By the time the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House premieres, almost everyone is going to be talking about its sixth episode. It may take you more than a few minutes to realize you’ve been watching the members of the Crain family—walking to and fro inside a funeral parlor whose rooms are ominously and expansively framed—in a single unbroken shot. And that delay in recognition speaks to the almost preternatural talent of the show’s creator, writer, and director, Mike Flanagan, who’s unmatched in his ability to tune audiences into the strain and intensity of characters’ tortured psyches.
At first, the shot simply goes about cataloguing various conversations as regrets are voiced and resentments fester. Then a ghost pops into view, casually taking up real estate in the background, and it’s then, and only then, that the camera goes about more woozily embodying the Crain family’s collective grief. First the camera moves to the right and left, then in and out of rooms, to not just cradle these characters as they are now, but also as they once were, unbelievably catching glimpses of the Crain siblings as children, now seated where their older selves were just moments before.
Fifteen minutes into this marvel of aesthetic construction—which sees at one point the Crain paterfamilias, Hugh (Timothy Hutton), looking for a bathroom and ending up walking straight into the Hill House of his memory—you may just find yourself begging for a cutaway. Indeed, Flanagan so profoundly conveys the ferocity with which the past haunts this family, ensnaring them in webs of grief, that it feels as if we, too, are being pushed into an oblivion, so that we no longer have to share these characters’ living nightmares.
For its blistering gathering of trauma, this episode is without equal among the six that were initially provided to press ahead of The Haunting of Hill House‘s premiere, and it leaves you with a depressing and melancholy impression that there may actually be no escape from whatever it is that’s haunting the Crains. And there’s a sense that all five of the Crain siblings seem to understand as much, each and every one of them throwing themselves into their work or shrinking into their addictions, sometimes both, as if hoping to discover something to the contrary. It’s as they’re all perpetually standing on a bridge between the real and the ethereal, uncertain of where to go.
Similar to Legion, every episode of The Haunting of Hill House is a kind of riff on madness in its many forms, a sojourn of loss and regret, and how the episodes interlock is one of the show’s consistently disarming surprises. Given that they’re twins, and that they were so young when they lived at Hill House, Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are the rawest in their grief. Their bond, how it bends and frays, is one of the show’s more poignant emotional through lines. They each drift in and out of each other’s lives, wanting to connect but obviously afraid of the repercussions. Luke is an addict, and in one scene Nell buys him some heroin, no doubt knowing that it will help him to outrun the demon that quite literally follows him at every turn, though that isn’t something the audience fully understands until the wrenching last few minutes of the fifth episode, in which it’s revealed that the Crains live in a slipstream of the present and every bump in the night that tormented them in youth is the despair of their future selves.
The Haunting of Hill House is less than an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name than an echo of it. Few characters and scenes overlap, but the ones that do are notable, not least of which for the way there’s both beauty and eeriness in their tension, such as one instance of paranormal handholding. There’s no investigation here into the existence of the supernatural—or, rather, its nonexistence—at least not in the conventional sense. Everyone in the present is driven by what they experienced—or didn’t experience—in the past, struggling to determine who they exactly are outside of Hill House. Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a therapist who can sense and absorb emotional trauma with the touch of a hand, almost always gloved. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) works as a funeral director, mainly to demystify death. And Steven (Michiel Huisman), a successful writer, is constantly at odds with his siblings for the way he draws liberally from their shared experience.
On the night that the younger Hugh (Henry Thomas) left his children’s mother, Olivia (Carla Gugino), behind at Hill House, Steven (played by Paxton Singleton as a child) shielded his eyes from all the horrors that subsumed the woman, and so as an adult he’s a little more grounded than his siblings, though his single-minded pursuit of discrediting the paranormal by any logical means possible would appear to constitute its own trauma. Early into the first episode of the series, Steven sits across from a woman as if he were her psychiatrist, listening to her as she describes how her deceased husband haunts her. Though Steven later explains the haunting away and the woman’s fondness for his work suggests she may have an ulterior motive, the terror on her face is too real for her account to be a lie. Sometimes, and this is the key to the humane nature of Flanagan’s brand of horror, people just want to belong, even if it means believing in one’s own living death.