– By James Powers –
Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House really illustrates the truth of that cliche motivational aphorism: “shoot for the moon – even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Creator Mike Flanagan has indeed shot for the moon with this show, attempting a low-key insane balancing act between horror and drama. It’s something like a cross between The Shining and This is Us, and if that sounds ambitious, well, it is.
But the show sure seems to pull it off, as viewers across the board have been loving it. For example, the usually-divergent Tomatometers for audiences and critics alike both clock Haunting at a whopping 92% at the time of this writing. In other words, the snobs and the masses pretty much love it equally. And in my personal opinion, episodes 3-6 in particular are where the show really makes good on its promise, seamlessly switching from terror to poignancy and back (if you’re not simultaneously heartbroken and horrified at the end of Episode 5, then there’s something wrong with you).
All that being said, I still can’t call the show an unmitigated success. In the end it shoots for the moon and misses. Tragically, somewhat mysteriously, Haunting goes off the rails in its finale, spiraling into a mess of hazy sentimentalism that seems to just forget about all the terrors that preceded it. But I think the story’s missteps are due to more than just bad writing – after all, it seems there are plenty of critics who disagree with me (somewhere around 92% of them, presumably – one critic even referred to the same finale that drove me crazy as “a cathartic emotional climax that’s both satisfying and surprising.” Go figure). Your mileage may vary, but I think Haunting’s success with audiences is a double-edged sword. It resonates in part because it taps into some important truths that we need to hear – but also because it tells us some falsehoods that we merely want to hear. And these falsehoods, though appealing, severely undercut the overall strength of its story.
The show centers on the Crain family, who accidentally run afoul of one of those metaphysical tar pits where people get stuck in their past sins even after death. A haunted house, in other words. At some point in probably the late ‘80s, Hugh and Olivia Crain purchase the decrepit Hill mansion with the intention of flipping it, and move there with their children Steven, Shirley, Theodora, and twins Luke and Nellie. They’re a busy, affectionate, overall happy family, but gradually it becomes apparent that flipping this house – fixing it, redeeming it – will be more than they can handle. Subtle indicators pile up, such as a doomed litter of stray kittens, groundskeepers who refuse to spend the night, an unnaturally stubborn black mold problem. And, of course, little Nellie’s visions of the “bent-neck lady.” Through an elliptical storytelling structure, we alternate back and forth from this period in the Crains’ lives to one a couple decades later, when they are scattered across the country and disconnected from one another to varying degrees. Nonetheless, they are all still stuck in the tar pit that is Hill House, in one way or another (though few of them can admit it). And when another family tragedy hits, echoing the one from years ago, they finally are forced to come together and confront what Hill House really did to them.
What stands out about Flanagan’s story is the strength of his characterizations. Every member of the Crain family is fleshed out with a complexity and sensitivity that is rare for horror stories (but nonetheless essential for the most effective ones). Interestingly, Flanagan never really gives us any one villain to blame for the existence of Hill House, or for the horrors that befall the Crains. All of Flanagan’s characters are sinners but also sympathetic. They betray and manipulate and even emotionally abuse one another, and the story shows this pretty unflinchingly. But we also see a certain loveliness in each of them, an original innocence that they had before they encountered the house.
And Hill House itself, for all its darkness, has a certain loveliness as well, from its majestic turrets to the baroque statuary inside to the ivy crawling across its bricks. In fact, Hill House is just as much a character as any of the Crains are; it may even be the main one. Ultimately, the house’s identity and even action form the core of the story, and it is here that Flanagan makes his biggest hits but also his wildest misses.
By and large, Hill House works as an archetypal (rather than merely stereotypical) haunted house because Flanagan understands what really makes a haunted house tick. There’s a peculiar Hebrew proverb, quoted by some Old Testament prophets, that I think sums up the heart of most ghost stories: “Fathers eat sour grapes, and their children’s teeth are set on edge.” It’s a strange but vivid way of saying that we are made to suffer by the sins of those who go before us. The whole idea behind haunted houses – and Hill House is no exception – is that past evils continue to spill over into the present, affecting even innocents like the Crains who really had nothing to do with those evils. For example, one of the most affecting characters in Haunting is a heroin addict who destroys his relationships in order to feed his habit, but who has that habit in the first place because of evils that were visited upon him.
In other words Hill House, and the Crains within it, form a microcosm where we see ourselves; our past innocence and our present brokenness. This is one big reason why Haunting resonates so much with audiences. It hits squarely upon the archetypal power of haunted houses, and of ghosts in general. Flanagan understands that the haunted house is, at its core, a symbol of human history, where good and evil are handed down from parents to children in twin strands like DNA. Or where, in the words of the Gospel, the wheat and the weeds are sown together. And no matter how dense the darkness may seem, no matter the pain of the past, if you look deep enough you can find the original goodness of a mother snuggling her child back to sleep after he’s woken from a nightmare. Unlike many horror stories, Haunting has a big beating heart at its center, which is part of why audiences have found it, surprisingly, just as touching as it is scary.
However, by tapping into the emotional core of his story, Flanagan is able to really work it for genuine creepiness as well. He knows he has our attention, so he doesn’t have to try and grab it artificially with gore or cheap jump scares. There are many, many moments of subtly executed horror in this show, wonderfully creepy little details that you would never expect to be frightening (involving, for example, a bowler hat, or a dumbwaiter, or some crayon scrawled on a wall). And of course there are also more traditional horror beats: flickering lights and dark basements and sepulchral faces popping out of nowhere, but they never come off as cheesy because Flanagan knows not to overplay his hand. He doesn’t have to manipulate us because he knows he has a good story to tell, about characters that matter to us.
But then…that blasted finale happens. Although I’ll still try and be discreet from this point on, if you’re concerned about spoilers then you might want to skip to the end. Anyhoo… It’s pretty common for horror stories to write themselves into a corner, where things get so bad and so dark that the only way to possibly eke out a happy ending is for the writer to resort to some frantic, deus ex machina kind of thing at the last second. And Haunting very much falls into this trap. Granted, it isn’t entirely surprising that it does: by the time the finale rolls around, Flanagan has set himself up for a sort of Evel Knievel-level storytelling stunt, giving us characters that we care deeply about but also throwing them into the darkest of pits – which of course requires him to save them from that pit or risk severely disappointing his audience. And Netflix would prefer he didn’t do the latter.
But sadly, he fails to find a good solution, opting instead for an almost embarrassingly disingenuous feel-good ending. Without going into particulars, the last episode consists of the older Crain family’s final confrontation with the truth of what happened on the worst night of their history, back when they were living at Hill House. We finally discover what is inside the perpetually-locked Red Room (Redrum anyone?), and the real fate of all those who have ended up trapped in the house. And while it probably isn’t what you’re expecting, it definitely isn’t what it should be either. Flanagan’s denouement more or less insinuates that ending up a ghost in Hill House isn’t such a bad fate after all, which honestly comes off as a sentimentalized version of the proverbial sinner’s quip: “I’ll gladly go to hell because at least my friends will be there!” But this leaves us wondering why Hill House was ever scary in the first place, which is not a good way to end a horror story.
Now let me be clear – I don’t believe that horror stories can’t have happy endings. But they have to work hard to earn them, by either defeating or redeeming the monster du jour (and the damage it has inflicted) in a credible way. Flanagan, bafflingly, seems instead to be trying to tell us that the monster was never really a monster at all. But this is a suicide move for the horror storyteller, as one of the key functions of horror is to acknowledge and demonstrate the reality of evil. But the temptation to make this mistake is especially great today, and especially for a talented writer who wants to stir his audience’s hearts as much as their adrenal glands. This is because (not to get on a favorite Catholic soapbox here), today’s cultural discourse struggles with the notion that compassion can coexist with a strong sense of right and wrong. But horror, because of its singular focus on evil, necessarily must have a vivid sense of what evil is, i.e. a strong moral compass.
This is not to say that a horror story cannot be compassionate, that it cannot touch us as well as terrify us. But for that to work, the monster – the reality of sin, brokenness and evil – needs to be kept in view, not papered over or rationalized away. For whatever reason, sadly, Flanagan shirks this responsibility in his finale and takes the easy way out, handing his audience a feel-good pill that is easy to swallow, and maybe even tastes good, but that isn’t actually nourishing because it simply isn’t true.
This is all especially perplexing, and frustrating, because there are other parts of Haunting (again, episodes 3-6 in particular) in which Flanagan and his team brilliantly achieve that balance between terror and compassion. And ultimately I might even say that the show’s successes outweigh its failures. Since the finale was the last thing I saw, it left a bad taste in my mouth, but when I step back and think about it the fact remains that Haunting of Hill House is still a pretty marvelous achievement in many ways. Even if it doesn’t stick the landing, it performs some dazzling mid-flight stunts. Even if it misses the moon, among the vast panoply of shows on offer right now it definitely lands among the stars.
About the Author
James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
Also by James: “A Catholic View on the Purpose of Horror“
For all articles by James, click here.