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The Haunting Of Hill House: 10 Scariest Moments

 

Back in October this year, Netflix streamed its adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel. Anticipation had been low, even in horror circles, since horror remakes and re-imaginings rarely receive critical acclaim. So when the show turned out to be brilliantly terrifying, word soon spread.

The Netflix show isn’t exactly an adaptation – rather, it’s an amalgamation of the novel that can be viewed as a sequel. For example, Steven and Shirley aren’t characters in the book, although it was written by one Shirley Jackson. And whilst adult versions of Theodora, Eleanor, and Luke do appear in the book, they’re not siblings, meeting for the first time at Hill House.

It’s the work put into those characters and others that elevate it. A jump-scare can still be effective on its own, but it’s far more effective when the audience is emotionally receptive to the victim’s plight.

The words of Steven Crain in episode one hold a lot of truth: “When I say I’ve never seen a ghost, it’s not exactly true. I’ve seen a lot of ghosts — just not the way you think. A ghost can be a lot of things — a memory, a daydream, a secret, grief, anger, guilt.”

It’s not just Hill House that’s haunted; the Crain family’s hearts and minds are, too.

10. The Bent-Neck Lady Floats, Too

Netflix

Episode: 1×1 – Steven Sees A Ghost

With this scene, the show makes it clear – children are fair game.

For many horror stories, modern or not, children are off-limits. There’s a seemingly unspoken rule that many writers abide by – don’t hurt children in any way. Perhaps that’s why some of the most powerful horror movies of all time feature children coming to harm. A young girl is tormented in The Exorcist; a young boy is haunted in The Shining; and a young girl is abducted by poltergeist in, uh, Poltergeist. Suddenly, a line is crossed, and the fear factor is multiplied.

Earlier in the episode, Nell wakes up her dad with her screams. She complains that someone she calls the Bent-Neck Lady appeared again, standing at the foot her bed, and with some reassurance, goes back to sleep. We get a brief glimpse of the Lady.

Later in the episode, Nell spends the night in another part of the house to escape the Lady’s presence. It’s no use. She wakes up paralysed, the Lady floating above her, eerily reminiscent of a phantom from Japanese horror. As Nell and the audience come to learn, the Lady will shadow her, literally and figuratively, for the rest of her life. All the more heartbreaking is the realisation later in the series that Nell herself is the lingering object of her fear.

Interestingly, the apparition of a dark, shrouded woman is a common sight among those who experience sleep paralysis.

9. Apartment Visit

Netflix

Episode: 1×1 – Steven Sees A Ghost

In the final scene of the first episode, Steven returns home to his apartment. After running into Luke on the stairs – and sending him on his way to score heroin with some of his equipment and money – Steven finds Nell in his apartment. While talking to her, his phone rings. It’s his dad, Hugh. It’s revealed that Nell has committed suicide. Steven – and the audience – both realise that it’s Nell’s ghost who’s been waiting in his apartment.

He turns around, and Nell in his standing before him. She opens her mouth, her face twisting in agony, and just before she can scream… she disappears. The first episode ends. Time to catch your breath.

There’s also a nice bit of spoken foreshadowing when Steven first sees Nell after turning on the lights. “Thanks. I needed a good scare.”

8. Escape From Hill House

Netflix

Episode: 1×1- Steven Sees A Ghost

At this point, we aren’t too familiar with the Crain family so don’t care for them as much as we come to, but the show still manages to quicken our pulse despite that. It does so by tapping into one of man’s greatest fears: the unknown.

The scene begins with dad Hugh waking up eldest son Steven in the middle of the night. Warning bells already: a child witnessing an adult in such a state of fear is powerful enough, regardless of any supernatural phenomena. Parents are meant to be fearless. What would scare your dad?

Hugh picks his son up, stressing that he should keep eyes shut. The viewer’s mind spirals: what on earth warrants such fear to simply see it is a bad idea?

What follows, after a tense moment in which something on the other side of the door tries to get into the bedroom, is a mad dash for safety. Not too long to become boring, not too short to leave the audience underwhelmed, it’s a masterclass in tension in the dreamlike environment of Hill House. It all passes with just enough time to hold your breath and let it out.

Father and son escape just in time. In a nice bit of symmetry, the final episode would feature Hugh leading Steven into the house, rather than away from it.

7. A Grave Meeting

Netflix

Episode: 1×7 – Eulogy

The shock of this ghostly encounter is twofold – not only is this the first time a member of the Crain family has encountered a spirit in broad daylight, but they are then instantly surprised by another.

Nell’s friends and family attend her funeral, a sombre affair. Luke, last to throw earth on his twin sister’s grave, looks up to see her ghost, the Bent-Neck Lady, standing before him. It certainly makes sense for a ghost to appear at her funeral, in a cemetery, but we the audience aren’t used to the ghosts of the show making such brazen arrivals. Even now, 7 episodes into the season, the show still manages to challenge our assumptions about horror fiction tropes.

And then Luke’s mum appears and tries to drag him into his sister’s grave. The torment is relentless. But Luke’s cries and ravings only invite Steven to admonish him. Nowhere is safe, and sympathy runs low.

6. Rude Awakening

Netflix

Episode: 1×2 – Open Casket

This scene is one of the few that largely takes inspiration from the novel.

Theo enters Shirley’s room in the dead of night, waking her up by accusing her of calling her name. Shirley is mystified. She’s adamant she didn’t. The sisters’ bickering is then interrupted by the sound of barking dogs – dogs that only make their presence known at night – before a loud bang sends Theo jumping into Shirley’s bed, the sisters cowering in fear.

What follows is a series of booming, jarring banging noises coming from the walls of the room. The sisters’ screams lead to their father coming in to comfort them. What are they talking about? There’s no noise! But he believes them.

And then THOHH pulls its first switcheroo. Safety seemingly assured, dad Hugh then begins placating his daughters with soothing words before his face turns dark, his mouth elongates, and he lets out a hideous drone.

Smash cut to adult Shirley waking up.

5. The Tall Man’s Introduction

Netflix

Episode: 1×4 – The Twin Thing

This scene perfectly captures the sense of isolation and gloom that comes with waking up all alone in the middle of the night, when silence lays steadily, and seconds feel like hours.

As a child, Luke’s mum, Olivia, finds a bowler hat in the attic, which he claims as his own. It turns out that was a bad idea.

During the night, Luke wakes to a soft thudding sound. He ventures out into the corridor where he first sees the Tall Man – a floating ghost using its cane to pull itself along in its search for its bowler hat. Luke, momentarily paralysed with fear, quietly steals back into his bedroom and hides under his bed, where the worst thing that can happen next, does. The Tall Man enters the room.

The Tall Man finds his hat and begins to leave, only to seek Luke out when he lets out a premature breath of relief. The Tall Man bends down. Luke lets out a piercing scream. End scene.

The Tall Man would continue to plague Luke throughout his drug-addled life. If only he had been taken seriously and believed, perhaps things would have turned out differently for him.

4. Poppy’s Rhyme

Netflix

Episode: 1×10 – Silence Lay Steadily

It’s a shame that the ghost of Poppy Hill – insane past inhabitant of Hill House – only made a few appearances on the show towards the end of its first season. The character oozes malice and charm, stealing whatever scene she’s in. But perhaps her few appearances are a positive, since she’s absolutely bloody terrifying to behold in her ghostly, rotten form.

After finding himself separated from Steven following their return to Hill House, Hugh finds himself with Poppy’s undivided attention. She “entertains” him with a macabre rhyme before being shooed away by Olivia Crane’s ghost. The scene doesn’t serve anything other than to creep out the audience, but it works.

Sometimes, simplicity is enough.

3. Car Jumpscare

Netflix

Episode: 1×8 – Witness Marks

After Luke disappears from Shirley’s funeral home following a storm, taking her credit card with him, Hugh and Steven follow, initially searching for him the places he used to buy heroin. Shirley soon gets a notification on her phone, telling her that her credit card has been used at a petrol station near Hill House. Luke is on his way back there. She and Theo then decide to travel there themselves.

So far, so normal. The sisters’ subdued conversation on the road moves from Luke, to what Theo and Hugh saw at the funeral home, to the issue currently driving the sisters apart – Shirley catching her husband, Kevin, apparently cheating on her with Theo. As Theo tries to explain what really happened, the tension mounts. Voices rise. Verbal sparring ensues. And out of nowhere comes the show’s greatest jump-scare.

But it’s more than that. It’s as if Nell was trying to stop her sisters from arguing. Her appearance compels Shirley into admitting that she’s been seeing things just like the rest of her family has, and prompts Theo to explain her promiscuous behaviour.

It is an unparalleled, well-earned fright. So why is this only entry #3? Because of what comes next.

2. Theo’s Monologue

Netflix

Episode: 1×8 – Witness Marks

After the previous scare, the audience has time to catch its breath. Shirley’s car veers off the road, and she follows Theo out of it as she makes her way to a field by it, where she explains her reasoning for trying to kiss Kevin.

By now, viewers are aware of Theo’s psychic talent. By touching people, she can read their feelings, as well as gain impressions from inanimate objects. What she learns is too much to bear, however, so she’s thankful when she’s gifted a pair of gloves by her mum. She uses her gift – curse? – as an adult to become a successful child psychologist, and earlier in the series we see her horrified by what she feels when she touches Nell’s dead body in the morgue. We don’t learn what see saw or felt; we’re just left with her howl of pain.

Theo now explains the sense of nothing, of numbness, that she’s been feeling since touching her younger sister’s corpse. What happens is the show suddenly pivots from supernatural horror to the existential. Up until this point, the evil forces working against the Crane family had been tangible (even if they are ghosts.) But by questioning what happens when we die, and Theo’s absolute conviction that what she ‘felt’ might be indicative of that, we are invited to look beyond spectres and into the very absurd, nihilistic nature of death itself.

Ghosts don’t exist. When an episode of the show ends, we can move on. But our inevitable demise is very really indeed, and something we can spend our lives meditating on.

1. Luke Meets The Ghoul In The Basement

Netflix

Episode: 1×3 – Touch

It really is no wonder Luke Crain turned to drugs to cope.

Not only has he had to deal with a ghost no one else can see in the form of the Tall Man, but he’s faced with yet another ghost that only has eyes for him.

In the 1992 timeline, Theo finds Luke in the dumbwaiter in the kitchen. He can’t get it working by himself, and so does what any good little brother does, and begs his sister to help him. Reluctantly, Theo agrees to. But the dumbwaiter doesn’t go up like expected. It goes down.

At this point, only three episodes in, the audience is well aware that Hill House doesn’t hold back when it comes to scaring children. But up until now, the house hadn’t been openly hostile towards one of its younger inhabitants.

Not only is there the terror caused by the thing in the basement, but there’s also Theo’s panic at not being able to help her brother after unintentionally putting him in danger – a vicarious horror anyone can relate to, ghosts or not. And that seems to exemplify one of the show’s major themes – being witness to, but powerless in the face of, a loved one’s pain.

 

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