The Shirley Jackson 5: The Haunting of Hill House (Eps. 1-5)

But the mom seems like the crazy one? But I also appreciate that within Netflix’s eight kazillion original series is also, as you note, a perceived hierarchization between “prestige TV” and “prestige pulp.” Between shows like Mindhunter and The Crown versus shows like The OA, Stranger Things, Sense8, Maniac, and The Haunting of Hill House. In Flanagan’s televisual serialization of the novel, however, time is significantly expanded in strange drawn-out ways. Or, maybe more accurately, it’s an overture that really focuses in on one particular element of Flanagan’s style. I don’t know whether I want Hill House’s haunts to make sense, either as a clearly delineated flow chart of historical spectres and their mortal mediums or as a mass delusion. And, to that end, there’s an uncertainty about who’s seeing a ghost and who’s playing a scene where the screenwriter decided they’d experience a bad memory visually. Maybe I just think everyone I meet is a psychologist until proven otherwise. It’s, quite literally, the mystery box at the center of the show, and, by episode 5, I was beginning to feel comfortable in my assessment of the house and its various inhabitants, but Ghost Nell messes with that. PM: It really does seem like Hill House is deliberately setting up this slippage between ghosts and mental illness and post-traumatic stress—Steven even gets a monologue about it in that stinky opening number—in order to say something about all of those things. Not how and why is Nell seeing a ghost but how and why is Nell’s ghost visiting her younger self or how and why is young Nell haunted by decontextualized visions of her own death? Robot scripts.) That knowledge frees Netflix to imagine a world outside or inverting those conventions in wackadoodle experiments like The OA, and it also allows them to be super canny and conspicuous about embracing them for satisfying cannibalistic exercises like Stranger Things. Jane Hu: Phil, I have to admit that when I first came across the advertisement for this series on my Netflix dashboard, my immediate response was…not excitement. Like Stranger Things et al., Hill House plays fast and loose with the categories of both “genre” and “television.” The slow-molting-images-accompanied-by-foreboding-orchestral-music-intro-credits to Hill House (inaugurated perhaps in HBO’s True Detective and reproduced in series such as The Night Of and The Crown and Westworld) signal a kind of “prestige” seriousness, but the series itself more sporadically moves across genres about domestic trouble, the supernatural, addiction and recovery, lesbian drama, and—my favorite—a small rom-com montage in the first half of episode 5. (We’ll follow up in a week or two with a post on the back half of the series.) There will be spoilers for episodes 1-5 so, if you’re not caught up, put on a floor-length blue silk nightgown and get watching! Television, as you note, is still seen as somewhat shameful, even in its shamelessness. But the start feels like a series of misdirections—a bumpy beginning into what turns out to be a richly fleshed out character world. There’s the tall-floating-man-in-a-top-hat ghost (a Babadook shout-out?), the hanging-lady-with-long-hair ghost, the mother-figure ghost, the cute-animal-turned-grotesque-corpse ghost. The grummy genius of the Netflix model of production is that its eight kazillion original series and films unabashedly embrace that invisible generic aspect—nobody knows better than Netflix that prestige television is a generic construct. Ladle more of that psychedelic genre stew into my cup of stars! PM: I have all those same questions about the Dad, too, Jane, but you know I love it when you bring narratology into the mix! Spoiler: the series does get much better. Theo feels things but doesn’t see specifics (though it seems that things go a little differently when she touches Nell’s corpse). JH: Yes, completely. And everything Shirley sees doubles as the sort of thing a person in crisis on a TV show would see in a dream sequence. JH: This is basically my question for the whole show so far! I’d love to know what watching Flanagan’s pilot felt like for those who hadn’t read Jackson’s novel, but I found it deeply disorienting, and partly because I was expecting more of a straightforward adaptation. That said, I don’t want to overplay how ingenious this show is. After all, most of the “Haunting of Hill House is the greatest horror novel, second only to that one by Henry James” testaments are relatively recent assessments. Obviously, I clicked play—but with trepidation! I largely buy into Holly Green’s critique of this show as “ransacking” Jackson’s novel. It’s dizzying, and Nell’s insanity in that novel is a product of the unbearable sense of speed she gets inside that house. Phil Maciak: Jane, when I saw that Netflix was adapting The Haunting of Hill House as a series, and that it would involve cell phones, I knew we needed to talk about it here in a Dear Television yak, the antique brass speaking-tube of television criticism formats. You might also like etc. I think it’s true that the show has a somewhat needlessly parasitic relationship to its source material, that it trades in on the cache of that title without attending necessarily to the things that make that novel uniquely beloved. If this is a commentary on mass hysteria, does it follow that different people would nonetheless experience different ghosts? Every Breaking Bad is a precious parseable text, but it’s also a bundle of particular conventions just like a Marvel movie or a romance novel. And does it work? And he looks reeaaaaally sad at Nell’s wedding. (A weird trick this show does is that it kind of makes us think adult Steve is a psychologist when we meet him, then it kind of makes us think adult Shirley is a psychologist when we meet her, then, when we meet adult Theo, who is an actual psychologist, somebody has to say “she’s a psychologist!” before we realize it. Has Michiel Huisman overtaken Aaron Eckhart in Possession as the most preposterous approximation of a “writer” in contemporary media? Flanagan uses monologues like this one to break and punctuate that general aesthetic, so encountering one right from the jump means that we stutter-step with the series, doing more “figuring-out” about the episodic structure and character network than we really ought to need to do. The way American Horror Story tends to harness all of its provocative excesses into these Reddit-ready conspiracist meta-narratives, for instance, can feel perfunctory as often as it feels like a payoff. Green’s essay ends up reinforcing all the usual modernist arguments against “genre fiction” to canonize a novel that seems, tbh, pretty okay with how hard it leans on genre. drugs! Green’s sentence ”That the woman who was capable of writing ‘The Lottery’ could also write a horror novel like The Haunting of Hill House, without sacrificing her artistic sensibilities, is a testament to her ingenuity and versatility” doesn’t make sense to me because…isn’t…“The Lottery”…a…short…story…in…the…horror…genre? Is that like saying his Haunting of Hill House is the televisual equivalent of “literary genre fiction”? And, to be honest, if I were Flanagan, I’m not sure I would have begun the pilot that way. For instance, despite Vulture’s wonderful catalogue of ghosts who are hanging around unseen in various frames, there’s definitely an uneven distribution of supernatural encounter amongst our cast of characters. That’s a muddy way of doing things, but maybe muddiness is good. He wants to develop a theory of what seems otherwise inexplicable, and he invites Eleanor, Theo, and Luke (unrelated in the novel) as both his guests and test-subjects. I like how insane this show is! ghosts!), Netflix maximizes its audience, but it also creates a kind of psychedelic genre stew on overdrive that I totally dig. The Haunting of Hill House is a bad adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House because it isn’t about Hill House, it is Hill House. But the note upon which that essay ends (that Hill House, in treating Jackson’s novel as “just a ghost story” becomes itself “just a TV show”) obviously bums me out, if only because what was a strong ethical argument about using Jackson’s novel to reinforce and reenact her gendered and genre-d exclusion from the canon reveals itself in the end to be animated by garden variety anti-TV, the-book-was-better snobbery. How did this casting director locate so many different women who look like they could plausibly be the daughters of Carla Gugino? It asks us to ask fewer questions about space (the house, the line between living and dead) and ask more questions about time. So I wasn’t completely sure how Flanagan was going to draw this out across 10 episodes. But maybe he’s the source of everyone’s ongoing PTSD? The Crain sibling’s traumas at Hill House as children translate to their decisions to become morticians, child psychologists, and non-fiction writers as adults. Kind of? MASS HYSTERIA! PM: What I mean by that is this: prestige television is a genre, but it’s a genre whose existence depends on a denial of its generic identity. It reminds me of what I love about Jackson’s novel: which is that the madness of Hill House is both embedded in the literal spaces of the house, but also, in ourselves lol. I mean, of course Nell would fall in love with a sleep technologist. (Are Don Draper and Tony Soprano seeing ghosts?) But then, you know, there’s dogs and cats, living together, in Hill House. JH: “I’m going to get my fucking PhD.” But what I’m actually even more curious about is: what did their father do?? PM: Jane, I totally agree. And, more specifically, is this dog a ghost?:

I think you’re absolutely right: it obviously doesn’t help that the show is one big genre stew teetering on the edge of incoherence. And which seems, moreover, especially conducive to the horror genre. Eleanor is mad before she ever goes to Hill House; that she goes to Hill House confirms her madness. This TV show owes a hell of a lot more to JJ Abrams than it does to Shirley Jackson. PM: It is maybe the Lostiest thing that’s happened on Hill House, a show that already evinced a lot of structural parallels to Lost, from individual character-centric episodes, to the we-made-it-off-the-island-but-did-we-really-make-it-off-the-island vibe of the flash-forwards, to, well, a fucking hatch. Flanagan’s television series maintains this tension between “science” and the supernatural—between logic and magic. Her appearance asks us to imagine an explanation of events that’s primarily about time. That’s on me.)
That said, what’s weird about the opening gambit is precisely what’s kind of great about the rest of the show. JH: Yes, and it’s actually in Netflix’s favor to embrace genre—just look at their category headings and sub-headings! The narrative logic of interminability in serial television spreads to Netflix’s algorithm, which basically just wants you to keep watching more and more. OCTOBER 25, 2018

Dear TV, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. And part of what drives the characters mad in the novel is that the house just doesn’t make architectural sense. But I like your thesis about Flanagan’s series as “prestige pulp”! That this show has all the ghosts too doesn’t help. What makes The Haunting of Hill House an incredible horror novel is its profound obsession with representing the phenomenology of space (something arguably easier to do visually). How real are the ghosts??? This is all to say that a lot of these genre/prestige distinctions seem totally based on where we are in the history of a text’s—and medium’s—reception. JH: Which is an interesting move, considering how deeply obsessed Jackson’s novel is with space. PM: Maybe I shouldn’t feel so good about this, but, as an audience member, I love being maximized in this way! Or is this revelation evidence that things don’t add up, narratively or otherwise? What kind of excites me about this show, then, is how shamelessly televisual it is. In selling Hill House as having it all (novel adaptation! In other words, Jane Hu and Phil Maciak have resurrected Dear TV and are here to talk about the first half of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. But Steven didn’t until Nell showed up in his loft space. Nell and Luke seem to actually see ghosts, right? And how did Jessica Paré miss out? Even as that is very understandably frustrating to fans of Jackson and Hill House, it’s liberating in terms of creative freedom and audience expectation. In its very twisty way, then, Flanagan’s Hill House actually follows Jackson’s logic of haunting. He exhibits your run-of-the-mill toxic masculinity in the show’s first half, but the children talk about him as if he did something unforgivably abusive. It’s prestige, but it’s prestige pulp, and the degree to which it flagrantly tramples upon Jackson while simultaneously snatching whole conceptual and structural apparatuses from Lost and, to a lesser extent, Six Feet Under and American Horror Story: Murder House and even This is Us makes it even more strange and unexpected. JH: Totally. Whatever to make sense of their batshit adolescence! The twist (no pun intended—gross) that is revealed at the end of the episode—that the bent-neck lady is actually Nell appearing to herself at moments of crisis—forces us as viewers to begin guessing again about the whole deal with Hill House. Maybe they just need to kill dad?? As you note about the twist ending in episode 5, Nell’s proleptic hauntings of her younger self are narratively disorienting in a way the novel—which proceeds chronologically over the course of a few days—is not. In the novel, Dr. [Spoiler: Jessica Paré is not on this show.]
But we should start with you, Shirley Jackson aficionado that you are: what’d you think of Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House? (Everybody knows it at some level, but the anxiety over it, rather than acceptance of it, is what we have to thank for Matthew Weiner following up Mad Men with a series of hour and a half late-Woody Allen films, or Sam Esmail doodling Fight Club logos over all of his Mr. Everything ramps up too quickly: Nell runs to her car, starts driving, and suddenly hits a tree. She famously drew sketches of Hill House to try to capture its impossible geometry. I turned it off soon after Steve’s interviewee’s monologue, only to go back upon encouragement from a few others, and most importantly you. There’s a sort of double-take quality to the first 15 minutes of the series, which moves from cold-open flashback to a long abstract credit sequence and then finally to the present, where Steve (one of the show’s five protagonist siblings) is interviewing a potential subject for his next book on paranormal activity. Like you, I’m curious as to whether the show will clean up its ghost logic by the end, or whether all this ~science~ is simply another coping mechanism. You’re completely right that while all these shows follow generic conventions, the latter group might have more rope (cough) with which to play with them. But even still, that opening was unusual—both in terms of its relationship to the novel, apparently, but also the rest of the show. There’s so much to say! I read it in high school and, turns out, remember very very little! Circling back to time, does the bent-neck lady revelation overturn our sense of the temporality of these apparitions, maybe the things we’d assumed about how “haunting” works from seeing all of those old-timey artisanal ghouls? One of the things I really like about the recent crop of modern prestige Blumhouse and Blumhouse-adjacent horror films that clearly influenced Hill House—like It Follows, The Babadook, Get Out, The Conjuring, House of the Devil, Hereditary, even Flanagan’s Oculus—is that they function as both sharply developed metaphorical architectures (the real ghosts were the friends we made along the way) and as movies about actual scary fucking ghosts that actually fucking exist. As someone who loves the novel (I think it’s the thing I’ve read the most, second maybe to James’s “Daisy Miller” lol), it’s a disconcerting image. It’s the overdeterminedness of her ending that makes it all so fucking chilling. glossy prestige TV intro! Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean there aren’t ghosts. Montague comes to the house as someone who wants to get to the scientific bottom of its ghosts. I have deliberately stopped myself at episode 5, but there’s a kind of natural pause in the series here I think. Help me, Phil! The babadook is motherhood and grief, but it’s also a babadook, you know? I certainly can’t claim anything like Hu-vian devotion to Hill House. Is this revelation going to make things add up differently by the end of the series? So much of what makes this series magnetic is its movement, its hiding-in-plain-sight sense of unease, and even the constipated inarticulateness of its characters. That monologue with Steve is an overture that suggests a different style of narrative and visual suspense. I think the halfway point in Hill House leaves us on an appropriate cliffhanger of not just ambiguity, but batshit confusion—and what I like about it is that I don’t entirely expect or, like you, even want the second half to tie everything up neatly. I still have questions! The 1963 Robert Wise film adaptation is already so good, and the novel is, like, not very long?