Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959, is widely regarded as one of the greatest haunted house stories ever written. The real terror isn’t found around every corner but in the characters’ minds, which results in seemingly countless interpretations drawn by a variety of readers. The same can be said for Netflix’s adaptation The Haunting of Hill House, the first entry in the Haunting anthology by director/creator Mike Flanagan and based on Jackson’s novel.
“I remember Michiel Huisman and I were doing the Today show on Halloween and [Haunting] had only come out a week or two before that,” Carla Gugino, who plays the emotionally tortured and ultimately tragic Crain family matriarch, Olivia, tells SYFY WIRE. “And people were coming up to me saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m late to the game, I haven’t watched it yet!’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, it came out 10 days ago.’”
“I think part of the reason it took off so quickly — for one, it’s really good and it’s really well made, but I think also... it delivers on a horror front but it also delivers on a psychological front,” Gugino continues. “And I think that makes it more resonant than just a really cool, scary show.”
When The Haunting of Hill House’s 10 episodes premiered on Netflix on Oct. 12, 2018, the series, initially assumed to be a one-off season, proved an overnight success. Gugino and her co-star Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays the tragic elder version of fan-favorite Luke Crain, agree that the show had a strange power from the get-go. That the series is so open to interpretation — much like its namesake and inspiration — it lets audience members graft their own interpretation to the narrative. Horror fans looking for a horror series will find what they’re looking for, as will drama fans, and even those looking for a roller coaster family story.
“When you’re shooting something, you sometimes forget that everyone’s gonna see it,” Jackson-Cohen tells SYFY WIRE. “And all of us were just going: ‘Is this going to work? People are going to want to be scared. Is it scary enough? Are people going to want to watch this and cry?’ I mean the response when the show came out was so overwhelming.”
Jackson-Cohen says at least one person has approached him in tears to share how much they related to Luke, who struggles with addiction and the curse of knowing and experiencing too much from a young age. While Luke is an addict, the last thing Jackson-Cohen wanted to do, he says, was portray him as simply a drug abuser and nothing else; instead, he wanted to play him as a person who hadn’t truly known safety for a majority of his life, a person who always expected the next big threat.
“We talked about this a lot, that the whole show is a metaphor for childhood trauma, how the ghosts are childhood abuse. It kind of becomes a much more universal story and something people can relate to. And so a lot of my own past experiences and childhood — I related to how he was written and I wanted to use that,” Jackson-Cohen says.
No matter how a person grows up, Jackson-Cohen continues, no one escapes childhood unscathed.
“We all kind of have tricky childhoods,” he says. “[The show is] a metaphor for that, for all that stuff that we have to move on from as adults — we have to kind of move forward and we have to achieve, but until we actually face all the stuff that’s happened to us, we can’t move forward.”
While the ghosts haunting Hill House who seduce Olivia, build on her already prevalent depression, and torture her children for the remainder of their lives can be interpreted as just that — ghosts — the potential metaphor for family and childhood trauma is undeniable.
“A lot of people really relate to the grief the family holds when they keep things secret and things that happen in your childhood,” Gugino says. “How they profoundly affect you as an adult and how, ultimately, until you look at something, it’s going to kind of haunt you.”
The Haunting of Hill House is now available for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray, and available to stream on Netflix.