Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House
Season 1, Episode 1: “Steven Sees a Ghost”
Directed & Written
by Mike Flanagan
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Open Casket” – click here
Hill House holds “darkness within” for anybody who walks through its doors. We start with the Crain family. The kids all took care of each other. Young Steven (Paxton Singleton) rushed in to find Little Eleanor ‘Nell’ (Violet McGraw) scared of someone she calls “the Bent–Neck Lady,” who she kept on seeing. Their father Hugh (Henry Thomas) came in and consoled the girl, telling her dreams “can spill out” into the waking world. He said once he and their mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) fixed up the house, they’d move on. In another room, Shirley (Lulu Wilson) was talking in her sleep again.
But something’s lurking in that house, all around the Crains.
We see a woman named Irene (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) talk to paranormal investigator/writer Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman), all grown up, about her husband Carl’s death during a bad storm. He wound up hanging from his car off a bridge. The night following his death, Irene started experiencing strange phenomena, from “rain drops” on her face and the sound of a car horn in the distance. After that she saw him hanging from the ceiling in horrific detail. Steven wants to stay in the room where she saw him. He’s “never seen a ghost,” he only helps give voice to the stories of others. He never even saw anything at Hill House. Father Gore bets he’s going to see something sooner than later. Will he wind up going back to his childhood home?
Well, Steven might not have seen anything at Hill House, that doesn’t mean the same goes for sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti), whose time there was fraught with ghostly experiences of all kinds. She’s troubled to this day by her brush with the paranormal. Then there’s Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), who grew up to become part of the death industry, working as a funeral director alongside Kevin Harris (Anthony Ruivivar). She’s a go-to for Nell when she’s in distress, fielding frantic calls from her while trying to work. We further hear about Luke’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) addiction issues, recently receiving his “90–day chip.” So, the whole family has been affected, one way or another.
In a club, Theodora (Kate Siegel) dances with a woman, then they go back home for some post-dancing sex. Her booty call is surprised to find she lives in a funeral home. Apparently Theo is a “bit of a germaphobe,” except that wouldn’t make much sense given they just shagged. There’s certainly more to her. Shirley is letting her stay there. We hear more of the family problems, such as a distance between Theo and Nell. The Crains have many wounds.
What about Papa Crain? Hugh (Timothy Hutton) has his own ghosts. His wife is no longer around, though he sees her at night and talks to her like she’s there in the room. If you know the original Shirley Jackson material, you know the tortured story of Hugh, so here we’re seeing a different version. He gets a call from Nell. She brings up the Bent-Neck Lady, telling her father: “She‘s back.” She lies, saying she’s at home, when she’s right outside Hill House.
Jump back to a younger Hugh rushing to Steven’s room closing the door. Someone outside was trying to open it. The boy was terrified, and dad said they had to make a run for it. Hugh told his boy to keep his eyes closed no matter what, then he picked him up and they fled the room. At the car, dad gathered the kids, and they left together— no mom. The kids wondered why she wasn’t there, seeing her inside at the window. Their father only told them “that‘s not mom.” In present day, Steven and Hugh are divided because of what occurred, the boy unable to forgive his dad for leaving his mother behind.
“Once we understood what it was, well, it was just natural.”
While Steven is looking into a supposed haunting, Nell is back at Hill House, twirling around the interior as if in the arms of a ghostly figure. They dance through the decaying mansion together. What a haunting moment.
Not as haunting as the rest of the Crain children waking up at the same time in their respective rooms. They all choke a little, like a hand’s around their throat. Shirley whispers: “Nelly‘s in the Red Room.” Something keeps them all connected, no matter how far apart they are in actual distance. And after feeling this connection, Steven starts to feel the drip of the water in Irene’s room. He assumes it’s the ceiling leaking. There’s a nearby intersection, too, and he believes that + the leak are responsible for Irene’s false ghost experiences. Yet it isn’t relief for her. She saw her husband hanging from the ceiling, and that isn’t as explainable.
Jump back to when Steven was writing The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley saw it as him having “raped the family.” She believed it was a tabloid piece of writing, not an actual investigation. Steven sold out the family, disrespecting not only their mother but the rest of his siblings. He’s doing the same to the families of others today, using their stories to make a dollar. He remembers seeing the aftermath of Hill House, a time during which Hugh was labelled crazy in the press for believing the place was haunted. Hugh wouldn’t sell the place, despite his wife dying there. He wanted caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Robert Longstreet & Annabeth Gish) to remain there and the house to stay empty— so no one else suffered the same fate.
We see young Steven and young Luke (Julian Hilliard), the latter definitely seeing ghosts, drawing them in his pictures. The older brother said he used to have “imaginary friends,” but the younger one claimed his friends aren’t imaginary. In present day, Luke hasn’t been able to let go of what he saw, and to others it appears like he’s just another addict. He steals from his own brother to afford what he needs, and Michael keeps on looking after him whenever possible.
In his apartment, Michael finds Nell waiting in the dark. At the same time, he gets a call from his father, who says he found Nell at Hill House… and she’s dead. Fucked up way for Steven to see his first ghost, no? Her screaming face resembles the drawing Luke made when he was young, too.
This initial episode is incredible! Flanagan has taken Shirley Jackson’s book and used it to present a human exploration of how ghosts/the supernatural affects the living. We get all the spooky horror and the creeping terror of a tension-filled, dark atmosphere, along with an interesting exploration of humanistic themes.
“Open Casket” is next.