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Crime News

Why Do People Keep Remaking 'The Haunting Of Hill House'?

Mike Flanagan is the latest to adapt Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel into a cinematic project. But what is the enduring appeal of this particular ghost story?

By Eric Shorey

The number of successful reboots and remakes in the film industry has drastically dropped in the past decade, but filmmakers continue to pursue re-imaginings of classic stories. Netflix's re-envisioning of "The Haunting of Hill House" (not to be confused with "The House On Haunted Hill") is the latest in a fairly new tradition of adapting classic horror films into longer-form television series. This isn't the first time Hollywood has attempted to understand the dark psychology of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, and it probably won't be the last. What makes this gothic masterpiece so enduring?

Stephen Follows, a site that analyses box office statistics, estimates that the percentage of top-grossing films that are reboots has decreased from around 18 percent to 5 percent since 2005. Meanwhile, small screen adaptations of classic horror films have had varying success in the industry but often achieve widespread critical acclaim and spawn entire fandoms. Bryan Fuller's "Hannibal" (loosely based on both the "Hannibal" quadrilogy of novels and the handful of films those books inspired), for example, was canceled by NBC after three seasons but not before garnering a rabid cult following and almost universal praise from critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes. "Bates Motel" (a reinterpretation of Hitchcock's "Psycho") lasted five seasons on A&E and was also praised by industry insiders, according to Metacritic. Other shows like "The Exorcist" and "Army of Darkness" may not have generated the same kind of buzz but prove that the trend is still going strong.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

The original novel by Jackson told the story of paranormal investigator Dr. John Montague and Eleanor Vance, a duo brought together perhaps by destiny. Montague is conducting an experiment at the eponymous, and allegedly haunted, Hill House, collecting a cabal of people who have had previous intense paranormal experiences. As the test proceeds, Eleanor appears either more attuned to the occult happenings in the mansion or to be slowly losing her grip on reality. She begins believing she is spiritually connected to the house. When Montague no longer feels the experiment is producing results and that perhaps Eleanor's safety is at risk, Eleanor refuses to leave. His attempts to extricate her from the facility fail miserably: Eleanor seizes control of a car and crashes into a nearby tree, presumably killing herself. But was she possessed or insane all along?

Jackson's language throughout the story only hints at psychic phenomena, with vague descriptions of actual spectral happenings peppering the more psychologically driven story. These spooky scenes are theoretically easily translate-able to a more cinematic language and can be created through either cheap special effects or more modern CGI. The two leading roles starkly contrast and are rife for stunt-casting, while lesser, more comedic characters round out what could be a full ensemble cast. And with both magical and psychodynamic elements in the original text, different directors are able to play with different themes and motifs depending on their interpretation.

A 1963 film version of the novel, for example, was released under the title "The Haunting."

Directed by beloved auteur Robert Wise (best known for his work on "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music"), the movie caused a small stir upon its release and received mixed but mostly positive reviews from critics, according to Metacritic. Starring Julie Harris (who, much like her character, had been suffering from actual clinical depression, according to Deadline) as Eleanor and Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway (changed from Montague), the film maintains the tension between the psychodramatic and horror elements of the source material and used practical effects, including cinematographic mirror tricks to depict the house as more sinister and to set an unsettling and uncanny tone. The filmmakers insisted on showing very little actual supernatural activity, asserting that what is truly scary is the unknown. The choice to make the queerness of a supporting character explicit rather than implicit (as it had been in the novel) also drew attention to the film, as gay characters were a rarity in the '60s—although the scenes exploring this backstory were ultimately cut, according to the 1995 film theory book "Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Director's Chair." Despite some critics rebuking the film for its slow pacing, it nonetheless gained a cult following in the decades after its release and is now hailed as a classic of the genre and is a favorite of esteemed directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. In 1990, cinephiles and Wise spurned Ted Turner's decision to colorize the film (which had originally been in black and white). They found this to be a violation of the original vision for the project and were ultimately successful in blocking the attempt, according to media history book "Transmitting The Past."

Stephen King and Steven Spielberg briefly flirted with the idea of remaking the movie in the early '90s, but creative differences between the two led to the project's abandonment: Spielberg wanted to emphasize the action elements, King wanted to highlight the horror, according to the LA Times. King's "Red Rose" miniseries in 2002 does bear some resemblance to "The Haunting."

Although the term hadn't been popularized at the time, a reboot of "The Haunting" did ultimately take shape in 1999.

Wes Craven was briefly attached to the project but chose "Scream" instead, leaving direction to Jan De Bont, best known for his work on thrillers like "Cujo" and "Basic Instinct." Despite a star-studded cast that included respected actors like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor, the film was widely panned for its patently schlocky reinvention of "The Haunting" mythos, which abandoned the emotional and intellectual aspects of the novel in favor of baroque and overblown CGI sequences and action-oriented chase scenes featuring heavily stylized ghosts and demons. This "Haunting" also rewrote the conclusion (possibly in the hopes of setting up a sequel?) with Eleanor (played by Taylor) perishing in a spectral assault and her spirit ascending to the heavens. For the opposite reasons, this version of "The Haunting" has also gained a cult following. Often played on late night cable television in the early and mid 2000s, the movie has garnered appreciation as a '90s camp classic, with the idiosyncratic aesthetic of the burgeoning new millenium fully on display. Despite almost universal criticism, Roger Ebert was confusingly a big fan of the film.

"The Haunting of Hill House" also received treatments for the stage in 1963 (co-written by F. Andrew Leslie) and 2015 (as a collaboration with Sonia Friedman Productions and Anthony Neilson). The 2015 version was performed at the Liverpool Playhouse in England and was directed by Melly Still, according to Broadway World.

"It's a ghost story cloaked in horror and like all horror stories it plays on our fears but not with a safe-in-your-seat thrill: the writing leads us to experience the play from within the main character's consciousness and we're probably closer to its fragility and unreliability than we'd like to think," Still told Broadway World, explaining the appeal of the original text. "The effect is both unsettling and gripping."

Now, Netflix's "Haunting of Hill House" is set to debut on the streaming service this month. Helmed by Mike Flanagan (best known for his work on "Hush" and "Oculus"), some have already speculated that this series will "reinvent horror." Although a trailer does not reveal too much about the direction of the upcoming show, Flanagan has re-written "The Haunting of Hill House" to feature an entire family of Hill House scions as its protagonists.

Flanagan has described Jackson's novel as "a truly complex human story that happens to be wrapped in the skin of horror," according to Elle. Noting the decision to produce this latest iteration as a TV show, Flanagan explained that "In 90 minutes, you can get away with scaring people three or four times. For something like this, over 10 hours, the rules are very different. I want to build a sense of tension and to sustain it for as long as possible."

It's hard to say what style the new show will take on, but Flanagan's past with both psychological terror (as in his excellent Netflix adaptation of Stephen King's "Gerald's Game") and more jump scare-oriented thrills (as in his "Ouija: Origin of Evil") means that the series could go in one of many directions.

"[It's more than] a straight-up horror ... [it's] also really a family drama," Flanagan told Digital Spy. "And both those are sort of fighting for first place. ... And I thought that, for someone like myself, that would be an amazing way in to the story, and also I would like to watch that."

Early reviews of the new series have been positive. Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg, for example, found the balance Flanagan achieves in the series to be remarkable.

"Offering substantially more grown-up chills, albeit with perhaps less escapist fun, is Netflix's creepy October substitute 'The Haunting of Hill House,' one of the more effective and sustained exercises of this type ever attempted for the small screen," writes Fienberg. '"The Haunting of Hill House,' ... is often scary as hell and possessed of enough character-centric nuance to carry viewers through to the end — even if some of the visceral frights peter out well before the conclusion."

It's ultimately the multi-faceted nature of Jackson's magnum opus that has driven visual artists to explore the book's pages on screen and stage. A story of mental pathology intermingling with mystic lore, the openness of the original text allows filmmakers and playwrights to search it for their own meaning and style.

Whether this latest adaptation will become as enduring as Jackson's story or the subsequent films remains to be seen, and whether we'll see further adaptations in the future is also a question. It seems some ghost stories never die.

[Photo: Netflix]