In 1959, Shirley Jackson published the horror classic The Haunting of Hill House, which was adapted as a 10-episode miniseries just over a year ago. Kirkus’ reviewer called the novel a “tantalizing, suggestive reconnaissance” and noted that “Shirley Jackson’s special following will find pause to wonder and admire.” One would think that Mike Flanagan, the director and co-writer of the miniseries, would be a member of that “special following.” He’s made a career of making films about spectral entities, after all—including the brilliant Oculus (2013), featuring a mirror possessed by an evil force; and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), in which a 9-year-old girl inadvertently summons a malevolent entity. But if Flanagan is a fan of Jackson’s, he didn’t show it by faithfully adapting her book.
In the novel, Dr. John Montague, a writer researching supernatural phenomena, invites two young women, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, to inhabit the titular, isolated house with him, along with Luke Sanderson, a dissolute member of the family who owns it. Both women appear to have had paranormal experiences in their pasts, and Montague hopes they’ll do so at Hill House, where a terrible tragedy occurred many years ago. Soon, the visitors experience progressively odd and unnerving things, including patches of bitter cold, unexplained noises, and mysterious, scrawled messages—and something seems to have a particular interest in Eleanor.
The miniseries does something very different with this raw material, to say the least. This is not to say that a film or TV adaptation must slavishly stick to its source; there are many that vastly improved upon it by going their own way. (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, adapted from Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, leaps to mind.) But Jackson’s novel is widely seen as a watershed of the horror genre, so it seems particularly odd that Flanagan tosses so much of it aside.
There are characters named Luke, Theodora, and Eleanor, but in the miniseries, they’re all members of the same family (along with another brother, the Montague-esque Steven, and another sister, unsubtly named Shirley). They all move into the place in the 1990s; father Hugh and mother Olivia intend to quickly refurbish and resell it. But the family’s terrifying experiences there—gradually revealed over the course of the series—irrevocably scar the kids, who grow into troubled adults. In a parallel narrative, set in the present day, the miniseries follows Steven, who wrote a book to capitalize on Hill House’s grim notoriety; Luke, a drug addict and thief; Theodora, a child psychologist who can sense information about people and things by touching them; Shirley, an undertaker; and Eleanor, a young widow who struggles with severe anxiety, sleep paralysis—and ghostly visions. Each of the siblings and their father eventually revisit Hill House to confront the terrors of their pasts.
The book and TV series share a few elements, here and there. The house’s caretakers are named Dudley in both versions, for instance; there’s ghostly pounding on the walls, and a line about “fear and guilt” being “sisters,” among other familiar bits. But Flanagan clearly had his own ghost story to tell, and he revisits his earlier films as he tells it; Oculus, too, was about adults reckoning with paranormal traumas of their youth. He also seems to have been profoundly influenced by another New England author: Stephen King. One doesn’t have to listen very hard to hear echoes of It, and, in Theodora’s storyline, The Dead Zone. (It’s not surprising that Flanagan directed an adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game for Netflix two years ago, or that he directed the upcoming movie version of Doctor Sleep.)
Flanagan’s Haunting has a lot to recommend it. He juggles the past and present narratives with dazzling dexterity, as he did in Oculus, and he conjures a feeling of dread that never, ever lets up. The performances are also uniformly excellent, with newcomer Victoria Pedretti, as the adult Eleanor, as a standout. But viewers expecting the witty dialogue and subtler dread of Jackson’s original work (as when Eleanor thinks, “It’s like waiting in a dentist’s office…and listening to other patients make brave jokes across the room, all of you certain to meet the dentist sooner or later”) won’t find it on Netflix.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.