Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Haunting Of Hill House

I’m dusting off my Entertainment Reviews for a look at critically acclaimed show released on Netflix just in time for Halloween: The Haunting of Hill House, based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. My reviews usually focus on worldview messages and themes; this will be no exception except for noting that it deserves its TV-MA rating, mostly for language and horror elements.

When I used to watch and read a lot of horror (that's a long story for another time), one thing became clear: there is a huge difference between a story that bathes you in blood or offers a nihilistic punch in the gut vs. a story that uses horror elements to tell genuinely thought-provoking stories about the world. I would have bailed on Hill House if it were one of the former. It's not. I'm not saying the show is perfect - as a Christian, I would have done some things differently if I were directing the series. Some elements could have been toned down without losing the impact of the story. But as far as using the horror genre as a vehicle for discussing something much deeper, The Haunting Of Hill House succeeds admirably in comparison with many of its horror peers.


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The Haunting of Hill House is partly, of course, supernatural. This is hardly a spoiler (though there is plenty of room to wonder how much is real and how much is imagined). There is, however, no dabbling in the occult. The house just is; the ghosts just are. No one conjures or exorcises anything. We don't know why the ghosts of the departed dead linger in a house made to both conceal and reveal them. Though they are at times shocking and malevolent, one eventually gets the impression that many if not most of them are not so much angry as hungry, a characteristic specifically given to the house by one of the family members.

This hunger is insatiable, the relentless and remorseless hunger of a zombie (as embodied in at least one scene). Like all evil, the house is an aching void, and like all evil, it takes what it wants with no thought but for itself. One is not sure why the ghosts remain, but the common denominator in the ones we get to know is that they are stuck in the past. They can't let go, and their bitterness and anger permeates the house.

This hunger seeps into the family from the beginning. The Dad is hungry for money (which is why he doesn’t leave the house when his kids are terrified and his wife is mentally imploding); the Mom is hungry for a 'forever house' for the family, even if her idea of how to make that happen is pretty disturbing. It seems that Hill House specializes in replicating its hunger, and its insidious legacy begins to have an immediate impact on this particular family. 

This leads me to the second kind of haunting: the legacy of trauma. Like The Babadook, this is a parable about things that happen in our family of origin. The house gives great imagery for all kinds of relational and psychological subplots among the family. 

The kids, as much as they try to put their past behind them, all grow up with that Hill House hunger. Their ways of filling themselves, while not loaded with jump scares, it almost as disturbing. One tries to fill the void with alcohol and disposable lovers; another tries drugs; another fame; another control. They, too, leave a trail of broken people in their wake. The bitter, angry ghosts can't let go of the past.  Um, #thekidstoo. When we join the adult children in media res, they are so mired in the sins and offenses of their past they can barely stand each other in the present. 

Hill House literally has hidden rooms and closets full of secrets; it’s got nothing on the children who survived. The lies, the deception, the avoidance expressed in self-righteous judgment, the walls of anger and cynicism, the closets full of hidden sins, the fear, the bitterness. Oh, dear God, the bitterness. It’s horrifying for a child to see the Bent Neck Lady; it’s also horrifying for a father to hear from a son that “the wrong parent died.”

The good news is that most of the kids escape the haunting and destructive control of the house. It’s not easy, and it's messy and imperfect, but they do find a measure of freedom. As one daughter says to her husband as she begins to be honest about the ghosts in her own life, “I need you to love me hard for the next few minutes.” He's a good man, and as her confession unravels he settles into a hard love that will be more costly but far more beautiful than any love they have had before.  

The ending is not entirely happy for everyone, but it shouldn’t be. Wounds leave scars. We can remodel the interior of our lives all we want, but we know where the stains linger. The goal isn't to forget we have them; the goal is to be at peace with them. Our history is not our destiny, but we can't tell our story without it. 

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I've discovered there are a lot shows that I can watch with relative detachment. Not so with Hill House, and I don't mean because of the horror (I looked away a lot; I don't enjoy being scared. I have no problem fast forwarding scenes I suspect will unsettle me). As the show unfolded, I found it that that the narrative and the characters lingered with me. I had to stop myself from yelling at the screen: "Just shut up and listen to her!" "You are talking past each other!" "Ah! Get over it!" "How do you not see how lonely she is!" "Um, do you not see that what they are accepting as normal is NOT NORMAL?" "Will you all stop hiding from each other!"

I’m not gonna lie - the screen got really blurry a couple times in the final episode. I'm a sucker for a poignant father/son story, and man, this one got me good. I'm also a sucker for a story that lets a married couple make the hard work of showing hard love to hard people look compelling. Got me again.

Don't misunderstand: It’s not a story that ended in a way that neatly intersected with my Christian view concerning righteousness in this life and hope in the next. It did, however, reminded me how God's common graces shine hopeful light into even the most haunted corners of all our lives.

And in a Halloween season that celebrates the darkness, surely that is a contribution to our cultural stories that is worth something.

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