The 1959 Shirley Jackson Gothic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, has spawned two Hollywood movies, a radio adaption, numerous parodies and copycats, and has influenced novelists and film writers for decades. Most recently, it’s been made into a TV series by Netflix which, after I heard from so many people how great it was, I decided to watch.
I was so impressed with what I saw that I read the book, too, and was surprised to find how completely different it was on almost every level.
I’ll attempt here to compare the positives and negatives of both the Netflix series and the Shirley Jackson novel.
The Netflix show
This Netflix original, loosely inspired by the Shirley Jackson novel, tells the story of one family’s experiences in Hill House. The Crain family have purchased and moved into Hill House in order to renovate and resell it. During their time there, they experience a cornucopia of strange and terrifying events. The TV show tells two parallel stories: one details the characters’ childhood experiences in the house, and another tells of the characters’ recurring experiences 30 years later.
I loved this show for a lot of little reasons, and disliked it for a couple big ones. Let’s start with the positives.
The use of silence, subtlety and anticipation
Modern Hollywood ‘horror’ movies, even the supposedly psychologically unsettling ones, all seem to focus on loud noises and gross/upsetting imagery. What I loved the most about this show was its comparative restraint. The most scary parts of the show for me were the parts that showed nothing, or where you saw something but couldn’t be sure what.
The first episode sets the precedent, letting you know that there are creepy things going on, and that they could happen most anywhere, and at any time. And once I started watching out for creepy things, I couldn’t stop. The show regularly uses wide shots of entire rooms, giving the viewer a clear sight of every part of the room around, and behind the characters. Paradoxically, this clear view of everything makes the characters seem in constant danger. The viewer can see anything that might appear in the background behind the characters, and even though in the majority of these scenes nothing does appear, you are constantly waiting for it to. Your eyes vigilantly scan every open space with anxiety that something unspeakable may fade into view…
This kind of anticipation kept my jaw perpetually clenched, and my eyes glued wide open. The buildup to each scare was agonizing, and the almost cathartic relief of finally seeing the horrible thing added to its intensity. Yes, the show does give in to the jump-scare that is so prevalent, but it is used expertly. Rather than blasting you in the face like clockwork, the jump-scares are spread out, and some of them at truly unexpected times, during intense, emotional moments.
The terror of the unknown, and of one’s own mind
The most effective monsters are the ones that aren’t shown, but are only implied or hinted at. When you catch only a tiny glimpse of something, your mind can go off the rails filling in the blanks with horrible details. Another thing I loved about Hill House was the great job at hiding the monster. There are so many shadowy figures in the background or slight movements out of the corner of the eye, that you find yourself grinding your teeth and holding your breath in terror at what it might be, more than what it is.
In a world filled with gore-fest knock you over the head with a bloody stump ‘horror’, I found this kind of restraint impressive. The creators of this show actually seem to understand how fear works. We humans fear what we can’t comprehend and can’t control, what we can’t see, what we can’t escape. Once something is explained, named, and a face put to it, a reason put behind it, it loses all power over us and is in our control. And thus, hardly scary.
The few times that Hill House showed and / or explained a ghost were moments of respite for me. I could relax and unclench my jaw because the ghost lost all its power once it was defined and shown.
Episode 4 contained the most palpable instance of this for me. Something is knocking one by one on the doors in Hill House, getting closer and closer to young Luke’s room. The way the scene is filmed is incredibly tense, and I was leaning forward, a hand over my mouth, not wanting to see what it was out in the hall, but unable to look away. But then Luke gets up, creeps to the bedroom door, and opens it carefully. He peers out into the hall and sees–a tall floating man with a cane. I let out a breath, and leaned back in relief, all the tension leaving my body. Okay, I thought, I can understand what I’m looking at, I can process it, I know what it is, it’s no longer scary.
If Luke had instead seen a fleeting shadow, a moving shape, a hint of something that suggested a person or figure tapping on the doors, perhaps I would have held onto my fear as my imagination came up with a flurry of possible horrors. But the instant I saw clearly what it was, I felt relief. It’s been so long since I’ve been scared or creeped out by anything on TV, that I can’t think of another time I’ve experienced this drastic, vivid relief at seeing a monster.
Of course, Hollywood has to ride a careful line between this effect, and the need to actually show things for people to talk about and post screenshots of on social media. The creators of Hill House understood this, and avoided showing things for as much of the show as they could, with amazing effect. I doubt they could have avoided showing all the ghosts, even if they wanted to. But they could have avoided…
The ridiculous end
I loved the ambiance and the tone of the show. The characters were amazingly developed and acted, the scenery was well crafted and expertly shot, and the cold, anxious fear and heightened emotion were constant and palpable. But in the last couple episodes, the show fell into the trap that so many popular shows and books get sucked into: the desperate need to explain everything.
At the climax of the show, the characters all become trapped in the ‘red room’, and are one by one rescued from terrible visions by the ghost of their recently dead sister, Nell. Nell then deliberately and specifically explains to the characters everything that’s been going on, and how the house works. I’m sort of used to this from TV and movies by now, and grudgingly accept its necessity. While the tedious explaining was annoying, I could have overlooked it. What I could not overlook was the discordantly confusing tone-shift that had me woling (saying ‘what’ out loud) for the last minutes of the final episode.
For the previous ten hours we’ve been shown in progressively more and more terrifying ways, just how disturbing Hill House is. We are also given some pretty upsetting hints at what the afterlife might be like for people who have died there, specifically Nell. Theo’s description of the darkness, of the cold emptiness and eternal loneliness she felt when touching Nells body was one of the most disturbing moments of the show for me. Yet in the final minutes of the final episode, the ambiance and tone of unsettling terror that has been so expertly crafted is all thrown out right out the window, and this song starts playing.
While this soft, nostalgic tune plays, we are treated to views of the characters getting their lives together in heartwarming ways. This is odd enough, but then we see the older versions of the Dudleys rushing into Hill House, so that they can die in there, and live on as ghosts with their daughter. It seems now we’re supposed to believe that anyone who dies there lives on forever happily in Hill House.
In the final shot, we zoom out of the dark, twisted looking house (while the sappy song continues playing) and see from the outside that the house is lit with warm, welcoming yellow light in the windows. The final voice over, in senseless twist on the original words at the start of the show and novel, says: ‘whatever walked there, walked together.’
This completely undercuts Hugh’s sacrifice. When he killed himself so Olivia would let the kids leave the house alive, it was terrible to think of him trapped in that house eternally. And that terribleness made it powerful that he’d do such a thing to save his kids after being estranged for so long. But after this ending, we’re left with the discordant impression that the house is a nice place that stores memories for us to look back on at our own convenience. Is Hugh relaxing there with all the other ghosts waiting for people to visit? Are all the ghosts we saw throughout the episodes simply misunderstood nice folks? This puts a very strange twist on the previous nine and a half episodes.
I suspect that this ending was a hamfisted attempt to have closure while at the same time not allowing the characters to burn the damn house to the ground, as any sane person would do. My interpretation of the ghosts had been that they were twisted, horrible versions of the memories of those who’d died in Hill House. The ghosts certainly seemed horrible. But in the last minutes of the show they are shifted over to warm memories of those we’ve lost, stored safely inside the house like a worn and heavy photo album. Of course, if the characters had just burned the cursed house to rubble we couldn’t have a season two…
Although I was completely confused and annoyed by the end, I loved the show as a whole. I enjoyed nearly every moment watching it. For reasons that I’ll explain later, I’m very glad I watched this show before reading the novel.
The Shirley Jackson novel
In this Gothic horror novel (which involves terror more than horror) a paranormal investigator and three strangers with past paranormal experiences spend several nights in the supposedly haunted Hill House to document their experiences. The story follows a single POV, that of Eleanor Vance, a young woman who experienced a possible poltergeist as a child.
As you can see from that description, the TV show took nothing much from the book besides the house and the names of the characters (the other two guests are named Luke and Theodora.) This book is its own thing, and it is a thing that I very much loved. Here’s why:
The use of subtlety and implications
I may have described the TV show as subtle, but that is only by Hollywood standards. The novel is a master of implications and uncertainty. While you are shown very clearly in the first minutes of the TV show that ghosts are real and are haunting this family, in the book it’s not so clear what is real and what is in the characters’ minds, specifically Eleanor’s mind.
Eleanor, or Nell, is described as having experienced a poltergeist in her youth that rained rocks down on her house multiple times. This detail is used by the show as an experience of Olivia Crane in her childhood. (This same detail is also used by Stephen King in Carrie, clearly influenced by Jackson.) Some interpretations of the book claim this raining of rocks, and all the experiences in Hill House are due not to hauntings, but Nell’s own telekinetic abilities. In one very tense scene, the characters huddle in a room together, overwhelmed and terrified by a persistent pounding all through the house. Later in the story, Eleanor runs up and down the halls in a panicked, delusional state of mind, pounding on all the doors. This is taken by some as an implication that the previous pounding was caused by her as well.
The stability of Eleanor’s mind is called into question in subtle ways early in the novel. When asked about her life outside Hill House, Eleanor makes up details based on things she observed on her drive to Hill House. A child in a cafe whining for her ‘cup of stars’ turns into Eleanor herself having a cup of stars (this cup is another detail used in a different way in the show), a cottage house with lion statues and an imagined white cat become details of Eleanor’s own supposed apartment, which she describes to Theodora in an attempt to impress her. Eleanor does seem to have some kind of attraction to Theodora, and it’s possible that the blood on Theodora’s clothes (which all the characters witnessed and is later found to be inexplicably gone) was engineered again by Eleanor’s own supernatural powers, perhaps subconsciously, as a way to get Theodora into her own room.
The above theories are ideas of mine and others, and are never stated outright in the book. Unlike a TV show, where the public demands that everything must be explained in detail, in the book things are left up to interpretation–which makes them much more interesting to talk about. Was it Eleanor who was haunted, rather than the house? Or did the house possess Eleanor and feed on her because she was the most susceptible to psychic phenomenon? That we can even have this kind of discussion is a major plus in the book’s favor.
A simple story
While the characters are complex, the story is straightforward. There are no plot twists or secrets revealed, other than about the characters’ internal workings. What objectively happens in the story can be summed up in a few sentences. In the end, a shocking event happens, but it fits entirely within the characters, and can be predicted fairly early on.
Maybe a better way to describe the story is focused. The story knows what it’s about, and doesn’t wander off into unimportant areas. The story is about Eleanor, so we learn about Eleanor. We don’t get distracted by long, detailed histories of the other characters, or of the house and the people who died there, how they died, and so on. Mrs. Dudley, for example, is an enigmatic character that adds a layer of unease to the novel, but the story is not about her, so we aren’t burdened with chapter upon chapter detailing her origins, her family, her reasons for taking care of the house, etc.
Instead we have a direct, clear focus on Eleanor, her thoughts and feelings, and her reactions to the characters around her. The reader’s feelings are not spread out over several characters, but are all focused in one spot. Some people may be disappointed in the lack of details and history, but I find that this focus heightens the impact of events in the story.
A straightforward, fitting end
Through the course of the novel we learn a lot about Eleanor Vance. She is uncertain of who she is in the world, but wants to find out. She wants to belong somewhere, but feels tied to her past with her sick mother. She wants to be liked and to fit in so much that she makes up things about herself that she thinks others will approve of. She wants so badly to get away from her home life and on to something new, that at the start of the book she steals her sister’s car when she won’t loan it to her.
By the end of the story, Eleanor has tied her personality and self so thoroughly to Hill House (be it because of her own mental instability, the house’s paranormal aspects, or some combination of those) that it is impossible for her to separate herself from it. The other characters become so worried for her mind that they send her away, in effect, excommunicating her from her new home. When she is faced with the unavoidable prospect of leaving Hill house to go back to her despised home-life, she does the predictable.
There are no screaming ghosts or evil demons whispering in her ear, there are no hallucinatory tricks played on her. She simply decides not to leave, and happily crashes her car full speed into a tree. The novel ends the same as it began: with Hill House, cold, foreboding, and empty–other than whatever unknown thing may walk within.
At the time of writing this it’s been a few months since I read the novel, and even longer since I watched the show. My opinion has changed on both of them over that time. I find I like and appreciate the book more as time has gone on, and only see more and more problems with the show as I spend time thinking about it.
I’m glad I watched the show first
I have to reiterate that I massively enjoyed the show, especially the first 5 or 6 episodes. And I’m really glad to have had that experience without any preconceived notions of what the show should be. Had I read the book first, I’m certain I would have been quite annoyed by many choices the show made.
It’s not that I expect everything to be the same, or even similar to the book. The entire story could be (and was) different, but the key point, or spirit of the book must be there, or else why call it by the same name? This is what would have annoyed me had I read Hill House first, and what has annoyed me about so many remakes, reboots and sequels: everything that I loved about the original was completely absent in the new version. There were many things that I loved in the Netflix show, but they aren’t what I would have expected from a show supposedly based off, or inspired by, the novel I read.
It is an almost guaranteed result whenever something is remade, it seems, that the creators of the new version will completely miss, or ignore, the point of the original.
Hollywood overdoes everything/misses the point
In the end, Netflix’s Hill House was its own story, and only very loosely inspired by the Shirley Jackson novel. Being inspired by something is perfectly fine–we can’t help but be inspired by many things every day. However, there seems to be an epidemic of remakes and reboots that are void of anything relating to the title they hide behind. It’s gotten so bad that few people I know are excited to see a new movie with a title they recognize. Instead, most groan at what they take for granted will be another ruined favorite.
This plague could be caused by laziness (damn the quality, people will watch it because they’ve heard of it!), an effort at mass appeal (hmm, if we just change everything about this, a lot more people will watch it!), an attempt to magnify some popular aspect of the original (people really liked the alien in this movie, so lets put 100 aliens in the sequel!), or the creators just completely missing the point.
For Hill House, I think it was some combination of the above. The writers seemed to have an appreciation of the original, based on details such as the cup of stars, the rocks raining on the childhood house, the names of the characters, the red room. These details were used in completely different ways in the show, but they directly relate to the book, and they were not necessary other than the creators wanting to use them.
But the creators also wanted to make a horror story about ghosts, and in the money-driven Hollywood world, there is no way they could have just created their own ghost story with a title and characters that no one had heard of. So they took a title that was well known to be about a haunted house, and jammed that house full of ghosts, even though in the original novel it’s debatable whether the house contained any ghosts at all.
The result is that fans of horror will watch the show, and would have watched regardless of the title. People on the fence about watching might recognize the name and decide to turn it on. And fans of the book (who might not even be horror fans) will watch because they enjoyed the original. Only one of these groups has a big chance of being disappointed. It’s beneficial to Hollywood to pull these kinds of tricks to get a bigger audience, and the only people who lose out are the biggest fans of the original material.
This leaves us with a paradox where the bigger a fan you are of something, the more upset you’ll be to see it made, or remade, by Hollywood.
When it comes down to it, though, it’s all entertainment and all we can do is enjoy what we enjoy. But be aware that in today’s world, titles are more often a form of marketing than anything actually reflecting the content.
I hope you check out both the Shirley Jackson novel and the TV show, but I highly recommend watching the show first, as I did!