The Silencing Scream: How ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Uses Drama to Achieve Its Best Jump Scare
Note: There a major spoilers ahead. It is highly recommended that you check out the show in its entirety before reading this article.
Like many of you, I found myself caught in the gravitational pull of Netflix’s latest series, director Mike Flanagan’s reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and couldn’t stop watching it until, after nearly 10 accumulative, amazing hours, I was finished. Taking Jackson’s classic novel and transforming it into a contemporary family drama, Flanagan has crafted a genuinely creepy show with ghoulish frights and lots of thrills, but also an experience in which the most haunting thing about it is the people. And to the show’s benefit, Flanagan uses the personal turmoil and intolerable bickering of these characters to achieve one of show’s best scares.
In eighth episode, entitled “Witness Marks,” the Crain sisters, Theo (Kate Siegel) and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), are having a heated argument while en route to the series’ titular spooky setting. In an earlier episode, Shirley walked in on what appeared to be Theo trying to kiss her husband (Anthony Ruivivar), whom she was already fuming at for accepting royalty money from her brother, Steven (Michiel Huisman), who wrote a book capitalizing on a pivotal event from their childhood. As established, Shirley is a compulsive control freak, berating anyone who doesn’t see eye to eye with her and now she has directed her verbal abuse towards her sister, not giving Theo breathing room to speak. Meanwhile, Theo is screaming at Shirley, trying to tell her side of the story. The result of which is an intense scream off where, hell, even we’re yelling at Shirley to just shut the hell up so Theo can talk for one damn second, jeez!
And like a godsend, as if our voices have been heard, a ghoulish spirit interjects! The ghost’s head bursts in between Theo and Shirley, screaming as loud as it can, making us leap a thousand feet off of our chairs and effectively silencing the sisters’ argument in the process.
This particular jump scare works for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a moment that has been a long time coming as the fights have been getting more and more intense in each episode. By this point, we’ve absorbed every little bit of the characters’ insecurities, tragic failures, and all around pettiness. All of which has been so well executed, so grounded, so genuine that it feels like we’re in the car with them in the heat of the argument, wanting to cry, wanting to shout, wanting it to just freaking end already. We’re so emotionally consumed by this argument that we practically forget we are watching a spooky show about ghosts and right when that argument peaks, when we’re the most distracted, and thus the most vulnerable, that’s when Flanagan hits us with that jump scare.
Further adding a dramatic layer to this fright is the identity of the scary ghost in question, who happens to be none other than their own deceased sister, Nell (Victoria Pedretti), whose ghostly apparition has become less of an eerie sight and more an emotionally haunting presence.
Previous episodes have established Nell as a tragic character, who is tricked by the spirits in that despicable house into hanging herself, becoming the very ghost that haunted her as a child, “the bent neck lady.” The more we see her spirit, the more our hearts sink and our eyes water, especially when she appears at her own funeral. As a ghost, she haunts her family, watching their heated interactions, taking in their pain and their anguish, and ultimately, acts as sort of a guardian angel for the characters, helping them find their way in the final act.
Going back to the car, you get the sense that Nell’s screams are far from a cheap scare for a quick jump, but instead Nell’s painful, agitated, natural reaction to her family’s endless fighting and an annoyed cry for them to get their shit together, and we’re right there with her. The scare is such a kick to the throat for these characters that it clears the air. Theo is finally able to vent and the sisters put aside their differences for the common goal. It’s a jump scare that serves a purpose, makes narrative sense, and is pretty damn effective.
This moment is just one of the many great things The Haunting of Hill House has to offer. It’s a series brought to life with a great cast (including Henry Thomas, Timothy Hutton, and Carla Gugino), good direction, incredible camera work, a poignant story structure, and many heartbreaking, tragic moments. Oh, and there’s a good twist or two and a few background easter eggs along the way. Not a bad way to spend 10 hours, don’t you think?