The Haunting of Hill House creator talks putting his own stamp on a ghostly classic
If you want to get a jump start on your Halloween scares, Netflix is debuting its new horror series The Haunting of Hill House today.
This new take on Shirley Jackson’s classic novel (previously adapted for film in 1963 and 1999) finds a group of estranged adult siblings — played by Elizabeth Reaser, Michiel Huisman, Kate Siegel, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Victoria Pedretti — dealing with ghosts that have been haunting them since they lived in the titular house as children. “The house represents the past, and we can’t escape it,” says Reaser. “The house is inside of us all now, in a way.”
The series jumps back and forth in time, with the story being told in present day as well as through flashbacks to the family’s disturbing time at Hill House. (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino play the parents in the flashbacks.)
Created for TV and directed by Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game, Oculus), Hill House operates like a dysfunctional family drama with supernatural scares (think Bloodline meets Poltergeist). EW talked to Flanagan, who’s currently shooting The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, about crafting his latest ghost story.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Shirley Jackson’s book has been adapted twice before. What made you want to put your stamp on it?
MIKE FLANAGAN: First, I don’t think anyone could top Robert Wise’s adaptation from ’63. The material has already been adapted to near perfection, so I didn’t have any appetite to even try to improve on that. It was more about having a chance to riff on the characters, themes, and nuances of the novel. The book itself has always been something I revere. It has shaped and influenced me profoundly, as it also shaped and influenced some of my other heroes — Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Richard Matheson. Hill House is the most iconic haunted house in literature, so of course the opportunity to spend some time there was irresistible. There seemed to be a real chance to explore the things I loved so much about the book from a different perspective and employ some of the lessons that Wise’s adaptation demonstrated without retreading. Those themes of paranoia, freedom and confinement, the fragility of self, the ambiguity of the supernatural… those were all elements of the source material that I wanted to take a stab at. I just felt strongly that I needed to approach it from a different angle entirely. I was never going to be possible to improve on Shirley Jackson, or Robert Wise for that matter.
You’ve made a career out of making ghost stories. What draws you to these tales?
I think I’m drawn to it because being haunted is one of the most universal experiences we share. Everyone is haunted by something. I find myself drawn to human stories, often stories of family, because the ghosts we get to explore really are extensions of very relatable relationships and dynamics in our lives. The horror genre is a fantastic thing because it is a mirror for us. It is rich with metaphorical opportunities. We use the horror genre to explore some of the darkest, saddest, most uncomfortable things about being human, but we get to do it in the safe space that the genre provides. A ghost can be a lot of things: memories, guilt, regrets, trauma, loss. That is the thesis of this show, if I’m honest. We all have our ghosts to contend with, and that contention is where we learn the most about ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Ghosts are just reflections, and I find that fascinating.
The house is such a major presence in this story. What were your inspirations in its design?
We took a lot from the novel itself, and from Wise’s film. But we also wanted to bring an additional degree of schizophrenia to the design. Because we experience it through so many perspectives, it was fun to also consider that a house is a reflection of its builders, and this house in particular would reflect a relatable amount of insanity. We wanted it to run the gamut and be full of contradictions — it had to be creepy, but it had to be beautiful. For all of its darkness and shadows, it had to also feature color and light in ways that would explain the appeal of the home. If a house is shaped by the people inside, ours would reflect the complexities and contradictions of the Crain family, for better or worse. It was also important to us that the house exist somewhat out of time. It is a timeless icon, after all, and we liked that a casual glance at its exterior could appear both welcoming and Victorian, or foreboding and medieval, depending on the angle of approach. We didn’t want the house to seem to fit into any particular era, or style. It was a collection of various pasts, both inside and out.
The initial episodes each focus on a different family member. Will that structure continue moving forward?
It absolutely will. Each character has their episode, and things really get interesting later in the season when we finally get to focus on Olivia [Gugino] and Hugh [Thomas in past, Timothy Hutton in present day]. That structure was one of the things I found most exciting about the project. We’d get to know these siblings and parents on their own terms. They had their own experiences, vastly different from each other, but no one really had the whole picture of what happened to their family. Everyone only has a piece.
There are episodes later that finally bring all of these characters and pieces together, and they’re some of my favorites. By then, the viewer hopefully brings context and understanding about each individual with them… sometimes more than the other characters possess at the time. It felt so authentically familial that way — that we live certain lives away from our families, and that makes the dynamic so fascinating when we are finally all together again in the same room, which tends to happen at some of the most traumatic and emotional moments of our lives. A family is an interconnected unit for so long, but then it is scattered — that’s unavoidable — often to be brought back together by moments of intense celebration or intense tragedy. People treat each other in fascinating ways; we behave differently. But we can only approach our own family through our limited understanding of it, just our own little corner of the family’s story. Sometimes we seem to revert right back into the dynamics of our childhood, and that’s so much fun to play with in a story like this.
Something very bad happened on the family’s last night in Hill House. Will we learn what happened at the very end of the series, or will it be unveiled sooner?
There are pieces of information about what happened that night throughout the season. Everyone has a piece of the truth, some more complete than others, but no one sees the whole picture. We won’t really see what happened until we get to Olivia’s episode, toward the end of the season. She might be the only member of the family who can truly understand the events of that night.
The early episodes only show the house in flashbacks. Will the family all return to the house in present day?
Of course, it is definitely all leading up to that. More than anything, this is a show about confronting the past, and for these characters the only way to do that is to return to the house. But the big question is whether all of them will come out.
Is this something you see going multiple seasons with the same characters? Or is this a finite story?
I’ve tried hard to focus on getting through these 10 hours — that was my priority. We set out to tell the story of the Crain family, and I think we did that. But, as Steven says in the show, this is ultimately about haunted houses and haunted people. Fortunately for us, there’s no shortage of either.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018 TV series)