A house-paradise or purgatory
George Moore once said, “A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”
A home or house is undoubtedly man’s inevitable sanctuary. No matter how much he flutters his wings and dreams to subjugate unannexed zeniths, the only place where he could truly find solace is always his home. A home is where a family begins; the cradle of warmth embracing a sleeping infant, the lap of a mother he sobs his teary eyes into after bruising his ankle, the immaculately chiseled mantle adorned with a multitude of spotless trophies, the wooden baluster he slithered down gracefully in his graduation gown, the front porch he sprinted onto carrying sweets bought by his first salary, the papered walls embellished by his framed wedding pictures, the coffee table where baby rattles jangled again, the linen drapes frolicking around a giggly “Denner” in Hide-and-Seek; when every single article in a house has a myriad of stories to tell, the house has passed for a home.
But when within these very walls a trauma is implanted, agony has thrived and sorrows have been inflicted, the house which was supposed to be paradise transmogrifies into a nightmare. Hailstorms of melancholy shatter the glass windows, gales of negativity swing the doors and slam them shut violently, narrow vestibules empty into nothingness and a downright despondent milieu seems to bottle the residents in a catacomb of despair. They yearn for an exit, for some vent to allow the gentle feather of warmth to skim across their parched cheeks. While some of them succeed in rampaging their way out of the ominous labyrinth of doom and fear, some of them lose a part of their souls and remain stuck in the maze forever.
About the Series
The Haunting Of Hill House is an American Gothic Drama series released on 12th October 2018. It was directed by Mike Flanagan and produced by Amblin Television and Paramount Films for Netflix. The series was distributed by Viacom Domestic and CBS Television. It is also the first installment of the Haunting Anthology series owned by Netflix. It is succeeded by its sequel, the Haunting of Bly Manor, which was released in 2020.
The film series is based on the book titled ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which was authored by Shirley Jackson and published by Viking publications in 1959. While the plot of the series is strikingly different from that of the book; the fantastical elements, and characters woven into the story drastically mirror the vistas predicted by the book. The series was critically acclaimed to be the best Ghost Story of all time, with Telegraph rating it an astounding 5/5 and Rotten Tomatoes certifying it with a spellbinding 93% score. Even IMDb critiqued an episode and deemed it worth a solid 9.4/10 stars. Gothic writers like Stephan King (‘It’, The Shining, etc.) have appreciated the series and called it “a work of genius”. Forbes magazine representatives labeled it “The Best Netflix original show ever”.
A spoiler-free introduction to the Plot
“No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stands against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood so for 100 years and might stand for 100 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut; silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walks there, walks alone.”
A web series garnering such applauding ovation is a sure must-watch. But what exclusively entices the audience is not just the intricately formulated theme or the cliched jump-scares trumped by all movies of the supernatural faction, but the element of emotion emanating from each scene. All the factors contributing towards making this series the best of its kind are implicative of the Domino Effect, which implies they are correlated and are born out of each other. For instance, the superfluous aspects of tragedy and sentiment could not be positioned without an incredible direction which would highlight the repercussions of each activity carried out by the characters. Also, each activity completed by the characters was an outcome of the meticulously aced performances done by the actors, and the desired emotions could only be projected by the actors if they are sound with the fluidity of the storyline. Hence, knowledge about the plotline is compulsory for all working for the success of the film.
The Haunting Of Hill House enables the viewers to peep into the lives of the Crain family, who moved into Hill House in the summer of 1992. An eponymous manor believed to have been standing on the lands of Boston, Massachusetts for 100 years, Hill House had quite the notorious reputation for being sinister. Hugh and Olivia Crain, the patriarch and matriarch of the family were a building couple who had their sleeves rolled to renovate the house and sell it for a dream-price so that they could purchase their ‘forever house’, where they could live happily-ever-after. Their family comprised 5 children: precocious Steven, gentle Shirley, sensitive Theodora, and adorable twins Luke and Nell. They were assisted in their daily chores by the house-helps, the Dudleys, who never stayed on-campus after dark.
As time elapsed, the Crains began to witness unexplainably mystical occurrences in the house, including Luke’s clandestine friend Abigail, an upsurge of black mold with indiscernible origins, immensely localized deluges of powerful undercurrents of water, and Nell’s repeated reports of noticing a ‘Bent-neck lady’. The most enigmatic element influencing the entire narrative is the room behind the Red Door, a mysterious door to which lies no key. Nobody knew what lay beyond it, but it was believed to be the source of every peril inflicting the house. Paranoia skyrocketed and gradually began taking heavy tolls on Olivia. Every day spent at the house left her eerily shaken, and a step ahead towards insanity.
On one fateful night motivated by inconspicuous reasons, Hugh sneaked all his kids out of the mansion and drove them away from Hill House, leaving Olivia behind. It was later proclaimed that Olivia committed suicide and Hugh was left holding the bag. Steven, his first-born barked up the wrong tree and accused Hugh of ignoring traces of mental illness present in Olivia, which she would have passed down to Luke and Nell. The entire family goes estranged and ties loosen.
The story regains momentum 26 years later after Steven becomes a noteworthy author by corralling down instances that occurred during their brief stay at Hill House, even though he never really witnessed any supernatural events at his behest. Shirley, now a mother of two, is a funeral director who bequeaths genially. Theodora is a touch-sensitive doctor in psychology who has an extraordinary gift and treats troubled children. Luke is a doped drug addict who is on rehabilitation, and Nell is on therapy to overcome the demise of her beloved. All the characters have been traumatized by the past in explicitly torturous ways, and each of them is haunted by ghosts of spectral manifestations, throbbing memories, grave secrets, and unfulfillable wishes. The damaged bonds between them further aggravate after a catastrophic loss occurs in the family and one of them is rendered entombed in the portentous walls of the house forever. This 10-episode series perceives tangible, everyday happenings at a non-Euclidean angle and expresses overlooked panoramas with dire solemnity and deep comprehension.
Why is The Haunting Anthology better than any other Paranormal TV show or movie?
While the Haunting of Hill House is distinctive to the core, convincing the audience to binge-watch any series demands concrete points. But all those who have watched the anthology know why there is no gothic movie or tv show which could parallel with this chef’s oeuvre.
- THE CINEMATOGRAPHY– While any movie or tv series expands its demesne on the foundation of its narrative, not many could boast of having an extraordinarily brilliant filmography. The Haunting of Hill House is opposed to all. The technical aspects employed in this series are amusingly crafty. For instance, episode 6 of the series titled ‘Two Storms’ left viewers dangling off their seats in anticipation and thrill as the cast aced a 17-minute long continuous take, which was the first of its kind to ever be filmed in Hollywood. While each sequence in modern cinema is roughly 2-3 minutes long, Flanagan and the cast did a stupendous job of sailing through the antique hallways of Hill House in two parallel timeframes, most spectacularly. They shot nonstop for a duration which was quintuple of the regular time spent on each shot. Consequently, their hard work paid off and this shot is well-appraised as one of the most creative film sequences in history.
- THE UNORTHODOX PLOT– It is not surprising that most 21st-century horror movies encompass at least one instance of witchcraft or sorcery, wherein a family or a group of friends are plagued by a diabolical, demonic poltergeist which could only be ousted by conformist, catholic ritualism, or an orchestrated exorcism. The story of Hill House, conversely, is not a stereotypical ballad environing dark magic and necromancy. It is a very realistic approach towards unexplored summits of mental health and how a disturbing history can traumatize the victims for many subsequent years. The ease with which the viewers revisit the Crain family after 26 years is magnificently enthralling. The direction is consistent and adeptly highlights the gravity of the ordeals suffered by the family after the loss of the matriarch. All the characters have a detailed backstory and climb several levels up the ladder of character-development in merely 10 episodes.
- THE FAMILIAL TOUCH– Probably the most enrapturing fact about this series is the fact how despite belonging to the horror genre, it exhibits a dramatic touch of family drama. Although the Crains are unlike an ordinary next-door family because of where they grew up, the relationships between the siblings and their father are very relatable. All of them are vexed at each other and vent their frustrations at each other. But when malevolent forces target them, they always stand shoulder-to-shoulder as a family. A deeply interesting element to be noted is that each Crain sibling represents a stage of grief. After a tragic loss, like that of Olivia Crain, each Crain sibling deals with the catastrophe differently. Steven represents the first stage: Denial. Steven denies the existence of ghosts and intimidating specters as he has never perceived them on his own. He accuses Hugh of never taking Olivia’s mental health seriously and even indicts him to the extent of wishing him dead. Big sister Shirley is the exemplification of the 2nd stage: anger. Her bottled chagrin erupts in a volcano of vehement upsurges at her husband, siblings, and her father. Theodora depicts the 3rd stage: bargaining. She tries to battle her insecurities by helping others as a psychologist. She bargains for her happiness and finds succor in serving others. Junkie Luke is a fit indicator of the 4th stage, Depression. Luke deals with the mishap in his family through tainted methods as he plunges down the abyss of addiction. Finally, Nell embodies the 5th and the last stage of grief: acceptance. She finally comes to terms with 26 years of anguish and accedes to the misfortune in a culmination of tragedy and poetry.
- THE SETTING– The story is set in one of the most vivid backdrops ever woven into the tapestry of goth. Hill House is a towering edifice mirroring the opulent lifestyle in the 20th century. Features like oak-paneled walls, labyrinthine rooms, and a dumbwaiter kick the setting up by a notch. But what condenses the excitement of the audience is the stunning intersection between 1992 Boston and 2018 Los Angeles. The scene transitions between the past and present with delicate mutability and bridges the gap between the two timeframes. The audiences wear the shoes of the characters as they veer into their lives to acknowledge the mental torture spawning over 2 decades. While popular paranormal movies don’t have enough time to reconnoiter the outlook of every character, The Haunting series manages to encircle every characteristic of the characters’ lives in red ink; be it financial, familial, mental, or romantic. Consequently, while regular horror movies show two timeframes at different times or only one timeframe; there is no series at par with Flanagan’s Haunting series that dives so smoothly from the present world to flashback and vice versa. The actual trauma is underlined as the viewers see the delightful and loveable kids mature into damaged and selfish adults.
- THE HORROR– A guarantee that the Haunting series provides to its viewers is that goth buffs and fans of the horror faction would not be disappointed. While the Haunting of Hill House is an emotional saga of loss and coping with it, there is no denying that above all, it is a horror tv series. Packed with a plethora of jump-scares, turbulent imageries, and disemboweled spirits, the series scares the daylights out of the spectators. While modern-day horror movies heavily depend on gratuitous jump-scares, bass drum-beats, and ghosts with mottled skins and ripped throats; Hill House uses these only to add a cherry on the top of its intricately layered plotline. The series does away with the old-school technique of incorporating revolting gore and substitutes it by fixing a mirror in front of the viewers to encounter their demons. The catch is that it doesn’t let go of it. Another fascinating feature of this series is that most horror movies and tv shows, like The Conjuring, American Horror Story, the Nun, and Annabelle hardly subjugate the boundaries of satanic cults and sacrilegious entities. They adopt a religion-centric approach to appeal to the crowd. The Haunting of Hill House transgresses all these limitations and wrecks pre-existing prejudices about the horror genre. Hill House isn’t just haunted because a heinous crime was committed there, nor is it home to any biblical beast. It is a house that has been perturbed by the negativity and impiety of its previous owners and has adopted a blasphemous form to consume all those who have resided in it. In other words, it is like an egotistic living being who hoodwinks and tricks all its residents to stay in the house forever by ravaging their lives. The ghosts present in the house are not all evil but are bound to the foundation of the house. They draw power from the claimed land and can travel through the boundaries of space and time, a concept that has never been discussed in any horror cinema. They are victims of the house’s idiosyncratic policies to preserve their souls forever. The Haunting of Hill House is the world’s only supernatural tv show that doses the plot on the contours of the ghosts. “A villain is a victim whose story hasn’t been told”, but Hill House ravages these norms and gives a beautiful context to the ghosts as well.
- THE MYSTERY– This is a commonly acknowledged notion that to do justice to the paranormal essence of the genre, horror movie directors refrain from introducing a mysterious component to the film. They are convinced that a phantom entity would somewhat satiate Agatha Christie buffs. Moreover, they don’t intend to create a jumble out of the plotline and complicate the motif unnecessarily. Nonetheless, it won’t come as a surprise if Mike Flanagan hits square on the ball again. The concept of the Red Room, the most furtive feature of the story remains intact until the very end. Nobody knows what the massive door shields within its walls; nobody knows what drove Olivia to commit suicide; nobody knows what visions she had before she finally took such a serious step, and nobody knows what happened that night in the foyers of Hill House. When the beans are finally spilled, the watchers are left with goosebumps. While these are the most prominent secrets posed by the series, numerous other mysterious happenings could be explained only after viewing the series.
The Message (CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Keeping in mind how most horror films and web series underscore the aftermath of a major step taken by the protagonists, it is only natural for the Haunting of Hill House to deliver a very powerful yet relatable message to the audience.
The finale episode of the series, titled “Silence Lay Steadily” saw all 4 remaining Crain children and Hugh march into the gallows of the House yet again. The house, a living entity reveled in the grief and trauma of the Crain family and digested their joy and happiness like a human stomach. It twirled the eyepiece of the kaleidoscope of reality and blended it with the darker hues of qualm, anxiety, misery, and torment. It is revealed that the house used analogous techniques to deceive Olivia into believing that the world would render her youngest children comatose and dead. It deluded her to believe that the world was a monster with its maws wide open to devour her children and the house was their only asylum from the suffering in the world. It played the Mastercard when the ghost of Poppy Hill, the wife of the owner of the house explicated to Olivia that the sole way of keeping her children safe and happy was to keep their souls enveloped in the fortifications of the house so that they could spend ever and a day together with her. The world is a petrifying nightmare, and to get over it, one must awaken and pass on to the ethereal dimension of the paranormal.
While Olivia’s ulterior motive was the wellbeing and happiness of her children, the scheme she operated by was vile and awful. She poisoned Luke’s friend, Abigail, who was the house-help Dudley’s daughter; on her spoor of ‘waking her up’. While she was on the verge of poisoning Luke and Nell at a midnight tea party inside the Red Room, Hugh dashed in and saved the children, driving them away from Hill House for good. This incident is the perfect illustration of how the mentally weak can be driven deranged owing to a negative ether flourishing about them. Olivia was compelled to believe that the world was like a nightmare full of sorrow, pain and struggle and it would parasitize on her children’s happiness. Henceforth, if they underwent a ‘little’ pain and faced death once, they could lead a peaceful and safe afterlife with her in the warmth of the house. That is why she was so inclined on ‘waking them up’ from the dreaded dream of life.
While Olivia’s ghost wanted her kids to stay in the house with her forever, the spirit of Nell thought otherwise. Being very deeply absorbed in the mortar of the house, Nell knew that it was slurping the fervor from her and she couldn’t continue her life like that. Festered by the in-fighting in her family and her dilapidating mental health, Nell drove to Hill House in a maniacal trance. She swayed to her wedding song with the ghost of her husband and relived her favorite memories with her family. Finally, she saw the ghost of her mother who smiled at her and hooked her locket onto Nell’s neck, but it is was a phantasm and the locket was nothing but a noose. Nell was strangulated to her death in the same spot as her mother. As she died, she plummeted down the channel of space and time and checked on her past self in various instances, protecting her childhood under the alias of the ‘bent-neck lady’.
The final episode witnessed a heart-wrenching commemoration of the 5 siblings behind the Red Door, as Nell dragged each one of them from the jaws of death and admonished them to keep living their lives as well as they could. She told them that people usually assume their memories to be interdependent, like ‘dominoes’. What they don’t realize is that happiness and pleasure thrive around us eternally. Every single moment of life is warm and exciting, and it is showers joy and ecstasy on people like snow or confetti. Hence, everyone must live in the moment and enjoy it to the ultimate. While this monologue was a little eccentric, it dazzled the viewers by anchoring them to the family passionately.
The most splendid disclosure of the episode was what lay beyond the Red Door. The truth kept the viewers staring gapingly at the screen. The Red Room is not one room at all. It appeared to be obscured behind a Red door when one of the occupants was using it. Nell juxtaposed a house with a human body and elucidated that the Red Room was like the stomach. Each of the residents of the house viewed it in a different light. While it was a dance studio for Theodora, it was a toy room for Nell and a treehouse for Luke. This was an adroitly synthesized conspiracy of the House to bestow upon the residents the refuge that they needed to stay sound and at peace with the malice abstruse in it. It created the Red Room as a distraction for the Crain family as it digested their happiness and pleasure and feasted on their distress.
On finding all his children trapped within the Red Room, Hugh is paid a visit by Olivia’s ghost. She wanted her children to stay with her forever, entombed in the parapets of the house. Hugh explained to her that by keeping them with her for all perpetuity, she would not be doing them a favor. While the world is a terrifying place for the tender, that is where their kids belonged. Even if they are rendered broken, damaged, duped, or demented it is part of their contract as parents to see their kids pass through the phases of life and death. By smothering them in the blanket of ignorance and choking them on their existence, Olivia would never let her beloved children feel the stroke of content or the consecration of life. Hugh then promised Olivia that if she let their kids free, he would stay with her, garnered in the hallways of the house forever. After all, ‘journeys end in lover’s meeting’.
After the Crain children are liberated from the shackles of Hill House, Hugh’s ghost took his first-born Steven inside and flipped a page from the past. It is disclosed that Hugh was so stunned by Olivia’s death that he decided to immolate the house together with its hills as castigation for the detrimental loss it had brought to his family. Although, when the Dudleys visited the house in search of their daughter, the cat about their deceased daughter is out of the bag. The heartbroken couple discovered a silver lining when they saw Abigail’s ghost still living inside the house. They requested Hugh to not deflagrate the house for the sake of their daughter and swore to keep Olivia’s last abhorrent intentions hidden. Hugh agreed, promising to let his kids believe that Olivia was a benign and selfless woman until the end. Present-day Hugh then requested Steven to keep the house and the promise and to never let anybody else take possession of it. He also appealed to him to keep his lips sealed about Hugh’s whereabouts as he didn’t want his children enduring another chapter of grief. He advanced to the Red Room with Nell and Olivia and sealed its doors forever. The Crain family finally received a happy ending as Shirley dished the dirt about her intimate nightstand in Chicago, Theo finally got a partner, Luke became 2 years clean, and Steven and his wife began expecting a baby.
The ending is beautiful yet tragic as an old Mr. Dudley carried his dying wife to Hill House, where she breathed her last in his crinkled arms. Miserable Mr. Dudley got a fleeting glimpse of his deceased wife, now young and healthy, cradling a baby as Abigail met up with them, indicating how the three of them were united at the bid of Hill House. The show ended with a last leaf from the past, as Olivia used to blink the porch light twice to notify her children that it was time to come home. As Steven deserted the curst property, the porch lights blinked twice, beckoning him home, but when he ignored them, the lights died down. This semaphored towards how Olivia tried for the last time to call her children back to her, but when they didn’t heed to her, she abdicated her desire and realized how they must stand on their own two feet and live their lives to the fullest.
The Haunting of Hill House by far sums up as the most vibrant Tv series; culminating hues of coming-of-age drama, familial theatrics, bombastic mental illnesses, strengthening, and weakening bonds, and unconditional love with the maligned carpeting of horror. It gears the brilliant setting, phantoms, ghouls, and jump-scares to placate aficionados of the horror genre. But the reason why the Haunting series etches an indelible imprint in the audiences is not the implementation of fantastical elements, it is the illusionary sword that it penetrates the heart with. It impels the viewers to never ignore the noticeable and introspect their selves for traces of demons lurking about, seeking to destroy them and their loved ones. Each family needs to be braced for the apocalypse wherein a spiteful entity would seek to shatter them and dispirit them. But a family will truly overcome the doom if they subjugate the ‘Two storms’: fear and familial disunity. Once the storms are defeated, the apparitions of stress, trauma, and anxiety would falter in cathartic retribution. They would finally be safe, sound, happy, healthy and above all, united. Even in death, the deceased Crains are perched together on the threshold of Hill House, their souls emblazoned to the bricks and beams. A family once born together remains together till the clock continues to tick; silently yet steadily.
Hateful beings like the Hill House would continue to “stand against their hills, holding darkness within. They have stood so for 100 years and they might stand for 100 more. Within, walls would continue upright. Bricks would meet neatly, floors would remain firm, and doors would be sensibly shut. Silence would lie steadily against their wood and stone; but the good thing about it now would be that all those who walk there, walk together.”
By SANYA SINHA, PATNA, BIHAR, INDIA