Spoilers ahead for those of us who are less than eagle-eyed…
If you’re like me, maybe you’ve already binged all 10 episodes of Netflix’s eerie, emotional The Haunting of Hill House. Maybe you accidentally did it all in one sitting, blowing right through a sunny Saturday when you probably should have been, like, cleaning the house or something. Uh, hypothetically speaking. Anyway, as a fan of Shirley Jackson’s original story, I found Mike Flanagan’s unique spin on the tale to be respectful, surprising, and addictively engrossing. So engrossing, in fact, that it took me half the series to notice the ghosts.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s a ghost story, where major characters interact with ghosts (and sometimes are ghosts themselves), so saying that the haunted house is haunted isn’t exactly a newsflash. What IS surprising is just how haunted it truly is. I’m not referring to the obvious ghosts that jump right to the forefront:
I’m talking about all the lurking, out-of-focus, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em ghouls that populate every episode. Ultimately they don’t impact the narrative, but it’s hard to dismiss them as merely being easter eggs either. They’re a constant, subtle part of the fabric of the series — and once you DO notice them, they transform the way you watch the show. You start to train yourself to peer into the dark corners, the shadows and reflections. You begin to anticipate where it would make sense to hide a ghost, in any given scene or frame. Behind the furniture, maybe, or at the end of long hallways. They are everywhere, surrounding and watching the Crain family — a symbol of all the things those characters still don’t perceive or accept. So in a way, they are a part of the narrative, after all. A lot of the tension in the series derives from the fact that the Crain’s all have experiences that they dismiss — and crucially, that they don’t talk about, or don’t believe when others discuss them. We, the audience, know that something weird is going on, because we are shown the big picture — the way all the siblings woke up gasping at the exact same moment, for example. But they don’t realize the significance because they don’t compare notes. If Hugh had told Steven about the grandfather clock repairman as soon as he published “The Haunting of Hill House,” maybe his son would have believed the ghosts were real a whole lot earlier. But we can’t change when and how the characters share information… and we DEFINITELY can’t tell them all the things we know, as well. Those hidden ghosts are just another thing we can’t share. They don’t change the story, but they do shape our experience of it.
So: for those of you who are still making your way through the series, or even if you’ve finished it but want to go back and see what you missed, I wanted to offer a quick primer to help you train your eye. It may have taken me half the series to notice them (and even then, I needed someone to point them out to me in the first place) but there’s no reason you have wait that long.
Let’s start with an easy one from episode 6:
Do you see Nell (or “The Bent Neck Lady”) in the back, there? Here, let me help (all pics can be opened in a pop up window if you click them):
This is a bit of a cheat because she isn’t exactly hiding, but she also isn’t in focus or doing anything to draw the eye. If your attention is on the characters who are speaking, it’s easy to miss her entirely. After all, this isn’t even a scene at Hill House! Why would you be looking for a ghost here?
But like I said — that’s an easy one. She’s fully visible, standing there plain as day, and she’s an actual character. Most of the hidden ghosts are nameless, often faceless souls who have been digested by the house. They’re no one you’d recognize, and often they’re impossible to recognize — or at least easy to ignore. So: what should you look out for?
Here’s an example of a ghost hiding deep in the background, in another room, from episode 3:
Here’s one lurking either in a reflection, or behind some glass, in episode 4 (the fingers are the dead giveaway, PUN INTENDED):
Here’s one from episode 5 that proves you’re not always looking for a whole person — you might only glimpse a body part:
And this one? This is one of my favorites. I rewound this scene from episode 7 multiple times. It’s actually clearer than a lot of the ghosts, once you see her, but because of the way the scene was constructed — the camera is tracking Hugh’s movements in the foreground, and his head moves forward to obscure her — you only have a moment to recognize her before she’s hidden again.
So: you’re looking for ghosts (or parts of ghosts!) that may not appear on screen for any significant length of time. They’re never in focus, and may be half-hidden by furniture or walls or a doorframe, or in another room entirely. Try to keep an eye on shapes that seem suspicious, and expect to pause or rewind to give your eyes a chance to reconcile the image. And of course there’s the biggest hurdle to overcome: wrenching your attention away from the main cast and the narrative long enough to play “Where’s (Undead) Waldo?” in the first place, because this story isn’t so easy to ignore!
Happy ghost hunting, y’all! And if you’d like an exhaustive list of all the spooks you may have missed, Screen Rant has done the homework so you don’t have to.
Header Image Source: Netflix