Steven Sees a Ghost: Welcome to Hill House

Netflix finally debuted its hotly anticipated horror series, The Haunting of Hill House, this past Friday. Acclaimed horror director Mike Flanagan serves as the series creator. To date, Flanagan has helmed several well-regarded horror films including Oculus, Hush, and Gerald’s Game.  Hill House is loosely inspired by the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel, which has already spawned a few cinematic adaptations including The Haunting.

The series follows the Crain family who are confronted by the supernatural and tragedy in their childhood, only to be forced to face their fears again as adults. Over the next week, I hope to watch and review all 10 episodes. Be forewarned – the reviews will contain SPOILERS.

Who Are the Crains?

Based on Episode 1, The Haunting of Hill House will bounce back and forth through different timelines. Certainly, it’s a television series that demands your absolute full attention. To help, I’ve created a quick character scorecard below to help follow the reviews.

Hugh Crain: Hugh Crain is a contractor who, along with his wife Olivia, moves into Hill House to restore and flip the property. Young Hugh is played by veteran character actor Henry Thomas (E.T., Psycho IV: The Beginning), while Older Hugh is played by Timothy Hutton (Taps, The Dark Half).

Olivia Crain: Olivia, who designs homes, is played by Carla Gugino (Sin City).

Steven Crain: Steven is the eldest Crain son and a successful author. Adult Steven is played by Michiel Huisman (Yes, he’s Daario from Game of Thrones).

Shirley Crain: Shirley is the eldest Crain daughter. Adult Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser, Ouija: Origin of Evil) runs her own mortuary along with her husband and two young children. Young Shirley is played by Lulu Wilson.

Theodora “Theo” Crain: Theo is a psychologist who wears long gloves to avoid touching people. Adult Theo is played by Kate Siegel (Gerald’s Game, Hush), while Mckenna Grace plays the Young Theo.

Luke Crain: Adult Luke, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, is a drug addict. His younger version is played by Julian Hilliard.

Nell Crain: The youngest Crain, Nell, is played by Victoria Pedretti as an adult, and Violet McGraw as a child.


The Past

Before the introductory credits roll, Flanagan lets us know something is wrong with Hill House. Young Nell wakes in the middle of the night crying. She tells her father and oldest brother, Steven, about the “bent-neck lady”. Though she’s assured it’s all just a dream, we a murky figure hovering above Nell’s bed as the camera pans away.

Early episodes focus on a particular character. As its title implies, Steven Sees a Ghost follows eldest son Steven Crain. Over the course of this first episode, Flanagan gives us intermittent visits with the younger Crains and their short summer in Hill House. Hugh works on renovating the old property, while Olivia sketches designs in her home office. Meanwhile the children are left to explore the vast grounds of the property. It’s pilot episode so Flanagan doesn’t linger too long on any one story piece. Youngest son Luke has an imaginary friend that he insists is real. Sisters Nell and Shirley obsess over what may be behind a locked red door in the house. The devoutly Christian husband and wife groundskeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, never stay on the grounds past dark.

Late one evening, a frightened Hugh wakes up Steven and warns him to keep his eyes closed as they race to the car. All of his younger siblings are already packed into the car. As Hugh drives away, one of the girls repeatedly asks about their mother, who is notably missing.

The Present Day

Years after the Crains raced away from Hill House in the middle of the night, Steven is now a successful author. Not surprisingly, his best-selling novel was an autobiographical account of his family experiences in Hill House. For research on his next book, Steven interviews a widow who claims to see visions of her dead husband floating over her bed. Though Steven debunks her experience, he assures her that he will spruce it up for his book. Clearly, Steven doesn’t mind glossing over the truth to make a buck.

During his interview, Steven gets a phone call from youngest sister Nell, which he ignores. It’s Steven’s episode but Nell’s thread, which runs in the background, will trigger everything that follows for the rest of the season. Nell tires calling oldest sister, Shirley, but she refuses to take her call as well. When Nell finally gets a hold of father, Hugh, he panics and calls Steven. At this point, we clearly see that Hugh is estranged from his children. Despite begging Steven to go to his younger sister, Steven seems less than interested in doing anything his father asks.

By the end of the episode, Steven finally sees his first ghost. Or at least the first supernatural encounter he’s willing to acknowledge. After running into younger brother, Luke, pilfering some of his stuff, Steven turns to see Nell in his apartment. At the same time, Steven takes another phone call from his father. The call is distorted, but Steven hears his father’s message – Nell has committed suicide in Hill House.

Concluding Thoughts On Episode 1

Steven Sees a Ghost is an excellent introduction to Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House. Pilot episodes often suffer from having to pull double-duty. We need the pilot episode to entertain while also engaging in essential table-setting. Hill House’s pilot episode shows none of the strains of this double duty. On the one hand, it’s a wonderfully atmospheric and spooky peek into what’s to come over the next nine episodes. Flanagan bookends the episode with two excellently staged scares.

Yet Steven Sees a Ghost also positions itself to be more than just a ghost story. The Haunting of Hill House looks to be a well-written television series filled with complex and flawed characters. That each episode will put a different character in the spotlight hopefully ensures that no one is underdeveloped.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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