Commentary: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ proves that family is the scariest thing of all


Family is terrifying.

There, I said it.

Netflix’s new horror series “The Haunting of Hill House” (no relation) is garnering praise for its moody — if slow-moving — cinematic scares. But as much as the eponymous home dishes out psychological damage on its occupants, it’s nothing compared to the emotional trauma that family members inflict on one another.

The adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s renowned novel “Hill House” is split between two timelines, one set in 1992 and another in 2018. The Crain family — including parents Hugh and Olivia Crain and children Steven, Shirley, Theodora (Theo), Luke and Eleanor (Nell) — survive their stint living in a ridiculously haunted mansion, for the most part.

They move out, they grow up, but they never move on. The wounds they suffer remain open and raw because they’re never allowed enough distance to heal.


Because family.

Like the Crain family, I grew up in a family of seven, and though we didn’t live in a desiccated manor full of ghosts that resulted in mass psychological scarring, our shared experiences formed a bond that transcended blood.

And it’s that bond that allows so much of horror to take root and blossom into something grotesque.

So many of the most effective films in the genre are based on a central familial relationship, pulling at the edges and distorting what was once love and care into something else entirely.

In the greater “Halloween” canon (though not depicted in the 1978 original or the 2018 film), serial killer Michael Myers pursues Laurie Strode relentlessly, looking to kill her as he killed their sister.

In “Carrie,” the titular character is abused by her God-fearing mother after being told that her menstruation had been brought on by thinking unclean thoughts and, consequently, forced to repent.

In “Psycho,” Norman Bates is so psychologically warped by his overbearing mother that he murders her, assumes her identity and becomes a sexually repressed, misogynistic monster.


And in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” well… let’s just say that you should stick to potato salad at that family reunion.

Even modern horror, including this year’s breakout hit “Hereditary,” understands that the connection among family is more powerful than nearly everything else, except maybe demons.

Or consider “Lizzie,” a new film starring Chloe Sevigny, which dramatizes the life of Lizzie Borden, who was tried — and acquitted — in 1893 for the gruesome murder of her father and stepmother.

For the Crain family, the heart of their dysfunction comes not from the events in the house, but in their continued existence afterward.

Each member of the family becomes a living, breathing reminder of the worst time in their lives. What they suffered was a mystery, and every encounter with one another becomes not an opportunity for support, but a representation of all they lost and everything they still don’t understand.


Moreover, with some familial strife, your relatives become real-life versions of the ghosts that lurk in the shadows. Family knows who you are, who you’ve been and, in some cases, knows you better than you know yourself. For some, that realization is a tremendous burden.

And family isn’t so easy to dispense with. The wounds suffered by the Crains while inhabiting “Hill House” don’t heal because they are opened anew every time they connect. And yet they keep trying.

Until they don’t. As difficult as their lives become, the family doesn’t truly begin to self-destruct until they start trying to sever that very connection.

Calls are sent to voicemail and siblings abandoned in facilities. Secrets are kept and grudges are formed. And because it hurts too much to be close, the family tries to rip itself apart, accomplishing far more damage than any ghosts ever could.

In the best of scenarios, a family of survivors would find a way through their collective pain to a place of healing. But it’s not easy and it’s not always realistic.

“The Haunting of Hill House” is about a haunted house, yes, but it’s mostly about a family haunted by themselves. It’s not a horror; it’s a tragedy.


‘The Haunting of Hill House’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)