“The Haunting of Hill House” a rare gem of long-form storytelling

There’s been a paradigm shift in the way viewers consume content. We don’t want to wait a week for a TV show anymore. We want all the shows at once. When we watch TV, we tend to do it in large bulks, several hours at a time. Due to this, some storytellers have become lazy. Look at the recent “House of Cards” seasons. One story climax per season. That’s hours and hours of buildup that lost viewers. The same can be said of several other Netflix shows such as “Luke Cage” and “Daredevil.” Since the storylines would be consumed at once, filmmakers were content to build mood, characters and storylines over several hours and avoided grand, dramatic moments. Now, the opposite could be argued of weekly television programs. One need only look at Shonda Rhimes’ shows to see drama morph into melodrama and soap opera as the need to cram as many dramatic moments into 60 minutes renders believability and schmaltz an issue. But such dramatics also build stronger story arcs generally.

So the balance between these two different types of storytelling approaches begs the question: Can you make long-form storytelling engaging without resorting to melodrama but also avoid the slow buildup that often plagues shows of this nature?

Enter “The Haunting of Hill House.”

“The Haunting of Hill House” focuses on the Crain family: father Hugh, mother Olivia, daughters Nelle, Theodora and Shirley and sons Steven and Luke. Back in the 1980s, they try to fix up an old house and sell it, living in it until it’s ready for market. But something is wrong in the house. Very, very wrong. In the present day, the family must come together after years apart to deal with a tragedy, the events of the past still reverberating in the present.

The show is very smartly a mystery, keeping us intrigued as we wonder what is in the house? Why is it haunted? What did it do to each character? And what is in the red room?

Then the show builds up towards the conclusion of that mystery by going from character to character per episode. Nell gets an episode. Theodora gets an episode. Steven gets an episode. We see the same event from each character’s point of view and learn a bit more about each of them. Then, when all the characters meet in episode 6, it makes the emotion of their interactions all the more powerful because we understand each of their flaws, desires and motivations.

The show tells one story, but it feels like a multi-faceted, character-driven ensemble rather than just biding time till the big twist in the last episode. Much like a novel, there are layers built up throughout the story.

And like many a good novel, the mystery at the center of the story keeps us engaged. Learning about each character keeps us involved as some questions are answered and new ones asked. And we are “dying” to know how this all will end. The buildup to those questions ups the tension and our involvement.

And in looking just at the show, “The Haunting of Hill House” is exceptional for a new twist on an old tale. The ghosts are scary. The real world is even scarier.

The ghosts are symbols of the trauma each character suffers: addiction, abuse, mental illness, the fear of death. Trauma haunts each character and the ghosts represent those past experiences. That is what is truly terrifying about the show (not the jump scares which are unfortunate), the realities of childhood trauma still affecting us today. It’s affecting in a way that other horror shows that resort to cheap scares and overt creepiness aren’t (*cough* American Horror Story *cough*).

Director Mike Flanagan was very smart about how to tell this ghost story, and it appears this type of engaging long-form storytelling is becoming more fruitful. “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Orange is the New Black” have utilized similar types of approaches to create engaging stories that last several hours without resorting into melodrama. One hopes that this trend, and other new approaches that test the form, continue.

“The Haunting of Hill House” is definitely worth your time as it is an engaging, terrifying, emotional story.

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