The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix's 2018 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, explores family trauma, addiction, and the pain that comes from losing a loved one, while also presenting a fascinating and terrifying ghost story. The show’s premise is scary enough, but work done behind the scenes intensifies the experience by adding horrifying symbolism and production design that induces subliminal terror.
Much of the horror of The Haunting of Hill House is in the details, including plenty of hidden ghosts. The production design, references to the book, and cinematography make this a must-watch series for horror fans. The show is easy to appreciate on first watch, but it truly opens up after multiple viewings.
Episode 6, "Two Storms," brings the Crain family together for a parallel blow-up that spans childhood and adulthood - and it all appears to happen in one take. The single take creates a tension in the episode that wouldn't exist if it took place as a collection of different shots. This episode uses everything in the series' arsenal - ghosts, moving statues, jump scares, etc.
Forcing the audience to watch everything in one take makes everything even more frightening. Mike Flanagan said the crew practiced for more than a month to get the episode right, and they even designed the set ahead of time so they could move between two stages (the funeral home and the house) without cutting away:
We rehearsed it with our second team stand-ins, who basically performed the entire episode as actors for about five weeks straight, every day... and then the cast had two weeks with us in rehearsal. We kind of looked at it like live TV. Ultimately, it’s five long shots and we did one a day for five days. It almost killed us. It almost killed everybody.
A strange design feature of Hill House is its large collection of statues. The statues are creepy on their own, but they sometimes change directions while they're off camera. This isn't a production mistake, but a trick used to disorient the viewer.
In the sixth episode of the show, the statues' heads move within seconds.
The exterior of the terrifying Hill House actually exists. Mike Flanagan, who shot the exterior without making any changes, called the house "one of the strangest buildings I’ve ever seen." He explained more about the house, located in the Georgia woods:
You look at it from one angle and it looks Victorian, very angular and clean. From another angle it looks medieval - it has these stone turrets that don’t make any sense! Once we found it, it really inspired the production designer for our interior build.
The series uses visual restraint to build to a scare. Mike Flanagan devoted more time to character build-up than he did to showing the ghosts, telling the Huffington Post:
I’m a firm believer that what you don’t see is always scarier than what you do. Given my druthers, I’d love to approach this show the way Robert Wise did in ’63 [Wise directed the 1963 film The Haunting, also based on The Haunting of Hill House], which didn’t show you anything at all. He used sound design and great acting to create more dread than any CGI ghost ever has.
For this, I knew we couldn’t sustain that for 10 hours, so it was a given that we’d show our ghosts. I just wanted them to mean something. They’re only scary if they’re organic to the characters. If you don’t care about the people, the ghosts don’t mean a thing. I wanted to give the audience at least two legitimate scares per episode, and hopefully more, but for each of those scares I wanted to devote at least three other beats to character. That ratio felt right.