In my attempt to watch more spooky stuff for Halloween season, I watched The Haunting of Hill House over two nights this weekend. That’s not a typo; instead of The Haunting of Bly Manor that everyone’s talking about, I’m keeping true to my goal of staying at least one year behind popular culture.
I never binge-watch anything. On top of the time commitment, I hate the hollow feeling that comes after being invested in something for hours and then having it just… end. For some reason, I can still remember being in middle school, and a local TV station aired a marathon of episodes of the old sitcom Soap, and I watched hours and hours of it. After the finale aired, I got weirdly depressed and couldn’t sleep. Afterwards, I was trying to explain to my mother why I was so depressed, and I couldn’t make sense of why a sitcom — that I didn’t even think was very good — had such an emotional impact on me. I suspect I just remain a sensitive child who gets overly invested in stories.
Still, once I got hooked on The Haunting of Hill House — part way through episode 1 — there was no way I was stopping until it was over. It was completely compelling. Each episode focused on a specific character’s story and planted just enough intrigue to make you want to keep going. There were excellent performances and strong writing throughout; I never completely lost the sense that I was watching actors delivering character-defining dialogues, but nothing rang false and all the emotional moments felt earned and honest. Set direction, costuming, and CGI were always perfect, and the filmmaking on the whole ranged from “flawless” to “genuinely innovative.” There was a great reveal halfway through, finally showing us the true identity of one of the series’s scariest ghosts. There was even a fun, creepy game of trying to spot all of the hidden ghosts in the background. (Warning: that video has lots of spoilers for the entire series. Also, I only saw maybe two of them while I was watching).
It was Very Good Television. I was thinking of it as essentially Lost, but with an evil house instead of a mysterious island. Considering how completely obsessed I was with Lost, that’s not at all an insult. (The story structure is so similar to Lost’s first season that it seems like a natural comparison).
But then, about halfway through episode 9 of a 10-episode series, they started delivering the actual reveals. Not the stuff that we’d been wanting or expecting to see, but an acknowledgement of what the series had really been about the entire time. Unlike Lost, they knew where they were going from the first scene, and they’d been planting actual clues throughout the story. And they had the patience to keep the story’s actual depth a secret until the last possible minute, when it would have the most impact.
I should confess to two things: one is that I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, but I’ve never felt like I understood it. At least, not to the degree of people who describe it as one of the scariest books they’ve ever read.1For the record, I don’t feel like I fully understand We Have Always Lived in the Castle, either. 2I do understand The Lottery, for what it’s worth. I knew going in that this series isn’t intended as a faithful adaptation of the book, having only character names, the notion of an evil house, and some memorable dialogue in common. Now I’m wondering if the book shares the series’s ideas about home, possession, and safety, since it’s now easier to see that Eleanor in the book was more or less translated into Olivia in the series.
Second is that I was perfectly happy having all my emotional buttons pushed so effectively, over and over again, to the point that I didn’t even care if there were more layers to the storytelling. Even if the finale had just shown us some Very Stressful Moments in which characters learned more about each other and themselves, and some flashbacks that revealed the True Horrors of That Fateful Night, and said that This Evil House is a Metaphor for Family Dysfunction, and The Ghosts That Follow You Are Your Own Self-Doubt, I would’ve gone away happy with this as an excellent TV ghost story.
But the actual finale was just beautiful. Tragic, and brutal, and scary, like I’d been expecting, but also beautiful. It somehow managed to tie all these stories together. And it did so much not with action moments or scares, but conversations. It explained why the evil of the house followed the characters into their adult lives, and it revealed that the cause wasn’t simply pure evil, but tragic love. The finale revealed that we haven’t been watching Lost, but a much more intense Finding Nemo.
Even more remarkable, it managed to keep all of its metaphors of family and personal dysfunction, but without sacrificing any of its supernatural elements. “Ghosts are a wish,” the show says, describing them as a metaphor for regrets and loss and unresolved emotions that stay with us no matter how much we try to protect ourselves and each other from them. The finale goes on to say, “Sure, they are all that. But they’re also still ghosts.”