Even in an era of inventive horror filmmaking, The Haunting of Hill House feels like an evolutionary step: The Netflix series successfully transfers the cramped, small-scale terror of low-budget feature film horror to the world of long-form, serialized television, making it the perfect Halloween binge-watch. And it does this by subtly shifting the focus from ghosts and gross-outs to television's most essential subject: the ordinary American family.
Big screen horror tends to trade in shock and gore, jump-scares and screams of fear. They are visual, visceral experiences, designed to be shown in theaters to audiences who are stuck there for the duration. The best examples of the form—movies like Get Out, John Carpenter's The Thing, the original Alien, or this year's A Quiet Place—tend to be high-concept exercises in rapidly escalating suspense. They might trade in clever surprises or imaginative gore, but the real goal is to ratchet up the tension for a couple of hours until it's totally unbearable.
The compressed time frame, meanwhile, means that even when the characters are well-drawn and tightly linked, the focus is on the way the characters relate to the Scary Thing—the monster, the ghost, the demon, the masked killer, whatever—more than on the way the characters relate to each other. In big screen horror, in some sense, it's always every man or woman for him or herself.
This presents a problem for television. It would be almost impossible to sustain that sort of escalating tension over the length of an entire season of televison. Even if it were technically possible, what's thrilling for 100 minutes would be exhausting over 10 hours.
Because of its length, TV drama is frequently focused on the web of relationships between the cast of characters who (if the show is successful) have to coexist for a very long time. Which is why, from Dick Van Dyke to the Keatons to the Sopranos, it has always returned to family life—or makeshift variations on it, like the workplace—for material. With a TV show, you're not stuck in a theater, but if you keep watching, you are stuck with the characters, in some cases for dozens or even hundreds of hours, spread over stretches of years. So television tends to focus on groups of people who are also stuck with each other, like it or not, making viewers part of the family. And no group of people is more bound together than a family.
The Haunting of Hill House solves this problem by putting family first. That family is the Crains: a mother, father, and five children who move into an old mansion which—spoiler—turns out to be haunted. Like Lost, each episode focuses on a single character, and the story plays out via a split timeline, one in which the adult Crain children and their father must reckon with their pasts, the other in which the parents and their young children are living in the house and experiencing its phantoms for the first time.
Hill House is in some ways the show's monster, or the Scary Thing that drives the story. But in many ways it's just a platform for the family members to work out their issues, a dark and looming physical metaphor for their damaged psyches. The adults, it turns out, all have ordinary adult problems—with marriages, children, lovers, finances, addiction, emotional stability and availability—and, naturally, dysfunctional relationships with their siblings and parents. Yes, they all once lived in a house filled with ghosts, but what really haunts them are their own pasts, and each other.
The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a richly layered domestic drama carefully disguised as a gross-out ghost story. This is not to say it's not conventionally frightening: The show conjures up some of the most memorably surreal imagery I've seen this side of David Lynch. Several of the house's apparitions are genuinely terrifying. And although director and series creator Mike Flanagan goes easy on the surprise!-a-loud-noise! jump scares that have become a lazy substitute for real frights in too many modern horror films, he does employ a few, especially in the final episodes, and their rarity makes them far more effective. Flanagan earns the right to jolt you out of your seat.
Mostly, the show is an effective exercise in terror, true terror, the kind that Stephen King, in his taxonomy of scares, defined as the worst sort — "when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there." Ghosts hide in the background of shots, sometimes only barely visible, and dead family members appear and disappear in ways that are unsettlingly ordinary. Many of the show's most terrifying moments are driven by the sense that something is just a little bit off.
Indeed, more than any movie or TV show I can think of, The Haunting of Hill House feels like a Stephen King novel come to life. Although it is very loosely based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, it bears all the hallmarks of King's best work: The show's supernatural scares are thoroughly grounded in mundane domestic concerns and relatable everyman characters. Even when the frights begin to extend into something more like dream logic, it never seems to stray more than a half-step from recognizable reality.
Too many contemporary horror movies implicitly break the fourth wall: They seem designed to scare you, because they are playing directly to the viewer. Hill House, in contrast, is a well-told story about ordinary people who become deeply afraid; the idea is for you to become afraid along with them. Rather than cheap jolts, its horror is the product of an empathetic bond between viewer and character.
Occasionally, the decision to forefront characters and feelings lends itself to both slowness and sentimentality. The first few episodes of the season run slow; several scenes, and the epilogue in particular, veer perilously close to sappy. But Flanagan and his team of writers deal with the family dynamics so deftly that it's easy to forgive these small flaws.
It is probably no accident that a show as groundbreaking as The Haunting of Hill House appeared on Netflix. The company's massive original content budget and throw-stuff-against-the-wall approach allows for more experimentation than on a traditional cable network. That doesn't always pay off: Two recent Netflix original films, Jeremy Saulnier's snowy killer-thriller, Hold the Dark, and Gareth Evans' gothic island horror, The Apostle, never quite figured what they wanted to be, despite talented directors.
But Flanagan never wavers. He has figured out how to take the tropes of modern movie horror and deliver them at a streaming-era pace and length by melding horror fundamentals with TV-friendly familial fears that nearly everyone can relate to: The Haunting of Hill House works both as horror and as bingeable serial drama because it starts from the presumption that everyday life can be as scary as any movie monster. True horror starts at home.