Netflix owned the Halloween season last year with the release of Stranger Things Season 2. An enthusiastic promotional push from the streamer aimed to capitalize on the word-of-mouth based, unexpected success of the first season, and the efforts paid off; Stranger Things was the bell of the horror ball last year. But with the series shelved this October as work on Season 3 continues, Netflix is searching for another “Spooky SZN” juggernaut to fill the void.
Prevailing wisdom would suggest that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has all of the trappings to be this year’s designated Halloween hit; it’s a gritty remake of a popular ‘90s sitcom, is tied to the zeitgeisty Riverdale universe, and has the involvement of Riverdale showrunner and source material creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Certainly, Sabrina will scare up some viewing numbers for Netflix, but my money is on The Haunting of Hill House to be the sleeper hit this Fall.
Somewhat quietly arriving on the streaming platform Friday, October 12, The Haunting of Hill House is yet another adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name, but with a modern twist. Blending the storytelling device of NBC’s massively successful series This Is Us, examining the central characters’ lives as children and jumping forward to depict their lives as adults in the present day, with a classic supernatural ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is a surprisingly emotional family drama that mixes in jump scares to keep the blood pumping in between tears falling.
Writer/director Mike Flannigan already proved himself deft at adapting the work of Stephen King for Netflix with last year’s adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game, and King’s omnipresent influence can be felt throughout Hill House. Like King, Flannigan tethers normal horrors and anxieties to the abnormal, spends time richly drawing his characters, and has a real sympathetic bent toward the oddities and pains of growing up. After mounting inexplicable events lead Hugh Crane to flee the old mansion he and his wife are renovating in the middle of the night, five children in tow, the children discover that their mother did not make it out of Hill House alive. Without answers from their father, the five siblings grow up scarred from the trauma. Their problems are brought back to the surface in adulthood after oldest sibling Steven (Michiel Huisman) mines their collective experiences for a best-selling novel.
Mixing memory, long-held resentments, and personal struggles, the Crane family feels painfully real and lived in, bonding and bickering as we slowly are introduced to each member. After the pilot, subsequent episodes focus on one member of the family: Husiman’s realist author, Elizabeth Rease’s Type A mortician Shirley, Kate Siegel’s guarded social worker Theodora, Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s struggling addict Luke, and Victoria Pedretti’s sleep paralysis-plagued Nell. The pointed focus can make early episodes of Hill House feel slow, but as each subsequent installment puts the picture into focus, viewers will be itching to boot up the next episode. In particular, the series’ fifth episode feels like a turning point, mixing romance, real-world medical terrors and harrowing performances to tell a story that suggests that people do a better job haunting themselves than a ghost ever could.
It also helps that Hill House can be genuinely scary. Foregoing gore for something more supernatural-driven, Flannigan expertly mixes startling jump scares with lingering disturbing imagery that can stick with you long after the credits roll. However, it’s the shows depictions of addiction and abuse that can feel more haunting, and as painful as it may be, for instance, to watch someone hanged, it pales in comparison to watching a family grapple with shared trauma and the ways it can lead people to pull apart rather than come together. Viewers may come to the series for the haunted house, but surely, they’ll stay due to the haunted lives of its former inhabitants.