I swear everyone I know is binging The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix this month, a show that stands out in a long line of scary/spooky offerings recently released on the streaming platform. I, too, watched after 10 p.m. on a weeknight and couldn’t sleep until the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t puke or anything. But I was terrified.
Yes, the show delivers on everything I would want from the horror genre. There were endless jump scares, a few cadavers and a decaying mansion with perpetual fog surrounding it. Check, check and check. But what I didn’t expect was a deep dive into understanding family trauma. Scary, yes, but Hill House — which is a very loose adaptation of the novel by Shirley Jackson — is ultimately an examination of the dynamics around shared grief, childhood wounds and collective loss.
The journey of a family as they mourn and anguish together as an imperfect unit sounded pretty familiar to most viewers: Remove a few bent-neck ladies from Hill House and you’re essentially left with… This Is Us.
OK, I know… How could a horror show that made me force my dog to sleep in my bed be anything like the tear-inducing trials of our beloved Pearson clan? But hear me out on this one. Or, as Jack would say, give it a chance.
Here, three major ways these shows are basically same same but different.
Both This is Us and Hill House make use of flashback scenes to when the main characters were children in order to illustrate the motives behind their actions in the present. This kind of plot appears in almost every episode of This is Us. In the Season 2 episode “A Manny-Splendored Thing,” for example, grown-up Kate hurls vicious insults at Rebecca when she praises her singing. In a flashback, we see some of the reasons why this mother-daughter relationship is so fractured. A young Kate ditches what would have been her first singing event due to what she feels is Rebecca’s patronizing attitude and too-high expectations. The same feelings play out in present day, indicating the dynamics haven’t changed.
In Hill House, we see a more sinister depiction of how interactions with parents can cause long-term issues. Young Luke is only six years old when a demon in a bowler hat forces him to hide under his bed. He also plays with a girl named Abigail, who turns out to be a very real person. But when he tells his parents and siblings about both, they dismiss him, claiming neither are real. This incident labels him as a liar early in his life, and he has a hard time shaking that later. Adult Luke, who battles heroin addiction, frequently mentions that no one in his family believes him when he says he is sober.
The legacy of loss
The premise of these two shows share a very glaring similarity, which is that the central siblings have lost a parent. In This Is Us, the Big Three’s father Jack may be dead but he’s a looming figure in their lives. And as Season 3 continues we’re learning more about how Jack’s sudden death impacted them. Just one example is when Young Randall defers his acceptance to Howard University to care for his family, showing a need be responsible for everyone but himself — a pattern that follows him into adult life and causes the emotional breakdown we see in Season 1.
Kate and Kevin constantly feel the weight of Jack’s death as well. In Season 3, Kate yearns to have a baby, hoping that child can carrying on Jack’s legacy and even his appearance. But she’s risking her life to conceive. Kevin, who like Steven in Hill House battles addiction, berates himself for not knowing more about his father’s life and seemingly puts his own life on hold to find out more.
The circumstances around matriarch Olivia Crain’s death in Hill House are not divulged to audiences — or even the central siblings — until the end of the first season, making her death harder to come to terms with. Not knowing how or why she died by suicide haunts the five Crain siblings. All push their father away in adulthood and resent him for not taking better care of their mother. Steven takes it even further: perceiving Olivia’s suicide as an indication of severe mental illness, he opts to get a vasectomy as he fears continuing a pattern with his own children.
For Shirley, he mother’s death lays out her entire career path. In flashbacks, we see a young Shirley too afraid to look at her mother’s body at the funeral. But at the urging of the funeral home director, she realizes the body has been prepared to look seemingly perfect. “Fixing” broken bodies becomes her career as a mortician.
The siblings in Hill House often lash out at each other because they can’t understand why the others don’t see or think the way they do. Steven doesn’t get why Luke and Nell have disproportionately severe mental health issues compared to their older siblings. What he doesn’t realize is that the ghosts in the home didn’t bother him as directly, and his dad succeeded in shielding him from the worst of it. Nell and Luke weren’t as lucky—and their own mother even tried to kill them.
This Is Us shows all three Pearson siblings receiving different treatment from their parents growing up, for better or for worse. Kevin receives praise from his father for his football stardom as a teenager, but feels ignored compared to Kate and Randall in other ways. In a family therapy session in Season 2, Kevin tries to explain this to them and gets shut down. No one can understand that he had a different experience growing up than them.
Honestly, the main difference between these two shows is that This Is Us rounds out its sad and stressful scenes with actual feel good moments, while Hill House is pretty much just dark all. the. time. So after binging the whole first season, I and my pup will be indulging in a guilty-pleasure palette cleanser with a little 90 Day Fiance for a bit.