‘The Haunting Of Hill House’ Helped Me Finally Understand My Own Family

James McMahon
TV Horror
TV Horror Netflix

Television in 2018 has frequently seen a different kind of family drama than what’s so often appeared prior; something darker, something more dysfunctional. Dare I say it, something more realistic, in tone, if not in content.

There’s been HBO’s Sharp Objects, a six-part adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel of the same name, which, despite being a Southern Gothic murder mystery, one with a side of Munchausen by proxy no less, was frequently tender and frequently the-radiator-is-broken warm. More recently there’s been Netflix’s The Haunting Of Hill House, in which director Mike Flanagan, whose CV is predominantly filled with modern horror films, took the much-adapted Shirley Jackson-penned source material, and used the supernatural as allegory for how trauma can be passed from one generation to the next. And, from the year prior, and again from HBO, Big Little Lies took Liane Moriarty’s brutally frank novel and carved it up into a powerful familial drama that pulled no punches, literally.

It’s kind of fitting that, within an era where the most wholesome family drama, ever, The Cosby Show, really doesn’t feel so wholesome anymore, and wherein your favourite TV mum, Rosanne, has been asked to leave the family home until further notice, the family TV drama has reinvented itself. Even NBC’s smash hit This Is Us, weaves themes like grief, anxiety, miscarriage and rehab throughout the nice bits.

Came For the Scares, Stayed For the Horror

Of them all, The Haunting Of Hill House has resonated with me most. I came for the scares. What kept me enthralled was the horror. The horror of family. The horror of family falling apart, the glue between the joints that keeps units bound, like a piece of furniture you never get around to replacing so instead you just patch it up, stretching, fraying, falling apart the more strained relationships become. It helped me look at my own family in a way that’s proved helpful.

Here’s something I’ve never talked about outside of the therapy session. When I was younger, I spent thousands of hours lying on my bed wondering if my family was normal. In many ways, it seemed like it. We ate dinner on Sundays together. There’s photos of us all on holiday. We’re smiling. I remember lots of laughs. I never didn’t feel like my existence wasn’t not a thing of wonder to them. But there were also the secrets. The things we weren’t supposed to talk about. Snatches of conversation I could never quite understand. People crying in parts of the house I knew I couldn’t enter. And, thick in the air, like smoke-filled carriages in the days you could smoke on trains, the dense, stifling, overwhelming feeling that something wasn’t right. I spent a lot of my time growing up trying to solve a puzzle, a sprawling multi-generational mystery, which ultimately led only to more pieces I couldn’t find.

Fear and Family

The bent-neck lady ghost in The Haunting of Hill House.

I’ve never seen a ghost. I was at a friend’s house once that was supposed to be haunted. For years they’d told me of the things they’d seen there. I never saw anything, but something grabbed me there once. Grabbed me in a way that felt physical. Squeezed my shoulder. It could have been a muscle spasm. It could have been my brain, filled with stories of apparitions and orbs, wanting to believe, playing tricks on me. I’m no neurologist, and I can’t understand a lot of how my brain works, even when I’m not sat supping tea in supposedly haunted houses. But within a few episodes of watching The Haunting Of Hill House, I’d unquestionably seen a ghost, if a ghost is an echo of the past, which I think is what they most likely are.

I spent so much of my childhood scared. Nobody is to blame for that. Nobody wanted that for me. The road to hell is paved with good intentions as they say. But I’d certainly never seen that sort of fear featured within TV drama before. HBO’s Six Feet Under came along in my teens and not so much scratched — not so much an itch, even — but levelled out a twinge of an idea that maybe I wasn’t completely alone. But it didn’t knead the tissue deep enough. What it did do was ignite a spark inside me that made me wonder whether it wasn’t my family that made me think we weren’t normal, but the families I saw on TV. Sometimes on a Sunday, when Channel 4 showed repeats of The Waltons, I hoped their stupid house would collapse upon them and kill them all. Years later, when I learned the child actors in the show weren’t paid with money, rather with baskets of muffins, I felt quite bad about that.

As Long As There Is Love

The Crain family in The Haunting of Hill House.

I saw it in the faces of The Haunting of Hill House’s Crain family though. The bewilderment in the children’s faces, their underdeveloped brains not being entrusted with the truth, or at least not all of it, them all striving to plug the gaps, failing pathetically. I saw it in the father, him desperately pleading to ‘fix’ problems in the present that had begun decades before. I saw it in the mother, the downturned facial muscles that accompanied the revelation that, despite having done everything she could to protect her brood, it still hadn’t been enough. Because if we’ve learned anything about the chaos of human existence, it’s that we can’t protect ourselves from life.

This isn’t a sad story. This is a story about how The Haunting Of Hill House confirmed the growing belief in me that my family was normal, at least in the sense that ‘normal’ has little business being used in the same sentence as the word family. Because as well as fear in those faces, I saw love. And in turn, it reminded me of the love I have for these people I’ve been thrust into a relationship with; no agreement, no escape. Not only that, but as much as this sounds like the opening line in the worst power ballad ever conceived, if you’ve got love, at least you’ve got something to embolden you in your fight against the demons.

James McMahon
James McMahon is a journalist from the north of England, though he currently lives in east London with his wife and Ramones records. He was formerly the editor of Kerrang! magazine for absolutely ages, and now writes for Vice, The Big Issue and The Observer. He likes Bigfoot, Xbox and crisps.
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