BUMP IN THE NIGHT
Inside the Unholy Terror of Netflix’s Daring New ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Series
The creator of Netflix’s daring new ‘Hill House’ adaptation on the poignancy and unnerving terror of this family saga, and what to expect from his sequel to ‘The Shining.’
Over the past five years, Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game) has established himself as not only American horror cinema’s most accomplished new voice, but as a prolific filmmaker unafraid to take on immense challenges. Even if that means treading on hallowed genre ground—be it with his latest streaming project, or his forthcoming big-budget sequel to The Shining.
Debuting exclusively on Netflix this Friday (Oct. 12), and directed in its entirety by Flanagan, The Haunting of Hill House is a ten-episode series based loosely on Shirley Jackson’s famed 1959 haunted house novel, which spawned one classic film (in 1963, from Robert Wise) and one lavish misfire (in 1999, courtesy of Jan de Bont). Far from mere regurgitation, it’s a radical reworking of the famous tale, which in its original incarnation involved a collection of individuals brought to notorious Hill House to investigate paranormal activity, and in this iteration concerns a family—led by Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas’ Olivia and Hugh Crain—that moves into the imposing abode in the 1990s, only to suffer nightmares that must later be confronted by their grown kids. A small-screen saga of profound poignancy and unnerving terror, it again finds Flanagan wrestling with the sort of knotty familial-trauma drama that’s defined his prior gems.
Asked about that recurring preoccupation two weeks before the series’ premiere, the 40-year-old director chuckles, confessing, “I guess that’s my jam. I can’t get away from it. I just find it endlessly fascinating. The way families deal with challenges, loss, and the harder parts of life, and the way we interact with families, is so different than the way we interact with anyone else in the world. All of the pretext is gone. You don’t put on such an act, and you’re more yourself than you are with anyone else. And yet you don’t know each other as well as you think. That fascinates me.”
Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House focuses, first and foremost, on the Crain kids, all of whom are still coping with the insanity that befell them during their youth: Michiel Huisman’s Steven, a skeptic who writes books about real-life haunted locales; Elizabeth Reaser’s Shirley, a mortician desperate to put a pretty face on life’s ugliness; Kate Siegel’s Theodora, a child therapist whose psychic powers are kept in check by the gloves she wears; Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Luke, a wayward drug addict; and Victoria Pedretti’s Nell, whose return to Hill House kick-starts the narrative. Working with a cast populated by prior collaborators, Flanagan’s show proves to be a long-form story about how the past continues to haunt the present, and the various ways people deal with bone-deep scars—not to mention the brothers, sisters, and parents (including an older Hugh, played by Timothy Hutton) whose issues are inextricably tangled up with their own.
It’s also a daring reinvention of a beloved predecessor, which Flanagan admits was a bit daunting, since “I love the book; I’ve loved it since I was a child. And I love the Bob Wise movie—it’s perfect.” Given that Jackson’s novel doesn’t have enough plot, or characters, to fill out an entire TV series, he opted for a more creatively reverential tack. “It was way more interesting to me to go through the book and go, What are the things about this book that I want to protect, and what if we just throw them all up in the air and let them land, and then rearrange them into something new? We have some of the same ingredients, but we can make something different.”
To wit: The Haunting of Hill House features many notable Jackson elements, such as walls that mysteriously, scarily thud. That reverence was crucial to Flanagan. “There are these touchstones in the book that I felt like we couldn’t in good conscious exclude if we’re calling it The Haunting of Hill House. There was a lot in the characterizations, and in episodes nine and ten, in the dialogue, they’re essentially reading out of the book. It was very important to make sure that my favorite moments made it in, but also the ones that over the years the fans have held onto. When you look at some of those passages, especially the Cup of Stars passage, that means a lot to a lot of people in a pretty profound way. There was a real awareness from all of us in the writer’s room [about that].”
Still, the show is a Flanagan work through and through, and one that operates on an expansive scale that—coming from a film background—the director found exciting. “I loved the format. That is really irresistible to me—to have ten hours, and a canvas so big. But I did look at it, ultimately, as a ten-hour movie. Instead of feeling episodic, it just needed to exist as this ten-hour story that was a very, very long feature. It presented a lot of weird formal challenges, but it was what was most exciting about it, from the beginning.”
Whatever technical obstacles he faced, Flanagan more than ably hurdles them here, delivering an assured vision of unholy inherited pain and sorrow (and healing) highlighted by a bravura sixth episode in which lengthy single-take shots convey the newfound togetherness of his protagonists, who have all finally reunited. Though it sometimes appears that those compositions are prolonged by subtle digital tricks, Flanagan refutes that assumption. “They weren’t!” he declares. “They were all straight. That was murder—that was brutal. That was one of those things that sounds really cool when you pitch it, and then you have to do it, and you go, ‘Oh my god, what were we thinking?’”
Marked by inventive, dreadfully creepy set pieces, The Haunting of Hill House affords Flanagan with yet another opportunity to use horror as a vehicle for exploring universal ideas about loss and anguish. “The genre is beautiful that way, because it’s this mirror we can look into and meditate on the hardest and saddest and darkest parts of the human experience, but we do it all metaphorically,” he says. “Even if we came at those things head-on, we might not be comfortable, so dressing them up in this pageant of horror and ghosts makes them more digestible, somehow.”
If Flanagan’s Netflix offering was a formidable undertaking, it was nothing compared to his forthcoming endeavor: Doctor Sleep, an adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining, about a now-grown Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor) and a pack of vampiric villains (led by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat) that feed off of the psychic “shining” power. A week into production, Flanagan enthuses that so far, “it’s been incredibly exciting.” As well as, of course, immensely intimidating—no matter how much its story speaks directly to his favorite themes.
“I was drawn to it because I love The Shining so much, and I love the  novel, because I got to revisit Danny Torrance,” he states. “And it touches on all the stuff that I love so much about the stories I get to tell—it’s trauma and childhood loss and grief. It kind of checks all my boxes.” That said, “I didn’t expect that I’d be lucky enough to be the person to do it. So when it launched, I was like, Holy shit, no pressure! Let’s just step into the shadow of one of the greatest movies ever made, and say, ‘Hey, here we are!’ It’s a ridiculous challenge in a sense, but it’s going great, and I’m having a blast. Every day has been unreal, and a little trippy.”
As for living up to the monumental expectations of such a follow-up, Flanagan reveals that he’s doing his best to stick to his source material. “I think the only way people get in trouble on Stephen King adaptations is, the further away from the book you get, the more dangerous the terrain is, and the easier it is to slip. So I stay pretty comfortably close to the book. There are changes for sure—there’s one pretty massive one, which I won’t spoil, that’s kind of the crux of what I’m doing with it… But we’re sticking pretty close.”
And when it comes the cinematic giant looming over his shoulder? “I’m trying really hard not to think about Kubrick,” he laughs. “And it’s such a weird thing, because King hated [Kubrick’s] The Shining. So you have this movie that is undeniably a masterpiece of film-making that’s such a part of the zeitgeist, and then you have an author who doesn’t like it. So there’s no way I’m coming out of this movie without disappointing somebody. But that’s really freeing in a way, you know? Some people out there are going to hate that this exists, and hate anything I do with it, so why not do what I want to do, and just accept that it’s going to go the way it does? That actually kind of sets me free a little bit.”