TATBT Recommends: 'The Haunting of Hill House,' AKA, Spooky 'Parenthood'

IT'S ALMOST HALLOWEEN: WHY NOT TREAT YOURSELF TO SOME TERROR AND A GOOD CRY?!

"Ghosts can be a lot of things: a memory, a daydream... but most times they're just what we want to see."

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Steven Crain uses these words to undermine the idea of "real" ghosts in the earliest moments of this ghost story, immediately establishing himself as The Haunting of Hill House’s skeptical audience surrogate (although I trust that we are all much less of a drag than Steve, while simultaneously being just as hot as him).

Series creator Mike Flanagan then spends the next 10 episodes proving to us and to Steven, in the most frightening ways possible, that just because the ghosts of Hill House can be explained doesn't make them any less real — and no amount of logical explanation can rid Steven or his family of the ghosts that bind them together. Trauma is not logic-bound, and neither are the scars it leaves behind. 

*NO SPOILERS BEYOND WHAT'S IMMEDIATELY CLEAR IN THE FIRST EPISODE*

The Haunting of Hill House dropped on Netflix a week ago, and while I knew it would be an extremely loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson's fearsome 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name, I surely could not have guessed that the malleable nature of that adaptation would turn this haunted house story into what I've been referring to as...Spooky Parenthood.

And that’s a compliment. Prepare yourself for a gushing recommendation,; although I do discourage you from watching Hill House with the lights off, a full bladder, or in the near vicinity of anything that casts a shadow. The list of things that made me do a double-take, followed by a full 20-second stare down to see if they moved again include: the shadow of a sink faucet, every open door in my house, and the reflection of my own face in the TV when I finally turned Hill House off.

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The Haunting of Hill House follows the Crain family at two different points in their lives: the summer when they briefly lived in a gorgeous, super haunted Victorian manor that was "born bad," and then 26 years later when a great tragedy forces them to reckon with the ways in which that house never left them, no matter how long ago they left it. The nonlinear nature of this family story might lend itself more glaringly to a This Is Us comparison, but the thing is...I'm the one making said comparison, and I think Parenthood is a far superior family drama to This Is Us.

And The Haunting of Hill House is, indeed, an excellent family drama. Who knew?! I love a good scare, especially around Halloween, so I set into Hill House expecting to do a little doom, make a little ghost, get scared tonight. All those things happened, but I also found myself crying repeatedly — a reaction to entertainment I both cherish and live in fear of. The cleverness of this series is that Flanagan understands that horror can be doubly horrifying when its rooted in care.

After getting to know the Crain family, you don't just want these people not to be tormented by ghosts because ghosts are the worst; you don't want them not to be tormented by ghosts because you care for them, in that same complicated way they care for each other in the midst of their own grief and tragedy.

The scares of Hill House aren’t just frightening...they’re sad. And surely there is nothing more frightening than despair.

So the question remains: can you enjoy watching a series that asks you to repeatedly bare your second-hand soul in a sea of self-reflective human tears? Parenthood and The Haunting of Hill House say yes you can, and you will probably love it all the more precisely because of that emotional connection.

With style and empathy, Hill House coaxes viewers into caring for a family who turn away from their shared trauma and mental health at every turn. It makes you care for them so hard, you won't even give up on them when those turns so often reveal floating men in bowler hats and long-haired ladies with disturbing 90-degree angles in their necks.

Because of that time spent cowering under beds and around corners with the terrorized younger Crains, you understand why older Luke would turn to drugs; why Shirley would build up walls so steep no one can get in; why Theo would give so much to her work and so little to herself; why Nell would find the allure of her mother's own mysterious demise irresistible in the wake of numbing personal tragedy; and why Steve...

Well, Steve is just kind of sanctimonious and rude, but he's an eldest child with a superiority complex, and when building a family drama, it's important to depict accurate family dynamics. We need look no further than Adam and Kristina Braverman to know that just because someone is annoying doesn't mean they're not bringing a necessary ingredient to the familial table. 

Sorry oldest children. — signed, ME, an endlessly lovable youngest child; a more reliable Crosby, if you will.

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Of course, the youngest child in this scenario is Nell, a touch on the unreliable side because at only 6-years-old when her parents moved her to Hill House, she and her twin Luke were most vulnerable the spectral happenings within. A child cannot use logic or happenstance to explain away what's right in front of them — they can only see what's there. It's no surprise that being told what’s right in front of you is actually all in your head could leave psychological scars so lasting they'd lead grown-up Nell to...

Well, you’ll see.

If you don't like horror or earnestness, there's a good chance you won't like The Haunting of Hill House. But if you like even one of those things, this weird hybrid of a series might just sway you into liking the other. To call it "fun" would not exactly be correct on account of all the oppressive grief and sorrow and whatnot. But it thrills in that way only a truly spooky story can, and the family at its center is so thoroughly engaging.

Undoubtedly, life is a far more difficult journey for the Crains than it was for the Bravermans, but I am here to tell you, the healing that awaits them at the end of this battle is worth the fights and frights, if you’re willing to take the trip with them.

Oh that's right — this show is scary as hell and it gets a (mostly) happy ending. A few other helpful things to know going in:

THE CASTING

I've said repeatedly that Flanagan takes his time establishing empathy for the Crain family through recognizable sibling dynamics, and familial grief and devotion, but there is one thing he employs that establishes connection immediately...

The Crains are all smokin’ gorgeous, starting with their parents played by Henry Thomas in a pair of spooky-but-whatever-I'm-into-it blue contacts and Carla Gugino who has been maybe the most beautiful woman in the world for like 20 years running. The woman does not age, she just spawns cute little versions of herself who grow up to be beautiful, haunted adult iterations of herself. And the only thing I like more than a group of unreasonably hot characters...

Is the perfect casting of miniature versions of those characters. Seriously, I know y'all like This Is Us, but eat your fucking heart out Mandy Moore's painted-on wrinkles. The kids in that show are cute and they bear a passing resemblance to their adult counterparts, sure, but look at this:

Elizabeth Reaser (grown-up Shirley) and Lulu Wilson (l'il Shirley and also Camille's ghost sister in Sharp Objects) look...exactly alike??? It is wild. And it just goes on from there...

I've hardly even mentioned Theo, the coolest Crain sibling by far, played by the impossibly gorgeous Kate Siegel in full-size, and by the most prolific child actor of her generation, McKenna Grace, in fun-size. 

I have mentioned Steve, but it's worth noting that much of his insufferable adult characteristics are assuaged by the fact that his younger self (Paxton Singleton) is a highly endearing little preteen nugget, and his older self is played by hot ass Michiel Huisman pretending to be a nerd by always carrying around a pair of lucite-framed glasses, but never actually wearing them. 

And, oh the twins; these poor, poor twins who have just the most adorable faces, you can almost understand how a ghost would want to get all up in there for a squeeze. Given all these Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Actor magic tricks, it could only be intentional that tiny bespectacled Luke (Julian Hilliard who must have Jacob Tremblay absolutely shaking) grows up to be Oliver Jackson-Cohen who could legitimately play Captain America post-experiment. 

The camera spends a lot of its 10-hour run time zoomed-in on the face of little Nelly (Violet McCraw), so it's a delight every time you're struck once more by how much grown-up Nell (Victoria Pedretti) looks exactly like an enlarged version of her child self...even if every zoom of grown-up Nell is not a delight in and of itself. 

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(That’s from the first episode! It’s not a spoiler, really! You’ll just have to watch!)

IT'S THE SUMMER OF 1992

The Mall of America is opening, Ross Perot thinks he should run for President, and the Crain family have just moved to Hill House with intentions of flipping it to make enough money for their "forever home." It's difficult to immediately tell what time period the Crains are in when they move into Hill House because Olivia, the warm but occasionally possessed Crain mother is prone to swanning around the drafty mansion in velvet robes and wedges.

So, sometimes you might feel like it's 1970, but knowing from the beginning that it's 1992 could be helpful to your viewing experience. 

The present-day timeline is 26 years later, and this will make it all the more curious as to why they brought in Timothy Hutton to play a 26-years-later Henry Thomas when Timothy Hutton is only 10 years older than Henry Thomas, but...should I just show you the young-and-old Shirley comparison again, and what say we forget all about this misstep??

THIS IS EPISODIC TELEVISION

The first five episodes of Hill House are building blocks, each one told from a different Crain sibling's perspective. I don't normally like to say this because it can make a viewer hyper-aware of their own viewing experience, but you gotta stay vigilant when there are ghouls peeking out from every dark corner anyway, so here goes: Just give it a few episodes! You might not find yourself enthralled in the first one or two, but the build is so enjoyable along the way. Y'know, if you find secondhand suffering and personal terror enjoyable (I doooo). 

And once you make it to episode 5 — Nell's episode — you might not shake it for days. I certainly would not recommend watching it right before bedtime or in any sort of rush. I can think of few other entertainment experiences so suspenseful and conclusive; so terrifying and moving all at once. 

And that emotional climax makes the perfect entry point to the marathon that is episode 6, which plays out like a stage production in only five continuous shots, the longest one running 17 minutes straight.

And this is where I warn you that some people who have loved the series have not loved the final episode. I am not one of those people because I'm sappy as hell and I love a perfectly tied ribbon around an oozing, molding, rotten, terror-wrapped package. 

No, the emotion-heavy resolution of Hill House is not subtle, but family resolutions rarely are. They take time, and work, and they cannot be passive. Deep wounds — cuts that have been kept open for a lifetime — must be healed with intention. The ghosts that have haunted the Crain family for decades haven't disappeared by the time the final credits roll, but acknowledging that they were ever there in the first place is comfort enough. 

My apologies for telling a story in the last newsletter: the next 90 Day Fiance recap will be arriving on Sunday evening! Happy weekend — I hope you have trouble sleeping because you binged The Haunting of Hill House :)

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