- It’s possible there are as many as 30 hidden ghosts throughout Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”
- The hidden ghosts create a prolonged sense of unease that helps the show maintain 10 hours of spookiness.
- Searching for hidden ghosts helps the viewer develop a keen spatial awareness, noting the lived-in textures of homes and the various period-specific furniture – we’re practically studying the screen.
Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for “The Haunting of Hill House.”
Most of the ghosts on Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House” are hard to miss.
Pale and sunken-eyed, they appear at the edges of beds and in the fluorescent basements of funeral homes. One is a long-haired young woman, her neck bent at a right angle and her mouth gaped into a shriek. Another is a towering ghoul of man, six feet tall and slouched like a vulture, a bowler hat tilted on his head. These are the ghosts most easily seen.
But there are more. Sprinkled throughout all 10 episodes of this gothic horror series are hidden ghosts, barely visible, tucked into the backgrounds of shots. These spirits aren’t acknowledged by the Crain siblings, and they don’t jump out or scream. They just hang motionless for a moment, watching the action from a distance – and then they’re gone.
Once the viewer notices one or two of these ghosts – and pretty much everyone does – they start searching scenes for them, scrutinizing the backgrounds of shots. This creates another layer to the experience of watching “Hill House.” We’re watching the Crain family drama unfold, but we’re also focused on the dark corners of rooms and the nebulous shapes in the window. It’s basically the creepiest imaginable version of “Where’s Waldo?”
All this adds a subliminal eeriness to “Hill House.” It creates a prolonged sense of unease that helps the show maintain 10 hours of spookiness when so many horror movies can’t manage 90 minutes of it. We’re not simply bracing ourselves for the next obvious jump-scare, as we so often do in less inspired horror films; instead, we feel an extended sense of foreboding. We, like the Crain siblings, remain on edge, watching for lurking apparitions.
What’s just as eery is knowing we probably missed some of them. Vulture’s counted close to 30 hidden ghosts so far. How many did you see? Probably fewer than 10.
Even if we were on the lookout for them, we were overlooking so many ghouls, so many pairs of black eyes peering out at us
This is a meticulous stroke on the part of series creator Mike Flanagan, one that contributes to an atmosphere of dread throughout the series.
In an interview with Vulture, Flanagan said, “We actually hid dozens of ghosts throughout the series, in plain sight, in the deep background of shots. We don’t call any attention to them, but they’re there. If you look in a door frame, or under the piano, or behind a curtain in a lot of otherwise ordinary scenes, you’ll see someone there.”
And it’s a device that’s unique to most modern horror films, with the exception of 2014’s “It Follows,” directed by David Robert Mitchell.
In “It Follows,” a sex demon is at all times calmly walking toward its chosen prey
It’s moving slowly, but it never stops. The demon’s physical appearance frequently changes, so any background actor, no matter how deep-set and blurry, could be our villain. Having established that, the viewer begins inspecting scenes, which often involve wide shots of suburban sprawl.
As a result of all this scene-searching, we become more familiar with the settings of “It Follows” and “Hill House.” We develop a keen spatial awareness, noting the lived-in textures of homes and the various period-specific furniture. We’re practically studying the screen. Which ends up enhancing the overall viewing experience.
After all, with so many of us bingeing Netflix shows on small screens – laptops, tablets, smartphones – how closely are we examining scenes? By revealing that ghosts are lurking in the shots, Hill House trains us to scan the full frame, background, and foreground. We search cracked closet doors, and billowy curtains, and the far ends of lengthy, dimly lit corridors.
Having drawn us in so completely, “Hill House” then makes good use of those more predictable horror movie tropes, like jump scares. These scares catch us off guard because we’ve become so engrossed (and unsettled) by the story and the scenery that we forget to expect them.
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