Describing The Haunting of Hill House as a straight-up horror series would be an injustice. The show, based loosely on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name, is oftentimes more heart-wrenchingly sad than scary, and many of the scariest moments aren’t blood-soaked jump-scares.
Don’t get us wrong, though: There are plenty of scares to go around in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. The show tells the story of the Crain family and their life-long relationship with a house they’ve never been able to truly escape. The five Crain siblings tackle PTSD in the form of drug addiction, claw-your-eyes-out nightmares, relationship problems, and an inability to let the past go. Their father is a haunted, misunderstood man. Their mother is dead.
We revisited the hit series to pick out the most terrifying moments, from rotting flesh to bone-deep trauma.
For the sake of brevity, we’re going to discount any time Nell sees the Bent-Neck Lady outside of that scene, which, spoiler alert, is included on this list. If we didn’t, we’d be here for a long time.
And, with that in mind, we’re off. Here are the 17 scariest moments in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House, ranked.
The forever home, Episode 7, 'Eulogy'
Though it’s not so much scary as it is disturbing, this moment is vitally important to Hill House’s scare roster because it reveals just how far-gone Olivia is. Instead of making true floor plans, Olivia has drawn her design for her family’s forever home over and over again without knowing it.
She’s already almost killed her husband in his sleep by accident, so this new revelation of her slipping consciousness is enough to terrify Hugh into suggesting his wife take a vacation. If only she’d actually gone…
"What is it?" Episode 2, 'Open Casket'
When young Theo storms into her older sister Shirley’s bedroom and accuses her of banging on the wall and shouting her name, there’s a good chance you expected what came next. Picture frames and decorations banging around, assisted by an unseen force, is a well-known horror trope for a reason, as it’s suitably terrifying.
And it’s especially terrifying for a couple of kids. Theo and Shirley scream and clutch at each other until their dad shows up.
Counting, Episode 4, 'The Twin Thing'
This was Luke’s episode. While going through the paces of what Nell taught him to ward off evil when they were kids, the man in the hat starts following him. This scene would have been more terrifying if, when Luke turned around, he’d found the actual sunken-faced man screaming at him. Instead, the scene becomes sad as his beautiful mother begs him to come home (presumably to kill himself like Nell did). It still counts as being terrifying, though...
The kitten corpse, Episode 2, 'Open Casket'
Shirley’s odd relationship with death started from an early age. After she found a litter of abandoned kittens, they all died. But the first one to die — ironically, the one Nell had claimed — had a bug crawling around inside that came out through the mouth. This wasn’t so much scary as it was upsetting, but we’re going to count it anyway — because… wow.
Olivia screams, Episode 1, 'Steven Sees a Ghost'
The series’ first jump scare appropriately comes from Olivia’s ghost waking Hugh up from a deep sleep. Of course, we later learn it’s not unusual for Olivia to interact with Hugh, as a version of her seems to follow him around wherever he goes, whispering advice and warnings into his ear.
But Carla Gugino’s scream isn’t something to be trifled with.
Theo's realization, Episode 3, 'Touch'
Scattered amongst the ghosts and jump scares are actual, real-life traumas. One of the series’ most upsetting scenes comes in the third episode, in which Theo realizes her young patient is being sexually abused by her foster father.
It's poignant and heartbreaking as actress Kate Siegel gets the point across of just what’s happened without anything needing to be said. The disgusting reality comes to as happy an end as possible, though, as the foster father is arrested and the little girl placed in what we hope is a better situation. Theo is a hero, plain and simple.
Unsuspecting victim, Episode 5, 'The Bent-Neck Lady'
Arthur just wanted to marry a pretty girl and have a nice life together. He wanted to help people and, as far as we know, was a genuinely good person. So for him to be a victim of his wife’s family’s trauma was inevitable. This isn’t the kind of show where kind people make it out okay.
And seeing him frozen in the same way Nell is, but with his head tilted to the side to resemble Nell’s worst nightmare? Yeah, that’s bad.
Bad baby, Episode 10, 'Silence Lay Steadily'
Steven’s pretty immune to scares. But placing him in a hallucination about having made up with his estranged, now-pregnant wife and tainting that? It’s just cruel. As she monologues at Steven about him taking everything from everyone in his life and giving nothing back, her belly turns black as if she’s rotting from the inside out.
Crawler, Episode 7, 'Eulogy'
A lot of people online have accused this scene of being a bit hokey. But Theo hasn’t had too many scares at this point in the series, and she’s a tough one. So, inevitably, it had to be something truly blatant to really get to her.
After Shirley’s model home gets demolished, a girl with her face split open army-crawls across the carpet to get to Theo and Hugh. Theo’s scream is almost more terrifying than this little girl, so maybe that’s why she disappears at the last moment.
Poppy grabs Luke, Episode 8, 'Witness Marks'
It’s quick, but this is probably one of the more effective jump-scares of the show. When put in contrast with Olivia’s calm, entrancing demeanor and Luke’s obvious exhaustion, Poppy appearing behind Luke to grab his face and drag him down is definitely yelp-inducing. Poppy’s pretty good for that.
Nell haunts her mother, Episode 9, 'Screaming Meemies'
Olivia is truly slipping over the edge in Episode 9. And while her fears for Nell and Luke do come true later on in life, a lot of their trauma results from her actions while she’s trying to protect them. Nell’s future dead body clipping open the bindings on her own mouth and begging her mother to save her, though, is a whole other level of “oh, God.”/p>
Hands, Episode 10, 'Silence Lay Steadily'
It’s only thanks to Nell that Theo makes it out of this one — just like with the rest of her siblings. Trapped in her own mind, Theo can’t seem to move past the guilt of never truly connecting with anyone. So, of course, a bunch of those missed connections attempt to drag her down. Just like with the other ghosts and hallucinations in this show, their skin is a ghastly gray and shot through with rotting black lines.
The man with the hat, Episode 4, 'The Twin Thing'
Wow, Luke really has it rough while living in this house. It’s no wonder he’s such a mess later in life.
Luke was so happy about his “big boy hat” that nobody really gave too much thought about where it might have come from. The man floating three inches above the ground is terrifying enough — he takes Luke’s hat (presumably his in another life) and places it atop his head while Luke is hiding under the bed. Poor Luke doesn’t scream until the man lifts the bed skirt and peers under to find him.
"There's something down here," Episode 3, 'Touch'
Sweet little Luke Crain didn’t deserve half of the stuff he went through as a child. Possibly the most traumatizing moment of his young life (other than, y’know, his mom attempting to kill him) was when he got stuck in the basement and almost attacked by a crawling, mummified ghost.
His screams likely stuck with Theo her whole life as she realized there was nothing she could do to save her little brother at that moment.
The Bent-Neck Lady, Episode 5, 'The Bent-Neck Lady'
Finally, we get an answer. Up until this point, we’d seen Nell be tortured all her life by “the Bent-Neck Lady.” It was pretty obvious that the titular bent neck came from the woman having hung herself… but for it to have been Nell all along, cycling through her own traumas at the moment of her death — that’s the definition of hell.
Nell's ghost, Episode 1, 'Steven See a Ghost'
Despite being, arguably, the Crain sibling most resistant to believing in the supernatural, Steven gets quite the fright at the end of Episode 1.
After Steven and his siblings spent the day ignoring Nell’s calls and, once again, waving her concerns off with a shake of their heads, Nell’s ghost appears in Steven’s new apartment. He doesn’t realize anything is wrong (he just thinks Nell’s come for a visit) until their father tells him over the phone that “she was at the house. She’s dead.”
He turns to find Nell right behind him. She begins shivering and moaning, and her face and eyes turn gray as her mouth opens to let out a scream that has Steven collapsing to the floor.
Don’t fight, Episode 8, 'Witness Marks'
As Shirley and Theo are driving to find Luke, they fall into another argument (they’ve been doing that a lot at this point). Thankfully, before things can get too nasty, Nell jumps to the front of the car, face gray and rotting, and lets out a scream that scares the bejesus out of her sisters.
Presumably, Nell wasn’t very happy with her older sisters fighting while they were trying to rescue her twin brother. Good job, Nell.