It’s Halloween, which means it’s also time for new releases of scary movies and tv. In the past few years, it’s been a pretty lackluster scene. Netflix is no stranger to this timeline and just released The Haunting of Hill House, which is loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s novel and honestly, it’s fantastic. The trouble is, that being a fantastic horror series also means that it delivers on the scares. At this point, the horror genre has (in my opinion) deteriorated to excessive amounts of blood, sex and overplayed tropes. However, every now and then we get a little gem like Hill House that will absolutely terrify you without any of those.
If this had been released when I was in middle/high school, I would have been all over it. I would have likely begged my mom to watch it and in reality just watched it behind her back anyway (hey, I’m being honest, here). When I was young, I was getting my horror fix from classics that were as old or older than I was. Suspense techniques were different, storytelling was different and horror filmmakers were pushing themselves to scare audiences without making them feel sick. Ok, ok. I’m not here to do a full recap or a comparison to classic horror films. I wanted to give a few quick reasons why this show is so scary and why, if I had watched this as a preteen/teen, it would have had more of a lasting (and likely not so positive) impact on me. The show follows a family with four children moving into a massive gothic mansion hoping to fix it up and flip it. We go back and forth between the “then” and the “now” and how the house has affected their lives and their sanity as adults.
Spoiler: it’s rough for everyone.
Instead of gratuitous blood and gore, we have some seriously creepy ghostly interactions. These are the kind of images that stick with you and even though all of them aren’t necessarily gruesome. They are upsetting and hard to forget. Some of these scenes include detailed examples of sleep paralysis, which is already such a terrifying concept on its own. There are multiple instances of “undead” (for lack of a better word) creatures/people/demons crawling towards you, grabbing for you, watching you or attempting to interact with the children. Distorted faces are reoccurring within both dreams and reality. There’s one ghost in particular who is freakishly tall, floats ominously and taps his cane while going from room to room to just look at the kids. The youngest daughter (who also suffers from sleep paralysis) sees what she calls the “Bent Neck Lady” at her bedside regularly and throughout the house. Also, the explanation behind Bent Neck Lady is horrifying and an entire ghost story within itself. So, instead of buckets of blood being thrown at the camera and the scares that make you jump, these are the kind of images that just stick.
There are suicide triggers all over the place. In Episode 1, we’re made aware that even though it is a bit suspicious, the mother killed herself. As an adult, one of the daughters, Nell, falls into a deep depression brought primarily on by Bent Neck Lady’s presence. In a manic state, she returns to the house and commits suicide as well. The affects of the suicide are seen and felt within the family and we follow each family member trying to cope with the loss throughout the series. We also see glimpses of Nell in the afterlife and it’s horrifying. If you’ve had a suicide in the family or know someone who has taken their life, this may not be the show for you. If you have a preteen/teen who is dealing with suicidal tendencies, please make sure you are aware if they’ve watched the series and be prepared to open up a discussion about it.
Throughout the series, we almost every character “sees things” while being fully aware and awake. They are often full-on visions being had by a character and they aren’t even aware that it isn’t real. Sometimes they are seemingly peaceful and just interacting with family members that aren’t actually there. Other times, they are visions of decomposing bodies watching or talking with them. The dream like state of all these interactions are all just so real. Often, while the character having this otherworldly (and often unnerving) experience, we as the audience aren’t able to tell whether or not it is a dream or if it’s grounded in their reality. There are enough unexplainable and nightmarish things are seen that one of the children, now a grown man firmly believes his family are all victims of an inherited trait of mental illness. So, it’s not so much the visions themselves that make them so unsettling, it’s that we can’t distinguish the line between a dream and reality.
My last point is a small one in comparison to the others but it still bothers me. After the family moves in, and I mean, right after, they begin experiencing and seeing some really scary stuff. Most of the activity being directed at the children. Over and over the kids tell their parents what is happening. Mom and dad are woken up by screams seemingly every night. Their children start showing some serious red flags in regards to their fears and concerns. Yet still, the parents shrug about it all. They explain what is and isn’t real and brush off what they claim to be active imaginations. Now, I understand that children going through any transition (like a move with serious renovations included), are likely going to have some attention seeking behaviors here and there. I also understand that it’s not a logical response that upon hearing about Bent Neck Lady standing at his daughter’s bed immediately warrants dropping that investment and moving again. It just bothers me to see parents brushing off some pretty alarming claims and implying that their kids need to grow up and out of this stage. This isn’t uncommon among horror films/tv and I know that. I mean, it’s not much of a story if they listen to their kids and get out within the week, right? Still, throughout the show there is so much distrust within the family and clearly hesitation to speak out because similar claims have been discounted in the past. I can’t really give advice on how to handle this one since I guess it’s really more of a pet peeve. Just please listen to your kids.
The series actually wraps up nicely tying in the idea of confronting our personal “ghosts” like indiscretion, addiction, distance and distrust. It ends with a sort of battle with the house and eventually the entire family reconciling. The father is finally being able to “fix” something by sacrificing himself to the house in order to save his children. For a ghost story, it really ends beautifully and again, it’s an incredibly well done series. It’s just that I know how easy it is now for preteens/teens to have access to this content and how very much they think themselves capable of handling this series. There’s no doubt in my mind that 14 year old me would have been 100% confident in my ability to handle it and refusing to admit when some of those lasting images, creepy scenes or distorted faces kept me up at night. As an adult, I recognize that is a truly great piece of horror entertainment. As a teenager though, this would have been potentially scarring.