One of the biggest challenges to modern horror films is the streamlining in suburban décor that has taken place in the new millennium. In retrospect, suburban décor peaked in the 1990s, when the accumulated styles of the post-war period were condensed and refined by baby boomers who had achieved financial security, and were keen to claim the last decade of the twentieth century of their own. Recently, I saw a before-and-after picture of the Home Alone house, located in Winnetka, Illinois, which compared how the house looked while the film was shot, and how it looks in the present moment. The difference spoke eloquently to the way in which the very idea of interior design has been denuded in the digital world. Whereas the 90s version of the house was replete with decorative surfaces, intricate palettes and a plethora of well-placed objets d’art, the new version was all clean surfaces, clear lines and white voids. In a world where digital space has done so much to remove the importance of physical space, interior design often seems like an anachronism, or even an embarrassment, a throwback to an earlier time, inclining designers to interiors that instead draw on the cool, luminous, vacant spaces and interfaces of digital media itself.
In other words, modern American suburbia often plays out in an exercise in repressed décor, or depressed décor, presenting us with spaces struggling to subsume the extravagant interiors that once played out across and within them. These spaces are devoid of most of the thresholds and interstices that once made suburban horror so powerful, and have been part of the motor engine driving the shift in horror from suburban to digital spaces. Nevertheless, it is within these sensorily deprived and restricted domestic spaces that Mike Flanagan’s horror career has evolved, taking us through one house after another whose fixtures and interiority has been denuded or flattened in some way. In Oculus, he presents a house that is more or less reduced to one domestic object, in Hush he presents us with a home invasion told from the perspective of a deaf-mute protagonist, and in Gerald’s Game he presents us with a character who spends most of the script handcuffed to a double bed.
All of these films play out against the cool, clean, sterile spaces of modern American suburbia, unfolding a series of anti-interiors that loom with the more extravagant mise-en-scenes that they once harboured. In all of these films, too, that sensory deprivation enables a heightened sensory awareness of threatening forces, which are alternatively associated with the décor that these spaces once contained, and the digital spaces that they are trying to emulate. You might say that Flanagan’s films present suburban spaces that draw on digital culture, only for their own physicality to return in a repressed and uncanny way. In the process, Flanagan translates the glitches that make digital horror so eerie to a domestic canvas, and into a relatively classical film style, making for a body of work that initially looks quite traditional, but becomes increasingly uncanny and unsettling with each fresh addition.
In that sense, The Haunting of Hill House both recapitulates the momentum of Flanagan’s career and takes it in a new and intensified direction. As the title suggests, this is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, released in 1959, and the first part of a broader franchise entitled The Haunting, in which Flanagan will adapt classic works of Gothic fiction for Netflix (the next, entitled, The Haunting of Bly Manor, will be an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw). There has already been two adaptation of Jackson’s novel – The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, released in 1953, and then a film also entitled The Haunting, directed by Jan de Bont, released in 1999. Both of these films follow Jackson’s novel fairly closely, which revolves around a collection of characters who move into a haunted house, and are progressively unsettled and disturbed by its supernatural qualities.
Flanagan’s adaptation takes a very different approach, in two different ways. First, he expands the number of people who are living in the house, presenting us with Hugh Crain and Olivia Crain, a pair of fixer-uppers who move into Hill House, a massive edifice in rural Massachusetts, with their children Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell. Second, Flanagan shifts between the past and the present, alternating between the late 1970s, when the family move into the house, and the contemporary world, where they are all trying to come to terms with what occurred there. All we learn, in the first couple of episodes, is that Steven and the children left the house abruptly one night, after some unusual behavior from their mother, Olivia, gave him concern to flee. When he and police returned to the house, Olivia was dead, and the children were sent to live with their aunt. Only the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, played by Annabeth Gish and Robert Longstreet, remained in the house, while the children were never given any answers about what happened on that fateful night, nor how it related to their own supernatural experiences within the house. Worse still, some of them continued to experience supernatural happenings right into the present.
Over the first couple of episodes, Flanagan moves between Hugh, Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell in the past and present, where they are respectively played by Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton, Paxton Singleton and Michiel Huisman, Lulu Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser, McKenna Grace and Kate Siegel, Julian Hiliard and Olivia Jackson-Cohen, and Violet McGraw and Victoria Pederetti, with only Carla Gugino playing Olivia in both parts of the series. While these characters help contour the distinction past and present, the most striking contrast is between the hyperactive décor of Hill House and the empty suburban spaces of the contemporary world, where the children have dispersed. The family trauma, and the flight of the the family, occurs right in the midst of their renovation of Hill House, which remains poised in this same state of flamboyant desuetude right into the present day.
By contrast, the rest of the story takes place against luminous voids, empty rooms and sterile domestic scenes, all of which converge on Shirley’s massive home, which is perched above the morgue where she works as a moritifican. While very little of the film takes place on or around digital devices, all these spaces feel bathed in the light of digital devices, generating the kinds of subliminal images that only emerge after sustained periods of silence and emptiness, or when the visual field is as contained and restricted as it often appears to be in a digital world. Some of these houses have been inhabited for years, but it never feels as if the characters have truly moved in, or are even capable of moving in, as every suburban space exudes a profound indifference to the human narratives playing out amidst its coordinates. Although the action shifts around a bit, moving between Massachusetts and California, there’s very little sense of regional texture, or any real difference between one place and the next, while every relationship outside the family is muted, muffled and subsumed until the family all feel like ghosts haunting their own homes.
That contrast between a textured past and a muted present reminded me of Twin Peaks: The Return, so it feels appropriate that Russ Tamblyn turns up, in an eerie echo of Dr. Jacoby, as the psychiatrist who sets the second half of the series in motion. After the first five episodes, which each focus on a different child, the family all come together for a tragedy that unites them for the first time in years at Shirley’s funeral parlour. This produces possibly the strongest episode of the series – the sixth episode – which appears to take place as a single shot, segueing us in and out of the funeral parlour and Hill House on the “final night” as the characters all start to come to terms with the events that are haunting them. During this episode, in particular, Flanagan’s luminous style keeps the background open – or opens the background – in a really remarkable way, generating a sequence of sublimimal images, or subliminal absences, that are scarier than anything else in his career.
Back in the past, the supernatural sequences tend to constellate around the most flamboyant connective and communicative tissue within Hill House, including a dumb waiter, an old-fashioned telephonic device, and the Red Room that exists at the very epicentre of the house, but is locked and impossible to enter. In the process, the fixtures of the house, and the specificities of each space, turn into the most unsettling facet of the series, rendering it doubly unsettling when they appear to be simply absent from the cool, sleek spaces of the present. One of the twists is that the Red Room turns out to be a space that the family all inhabited without knowing it – one experienced it as a dance studio, another as a treehouse, another as a reading room – and that same eerie twist percolates into the present, where the characters often appear to be moving in a space that is far more complicated and reticulated than the streamlined digital luminosity that confronts them. It is as if the false transparency of the digital world had been transplanted onto a suburban environment, producing a denuded lifeworld that flickers with the décor buried beneath it.
Once again, this keeps the background open as a space of horror for a remarkably long time, especially as the characters start to revisit their memories of Hill House. While many of them recall the same events, it turns out that they recall different features and fixtures in the background. Conversely, the background that they took for granted as a shared experience is thrown into uncertainty, making it harder and harder for the viewer to take the background for granted either. Beyond a certain point, the background starts to feel terrifying in and of itself, even or especially when it is totally vacant, since that’s when it seems most possible that a character is experiencing a different sceme from the camera, and that a submerged scenario is playing out on what appears to be a blank canvas. By the last couple of episodes, no background space feels totally empty, while even the most cluttered of background spaces – usually in the past – brim with an incipient vacancy, a sense that their fixtures and features are destined to be papered over by a post-décor future, albeit one that will throw their quiet places and dark spots into even greater relief.
That process peaks with Hugh’s discovery of the maps that Olivia has been drawing of the house. For much of the series, the couple are unable to find two consistent floor plans of the house, or one clear account of all the interstitial and connective spaces that it contains. Finally, Olivia tries to converge all the maps they possess into one clearly articulated space, in a kind of precursor to the transparency and luminosity of domestic space in the present. At the very moment at which she does so, however, her possession by the house starts to spiral out of control, as if the very process of streamlining the house were what most enraged it. As a result, her streamlined map of the house suggests an even more unfathomable and fractalated underlying topography, expressed as a series of occult symbols that radiate across the drawing, somehow both above and below the floor plan itself. In this moment, Flanagan presents the return of physical space, or even the vengeance of physical space, as a supernatural event, as Hill House asserts its variegated topography against a future that has already started to insist that its spatial oddities and vagaries never existed.
In that sense, Hill House affirms Jackson’s famous opening observation that “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” The more that Hugh and Olivia try to impose an absolute reality on the house, and to anticipate the absolute transparency of contemporary décor, the more the house kicks back and turns insane. In the process, physical and paranormal trauma become indiscernible, as Flanagan, like Jackson, tells a tale that is literally about domestic abuse, since it’s never clear whether it is the parents or the house who are the main culprits. While the series insists on the importance of believing survivors, it also presents survival as such an incomplete and ongoing venture that the message becomes one of survivors believing themselves, and other survivors, since Flanagan never really takes outside their muted and cloistered circle.
Unfortunately, that insularity, which starts as suffocating, becomes cloying in the final few episodes, producing the worst television finale I can remember. With so many timelines and spatial schemes to consider, the last episode descends into one interminable monologue after another, all of them delivered in the same half-crying, half-laughing “breathless” register. It’s during these platitudinous, pontificating and quasi-literary pronouncements that the departures from Jackson’s own perfectly poised prose style is most keenly evident. Her understatement also goes out the window, since these final moments simply involve the characters endlessly explaining the series to themselves and each other, for the kind of sequence that would be pushing it at seven minutes, let alone seventy. Having just watched Jordan Peele’s Us before I arrived at this final episode, I couldn’t help wondering whether this was the logical conclusion of white horror in the present – a family with nothing left to “other” but themselves, and nothing to do but turn in upon themselves for one turgid act of navel-gazing and self-flagellation after another. The result is close to the campier moments of American Horror Story, but without the camp, making for a pretty disappointing ending to a series that opens so evocatively. Still, those opening episodes shine on their own terms – a wonderful addition to Flanagan’s filmography, and the way it inhabits those suburban spaces that in the contemporary world seem so resistant, and yet so conducive, to horror.