Netflix launched their newest drama Haunting of Hill House on 12th October, just in time for Halloween 2018. This latest edition to the TV horror canon ticks plenty of horror boxes – it is a Gothic, spooky tale effectively evoking a creeping feeling of dread, and has just enough jump scares to keep you on your toes. But overall the series has a feeling of being trapped, both throughout the telling of the story and by its own ending. This post will explore the sense of imprisonment in the show, and how the final moments of the series might have trapped Haunting of Hill House into the one season.
Haunting of Hill House jumps between the present and the past timelines of the Crain family. From their time in Hill House to now, where they are flung back together because of the apparent suicide of one of the twins, Nell Crain. The scenes that take us back to somewhere in the mid to late 1990s, show the family during its time living in Hill House. The family are unable to leave because all their money is tied up in their project to flip and sell the house. Despite the horrors occurring in the house, the family remain. The children all suffer at the will of the house, as does the mother, Olivia. Hugh Crain it seems, carries the burden of all their suffering as he tries in vain to hold the family together.
Eldest child Steven Crain does not, and will not, believe in the ghosts, leaving him trapped inside his own willful ignorance. Shirley is trapped by her own sensitivity, stuck in a loop of ‘fixing’ those that have died (kittens, dead grandmothers, even her own little sister). Theodora is trapped by her psychic abilities, and she remains locked behind her gloves, unable to connect properly to any of the people in her life. Younger Luke is trapped under his bed by the tall floating man, gets trapped in a dumb waiter, and trapped with his own experiences as the parents refuse to believe him. Adult Luke is trapped by his heroin addiction. And Nell, cornered at every turn by the apparition of the Bent Neck Lady, physically locked by terrifying episodes of sleep paralysis, and trapped by her own future suicide. Remaining parent Hugh has been unable to leave his wife behind and move on: he is trapped in a marriage to a dead woman.
The events from the past follow the Crains and keep them stuck in the same cycle of worrying dread. This sense of being stuck and entirely surrounded by their past in Hill House, manifests itself in the construction of the scenes and long character monologues spread across the series. Unusual for a TV series, scenes are long and feature speeches delivered by one person in that scene while the rest listen. The monologues are not only for the central cast either, the supporting characters get their chance to speak at length. Steven’s long suffering wife Leigh delivers a long and harrowing speech in Steven’s Red Room dream. She calls him a parasite for how he has made a living from the trauma bestowed upon his own family. Theo’s on / off girlfriend Trish tells her a story about fear and guilt, echoing the Tall Bowler Hat ghost that plagues young Luke. Nell’s monologue in the finale ‘Silence Lay Steadily,’ shows that she understands Hill House now, and that time is like rain, a series of moments falling all around us.
Episode 4 ‘Twin Thing’ sees a speech delivered by a Luke’s fellow rehab inmate, a war veteran from Iraq who tells the story of the ‘crispy kid with the runny egg eyes.’ Flashbacks of this event have trapped this man and driven the man to heroin addiction. The veteran goes into such lengthy detail about this vision, that when watching Haunting of Hill House myself, I was desperate for the speech to end – a kid burnt in a fire so hot that the eyes melted? I was trapped by the imagery painted by the monologue, it still brings a shudder.
Later, in episode 6, ‘Two Storms,’ the Crains gather at the funeral home to begin to say their goodbyes to Nell. Brought together under such circumstances and with decades of friction between them the emotion overflows, stuck as they are in the funeral home with the corpse of their sister.
The long tracking shots, circling camera and the movement through the space and time of the funeral home and Hill House, traps us in both the emotion and in the inevitable family arguments between the contemporary Crains. The long uncut shots – the longest is 17 minutes – keep us locked in the events happening in real time. With no cuts, such long shots build a feeling of high tension, of being stuck in that funeral home with the Crains. We are stuck with them under terrible circumstances, waiting for the inevitable arguments bubble over as family secrets are revealed. We, like the Crains, can’t go anywhere. We cannot leave the funeral home. Our eyes are not given a break by cutting, we are trapped in the scene with the Crains and given no relief.
The episode glides between timelines, taking us back to a night at Hill House when it was buffeted by a powerful thunderstorm and hailstones. As we sweep back to the past Hill House, Nell goes missing. Her family run all over the house frantically trying to find her. Eventually she reappears, and claims that she was there they whole time as they searched, and that they just couldn’t see her. In this sequence, Nell is trapped by some unseen force which keeps her from her family. As she lays in her coffin in the funeral home with her family arguing all around her, she is again trapped. Nell is stuck in the coffin, trapped by her suicide, and her family cannot see her for their own arguing.
All this trapping within the series and its construction of episodes and speeches, lends itself a consideration of whether or not Haunting of Hill House is trapped by its own storytelling. Haunting of Hill House has been an undoubted success. With a 93% audience score on Netflix, Haunting of Hill House is one of the highest rated shows on Netflix this year (Clark, Business Insider, 2018). It has been described as a “horror home run” (Tassi, Forbes, 2018), so might the neatly closed off (happy?) ending be a mistake?  The ending ties off the story of the Crain family, leaving very little room for a second season. By closing off the story so neatly, with the remaining Crains all appearing to be happy and doing well, is Haunting of Hill House trapped in one season?
Director Mike Flanagan (Oculous; Hush; Before I Wake; Ouija; Origins of Evil; Gerald’s Game), told Entertainment Weekly that he didn’t “want to speculate too much about a season two until Netflix and Paramount and Amblin let us know if they want one” (2018). Flanagan went on to say that in his mind, the story of the Crain family is over. Himself and the writers decided against any sort of cliffhanger ending. With the success of Haunting of Hill House however, it might be too tempting for Netflix to attempt another shot at it. Hill House is still standing, despite the best efforts of some of the characters to destroy it. Steven still owns Hill House, so The Crain family may well have to revisit the house. Perhaps the original Hill family could be explored in a prequel series. More pertinently, Netflix and Paramount and Amblin just might not be able to help themselves. With the show being so well received and a general feeling that ‘that’ ending was not good enough, we may well return to the Haunting of Hill House after all.
Stella Gaynor is an Associate Lecturer at The University of Salford in the Arts and Media Department, teaching on the BA(hons) Television and Radio programme. She has submitted her thesis titled Made For TV Monsters: How has the rise of horror on US television affected the spectacle and acceptability of the genre? She has written a chapter on the global spread of The Walking Dead and FOX International Channels in the forthcoming book Global TV Horror, edited by Stacey Abbott and Lorna Jowett.
 Things come to a head when it is revealed that all but Shirley have taken a share of the money earned from Steven’s best selling novel based on Hill House.
 The ending sees Hugh staying with his dead wife, and the remaining Crain family all doing well. Steven’s wife is pregnant, Luke is 2 years clean. Theo has a girlfriend and has taken her gloves off, and Shirley comes clean about her one night stand. Everyone is okay and happy. For many, the ending was a little too syrupy sweet. I think they are still in the Red Room, they are still trapped.