Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House might be the best ghost story ever written. Published in 1959, it’s about a makeshift team of paranormal investigators moving into the legendarily haunted Hill House in an attempt to document and analyse the supernatural phenomena manifesting within its walls – but it’s really about grief, and guilt, and repression, and the desperate longing for a home. It’s beautifully constructed, impeccably written, and genuinely terrifying.
And now it’s being turned into a 10-part Netflix series.
It’s a story that, at least on the surface, appears to lend itself quite easily to screen adaptations, and in fact it’s already been turned into two films: The Haunting (1963) and, um, The Haunting (1999). The first, directed by Robert Wise, is appropriately creepy and subtle; the second, by Jan de Bont, tries to make Hill House’s manifestations bigger and more obvious, and completely loses sight of what’s actually scary about the story in the process. The two films, then, provide a bit of a how-to guide on adapting Shirley Jackson (or at least a how-not-to). But while it’s obviously early days yet, it seems like the new adaptation might be the most successful of all, because it’s been written, directed, and executive produced by Mike Flanagan.
Not familiar with his name? Then you’ve missed out on some of the smartest, most psychologically complex, and genuinely frightening horror movies of recent years. Though it seems like a stretch to turn Jackson’s short novel into around ten hours of TV, if anyone can do it, it’s going to be Flanagan.
His first movie, Absentia, could almost have been enough to qualify him for the job. It’s about two sisters: Callie (Katie Parker) a recovering addict, and pregnant Tricia (Courtney Bell), who’s about to have her husband declared dead in absentia. Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) has been missing for seven years, and it seems fair to assume he’s dead. But then he reappears, with no memory of where he’s been, and things get weird. It’s a slow, quiet, emotionally rich, and goosebump-inducingly creepy. Flanagan demonstrates a flair for atmosphere that requires virtually no budget to deliver chills, and he’s careful to keep his horrors in the margins, offering only glimpses of something too horrible for words. QED, right? Even if he’d made nothing else, that’s the guy to make The Haunting Of Hill House, and here’s my money.
But he has made other films, and they also suggest he’ll do justice to Jackson’s source material. He directed last year’s Ouija: Origin Of Evil, a sequel to the not-very-much-loved Hasbro tie-in horror from 2014. His film moved the action to the 1960s, fleshing out the hinted-at backstory from the first movie, and despite a couple of unfortunate constraints (the need for stretch-mouthed CG ghouls, for instance) he created a thematically rich, visually enchanting story of grief and desperation. Sadness is baked into the movie, almost palpably. Again, Flanagan demonstrates an incredible command of atmosphere.
It’s worth noting that as well as writing and directing, Flanagan also edits his movies; while film’s a collaborative medium, I don’t think I’m giving him too much credit for his work here. His movies feel personal, like they’re the realisation of a very particular vision, as if care has been given to every single aspect of their crafting. That’s also evident in the other Mike Flanagan movie released last year, Hush, in which a deaf woman is stalked by a murderer.
Flanagan’s clearly interested in the technicality and form of filmmaking, and uses all the tools at his disposal to communicate his stories; there’s something meticulous and careful about his films that feels like it should be a great match for Jackson’s meticulous and careful use of language in her books.
(If you’ve never read it, google the first paragraph of The Haunting Of Hill House and read it right now. It’s one of the most chilling passages in literature, and that’s just the first page.)
It’s kind of a shame that the only thing we know so far about the new Hill House adaptation is that it’s going to be a modern day reimagining rather than a period piece, because Flanagan’s evocation of the 1960s in Ouija: Origin Of Evil was so gorgeous that it would’ve been exciting to see a Hill House adaptation set in the period it was written. But, well, now seems a good time to talk about Oculus, probably Flanagan’s best film so far. It’s set in the modern day, nowish, and it might be the closest thing to a proper modern day version of The Haunting Of Hill House that we’ve currently got.
Oculus is about a pair of siblings, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who are reunited eleven years after the deaths of their parents – eleven years that Tim’s spent in a mental health facility because, as a child, he shot his father to death. At the time, both Kaylie and Tim were convinced that the antique mirror in their father’s office was possessed, and had driven their father to kill their mother; after years of therapy, Tim’s come to accept that that’s not the case, while Kaylie still believes, and has managed to track down the creepy Lasser Glass, planning to finally get her revenge.
If you’re squinting to try to see how I could possibly have described that as remotely similar to The Haunting Of Hill House, you can relax your eyes now. I’ll explain.
Firstly, and most superficially, there’s a similar kind of set up to both stories, as Kaylie takes the mirror to her childhood home, and rigs the place with cameras, thermometers, and other equipment designed to capture any supernatural shenanigans the mirror might try. Throughout the night, creepy things start to happen, but none of them can ever quite be captured by scientific instruments. Instead, they’re subtle, as either Kaylie or Tim or both see things that aren’t there, or feel things that shouldn’t be possible. The moment Kaylie bites into an apple… well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s at least as viscerally horrifying as Theo finding her room has been ransacked and smeared with blood in Hill House.
Beyond that, though, there are more interesting parallels. Both Tim and Eleanor are suffering from guilt over killing their parents (albeit in very different circumstances). They’re both also motivated by the need to find a new home; practically and, you know, emotionally, they both need a place they can fit in, and start to build a new life for themselves, but neither will succeed, because of the supernatural/metaphorical forces conspiring against them. There’s a bit of Eleanor in Kaylie, too, especially when you consider how both stories end. Neither Hill House nor the Lasser Glass is the point, really; in both stories, like in all good horror, the antagonists only really represent a threat because of the way they affect the protagonists, and reflect their own flaws and problems back to them.
Both Jackson and Flanagan are masters of suggestion. They’re both economical with their imagery, both able to evoke terror from the merest glimpse of something horrible, and both work on multiple layers, creating characters and stories that are utterly impossible but also painfully relatable. And neither of them is afraid to upset their audience with a startlingly downbeat ending. It’s genuinely hard to think of another director working today who’d be a better fit for Hill House, and I cannot wait to see what he’ll bring to this new adaptation. Bring it on, Netflix.