Bricking it: Why the Haunting of Hill House is the scariest TV show ever

Ed Power
The Haunting of Hill House has been described as 'nearly perfect' by Stephen King: Steve Dietl/Netflix

It has given goosebumps to Stephen King and reportedly scared some viewers to the point of nausea. But what is it about Netflix’s new adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House that has made it one of the most effective frighteners of the season?

After all, the 10-part series, which arrived on the streaming service on 12 October, has shackled itself to one of the hoariest tropes in horror. A family moves into a haunted house, where things bump and gibber in the night. All the way back to Wilkie Collins and Algernon Blackwood, this is one of the genre’s most time-worn set-ups. How could a mere TV show breath new life into a grab-bag of clichés?

Quite easily, it turns out. The genius of the new The Haunting of Hill House, written and directed by Ouija: Origin of Evil’s Mike Flanagan, is to draw a line between supernatural terror and the unresolved traumas of childhood – the closest the majority of us will come in real life to being spooked by our pasts.

Perhaps that is why King recognised it as a piece of true originality and daring. “I don’t usually care for this kind of revisionism, but this is great,” he tweeted. “Close to a work of genius, really. I think Shirley Jackson would approve, but who knows for sure.”

As with King’s devastating puberty allegory Carrie, The Haunting of Hill House turns the pain of growing up into a literal spiritual agony. Flanagan flashes back and forth between the present-day adulthood of the dysfunctional Crain siblings and their ghastly memories of the early Nineties when their parents moved them into a fixer-up mansion, which turned out to be possessed by a malevolent spirit.

For some of us, the scariest memory the early Nineties holds was watching The Shaman perform “Ebeneezer Goode” on Top of the Pops. But Flanagan digs deep and unearths some genuinely disturbing imagery. Yet while the show is stuffed with horrific sights and sounds – a dead mother trying to drag her adult son into an open grave; a flying man with no face; a zombie in the basement – the real disquiet lies in watching these innocent, wide-eyed children grow into damaged adults.

Adorable Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) becomes a pathetic drug addict; sensible oldest sibling Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is revealed to be a less-than-perfect mother and wife; bookish Steven (Michiel Huisman) exploits the family’s collective PTSD to kickstart his writing career. Not many of us came of age in a haunted manor. Yet many can relate to waking up one day and feeling we barely know the flawed individuals our siblings have turned out to be.

These psychological elements are perfectly counterpointed by an old fashioned haunted house yarn, as thrillingly traditionalist as Jackson’s book and the gothic traditions it tapped.

What’s especially impressive is how Flanagan has reshaped the contours of horror for television – historically a medium where scaring the trousers off the punter has been a big ask. The reason horror has never really worked on the small screen is that TV cannot follow the age-old tempos of horror movies. Violence is historically taboo – where films can show flensed skin and ripped throats, television has to be more mindful of a mainstream audience’s sensibilities.

Moreover, the old-school horror strategy of building tension through jump scares simply doesn’t work. A 90-minute movie can send you ducking behind your popcorn by having monsters jump out of the shadows at semi-regular intervals. Across a 10-hour series such as season one of the Haunting of Hill House the law of diminishing returns quickly kicks and those electric shocks losing their jolt.

Flanagan’s great insight is that properly scary TV must cleave to the same rhythms of a horrifying novel. Here King may have detected his own influence. King’s classic chillers work by ramping up the fright factor gradually – so that, even as the reader can see what the maestro is doing, there is no resisting its effectiveness.

The scene in which the vampire finally goes hunting in ‘Salem’s Lot, for instance, is disturbing not despite the fact that his nefariousness has been signposted but because King has left us in little doubt as to how it’s all going to play out. It’s like waking up strapped to railway tracks and hearing a train whistle on the horizon.

That’s exactly what is going on with The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan is never coy with the viewer. It’s obvious from the outset that Hill House has effectively placed a supernatural curse on the Crain family and that, try as they might, there’s no outrunning it. Far from making matters predictable, this conjures a dread that, punctuated with the occasional boo from beyond, becomes cumulatively suffocating.

Contrast this approach with the far less effective tactic of other recent horror shows. For all its popularity nobody would claim zombie caper The Walking Dead is genuinely unnerving. It’s a bash-’em-up in which the zombies serve as a metaphor for contagion or a faceless, relentless enemy – but not to the point where it’s going to make anyone feel like they want to throw up.

Ditto, the (much underrated) adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s Strain novels, about vampires with detachable jaws and an insatiable hunger. It’s a thrilling romp (or at least it was until its cancellation last year). So, too, is Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, which may intermittently disturb but is mostly yet another variation of the open-ended love letter to camp of which all of Murphy’s television is a component.

The Haunting of House Hill is different. Even if it doesn’t have you taking to Twitter in a cold sweat, this is a series that digs its claws in. If there is a precedent it is the more disquieting sequences of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – which cast a dark spell many viewers have yet to fully shake off all these decades later (last year’s sequel series was arguably even more upsetting).

It’s not implausible to imagine The Haunting of Hill House having a similar impact. When it’s scary, it is very scary. But it’s when it holds a mirror up to real life – and asks the viewer to confront their own demons – that it truly grabs hold and refuses to let go.