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.
The Haunting of Hill House has a somewhat happy ending - or at least the characters who survive are doing well. Specifically, Steven has fixed things with his estranged wife and they are going to have a child. However, this wasn't always the case. As Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Luke) pointed out, when he is celebrating two years of sobriety, there is a startling detail about his cake: it's red. Jackson-Cohen explained it to in an interview with The Wrap:
There’s this thing that happens when we’re all in the Red Room... whenever each child, each sibling, is in the Red Room, something in the fantasy is red. And it’ll be a very, very small thing. For Luke, when Luke gets taken to the hotel room, he’s worn Converse throughout the show, and all of a sudden his Converse are red. And it’s so slight you can barely even see it. And I think Steven is wearing a red jumper [in his fantasy.]
And so there’s something at the end - it was Kate [Siegel], who plays Theo, who kind of pointed it out to me - with Luke’s sobriety cake. Um, she went, "The cake is red." And on set I went, "Oh, my God!" And she went, "I don’t know!" And I asked Mike [Flanagan], and he went "I don’t know." And so I can’t tell whether or not I’m just crazy with this - or whether or not it’s something that could have legs.
Mike Flanagan said he almost went for the ambiguous ending. Specifically, he put real thought into making it look like the show's finale was all a trick of the Red Room. But there is one detail in the final product that debunks Jackson-Cohen's theory. Flanagan told Thrillist:
One thing I can say is that we talked for a very, very long time about putting the Red Room window, that weird vertical window, in the background of this shot. And I ultimately decided not to. It was too cruel. But there was a lot of talk that this peace might not be real. In the version we ended up going with, I think it absolutely is real.
Much of the horror in The Haunting of Hill House is based on the voyeuristic, claustrophobic atmosphere created by director Mike Flanagan and crew. When the ghosts appear, they don't jump out at anyone. Instead, their appearances are slow-burn scares, like the ghost searching for its hat in episode 4. The scene gets more frightening because the ghost is in the frame for most of the time, and the forced perspective makes the audience look it in the face.
That's not the case for the jump scare in episode 8. At the end of the episode, Theo (Kate Siegel) and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) are driving to Hill House to find their brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). On the drive they're having a huge fight, then BOOM! - Nell (Victoria Pedretti) comes out of nowhere in Bent-Neck Lady garb. The fear in the scene is palpable.
Flanagan told Entertainment Weekly that he had Pedretti jump out earlier than planned to really surprise the other actors:
In general, I don’t love jump scares. I think they can be cheap, but this one I thought could be really special because it’s an episode about people talking in cars... it’s like that’s the one place you’re never gonna have a ghost... Elizabeth and Kate... knew they had another half page of words to get through before Victoria would appear, and she just bolted up right in the middle of their lines, and so their reaction is completely genuine.
Did you feel like you were being watched on your first viewing of The Haunting of Hill House? If so, you're not alone. Mike Flanagan created a claustrophobic, haunted atmosphere in the actual house by placing ghosts in the background of many of the scenes.
Only a few of the ghosts are obvious, so you'll have to do some searching to see them.
Aside from the many ghosts hidden within the walls of Hill House, the set design is built to make you feel like you're being watched. This isn't accidental. The production crew used design elements throughout the show that mimic human faces. The wallpaper, light fixtures, and even the doorknobs were designed to make it feel like the house is always watching the Crains.
As Mike Flanagan told Entertainment Weekly, "Everywhere we were gonna be looking, we wanted it to feel like the house was always looking back, and I think that subliminal sense that there’s a face somewhere in the frame just makes it feel off everywhere."