'The Haunting of Hill House' Doesn't Bring Anything New To The Genre -- But Uses The Tropes Expertly
To start, I want to make it clear that I was completely entranced and obsessed with The Haunting of Hill House and watched all 10 episodes over the course of one day. What struck me the most was the compelling way that Mike Flanagan took all of the horror tropes we’ve seen a million times before and crafted them into something that appealed to a larger audience. He managed to combine misery porn, drama, mystery, horror, and suspense into a gorgeously woven tale of one family’s fallout from their time in Hill House. But he didn’t scare or surprise me with any of it.
Flanagan’s genius is in his use of jump scares and horrifying reveals as intricate support systems for a story already well in hand from masterful writing, directing, and acting. This is in stark contrast to most horror movies or shows that use the frights and twists to hold up the entire plot or smash the narrative into a mold in order to connect it to a larger universe (like The Nun into The Conjuring universe). The reveal of the Bent-Neck Lady was telegraphed — to me at least — well ahead of the confirmation of her identity. It worked because it completed a character arc and not because it hinged an entire season of story on it.
If the Bent-Neck Lady or Steven’s (Michael Huisman) marriage or Theo’s (Kate Siegel) sensitivity were stopping points instead of informative details that enhanced and explained the full story of the family, they would be disappointing. Instead, they’re intriguing midway acts that lend power and curiosity to the main event hidden away under the big top. They’re checkpoints preparing you for the end boss waiting to crush your emotions and lay out the real story behind the assumptions made along the way.
As for the ghosts — both hidden and explicitly displayed — their existence is obviously a standard horror trope, but their use is another twist to engage viewers. The ghosts registered by the viewer add to the history of Hill House without ever specifically addressing their macabre endings. The hidden ghosts that we catch glimpses of, but then question whether we imagined their presence, sets the mood for the events that take place around them by unnerving us (like the demon face in The Exorcist).
Then there are the ghosts in plain sight, quickly dismissed in the moment and written off as hired crew or another type of worker frequently present in the 1992 timeline of the house. Those are the ones that come back later to sucker punch the Crain family and us when we see where they really fit into the narrative. Flanagan once again took a common component of a horror story and used it to change the expectations of the narrative in order to surprise and upset the audience. By doing so, the scares become more thought-provoking and lasting, adding to the full experience instead of prompting a one-off fright with no real pay-off.
And now, that ending. It seemed a bit off in that it presents the Crain family as fully disconnected from the fury of Hill House and well into the process of healing from the trauma two years later. Meanwhile, their parents and sister are forever a part of the cursed home, wandering the house (or perhaps trapped in a room) with its other victims. This is, after all, not a new ending for horror. However, it is generally capped off with the killer, previously presumed dead, twitching back to life with promises of a sequel or twelve. Was this ending Flanagan’s way of tricking us into believing Hill House was done with the remaining Crains while actually presenting clues that they are all still stuck in the Red Room, floating on in dreams and hallucinations? The lack of real closure on that ending might be the greatest subversion on a trope Flanagan pulled.
Header Image Source: Netflix