As an aficionado and someone who has written in the horror genre, I can safely say that nothing much there affects me any more. Jump scares, gore, the shock twist, the unreliable narrator, I hae become inured to it all, which is why my relationship with horror over the years has become one of perfunctory intellectualization, “they did this well” or “aah that was a clever take on an old trope”, rather than of visceral reaction.
Till I saw “Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix.
This is pretty much as perfect as horror can get, one that left me feeling uneasy days and now weeks after I watched it.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you do it. Now. Then come back and read this piece.
Because I am going spoiler-heavy. I have to. Because I want to deconstruct exactly I found Haunting of Hill House so terrifying.
No it’s not so much the Bent Necked Lady or the other ghouls and apparitions that walk not-so-silently in the shadows of Hill House or the way the narrative plays with time, because that part falls within the well-established tropes of the haunted house genre, not that they are not well-executed, they definitely are, but there is little there that latches on to the well-worn genre warrior.
It is the house that gets to me, or rather what the house says about the world we live in.
The House in the Haunting of Hill House is a breathing, if not living, monster that sustains itself by consuming the essence of those who dwell in it. Just like insect-eating plants immobilize their prey while they feast on it, the House keeps its prey stationary by giving it a safe place. That is the “Red Room”, which as we discover in the climax, is not “a room” but a role,every member of the Crain family has its own Red room, their own safe place, which though is nothing but an illusion to keep them anchored physically to a place the monster controls. The apparitions are also tools the House uses to consume its prey, one of them convinces the mother, Olivia Crane, to kill her twins, after showing her visions of their terrible future, a life of loss and addiction and betrayal, and if life outside the house will bring such pain, wouldn’t it better for the mother to ensure they never leave the house, and then for her to kill herself, so she can always be there for them? Then the House manages to save itself from being burned down by first creating the events that lead to the caretaker’s daughter to lose her life, and then offering her grief-striken parents the opportunity to see her ghost in exchange for them becoming the house’s protectors.
Which brings me to the real terror of the Haunting of Hill House, that being that the House is a metaphor for the world we live in. There is no safe space, no place in time and space called home, and what we think is safety is merely stasis induced by the world we live in so that it may consume our lives. Our hopes and dreams are mere chimeras, designed to make us act in the way that suits the world, and its power of its evil is inexorable and we can do nothing but give in, which is what the father does at the end. After a lifetime of struggling with the house, he finally surrenders, trading his death for the reprieve of his family, knowing well that the world will have them some day for its food, just not now, for it has been fed by his own death, gently embracing the comfort that he is now reunited with his dead wife and daughter. It is not a coincidence that of all the brothers and sisters, the dead daughter is the noblest and the most haunted (at one place, it is mentioned that he was the only child who prayed that her other siblings get gifts from Santa but she never ever asked one for herself), for the world eats up the best first, (it is not a coincidence that the selfish and self-absorbed elder brother comes out with the least amount of scars) and for those who have read the Mine you would know that one of its premises was that, and that evil is not in the shadows, but in the light, in the very nature of existence.
But what really got to me, as a parent, was the desperation of parents to protect their children from the evils of the House. While the mother tries to save her children, and by doing so, plunges them into greater peril, because that is what the House wants them to do, the father stands back, realizing that he cannot save his children from what shall come to pass, and that the small little joys they will get from time to time is the only relief from the inevitable darkness of the destination.
This hits home. As I see my daughter, now rapidly approaching six, coming home and telling us about the girl who constantly behaves rudely with her or cliques forming and of being left out, I know as a father, that she will, as I have done, face betrayal, loss of friends, the dashing of dreams, because that is the way of the world, and I cannot do anything to protect her from that which is to come, no matter how much I want to. All that I can do, like the father in the story, is to take the blows so that I can buy her time and some comfort, because in the end, the House always wins. That is all.