While much of The Haunting of Hill House's horror comes from inherited trauma, the biggest scares belong to the ghosts. Whether it's a specific ghost — the Bent-Neck Lady haunting Nell Crain or the basement monsters scrambling to attack a young Luke Crain — or the sneaky apparitions peeking out from behind every corner, Hill House is filled with terrors both loud and subtle.
Bringing these ghosts to the afterlife meant incorporating them seamlessly into the Crain family's world. As the living characters reacted — cheeks flushed, eyes bright with fear — to seeing the literal ghosts of their past reemerge, the very ghosts terrifying them had to remain otherworldly. Responsibility for that fell to the Hill House's makeup department team, which was charged with finding that line between life and death. It's a line that shifts in unforeseen ways more often than not.
"[Director] Mike [Flanagan] wanted to have all the ghosts [have] 'a pale, desaturated look without desaturating the look of the overall image,'" special effects makeup department head Robert Kurtzman told SYFY WIRE. "So we had to desaturate the makeups and do it tonally. We didn't have any bright colors on them. No bright reds, no blood colors that were too expressive.
"Our first film test day, we thought we took it down, but it wasn't enough," he continued. "It was still too much blood colors and things in some of the ghosts, in some of the wounded ones. [Flanagan] wanted to make sure that he could keep the reds or the bright colors in the set intense, but without it affecting the makeup."
Just as with everything else in the series, the makeup was a practical effect. Makeup department head Staci Witt describes having had to create a black-and-white scale. Through manipulating the makeup, they were able to create characters who looked like they'd been plucked straight out of an old-timey photo and dropped into the modern world.
The ghosts' color wasn't the only thing Flanagan was worried about, though. While a few of the ghosts are familiar to viewers by the time you see them, characters such as the Tall Man were unknown entities. That didn't mean Flanagan wanted to lose the actors' characteristics, though. It was important to keep a human form in order to humanize these characters.
Witt and Kurtzman say there originally was a "history section" in which more of the ghost characters' backstories and their lives within the titular house were explained, but it was cut for time and budget. Because of this, though, some of the ghosts have incredibly involved backstories that explain why it was important for them to have such specific characteristics; Flanagan wanted audiences to be able to recognize them in their living form.
The only ghost who broke the "make them recognizable" rule was the basement ghost from Episode 3, "Touch," who was fancied as having died in a boiler room explosion, resulting in a missing leg, charred skin, and exposed chest cavity. Part of his story would have been explored in the now-defunct history section, but because his death resulted in such a gruesome afterlife, audiences didn't necessarily need to be able to match the actor with the ghost.
Witt says the actor who portrayed the basement ghost, Joshua Stephen Campbell, actually does have one leg and was willing to shave half his head and wear prosthetics to really sell the part. He might have only appeared in a brief, jump-scare flash when young Luke is exploring the basement, but making the ghost truly look like a burn and explosion victim — all the details and scarred skin — was important.
Fitting all of these details into their production schedule was especially challenging because Haunting of Hill House wasn't shot like an average television show — episode by episode, sometimes switching things up but ultimately building the linear narrative. No, in true bingeing fashion, Hill House was shot like "a 10-hour feature, with a lot of blocking," Witt says. The various departments, including the makeup department, were given the first five scripts and a budget for those episodes. From there, they were flying by the seat of their pants.
"We're film people," Witt explains. "We're not TV people. [Flanagan] does tend to keep the same crew [between projects], so we were all just doing it the way we knew how to do it. So it became certainly a marathon shooting at that level — we were sprinting that marathon the entire way."
So when issues presented themselves, especially in the season's latter half, they had to be solved as quickly as they arose.
"Olivia's original injury makeup, with the cracked skull and the exposed brain and the swollen-shut eye, that was originally sculpted because she was written to fall off the outside of the house and onto a brick patio," Witt says.
Of course, in the finalized scene, Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) falls from the top of a three-story spiral staircase to the room below. That room is carpeted. While that kind of fall could still kill someone, the makeup team didn't have time to recreate a new look for her face, meaning she still had to crack her skull against something hard and sharp. There was no time to change it or make a new sculpt for Olivia, so they had to think fast.
A solution was found in 45 minutes.
"We had a lot of conversations about that. That was interesting," Kurtzman says. "About how we get that injury so severe. And the idea was: She hits the desk."
Look off to the right side of the screen when the camera cuts to Olivia lying on the floor, dead, in Episode 9, "Screaming Meemies," and you'll see a desk that somehow looks both out of place and perfectly natural.
"It was a complete surprise shift," Witt says. "But I think we made it work. I think it works!"
With a grim laugh, Kurtzman adds, "Cue sound effect."