Book and Screen: The Haunting of Hill House

“Book and Screen: The Haunting of Hill House

Bret Laurie

I was honored when Sharon asked me to guest-write for the October edition of It’s Your Turn! I wracked my spooky brain trying to pick the perfect film to cover. Then I glanced at the to-watch row on my movie shelf and spotted Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, inspired by the classic 1959 novel from Shirley Jackson.
I planned to watch the series first, then revisit the novel. I knew from chatting with horror fans that the series was very different from the novel, loosely adapting themes from Jackson’s work to tell a new story.
After my watch and re-read, I can confidently say that Flanagan honored the themes, terror, depth, and vividness portrayed in Jackson’s novel. Let’s look at what makes both versions of Hill House different and similar.

Flanagan’s Series

The series focuses on Hugh Crain, Olivia Crain, and their five children who move into Hill House. Hugh and Olivia are a remodeling team, and after their renovation is complete, they plan to leave the estate. During their stay, Olivia (played by the impeccable Carla Gugino) succumbs to madness. The spirits of Hill House use her parental fears against her, telling her that the world is an evil place, and that she must preserve her children as they are – young, carefree, and without adult worries of divorce, debt, and addiction. The spirits urge her to “wake” her family up. We can gather what this means – we see one case where Olivia is close to murdering Hugh in his sleep. By “waking up,” the spirits suggest waking the family up from the cruel “dream” of the world (the hectic 9-5 job/go home/repeat, the various duties, obligations, and constraints we place on ourselves). At Hill House, time has no meaning and isn’t linear. Why wouldn’t you stay and embrace the stillness?
Flanagan’s show itself isn’t very linear – scenes constantly transition from past to present. In present day, the five siblings are now adults (some of them highly unlikable) with lives of their own. It’s revealed that their mother mysteriously died at Hill House when they were children. The siblings all have rocky relationships with one another. You’d think a tragedy would have brought them together; but, instead, it tore them apart. (Rather, the house did.)
In both the novel and the series, Hill House is described as a living thing with a soul-hungry stomach. It “ate” Olivia and her fears; now, it eats at the siblings. All of the siblings carry trauma, while some of them have ghosts that are both real and personal. That’s one thing I love about Flanagan’s adaptation: there are spirits and it’s very much a ghost story, but personal ghosts – the ones that make you drink to numb childhood memories, or the ones that linger with you after cheating on your spouse (two examples from the show) – those are just as terrifying.
Hugh refuses to reveal what really happened to Olivia in Hill House that night. All the siblings know is that their mother took her life. One of the siblings, Nell (inspired by Eleanor from Jackson’s novel), faces the same tragic fate as her mother, and this leads the siblings and their father to return to Hill House in the final episodes.

Jackson’s Novel

Flanagan’s Nell and Jackson’s Eleanor are similar in that they are both dreamers looking for love and belonging (Flanagan’s Nell finds brief joy through marriage). Both have an almost ethereal quality. Both Eleanors lost their mother, and both suffer a tragic fate after being turned away by those they love.
I felt an overwhelming sadness reading Jackson’s Eleanor. She went through life never finding something to bring her alive – until she steps into Hill House. During her stay, she enters a dream of possibilities. It’s almost like a fairy tale. She meets three new acquaintances with whom she forms strong attachments: Dr. Montague, Luke, and Theodora. Montague is an investigator of the supernatural, and Luke, Theodora, and Eleanor are his guests. In the series, Luke and Theo are Nell’s siblings. However, in the novel, neither are related to Eleanor. Luke is the heir to Hill House and Theodora is an artist.
I couldn’t help but notice the implied romantic relationship between Theodora and Eleanor. At first, I thought I was looking into it too closely. However, later in the novel, when Eleanor insists on leaving and possibly living with Theodora after their stay in Hill House, I was convinced. Flanagan’s series takes a step beyond subtext and depicts Theo as a lesbian who is afraid of emotional intimacy. In Jackson’s novel, maybe it’s Eleanor’s wish to belong to someone – anyone – regardless of gender, status, etc. It’s sad because Hill House is ultimately the one that seems to embrace and welcome her. However, the reader knows that this is a facade.  The house has a dark history with violent deaths; its pretty wallpaper and promise of “something better” is merely an illusion.
Hill House preys upon the lonely and weary. It finds your weak points and uses them against you. In the series, Nell had the most difficulty coping with her trauma (it didn’t help that most of her siblings were dismissive). Nell’s ghosts became so real and tangible,  her ties to reality and structure/support became so weak, that Hill House was her only option. Hill House was still and standing, seemingly reliable (unlike her siblings) and waiting for her return. So, she returned in search of answers, and the house took her. Jackson’s Eleanor, feeling a closeness to Theodora and then having that ripped away from her, saw Hill House as her only option. The house fed into Eleanor’s fears of losing Theodora and of being abandoned, so she lost her grip on reality. When Dr. Montague and the others are convinced that the house has a hold on Eleanor, they exile her from the property – a sentence completely unacceptable to Eleanor. Feeling she was meant for Hill House, Eleanor takes drastic measures to tie herself to the house, with tragic consequences.
I recommend reading Jackson’s novel first before watching the show. While Jackson’s and Flanagan’s Hill Houses are two completely different and fascinating experiences, Eleanor/Nell remains at the heart of both. She is a wandering dreamer who returns to the only place that felt like home.
Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan living in Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in English at Worcester State University. Bret has six years of editing and social media marketing experience.
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Olivia and whispering spirit: from Vulture, image credited as Photo: Netflix.
Hill House Image from series: Vox, image credited as Photo: Netflix.
Cover Image from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: Cover Design- Roseanne J. Serra/ Cover Illustration – Harry Bliss; Penguin Books copyright 1984.
Advertisement for Hill House series: Photo: Netflix.
Image of Bret Laurie by artist Rama Hughes, author’s collection