The Haunting of Hill House
“Theodora may be the only queer Crain but her romantic entanglements are just as messy and realistic as those of her siblings.”
Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Creator: Mike Flanagan 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Original story by Shirley Jackson 👩🏼🇺🇸 and TV scripts by Mike Flanagan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Meredith Averill 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Jeff Howard 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various (3 ♀ and 1 ♂)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
In the lead-up to Halloween this year, The Haunting of Hill House came along like a wind tunnel and knocked me on my ass. I had no idea what to expect from the Netflix series, only that I liked spooky things and, well—‘twas the season. So why not check it out?
What I didn’t bargain for was a deeply intelligent, frightening, cinematic, and emotional journey. Having not read the original 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, I can’t say how much credit goes to showrunner Mike Flanagan or to the novelist for the intricacies of its knotted mystery. But whoever I need to thank, I will graciously clasp my hands and say thank you for these genre-defining results.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women reach parity in every way. Onscreen, episodes switch between the perspectives of different Crains, a family that consists of a mother, a father, three daughters, and two sons. Behind the scenes, 5 of the 10 teleplays are credited with women writers.
As with all the characters of the show, the women of Hill House are intensely complex. They hold multitudes; they're flawed; they're vulnerable; and they’re strong as hell, too. Episode after episode, audiences uncover the web of relationships that hold the Crains together, each tendril twisted up with love and hurt alike.
The only reason I took this category down a notch is the fact that some gender norms do sneak in. The mother Olivia (Carla Gugino), middle daughter Theodora (Kate Siegel and Mckenna Grace in flashbacks), and youngest daughter Nell (Victoria Pedretti and Violet McGraw in flashbacks) are far and away the most sensitive to the ghosts that linger around Hill House, and by proxy they become extensions of the supernatural themselves. This unknowability—and fear—of women in horror goes largely unrefuted in The Haunting of Hill House.
How much more interesting would it be to see male characters with a sixth sense for the unknown, prone to possession or empathy with ghosts? It’s perhaps this role reversal that makes longtime series The X-Files so compelling, of having Mulder play the believer while Dr. Scully grounds him. Might The Haunting of Hill House benefited from the pragmatic father in the mystical role played by the mother, or with the youngest son Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Julian Hilliard in flashbacks) as Hill House’s noble martyr instead of his twin sister, Nell?
The Crains are white and the show follows them intensely, leaving scant room for others. In this wiggle room, however, Flanagan visibly tries to be inclusive by casting recurring characters of color who appear as romantic partners, like Shirley's husband Kevin Harris, played by Anthony Ruivivar who is mixed race with some Chinese, Filipino, and Spanish heritage. Theodora meets Trish Park (Levy Tran, who is Vietnamese) at a bar and the tattooed love interest surfaces for 4 of the 10 episodes. Nell, too, brings in a character of color through the idealized beacon of light, Arthur (Jordane Christie, who is Jamaican). He appears in 3 episodes, but we only get to see him during flashbacks.
Unfortunately, Kevin, Trish, and Arthur all exhibit flat characterizations, as each person stands alone with no personal connections of their own. They exist only to serve the narratives of their respective Crain family members.
In background shots, people of color are fairly absent—something that becomes more noticeable during scenes that take place in Los Angeles, where white people make up less than a third of the population in real life.
On the flipside, the show finds roaring success through the lesbian character of Theodora—incidentally, played by Flanagan’s IRL wife, Kate Siegel. Theodora may be the only queer Crain but her romantic entanglements are just as messy and realistic as those of her siblings, comparable to the estrangement between Steven (Michiel Huisman and Paxton Singleton in flashbacks) and his wife, or the betrayals between Shirley and Kevin. Notably, her queerness is established within the first half hour the show and enjoys a lengthy, organic story arc that doesn’t conclude until some of the final scenes of the season.
Kate Gardner writes for The Mary Sue:
“Theo represents two very different things to me. One is that a queer woman such as myself can move on from trauma, and find healing…[and] the second bit of hope is that these stories can become commonplace. There is barely any fuss made in the show about Theo’s sexuality; her entire arc is based on who she is, not who she shares her heart with.”
In fact, Theodora winds up being my favorite character on the show. Even among a roster of complex characters, her depths are fathomless. Best of all, she layers it beneath an entertaining amount of snark. The fact that she helps fill a sorely missing gap in horror, of LGBTQ characters treated with respect, is just an added bonus.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.31/5
Thanks to vividly drawn members of the dysfunctional family Crain, and Flanagan’s breathtaking cinematography, The Haunting of Hill House was one of my favorite shows in 2018.
Perhaps no more indication of its quality is required beyond the way it pulled in some of my reluctant friends who normally hate scary stories. But thanks to engrossing storytelling and standout visuals, so many of us withstood terror vomits, if only to dig deeper into the labyrinthine mystery surrounding Hill House and its fascinating inhabitants.