A couple months ago my friend Adam asked me for a scary recommendation to get him in the mood for Halloween. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to pass on one of my favourite horror novels, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
A couple weeks after he had starting reading, we discovered that Netflix was adapting the story into a mini-series. So Adam and I made a pact: once he was done reading the book, we’d hide under a pile of blankets together and watch the show. After four sittings, we finished the series, and I haven’t been able to sleep since. It only seemed appropriate to have a conversation about it, especially since Adam loves all things horror, so here are some of his thoughts!
Did the book live up to your expectations?
It did. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be at the beginning. As I read more of it, it got scarier, but I honestly didn’t know what I was expecting because it’s an older book, and I think older books aren’t as scary as newer books, like how older movies aren’t as scary as newer movies.
Why? What do you meant by that?
Because people’s tolerances change. If you watch the original Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff, people were fainting in the aisles and freaking out when that came out. Nowadays it’s almost considered a kid’s movie because the level of scare isn’t the same.
I never thought about this . . .
Yeah. I think about this, so I think it’s the same with books.
If the book was an old kind of scary, then was the show a new kind of scary?
Yeah, I think the show took the core concepts of what the book was and translated it for a more modern audience. The scary parts in the show are so much more visceral than what I got from the book, but it’s the same kind of idea.
There’s the scene in the book where they’re in a room and you hear thumping, like knocking, as it’s coming down the hall. There’s a similar scene in the show. I have a bit of an imagination so when I was reading the book I though “this is really scary,” but then when I saw it on the show I was like, “this is absolutely terrifying!” even though it’s basically the same thing.
When you’re reading the book you only experience whatever or however you imagine it, but when you’re watching the show it’s whatever they are showing to you.
So the book and the show are different in a lot of ways, but what adaptations did you notice that you enjoyed being carried over from the book to the show?
I think the biggest thing was the character names. It was the same base of characters from the book in the show, but the one that I really enjoyed was the doctor. He was in one scene in the show. Nellie went to see a psychiatrist, a doctor, and it was Dr. Montague, which is the same name as the doctor in the book. That’s the kind of thing that only people who have read the book will get.
So much of the show was different and expanded on though, so it’s difficult to pick. But the caretakers, the Dudleys, I think they were represented well. But again, they were expanded on. There were a lot of elements like that, but not a lot was directly taken from the book.
Expect for the hand part!
Except for the hands, oh my god! “Who’s hand am I holding?” Nope, I can’t. Nope!
That was definitely the worst part for me. But, what were the most frightening parts for you in the book versus the show?
The frightening scenes in the book were some of the parts where Nellie would start talking about staying in the house, and reading her inner monologue and perception changing because the house was influencing her. That was really creepy.
But then in the show there’s so many visual elements that you can’t really do in the book. I felt like the lighting, and how there’s always kind of something in the background . . . and when a camera would pan across, I’d always wonder, “wait, was there something there?” There’s always a face in the background or a hand behind the door, there was always something, and it was little elements like that that just got me on edge. It was that element that made the scary parts hit harder because I was already kind of antsy about it.
The scary parts in the book were more about what scares me, whereas the scary parts in the show were more things that will scare everyone. They’re different, but they’re both equally scary in their own ways.
In both the book and the show the personification of the house is what creeped me out the most, because the house has a mind of its own and it’s doing things to characters, whether or not they realize it. In your opinion, how did this add to the horror element of the book/show?
I think it added to the book a lot more. I think it was more directly applied in the book: the house was doing things, the house had a soul almost, and it was hungry and keeping people there. In the show it was kind of touched on, but it was more the ghosts in the house that were scary than the house itself.
In the show there were things in the house and that’s what was freaking everyone out, but if you kind of think about it, it’s the house that is making these people stay, but that wasn’t really as touched on in the show as in the book, where the house is this force that fundamentally changes people.
In the show there were several characters who refuse to even admit that the house is alive or even haunted, but in the book it’s on you to decide if the house is alive or not. But as the book goes on you realize that the house is having an influence on the characters. In the show it’s more implied and kind of gets lost a bit.
Do you think that the show relied more on the idea of the Red Room as being the part of the house that is alive?
Yes. They focused a lot on the Red Room as being the heart of the house, but they didn’t really do anything else with the rest of the house.
In the book they say that the library has this power, and certain characters can’t go in it because they’re too scared, and each room had its own personality in a way, or its own feeling, and that wasn’t translated in the show as much.
But in the show the Red Room is something different to everyone, so do you think that’s how they played out each room being something different in the book? The Red Room really had a mind of its own, and is part of the house, so it’s very much alive.
Yeah, it’s one room, and it’s different to whoever is in there. They did it differently, and I think the book explained it a bit more clearly.
How was your experience different from reading versus watching it?
When I was reading the story I could imagine the situations that these characters were in, and I could picture it as more of what freaks me out. With the show it’s like “this is what it is, and these are who these characters are.” The show was also a lot more intense a lot more quickly, so I couldn’t watch more than two or three episodes at a time. With the book though, I could sit and read a few chapters in one sitting.
With the show I was seeing what someone else, the director, wants me to think is scary. With the book, I interpreted parts that I thought were scary based on my own imagination.
As someone who is super into all things horror, how would you say this story fits into the genre as a whole?
I think it’s very much a supernatural thriller more than anything else. The atmosphere that it builds and creates is well done, and well thought out. In a lot of movies and shows, it’s always the characters that you care about, but in this story, the house is its own character, so you need to spend time building the house and the history, rather than just a typical character.
When I was watching it I was reminded of the old movie The Haunting, which is a version of this same story, and I just kept thinking “this is one interpretation.” All the characters are the same, but it’s still different.
And it’s the same with the book and the show: it’s the same core idea, but done in a different way. I think they really did succeed at being scary because they built it out, you cared about all the characters, and you were scared for them without maybe knowing why. The show did a really good job at all of that.
Who would you recommend this book, or the show, to?
I would recommend the book to anyone who is curious about horror literature, because, like I said, it’s not super scary but it’s still pretty freaky. It’s kind of an entry point for someone who might want to get into the genre.
For the show, I think you really need to know what you’re getting into because it is so much more scary than I think people might anticipate it to be. I would still recommend the show to everyone with the caveat that it is going to scare the hell out of you. It’s really good, but it is scary, and you’re going to be scared.
What’s next on your reading list?
Well I’m still reading The Halloween Tree [by Ray Bradbury] that you lent me. And then after that I have that other one you let me borrow, Haunted [by Chuck Palahniuk], that I’ll probably read next.