Reports from other lands: The Haunting of Hill House

It’s November now. I can tell because our collective habit for seasonal fetishism has finally turned its firehose away from spewing tales of terror. But in looking back at the month of October, I see that I was particularly inundated with talk about Netflix’s re-imagining of an old classic: The Haunting of Hill House.

I first encountered this story by way of the 1963 movie, which was shown to us at school one day. It was a late June afternoon when I was in 7th grade and the teachers were obviously just filling the last few days before the start of summer vacation. But I wasn’t at all prepared for what I saw, and as a result, it turned out to be one of the scariest movie experiences of my life. Not only because of the film itself, but in no small part because of the “extra effort” put in by the teacher who decided to show it to us. (Thanks, Mr. McGuigan. You scarred me for life.) Anyway, with that experience still resonating 40 years later, I decided to have a look and see what Netflix has done with the material.

Sadly, I wasn’t thrilled. It was my own fault, really, and I probably should have seen it coming. I had made the mistake of expecting to see a retelling of that deliciously dread-filled story from my youth. When I was presented instead with a complete reinvention, only loosely based on the original, I couldn’t help but see it in terms of what it wasn’t, rather than what it was.

It’s a bit like going home for the holidays and finding your beloved childhood pet stuffed and mounted on the wall, but now with plastic eyes, an inexplicably twisted leg, and some other dog’s collar around its neck. It’s recognizable, but only just, and the differences diminish every facet of what the original once meant to you.

So if you were hoping to see a review of the Netflix version, sorry, I’m afraid I can’t help you. In every way that matters, I’ve never seen it. All I could see were the ghastly things mom had done to dear old Rover. And while you could make a case that this might have been an engaging horror tale in its own right, (I mean, taxidermy is inherently creepy, right?) it wasn’t one I was interested in exploring. Instead, I decided to take this as an opportunity to go back and check out the original source material, which I had never read: Shirley Jackson’s 1959 book.

I confess that I approached this with a little apprehension. After all, nothing could ever recapture the delicious frights from Mr. McGuigan in that darkened middle school gym. But his demented pranks notwithstanding, my bigger concern was that I’d have to make allowances for the enormous social chasm that lies between audiences of today and those of the more bucolic 1950s. Would a tale about something as simple as a haunted house still be able to get under my skin and make it squirm without access to the jump scares, blood squibs, and creepy music tricks that Hollywood has taught me to expect over the intervening years? Could an author from fully sixty years ago actually affect me, armed with nothing more than her dated, creepy writing?

Well, in a word, yes. Yes, she could. I am pleased to say that Jackson’s original work still holds up surprisingly well. Probably because she chose to root her work in things that don’t change: the basic human psychologies of superstition, anxiety and dread. And she deployed them with a mastery that begins right away in chapter one. To my surprise, I was actually creeped out by that house before we’d seen even the first shingle or brick of the building itself.

Jackson’s most brilliant decision, I think, was in concluding that the more she told us about the house, the more real it would become, more solid, more “out here in the real world”—a place where we know haunted houses don’t exist. What she needed was for us to stay deeply in our own heads with her imagined house—one that was free to deviate from the solid and boring familiarity of reality and be whatever she guided us into believing it to be. Because, when you think about it, we are never really frightened by what we actually see or hear. We are frightened by what we think those sensations mean. If you see a pale figure in a diaphanous gown on the side of the road at night and believe she’s an anemic teen walking home from the prom, that’s not scary. But if you believe she’s a ghost from beyond the grave, you might easily have a heart attack at the wheel. Same sensory inputs, but two totally different interpretations of what they mean, and two totally different experiences as a result.

So Jackson didn’t introduce us to the house by showing it to us; she showed us other people’s reactions to the idea of the house. And that proved to be a powerful device.

When we see people reacting to a situation, we are hard-wired to take our cues from them about what the situation means. If we hadn’t noticed the figure on the road, but had seen the driver’s face when he saw her and only then noticed her for ourselves, we would be automatically guided in our own interpretation by how we had seen him react. If he had smiled and waved, we’d expect a familiar sight and see a neighbor girl. But if he had screamed, clutched his chest, and died, we’d be looking for a thing that would invoke such a terrified reaction, and be led by that hint into seeing her as a ghost.

Jackson uses that instinct to great effect. As the book opens, we see some of her minor characters reacting with horror at the mere mention of Hill House. Even the landscape and society we’re driving through seems to become warped and sickened as we approach the place. And from cues like that, we are led immediately—and more importantly, subconsciously—to interpret the house as unbearably monstrous, even before we’ve seen the first brick.

But Jackson had more in her authorial tool box than just reflected terror and pathetic fallacy, because the story is about more than just a creepy house. It’s also about a particular set of fragile people having to experience the house, and having to do so together.

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The circumstances of these featured characters are a crucial ingredient in forming the necessary “critical mass” that makes this story so effective. It’s not just that they’re fragile, but the particulars of those fragilities interact in ways that incite reactions between and among them, so that each one amplifies the others in a ping-ponging chain reaction that ratchets up their collective paranoia as events unfold. And we, hapless observers that we are, have no choice but to ping-pong along with them.

The result is a disturbing experience. Perhaps made a bit lighter by the old-fashioned character tropes, but still enjoyable and satisfyingly creepy. The only caveat I will offer is that, because the experience relies on its slow buildup and the sustained reverberations of one reaction leading into the next, it’s probably best experienced if you can read it one sitting. It’s only 150 pages, so that’s not too big a stretch. Just find yourself a warm dark room, open a bottle of wine, and let Shirley Jackson take you on her little journey.

You won’t be disappointed.

PS: If you do try it, please let me know what you thought. I’m fascinated to see if you’ll have the same experience I had.

After all, you never had a Mr. McGuigan.

When memory fails

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.