix series, “The Haunting of Hill House,” is one such example of a horror story whose scares run deeper than the ghosts we see onscreen. Based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, creator and showrunner Mike Flanagan (“Oculus,” “Absentia”) has updated the story, turning it into a meditation on trauma and grief.
The story follows the Crain family, who we meet as the new owners of the massive and foreboding Hill House in 1992. Parents Hugh (Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton) and Olivia (Carla Gugino) hope to turn a buck by rehabbing and flipping the ramshackle house over the course of the summer. Their dream quickly turns into a nightmare as their five young children begin to see ghosts throughout the house.
Soon, Olivia, too, becomes affected. However, her experience is different. She finds herself in the thrall of the house. Her mental state deteriorates, until she becomes such a danger that Hugh is forced to flee the house with his children on a fateful night that culminates in Olivia’s death.
It’s ruled a suicide, but Hugh, who knows more than he dares tell, never speaks a word of it to the kids. His silence breeds resentment and, ultimately, deep trauma among his children, who have drifted apart from their father as well as each other in the nearly three decades since their mother’s death.
In 2018, eldest son Steven (Michiel Huisman) is now a successful author who, despite his skepticism, has used his family’s ordeal to further his own career. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a chilly funeral director, who’s coped with her trauma by walling herself off from herself and her siblings. Middle child Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a physically and emotionally detached child psychologist with psychometric abilities.
Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who were the most affected by their time at Hill House, have fared the worst since their childhood. Luke is a heroin addict struggling to get clean. Nell is battling depression. She is also haunted by the specter of the “Bent-Neck Lady,” who has been tormenting her since that summer.
When another tragedy brings the Crains reluctantly back into each other’s lives, the family finally confronts their long-buried grief over their mother’s death and the trauma it caused them.
The confrontation plays out with intensity in the sixth episode, “Two Storms.” The bottle episode takes place inside Shirley’s funeral home, where the family has gathered to mourn the loss of one of their own. Over the course of the episode, they air their grievances, point fingers and bicker with raw emotion while a violent storm rages outside.
It’s a powerful episode that, along with the heart-wrenching preceding episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” forms the emotional spine of the series. Supernatural elements aside, this is a family that has dealt with a terrible trauma they’ve never fully processed, and Flanagan explores those feelings with poignant authenticity.
Of course, the family returns to Hill House for a final showdown with the structure that has haunted them for so long. The house, then, becomes an overt metaphor for their grief — they must enter it, confront the ghosts within and emerge healed. Or not. (I won’t spoil how it ends, except to say the conclusion is far tidier than I expected.)
Flanagan tells the story in the present day with episodes that focus on each major character individually. He also relies heavily on flashbacks, both to the time at Hill House and to the recent past. The jumps are easy to follow but create a disjointed, disorienting effect that heightens the viewer’s confusion and uncertainty.
That uncertainty effectively raises suspicion among the audience. Are the Crains reliable narrators? Is any of this real? Is it merely a manifestation of their shared trauma? Mental illness? Flanagan thankfully offers no definitive answers. There also may be a scientific explanation as to why Hill House affected the Crains the way it did, but that’s left open for interpretation.
While there is no shortage of jump scares and classic horror chills, “The Haunting of Hill House” is, foremost, an intense psychological thriller about how we choose to either confront or run from the trauma and grief we carry with us.