Haunted house movies usually follow a well-worn formula. Whether it’s The Amityville Horror, Peter Medak’s The Changeling, or the wildly successful Conjuring franchise, the basic beats are all the same: someone moves into a house, bad things happen, a sinister backstory or force are eventually uncovered, and the bad things escalate, leading into the finale. The familiarity is part of what makes the whole thing work. With the genre setting audience expectations, the filmmakers can then explore their own ideas and themes, or even subvert those expectations for an entirely different result.
Another key element is time — or a lack thereof. Haunted-house stories naturally lend themselves to claustrophobic settings, ideally suited for movies, where audiences can be progressively more traumatized, knowing that freedom is just a couple of hours away. That’s a major challenge for a horror series like Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. Adapted by Mike Flanagan, the writer-director behind movies like Hush and Gerald’s Game, the 10-episode series reimagines Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel of the same name. But instead of focusing on a paranormal investigator who decides to investigate a haunted home, Flanagan uses the story to tell a sprawling family drama that’s concerned with the lasting impact of grief, loss, and tragedy.
The mash-up of haunted-house story and family drama is an imperfect fit, often leaving the expected haunting story elements on the back burner as Flanagan weaves a tale that’s more This Is Us than Poltergeist. The first half of the season is particularly uneven, as the show suffers the kind of slow start that many recent Netflix series struggle to overcome. But The Haunting of Hill House ultimately comes together in a way that’s both scary and unexpectedly moving. In the end, it offers its own fresh twist on ghosts and haunted houses, while leaving plenty of room for future installments.
The Haunting of Hill House is the story of the Crain family: Hugh and Olivia (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino, respectively) and their five children. Some 25-ish years ago, they moved into Hill House to renovate and flip it. But something went wrong, leaving Olivia dead and the children with a lifetime full of resentment over their haunted childhood. The Crain children are still struggling with that legacy as adults in the present day.
Steven (Michiel Huisman) is a supernatural skeptic and novelist that turned his family’s story into a bestselling book (which happens to feature prose from Jackson’s 1959 novel). Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician, using her profession to exercise some semblance of control over the death and loss she experienced as a child. Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a therapist who helps children, but is otherwise unable to form any kind of meaningful personal connections. Family screw-up Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a struggling addict who’s spent his entire life since Hill House numbing himself in one way or another. Then there’s Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who has recently begun seeing visions of the disturbing “Bent-Neck Girl” that haunted her childhood.
When a family tragedy brings the group together — including their now-reclusive father (Timothy Hutton, skillfully echoing Henry Thomas in his portrayal of the older Hugh) — they’re forced to reexamine the ways they’ve shut down, hurt, and betrayed one another over the years. They also have to confront the issue of Hill House itself: what really happened when they were children, who was to blame, and what forces may be luring each of them back.
The Haunting of Hill House starts playing with genre expectations right out of the gate. It opens with the young Crain family’s last night in the house, and from there, it kicks off an interconnected series of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and every other permutation in between. It’s a television show constructed for a modern TV audience, one used to shows like Westworld, where direct narrative continuity isn’t as essential as thematic and emotional through-lines. Flanagan takes deep dives into what makes various characters tick — each episode is roughly centered around a single character — and the show explores how the same events can be perceived by different people, particularly when they bring radically different emotional contexts to the table. Steven, for example, sees his novel as a way of helping his family take something good away from their traumatic childhoods; Shirley sees it as a travesty and betrayal, like he’s profiteering off the loss of their mother in the cruelest way.
The performances from the older Crain children are wonderfully restrained, lending a sense of gravitas without letting the show veer too far into melodrama. Given that this is a supernatural series, it’s impressive how grounded it is, with Reaser and Huisman serving as effective dramatic touch points for the audience. Each of their characters is indulging in their own recognizable and easy-to-understand form of denial, and it’s easy to invest in the Crain family’s struggles even without all the haunted-house theatrics.
But there are still full-on jump-scares and moments of true horror. When Flanagan decides to unleash that aspect of the series, he brings to bear all the talents at creating tension and misdirection that he’s displayed in his films. Several times, it actually seems like he’s using the series to pay homage to various genre classics. The way certain spirits appear, and the final chase sequence, both strongly echo Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The sound design and execution of a sequence centered on Nell come off like an extended homage to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist.
But they don’t just play as meta-references. There are moments in The Haunting of Hill House that are downright terrifying, particularly if watched at home, alone, in a darkened house. It’s a real reminder of how underserved TV audiences are when it comes to true, high-caliber original horror. Shows like Castle Rock flirt with scares, and American Horror Story succeeds in upping the weirdness ante every season. But Flanagan’s show is genuinely haunting in a way television rarely accesses.
Or at least, it’s haunting when Flanagan wants it to be. With Hill House, he’s playing with the core tropes and expectations of the haunted house subgenre, and in the name of advancing the family drama, the show often leaves huge questions about the property’s backstory or the escalation of the hauntings 30 years ago completely unaddressed. Several times, the show starts to feel like it’s building up a head of steam toward one particular supernatural incident, only to pivot to the present day and leave the story thread alone for episodes at a time. That tactic works well for foregrounding the family — this is a show about the after-effects of loss and grief, not the incidents themselves — and it may well be intended as a way to amplify tension by making the audience wait for the payoffs. But at times, it also feels like the show is teasing rather than truly delivering.
Also problematic is the way some of the horror elements bleed into the present-day world. Without spoiling anything specific, the visions and trauma the Crain kids experienced in Hill House follow them into adulthood, which works from a thematic perspective; of course the things that happen to us when we’re young end up impacting us as adults. But on a purely visceral level, a monster appearing to a character on a crowded city street just doesn’t hold the same kind of visceral punch as it does when they appear in a moody, dilapidated mansion filled with crumbling walls. The juxtaposition steals away the sense of claustrophobia that makes many of the haunted-house moments effective, and it underscores the less successful ways in which Flanagan is playing with the genre.
But while the first five episodes do feel uneven, viewers who stick around will be rewarded richly by the time the series wraps up. The show isn’t particularly subtle about the fact that it’s about grief, loss, and the ways different people cope with those feelings, and it nevertheless follows through on those core ideas in a genuinely moving way. Likening it to This Is Us isn’t just about noting the use of a fractured narrative that crosscuts between decades. It’s about the show’s ability to pack an emotional wallop, turning its 10 hours of scares, frustrations, and tensions into a cathartic emotional climax that’s both satisfying and surprising.
If Flanagan was setting out to reimagine what a haunted house story could be — whether in tone, medium, or emotional context — then The Haunting of Hill House is unquestionably a success. It’s not a perfect journey, and there are plenty of bumps along the way. But it’s a series that will stick in people’s minds — not because of the familiar things it does, but for all the things it dares to do differently.
The Haunting of Hill House will premiere on Netflix on October 12th.